Over the last nine months, consumers of international news outlets may have seen stories about atrocities and humanitarian crises in Ethiopia, and wondered who exactly is responsible.
They might know that one of the parties involved is a rebel group from an ethnic minority – the TPLF – and that the government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, is attempting to take decisive action against their uprising. It would be easy to conclude that the minority rebel group must be the good guys, and the powerful central government must therefore be the bad guys. Right?
Conflicts are rarely so simple. The Tigray conflict in northern Ethiopia requires a great deal of contextualization, and a critical piece of context that is rarely considered by the international media is how people in Ethiopia feel about the conflict.
We carried out two surveys and 96% of respondents agreed that the government’s response to TPLF aggression was correct, and, tellingly, an even higher percentage expressed concern that international reporting on the current issues could lead to an escalation of the conflict.
The poll was generated using Twitter, a non-probability sample – with a new account and generic name to reduce the possibility of bias. The two survey questions were shared over a thousand times over the course of a week and more than 4,000 votes were received from verified active accounts. The estimated margin of sampling error (noise) is less than +/-2.5%.
The current polls and findings
These results highlight the feelings of discontent in Ethiopia at how reporting on the current conflict fails to include the context of the last three decades and instead chooses to focus on picking sides in a conflict that is much too complicated to be reduced to such a simplistic perspective.
TPLF’s rule in the past 27 years
Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister of Ethiopia in 2018. After his internationally recognized success in ending the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict – for which he was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace prize – Ethiopians back home rewarded him in June 2021 with a strong mandate to continue his work with a landslide victory in Ethiopia’s first fair and open elections in decades.
For most Ethiopians, Abiy represents a clean break from the dictatorship of the previous 27 years. From 1991 to 2018, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated Ethiopian politics and governed with a clear bias towards their own ethnic group, which makes up only 6% of the population of Ethiopia. They sowed discord among Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups, embezzled state funds, violated human rights and jailed journalists and opposition leaders.
Since being ousted from government, the TPLF have resisted and sabotaged Abiy’s attempts at reforms at every turn. In September 2020 their attempts to undermine the central government’s authority in Tigray by holding illegitimate elections were met with resistance within the region and criticism throughout Ethiopia. While several Tigrayan parties boycotted the election due to its unconstitutionality, other opposition candidates reported being detained and harassed.
On 4 November 2020, the TPLF’s campaign to destabilize Ethiopia exploded into violence with coordinated attacks on Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) troops stationed in Tigray. The TPLF carried out extrajudicial executions of non-Tigrayan Ethiopian soldiers as part of the attack. From this point, the conflict spread throughout the region and into the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar. Reports of further atrocities committed by the TPLF continue.
What the western media does not understand about Ethiopian issues
Both sides have been accused of atrocities, from execution of civilians to gang rape to revenge attacks to blocking much-needed humanitarian aid. Such crimes, regardless of who commits them, are unacceptable. The perpetrators must answer for their acts and all sides must ensure that these crimes cease immediately.
That said, there are clear differences in how the acts of the ENDF and the TPLF are covered in the international media. “A scrappy force of local Tigrayan recruits scored a cascade of battlefield victories against the Ethiopian military, one of Africa’s strongest,” reported the New York Times breathlessly, glamorizing the shooting down of an Ethiopian military plane. It refers to “young recruits” but does not investigate allegations of the TPLF’s deployment of child soldiers.
Despite what many media outlets would have their audience believe in this conflict, the TPLF are not plucky underdogs battling desperately for recognition from a repressive government. The TPLF themselves are a former repressive government that was peacefully and democratically removed from power, and cannot now accept their role as the opposition in a functioning democracy. They do not fight for the people of Tigray. They fight to cling on to the power they held over Ethiopia for three decades against the will of the Ethiopian people.
Context is everything, but context is often the most difficult thing for a foreign journalist to uncover when he or she is required to file a story to a tight deadline – assuming, of course, that the journalist’s intentions are good. The polls shown above were conducted on Twitter, which of course must be used judiciously as a source of information. However, when shared among thousands of Ethiopians, these polls provide us with a context that is sorely lacking from so many news reports. Ethiopians do not want to return to the dark days of TPLF rule.
The government of Abiy Ahmed maintains a broad base of support in his attempts to rid the country of the authoritarianism and brutality of the TPLF. International media outlets would do well to remember this in their reporting on events in Ethiopia.
More worryingly, misleading reports appear to have had the effect of misguiding western foreign policy towards the Ethiopian government. Even during the TPLF’s 27-year authoritarian government, the US government seemed willing to turn a blind eye to their human rights abuses and repression of the Ethiopian populace, attaching few, if any, conditions to their ongoing supply of aid – much of which ended up in the pockets of the TPLF’s high-ranking officials instead of helping Ethiopians.
It is surprising that the US appears so willing to criticize the current Abiy government and attach conditions to the ongoing provision of aid. Such bias emboldens the TPLF and directly escalates the conflict. This has not escaped the attention of the Ethiopian people, with over half a million protesting about foreign interference in Ethiopian affairs in Meskel Square in Addis Ababa in August 2021 – and the diaspora is similarly galvanized, most notably with over 10,000 Ethiopian-Americans demonstrating in Washington DC in March 2021.
US policymakers need to work together with Ethiopians, their long-time allies in the Horn of Africa, to bring peace and stability to the region. Now more than ever, we need accurate reporting to help avoid fanning the flames of this conflict.