How Misinformation Is Fuelling Diplomatic Tensions In Ethiopia by Desta Heliso

(OPINION) In the current crisis in northern Ethiopia, religion is used as a tool to misinform the international community. The resulting diplomatic tensions are endangering not just the future of Ethiopia’s 110 million people, but peace in the whole Horn of Africa.

Most religions put an enormous value on truth and regard misleading uses of facts as moral failure. And yet this overarching principle is not strictly respected in relation to the recent crisis in Ethiopia, as the media is rushing to report stories rather than verifying information and many religious and political leaders in the world are accepting those reports at face value and acting upon them. In this article, I wish to show that a fair and truthful judgment in relation to the current crisis in Ethiopia is only possible if the crisis in Tigray is understood within the broader internal and geopolitical complexities Ethiopia has been facing for the last three decades.   

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Religion and Misinformation

On March 7, 2021, the Daily Maverick reported that the Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba, the most senior bishop in Africa for the Anglican Church, claimed what is happening in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is moving towards a Rwanda-like genocide. This is partly linked with a report that tens of thousands have been displaced from Tigray. It is also linked with the report by the Church Times on Jan. 15, 2021 about the “massacre of 750 people” outside St. Mary of Zion Cathedral in Axum. This story prompted reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as, as will be discussed below, the investigations and reports by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and other relevant institutions of the Ethiopian government. There was a CNN report about a “massacre” at a church and monastery called Maryam Dengalat during a religious festival as well.    

It is important to note here that religion-related information started to flow subsequent to Martin Plaut’s webinar conversation with young Ethiopians of Tigrean origin, in which he advised them to use clever tactics rather than wasting their time on demonstrations in squares, streets or outside parliaments. One “clever tactic” is ensuring that religious leaders in their communities reach out to their equivalents in countries like the U.K. So, for example, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who sits in the House of Lords, can be asked to raise the Tigray crisis at the House of Lords or with the British government. Plaut advised these young people to adopt a systematic approach to ensure that bishops and imams outside Ethiopia have every reason why they should bring the situation in Tigray to the attention of their respective governments.

Then Orthodox churches and festivals were put at the heart of the Tigray “genocide” narrative. Amnesty’s report said that a massacre took place on Nov. 28-29, 2020, and as a result, the St. Mary Zion annual feast did not take place on Nov. 30. However, the feast did take place. The celebration was reported live on Ethiopian TV networks. Amnesty initially depended on a “witness report” by “Priest Woldemariam,” who claimed in a video that he was there when the massacre took place. This “priest” later turned out to be a man called Michael Berhe, who lives in Boston. CNN reported on the “massacre” in the Maryam Dengelat church. Questions were raised about the credibility of the sources of this report because the reporter never met and interviewed witnesses on the ground, the Maryam Dengelat church is relatively inaccessible alongside a cliff, the initial video clips CNN used had the date Sep. 2018 suggesting some doctoring, and a “witness” was being coached (off camera but audibly) to say that 256 people were killed. And yet, Wolf Blitzer, the prominent Situation Room presenter on CNN, made an erroneous and outrageous claim that this “massacre” was part of Ethiopia’s war against Tigray. Through propaganda like this and a misleading use of facts, the Tigray genocide narrative continues to gain momentum.    

READ: Were 750 Christians Really Massacred? The Truth About Ethiopia’s Recent Crisis

Genocide in Tigray?

Is genocide, i.e. a systematic and organized destruction of Tigrean people, taking place in Tigray? Archbishop Makgoba thinks what is happening in Tigray can deteriorate into the kind of genocide that occurred in Rwanda. Some foreign “Ethiopia analysts”, Ethiopian scholars and activists of Tigrean and other origins have concluded that genocide has indeed taken place in Tigray. U.S. government officials including Susan Rice and Secretary Antony Blinken respectively have claimed war crimes and ethnic cleansing occurred in Ethiopia. The European Union Council has referred to “numerous testimonies as to possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses and violations.”

Ethiopian activists, in the diaspora in particular, base their assertions on a specific ethnocentric and territorial political agenda that seeks to maintain the current constitutional provisions, and therefore, thwart any consideration of constitutional amendment even for the good of the whole of Ethiopia. As the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is the birth-giver and true embodiment of this agenda, these activists campaign for its resurrection at any cost. Along with their non-Ethiopian friends, they spin and sensationalize stories, and encourage the Tigrean youth to fight on and shed their blood. In so doing, sadly, they seek to make political capital out of the sufferings of Tigreans.

But the perspectives of Archbishop Makgoba , the E.U. Council and U.S. officials, with all due respect, are based partly on propaganda claims, facts presented in a misleading, biased and grossly generalized manner, and more pertinently, on a lack of proper appreciation or wilful misjudgement of historical and contextual realities and geopolitical dynamics. But their talk of genocide or ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia would only fan the flames of hostility.

There is no denying that the situation in Tigray is dire. The recent conflict, which was triggered because forces loyal to the TPLF launched a pre-emptive attack against the unsuspecting Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) with the intended goal of overthrowing the federal government, has been absolutely brutal. It has caused so much death and destruction and incredible human suffering in Tigray. Both the government and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), based on their separate investigations, have also recently confirmed that crimes such as unlawful killings, rapes and lootings of properties have taken place in Tigray; and yet, there is no evidence of genocide or ethnic cleansing. 

EHRC’s preliminary report shows that no less than 100 people were killed in Axum by Eritrean troops. As to whether all those killed were civilians and what actually precipitated the killing, the accounts are conflicting. Some witnesses said it was due to a local armed militia attacking the Eritrean soldiers; while others said it was while residents were defending the St. Mary Zion church from looting by the Eritrean soldiers; and while still others said it was due to some residents joining an armed militia in attacking the Eritrean troops.

The “local militia” story seems to correspond to a video posted on Jan. 14, 2021, which was circulating on social media and in which presumably the person who recorded the video says that the “Axum militia” were fighting against the Eritrean military on Nov. 28. The story also corresponds to a claim made by the leader of the TPLF, Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael, that TPLF had regained Axum on Nov. 29, 2020. TPLF did not regain Axum, but the militia stories and Debretsion’s claim seem to suggest that there was a battle for Axum before Nov. 30. But no certainty is possible about this, because according to the EHRC, some witnesses told the EHRC staff that the Ethiopian army had left Axum before Nov. 29 when the Eritrean troops moved in, while others said that Ethiopian soldiers were still there on that day.

EHRC’s preliminary report and recommendations should not be rejected out of hand, but it should be noted here that there are contradicting accounts and serious discrepancies in the reports. Also, EHRC has not interviewed the Ethiopian, Eritrean and Tigray regional authorities to ascertain the witness accounts. The Federal Police, who were in Axum on Nov. 30 to provide security during the celebration, have not been interviewed to see if they had any knowledge about any unlawful killings during the preceding days. So, the truth is still out there, and no rash conclusion should be drawn even on the basis of EHRC’s preliminary report.  

Having said this, however, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has confirmed to the Ethiopian Parliament that the Eritrean soldiers did indeed enter Ethiopian territories. While he argued that the events in Tigray have been exaggerated and blown out of all proportion, he also admitted that some Ethiopian army personnel have made mistakes. He promised that all responsible individuals would be brought to justice. Furthermore, after Abiy reported that he held several talks with Eritrean authorities regarding the allegations of atrocities and lootings carried out by Eritrean soldiers, a statement was released from his office on March 26 that he and President Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea held a meeting in Asmara and that Eritrea agreed “to withdraw its forces out of the Ethiopian border.”

That Abiy publicly admitted mistakes made by members of the Ethiopian army and possible abuses by Eritrean troops is commendable. Obviously, any grave violations against human lives and livelihoods should not have been committed. However, such things are not unheard of. Some within the U.S. and British armies also commit similar grave violations. When some British and U.S. army personnel abused or unlawfully killed civilians and combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan, appropriate investigations were carried out, and those responsible were brought to justice.  The same can and must be done in Ethiopia through an Ethiopia-led process. But judgements should not precede verifications and investigations. Nor should facts be used in a misleading manner for propaganda purposes or political capital.

As an Ethiopian, I find the current events in my country very distressing indeed. Equally, I am encouraged by the efforts of the Ethiopian authorities and institutions to do the right thing, however imperfectly. For example, that EHRC has been operating independently of government influence is a novelty for Ethiopia. I am also encouraged by the reports that the government has spent at least one billion U.S. dollars to repair damaged infrastructure and feed millions in Tigray (it is claimed that 70% of the humanitarian aid provided so far has been exclusively from within Ethiopia). Further, the EHRC confirmed that former TPLF officials who surrendered and are in custody are receiving humane treatment. Recently, some of them, including Keria Ibrahim (the former Speaker of the Federal House of Federation), were released either on bail or due to lack of sufficient evidence to charge them. This is vastly different from what millions of Ethiopians, including myself, witnessed when TPLF-EPRDF took over the country in the 1990s.

What we witnessed were extra-judicial killings including in market places and public areas (sometimes for petty crimes such as pickpocketing), revenge abuses of former ruling officials at different levels and organized lootings of stores full of grain and other properties by TPLF forces. It was alleged that TPLF-EPRDF unlawfully killed thousands of members of the Oromo Liberation Front. Many more died due to inter-ethnic violence in different parts of the country. A lot of the former members of the Ethiopian army, who were defeated and disbanded by TPLF-EPRDF, engaged in banditry including robbing, killing and maiming innocent people. The level of suffering and insecurity was truly unimaginable. Whatever foreign media or human rights organizations may have reported at the time, they must have been only scratching the surface and would not have seen what was happening in areas such as mine, which is 230 kilometers away from Addis.

I am recounting all these events in the past not to underestimate the atrocities and sufferings in Tigray or elsewhere in Ethiopia at the moment. Rather, I am recounting them in order to articulate the unfortunate reality that such happenings are not new to Ethiopia, and in so doing, appeal to foreign governments, religious leaders, media outlets and human rights organizations to get things in perspective and refrain from making rash judgements and disingenuously attempting to make political and economic capital out of the misery of Ethiopians. Ethiopia survived then, and it will survive now. Ethiopians worked through many complex issues then, albeit imperfectly, and they will work through them now. Ethiopians must be allowed and supported to once again sort out the horrible situation that followed from TPLF’s brutal attack against the federal forces and caused so much death and destruction and the displacement of tens of thousands within the Tigray region.

Internally Displaced People (IDPs)

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently reported that a large influx of people has reached the town of Shire from so-called Western Tigray. A friend who is from Tigray and lives and works in Shire, confirmed this to me. There are tens of thousands in Mekelle too. These internally displaced people (IDPs) are from territories that the Amhara and Tigray regional governments have been disputing for the last three decades, following TPLF’s unilateral decision to draw new regional boundaries. Those policies introduced the kind of ethnically determined territorialism that took over the whole country 30 years ago. We do not know whether the IDPs moved to Shire due to lack of food and shelter, or threat to their security (real or perceived), as TPLF no longer governs the disputed territories.  

While it should never have happened, this sort of influx triggered by inter-ethnic tensions is not unusual in Ethiopia, because there have been almost 3 million IDPs in other regions over the last three years: Oromos, Amharas, Somalis, Gedeos, Wolayitas, Libido-Hadiyas and Kembattas, etc. The majority of those IDPs in the eastern and southern parts of the country have returned to their homes. Recently, about 90,000 internally displaced Gumuz people returned to their homes in a region called Metekel in the northwest. There are still tens of thousands of internally displaced Amharas and other people groups in the same region. So, while the internal displacement of the people of Tigray is horrible, it is not unique. Be that as it may, there is no legal or constitutional reasons why the IDPs in Shire, Mekelle and other areas cannot return to their homes once political resolutions are reached and their security is ensured. What they need at the moment is vital assistance from the Ethiopian government, all concerned individuals and the international community.   

Root Cause of Internal Displacement

The world must understand that the root cause of the displacements Ethiopians have suffered and are still suffering is TPLF-designed negative territorialism and the regime’s intentional attempts, with some support from outside forces, to maintain such designs through a divide-and-rule approach and sponsoring inter-ethnic clashes. Ethiopia, as a country made up of 80 people groups, had 14 provinces in the past. The military-communist regime before EPRDF made some changes, but those changes had taken into account the need for all Ethiopians to share their land and resources together. Subsequent to the toppling of the communist regime, TPLF-EPRDF drew new regional borders throughout the country. In Tigray, for example, a new region was created with new boundaries with no regard for non-Tigrean settlers who had lived in the territories for centuries. Redefinition of Ethiopian boundaries through relocating other people groups was part of the vision and manifesto of TPLF even back in the 1970s. Although TPLF had temporarily shelved the goal of creating the Republic of Greater Tigray, after it seized power in 1991 and established EPRDF. Even worse, TPLF-EPRDF created a constitutional provision that would enable other people groups to secede from Ethiopia at any time of their choosing, and then redefined regional boundaries in a manner that is mainly advantageous for its eternal flourishing. The absurdity of the new political order cannot be overemphasized, as its disastrous consequences are incalculable.

To give a concrete example, the areas now referred to as Western Tigray and from which people of Tigrean origin have been displaced are called Welkait, Raya, Humera, Dansha and Mai Kadra, etc. and they were part of provinces called Wello and Bagemeder. Diverse people groups such as Amharas, Agaws, Afars, Oromos and Tigreans lived together in these areas. But after new regional boundaries were drawn, TPLF-EPRDF tried to render those areas exclusively Tigrean through its ethnic political system and imposition of the Tigrigna language on non-Tigreans. This led to decades of internal clashes and extreme repression. When TPLF lost power in November 2020, this inevitably led to insecurity and displacement for people of Tigrean origin. But the problem is not limited to Tigrean people alone. As politicians in other regions were also using this ideology of territorialism for their own political advantage, ethnically-fuelled clashes have caused displacements. Over the last three years, there have been clashes between Afars and Issas, Somalis and Oromos, Sidamas and Wolyitas, Oromos and Amharas, Gedeos and Oromos, Gamos and Gofas, Gurages and Libido-Hadiyyas, Gurages and Qebenas, Kaffas and Kembattas, Gumuzs and Amharas, and Amharas and Agaws. The list is endless. Even earlier this month, an Oromo armed group killed Amharas in the south. There was also a fresh clash between Oromos and Amharas in the former Wello province in the north, following an Oromo imam being killed. This is all mainly because of the policy of creating ethnically-determined administrative boundaries throughout the country.  

The whole political arrangement has not only proven to be absurd and unworkable, but it has taken Ethiopia back to the kind of tribal warfare that existed in the olden days, which caused so much suffering and death for our ancestors. Ethiopia needs to be supported to right this wrong through patient political and constitutional means, which the upcoming national election in June 2021 might provide. In the meantime, the Ethiopian government must ensure that forces that seek to destabilize Ethiopia are not allowed, and internally-displaced Tigreans and others return to their homes and their security is ensured by federal defense and police forces. I plead with the international religious and political communities to fully appreciate these internal political complexities in Ethiopia.   

What Ethiopia Needs

What Ethiopia needs from the global community (political and religious) is true partnership characterized by the principle of sharing knowledge, experience, expertise and resources for mutual benefit. Western powers should keep the balance between true partnership and national interests. True partners take human dignity seriously. They do not lecture but listen. They are honest and even-handed rather than lopsided and surreptitious. True partners do not use double standards, but are guided by mutual interest. Ethiopia may not have oil or a strong economy, but it has a lot to offer to the world, not least its rich heritage and its vital contribution as a bulwark of regional stability.   

What Ethiopia also needs is respect for its sovereignty. As is well known, self-rule and the absence of foreign occupation define national sovereignty. Ethiopia’s national sovereignty is rooted in fierce patriotism, which has never been overcome by colonial pressure or weakened by poverty. Leaders of the U.S. and E.U. must realize that terminating aid or threatening sanctions will not change this societal fabric and national mindset. I suggest that the principle of interdependence and responsible intervention the West wishes to adopt must center on respect for the national sovereignty of Ethiopia.

Respect for national sovereignty must be coupled with respect for moral integrity of Ethiopians. There are liars in Ethiopia, as there are liars in the U.S. and Europe. But not all Ethiopians are wicked or morally bankrupt, as not all Americans and Europeans are wicked or morally bankrupt. It is wrong to make a generalized moral judgment that Ethiopians don’t care about people going hungry, women raped and youth unlawfully killed in Tigray. Granted, no allegations of atrocities committed anywhere in Ethiopia should go uninvestigated, but a spoken or unspoken view that the U.N., Amnesty, HRW and any individual from the West are more credible than Ethiopian institutions and individuals is tantamount to questioning the fundamental morality of all Ethiopians, which would be unhelpful and deeply offensive.  

Ethiopia further needs a deep appreciation of its internal ethnic and political complexities. Ethiopia is torn between at least two irreconcilable political fault lines and many in between. On the one hand, there is ethno-nationalism, whose vision is founded on an ethnocentric and polarizing political formula and which is constitutionally supported. On the other hand, there is a political vision that is founded on the principle of collective narrative and national identity while maintaining respect for ethnic identity and appreciation for diverse and unique cultural expressions. TPLF and other ethno-nationalist forces seek to maintain the former formula, which is at the heart of the genesis of the recent armed conflict. No external pressure is going to resolve this tension without Ethiopians having an opportunity to elect a government with legitimacy and clear mandate, which will hopefully include amending some troublesome aspects of the current constitution and holding a nationwide referendum on the amendments.

Finally, Ethiopia needs a balanced judgement and fair geopolitical treatment. Ethiopia is a poor nation with 26-30% of the population living below $2 per day. This is partly due to corruption and embezzlement. In 2017, for example, David Steinman in Forbes wrote that the amount of aid the U.S. provided for Ethiopia since the 1990s was $30 billion and the amount stolen and taken out of the country by Ethiopia’s leaders was $30 billion. Despite its poverty, Ethiopia currently hosts 1 million refugees from 27 countries from Eritrea, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The country is surrounded by unstable nations: Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia;. Ethiopia’s trilateral relationship with Eritrea and Somalia upsets Kenya, whose border disputes with Somalia remain unresolved and which favours a breakaway state of Somaliland.

The geo-political and religious dynamics are even more complex. Egypt is a very angry neighbor that continues to destabilize Ethiopia internally and engage in relentless diplomatic warfare against Ethiopia externally. It allegedly supported Sudan to invade Ethiopian territories in November 2020 while the Ethiopian army was battling TPLF forces. Egypt has a well-equipped military, which receives a $1 billion aid per annum from the U.S. It continues to dream of maintaining its historical control over the Nile waters, although 80% of the water is contributed by the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia. It is making every possible effort to thwart the success of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project, which is expected to provide electricity for the homes of 60% Ethiopians currently without power. In all this, religion guides the kind of diplomatic relationship Turkey and oil rich Arabian nations adopt in the Horn of Africa. Given all these geopolitical complexities, powerful nations such as France, U.S. and China have military bases in Djibouti. For these and other reasons, the Ethiopian people and their government, despite their failures and shortcomings, deserve balanced judgement and fair treatment.

So far, with all due respect, most media outlets and aid and human rights organizations do not seem to take this insanely complex situation and the future of the whole country into account. Even more worryingly, both the European Union and the United States have been engaging with Ethiopia in a manner that does not focus on the greater good and could not bring peace and unity in Ethiopia and stability in the Horn of Africa. This was evident during a recent U.N. Security Council meeting where the U.S. with the support the Republic of Ireland and Kenya sponsored a resolution that was damaging to Ethiopia, while China, Russia and India opposed it. The U.S. government and E.U. Commission don’t seem to realize that excessive pressure on Ethiopia and using aid as diplomatic leverage never work.

Ethiopia needs political, economic and moral progress, but neither the U.S. nor Europe can develop Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s hope lies with those Ethiopians who are able and willing to engage with the West, East and the rest, and learn and reimagine the future of Ethiopia. This engagement is only possible within the context of true partnership, fair treatment and mutual respect and understanding. 

Desta Heliso studied at King’s College London and London School of Theology and served as lecturer and director of the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST). He currently resides in London but continues to coordinate the Centre for Ancient Christianity and Ethiopian Studies at EGST in Addis Ababa. He is also a fellow of the Center for Early African Christianity (New Haven) and a visiting lecturer at the London School of Theology (London).