January 1, 2022

Ethiopia and the West: addressing concerns and an attempt at mending fragile relations


The war saw the most vicious ideological, political and ethnic division among Ethiopians.

Avatar: Hewan Alemayehu
By Hewan Alemayehu

Ethiopia and the West: addressing concerns and an attempt at mending fragile relations

Anyone following global news knows about the war in Ethiopia. Everyone agrees it has changed and continues to change the lives of millions in the most excruciating way. Many place blame on the political leaders, to varying degrees, for dragging the country into war; and some blame outside actors for exploiting and fuelling the war. The war saw the most vicious ideological, political, and ethnic division among Ethiopians. The division was partly fuelled by foreign analysts, academics, and journalists who not only interpreted the war differently but also showed support to warring parties from opposing sides. Under such heightened tension, one would understand or even expect the mainstream media to exhibit some bias or an inability to show a complete picture. However, millions of Ethiopians believe that what was exhibited by the Western media was more serious than that.

Many Ethiopians across the world strongly believe that much of western mainstream media has been nothing but an extension of propaganda tools against the federal government. In the earliest phase of the war, majority of media coverage had squarely put the blame on the Ethiopian Prime Minister and painted the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) as victims and consequently as freedom fighters. There is no denying that Tigrayans have faced unimaginable suffering, hunger, and atrocities after the start of the war. These have been reported by the media and the intention here is not to deny or even minimize that. It cannot be said enough that all perpetrators of crime ought to face justice. It is also important to note that humanitarian needs are used for political ends by the TPLF and its support base and even heads of international institutions, who attributed exclusive blame to the Ethiopian government and who completely ignored TPLF’s role in their report. The distorted framing of the war in fact began at the same time the war started and before any violation of civilian casualties was reported.

A lot of media outlets refused to acknowledge that TPLF had in practice ignited the war when it attacked the federal army base in Tigray on November 3, 2020; this omission was never corrected despite the admission from TPLF. The majority of mainstream media, except very few, intentionally skipped the attack in their reporting or referred to it as a claim by the central government, to levy undue blame on the government and exonerate the TPLF from the attack it in fact admitted to.

Perhaps nothing better explains the hypocrisy and lopsided approach of liberal media better than The New York Times, which has shown an embarrassing level of bias towards the War actors. The New York Times wasted no time to cover its front page with a high-quality picture of “the victorious TDF”. The reporter and photographer witnessed what they described as “a cascade of battlefield victories”, The war for them was one that was being “fought for honor”. Their excitement was so blinding that they could not see children forced to take up arms, but “highly motivated young recruits”. However, when the Prime Minister called for Ethiopians to join the military, following Tigrayan forces advance to Amhara and Afar region, it suddenly dawned on New York Times that this war “creates bad blood for generations”.

The same writer came up with another story that some Ethiopians rightly identified as a hit job. In his recent New York Times coverage, he somehow changed his mind admitting that in fact the rebels started the war, but the Prime Minister was preparing the war for a long time. He in fact bizarrely pitched the Nobel Peace Prize the Prime Minister received as a boost that encouraged him to wage war against his own people. His sources are unsurprisingly anonymous and former officials, meaning officials of the same rebels fighting against the federal government.

Some of the western analysts are long known to many Ethiopians for their biased assessment, disinformation, and for fuelling the conflict from the comforts of their homes. Take, for example, Kjetil Tronvoll, a Norwegian professor of conflict studies who is among the top picks of Western media and has appeared on multiple media outlets including in his country, Norway. After the rebel forces entered the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar, they caused unimaginable suffering, raped women including the elderly, ransacked food warehouses, banks, and universities, massacred not only civilians but also animals, farmers rely on for farming and dairy. However, Mr. Tornvoll had no problem legitimizing their occupation of Amhara towns in Wollo.  The New Oslo university professor, who has long ties with TPLF is one of their leading propagandists in the mainstream media and on Twitter. He tweeted that it was too late to negotiate in October when he thought the rebels seized the upper hand of the war, but when the smoke cleared and the rebels were successfully pushed back by the federal forces, he shamelessly turned into an advocate of peace.

This initial inaccurate framing was also spearheaded by a section of Oromo nationalists that have withdrawn their initial support to the Prime Minister long before the war began because of what they consider as his unitarian intention that risks the dissolution of the federation, despite no evidence to support the claim. In fact, since Abiy became prime minister in 2018, that is, in the past 3 years, two more federal states were formed; the state of Sidama was actually declared following decades of bitter statehood struggle that came to fruition when Abiy came to power.

Ethiopians were also particularly baffled by the West’s inability or unwillingness to grasp the complexities of the war and the uneven blame that was mainly directed towards the Ethiopian government.  For tens of millions of Ethiopians, who support the prime minister and who have always seen their relationship with the West positively, this was inexplicable. The US, which has over a century-old diplomatic relation with Ethiopia, is accused of siding with the TPLF rebel group, a charge they deny. However, it is not hard to see a bias for anyone who closely follows. The consequence is that it leads to further intensifying the division among Ethiopians and could in fact prolong the war; it makes them choose government propaganda over western propaganda, which they see as a threat to the integrity of the state and their national unity. It forces people to buy into nationalist rhetoric and undermines their sense of solidarity across ethnic lines.

Perhaps a lot of Western countries underestimated the popularity of the Prime Minister, or the unpopularity of the TPLF by Ethiopians, or genuinely bought the media narrative or some of them are genuinely and rightly concerned about the suffering of Tigrayans, but the majority of Ethiopians do not consider their engagement to be impartial. This was particularly felt when many of them repeatedly failed to denounce TPLF for multiple atrocities in Amhara and Afar.

It is impossible to do justice, in one article, to how western government, media, and analysts are engaged at the very least undue pressure towards the Ethiopian government, which in turn forced the government to look for allies elsewhere and which further turned the war into a war for geopolitical interests. However, the better outcome for all global actors, not just to Ethiopians, is an Ethiopia that is no longer ravaged by war, and that is only possible when TPLF is pressured to disarm. 

Restoring relationships with Ethiopians who feel let down by several Western countries, with few notable exceptions, is important not just to Ethiopians, but to an increasingly polarized world. Ethiopians need peace and the West can help do that by being a force for good for all Ethiopians affected by the war, and not setting a bad precedent by encouraging a rebel group that took hostage the country’s federal army by killing thousands of federal soldiers in their sleep. That should not be the legacy of relations between Ethiopia and the Western hemisphere.