Reformer to tyrant? Ethiopia’s conflict and the Media

By Maddy Burt

It started as a fairy tale, a story of a Prime Minister taken up enthusiastically by the media. Following three years of protests and a resignation from the standing Prime Minister in 2018, Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed swept into the position with promises of reform and plans to reach out to the Eritrean government to resolve the border conflict. He wasn’t democratically elected, but he pledged free elections in August 2020, and a smooth transition away from autocracy.

Abiy’s lofty talk of reform was soon reinforced by action. He released thousands of political prisoners and dropped a ban on extreme political parties, while backing a woman, Sahle-Work Zewde, to be president. He was propelling the nation towards democracy and hope.

The Financial Times reported that Abiy was ‘Africa’s new talisman’, while The Guardian praised ‘Ethiopia’s democratic awakening’. These stories proposed enthusiastically that the hopes of the Horn of Africa rested on him, and he alone held the power to bring about much needed economic and political reform.

Media outlets continued to shine praise on Abiy, perhaps neglecting his less admirable intentions in ending a frozen conflict with Eritrea around a border dispute, re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two nations. It was only befitting, many outlets concluded, that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his actions in ending the war.

There were celebrations as the first flight between the neighbouring countries took place after two decades of hostility. Families were able to reunite with borders once again opening. The fact a tyrannical leader was condoned in the process was quickly pushed to the footnotes of articles.

In a manner suiting to his character, Donald Trump announced his own disappointment that he had not been awarded the prize himself, but that wasn’t to take away from Abiy’s achievement across headlines. The Times concluded enthusiastically that the committee made an ‘excellent judgement’ by giving the award to Abiy. Certainly, the article ran with vigour, he was not just a man of rhetoric; he signalled a new era of promise for Africa.

And then, the inevitable shattering of the fairy tale, as the illusionary figure the media had created crumbled before our eyes. The papers found Abiy embroiled in a war in Tigray against the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had displaced thousands and left thousands more without access to food following a government-induced blockade. The fall from grace in the Western purview was sudden and Abiy’s name quickly came to be preceded by ‘tyrant’ rather than ‘saviour’ amid reports of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Image: Peter Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize became an inconvenience at best, and, at worst, a poor look for a committee that has made a number of bad judgements in its time: giving the award to Henry Kissinger two years before the fall of Saigon, or Barack Obama shortly before his decision to extend American presence in Afghanistan. The committee appealed to Abiy to make peace with the TPLF, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Questions were asked: how did Abiy change so quickly from reformer to tyrant? How was his fall from grace so spectacular in its severity?

The answer was obscured between the lines of reporting about Ethiopia. There was never as much of a shift in Abiy’s character as portrayed by media outlets. Gaps in the stories created a more dramatic picture of discontinuity in Abiy’s actions and character than what was occurring on the ground.

Abiy’s role in signing a peace deal with Eritrea was less about promoting peace and more about surrounding Tigray in a move to control the TPLF, intentionally appealing to a western audience in the process. The TPLF had been in de facto power since 1991, until Abiy’s appointment as Prime Minister. They had undermined Abiy from the beginning of his rule as much of his democratic and economic reform was aimed at dismantling their ongoing power in the economy, state apparatus and army. They continued to form the regional government of the Tigray state and posed a major threat to Abiy’s federal power.

Questions were asked: How did Abiy change so quickly from reformer to tyrant?

The conflict, which has been ongoing for over a year now, cannot be reduced to a distinction that only suggests it is an offensive from the federal government on the people of Tigray. Opposition to the government comes directly from the Tigrayan Defence Forces, the armed forces of the Tigray state, and the TPLF, the state’s governing party. Civilians in the Tigray region, many of whom signed up for the TDF, are now under the leadership of the TPLF.

Further, the fighting stretches beyond Ethiopia’s borders. Eritrean troops, who entered the conflict at Abiy’s behest, have committed many of the most notable atrocities.

A big front of this conflict was the use by both sides of “digital warriors” to fill social media with allegations of violations from the other side. Just as dangerously, many of these partisan claims have been picked up by western journalists and academics in their writing, who fervently take one side or another. These anti-Abiy voices hold the power to majorly influence western policymakers.

Such failure through partisan writing mirrors the failure of the media to grasp Abiy as more than a one-dimensional figure from the onset. The voices that should be listened to, including Ethiopian voices and the voices of victims, are rarely given the publicity they deserve ahead of western voices – who are not offering a comprehensible or consistent picture of the conflict. Prominent outlets such as CNN are now pursuing a line solely in the favour of the TPLF, often sharing misleading takes on the conflict in the process and therefore not thoroughly acknowledging victims throughout the country.

It is much more complicated than many report or discuss, and yet some fundamentals deserve to be acknowledged. For example, the conflict was instigated by the TPLF attacking a federal army base. Amnesty International has reported on war crimes from all sides of the conflict, including from Eritrean troops and Amhara militias who are allied with Abiy. The TPLF have a very poor democratic record and tried to undermine Abiy’s regime for years. On the other hand, Abiy has continued to side-line Tigrayans in his government, and done much to take away their power. There have been arrests in Addis Ababa, the capital city, of Tigrayans for apparently no reason other than their ethnicity – rather than concrete connection to the TPLF.

There never was as much of a shift in Abiy’s character as portrayed by the media outlets

Noted academics working on the Horn of Africa, such as Alex de Waal and Kjetil Tronvoll, have written widely on the conflict for major western outlets, from the BBC to The Guardian, and yet routinely report with clear partiality for the Tigrayan side. This obstructs other fundamentals in the conflict. When speaking to Dr Jacob Wiebel, a historian of modern Ethiopia at Durham University, he expressed concerns around the partisanship that has imbued the writing of many academics on the conflict, including non-Ethiopian

There are a few important points to bear in mind as the TPLF is reported as having retreated to Ethiopia’s Tigray region. For one, although at times the TPLF has appeared to be stronger than the federal government, it would struggle to control Addis in light of widespread anti-TPLF sentiments and it has no legitimate claim to power.

For another, there is a major and unresolved humanitarian crisis in Tigray. A ceasefire, peace negotiations and real political compromise on all sides remain the best hope of beginning to draw this year of atrocities to a close; even if this means the Tigray region follows a similar path to Eritrea two decades ago of pursuing independence, or is afforded significant autonomy within the Ethiopian federal state.

For now, it is essential that reporting on such a conflict in a post-truth world does not promote a narrow-minded approach to viewing the struggle. The challenges of a world that is reluctant to accept fact cannot be resolved by reducing our capacity to recognise more than one narrative. All this will do is obscure the real suffering and grievances felt acutely across Ethiopia right now.

Image: Paul Kagame via Flickr

2 thoughts on “Reformer to tyrant? Ethiopia’s conflict and the Media

  • What kind of hypocritic media news is this??? Shouldn’t we be tired of these senseless media outlets by now, who only follow the mainstream nations such as US and British governments rather than report to the majority voices of the respected nations. Shame on you!!! and #NoMore

  • I assumed that this was going to be another article criticising Abiy Ahmed for crimes of genocide. I was so pleased to see a well researched article that does a great job at articulating the nuanced details on this conflict.
    The TPLF’s conquering of Twitter was to be expected, as their narrative fit the popular model of an oppressed minority. It was the TPLF’s conquering of left-wing western media and institutions that was outrageous (though perhaps to be expected also). I remember several videos by groups such as CNN documenting what they claimed to be civilian refugee camps, despite about 20% of the ‘refugees’ wearing TPLF uniform. The lack of journalistic rigour was shocking. This, combined with the political follow through by the EU was akin to a new neocolonialism, whereby arrogant, dogmatic and naive western institutions assume the actions of Third World Governments to always be twisted and corrupt, imposing sanctions accordingly. These same institutions were quick to accuse Ahmed of human rights shortcomings when he wasn’t tough enough on Omoro terrorists, claiming that he had failed the region by being too lax on militant groups. I think it’s obvious that respecting human right is easier said than done in certain countries. Ahmed clearly set out with an ambition to respect human rights and gain respect from the West, but quickly realised the futility of both these pursuits. That isn’t to say his ultra-zealous military effort is justified, I think he ended up going too far.
    Anyway, well done to the author for having more intellectual initiative than a large number of journalists at top media outlets.


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