The battle of narratives around the war in Tigray


A close observer of Addis Abeba diplomatic circles writes that truth has been one of the victims of the conflict in northern Ethiopia.

It has been heartbreaking to see the resumption of fighting in northern Ethiopia over the past seven weeks after an informal truce between the federal government and Tigray’s regional government, which had been in place since March, broke down on 24 August.

Given the almost complete lack of access for journalists, diplomats, or any neutral observers to the areas where the conflict is taking place, and Tigray in particular, observers of Ethiopian affairs have had no choice but to mostly rely on communications coming from the warring parties themselves to draw a picture of what is happening on the ground.

These challenges have led to a battle of narratives in which federal authorities, the Tigray and Amhara regional governments, Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), Amhara militias known as Fano, and various diaspora groups frequently solicit the international community’s attention to try and control the national debate and steer international public opinion regarding the conflict. 

The actors involved in the Tigray conflict have well-established structures for communication purposes and know how to play the game of claim and counter-claim, as illustrated by the recent stories about the cargo plane allegedly shot down over Tigray and the confiscation of fuel by Tigray’s authorities at the World Food Programme compound in Mekelle.

This is much less the case for actors battling in other conflict-affected regions, such as Oromia, Afar, and Benishangul-Gumuz. As a result, the international community has been mostly focusing on the conflict in Tigray and neighboring areas, and insufficient attention has been given until now to the situation in Oromia and elsewhere.

Shaky narrative 

There is evidence that the Ethiopian federal government, together with governments of Eritrea and Amhara region, had been preparing a large-scale military operation against Tigray as early as July 2020—a few months before the controversial Tigray regional elections were held in September.

Indications are that the initial Ethio-Eritrean-Amhara plan was for a brief “law enforcement” operation with the objective to control Tigray by force and remove the TPLF from power. The Tigray leadership obtained detailed intelligence on the plan, some elements of which were shared with diplomats in Addis Abeba before the war’s outbreak. 

With the cooperation of sympathetic federal military officers in the Northern Command, Tigray regional security forces prevented the full implementation of the military operation by neutralizing several Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) installations situated in Tigray during the night of 3-4 November 2020.

Faced with strong resistance from Tigray forces and a military situation that soon became much more complicated than originally foreseen, the federal government resorted to promoting its own version of events.

One example of this early on in the conflict was the portrayal of the fighting around military barracks in Dansha as having been the battle that started the conflict. 

Another event during the first days of the conflict that illustrates the battle of narratives was the mysterious flights of two transport planes from Bahir Dar to Mekelle during the night of the 3-4 November, flights which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed himself admitted on 5 November to have taken place.

In his narrative, these planes were delivering new banknotes to Mekelle, while the Tigray leadership’s version of events is that they transported commandos sent by the federal government to arrest its party leadership.

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While all sides to the conflict have engaged in the manipulation of information presented to the international community, diplomats—certainly in the initial phase of this conflict—tended to give more credibility to reports by federal officials, in part because these are the interlocutors they are most frequently in contact with and also since regular communication lines with Tigray had been cut.

The main factor that undermined the diplomatic community’s confidence in the accuracy of federal government statements were the repeated denials to international interlocutors by Ethiopian officials, between November 2020 and March 2021, of Eritrean troops’ presence in Tigray—even when confronted with evidence.

These statements contradicting the reality on the ground seriously harmed the professional integrity and reputation of many Ethiopian diplomats, a fact that has consequences for the credibility of the federal government’s narrative up to this day.

Misinformation tactics

Much of the narrative presented by Ethiopian officials during the past two years simply does not withstand minimal scrutiny and basic fact-checking, which diplomats and other observers of Ethiopian affairs are supposed to exercise.

In the Ethiopian government’s communications since November 2020, it has often remained vague on practical details such as the locations and dates of events. The unwillingness to provide information on the crash site or registration number of the cargo plane federal authorities claim was shot down recently is just one example. 

Not mentioning the time period to which a report makes reference is another example of this, as government spokespersons often cite the number of humanitarian trucks that entered Tigray without saying during which months that supposedly happened.

Several times already, federal authorities also accused “foreign actors” or “enemies of Ethiopia” of supporting TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) without naming these actors or providing any evidence for the accusations.

On the other side, Tigray communications have sometimes also been found to be exaggerated or manipulated. 

An example of this is the October 2021 TDF announcement of the capture of Dessie, which was made before the event actually took place, in what was most likely an attempt to demoralize enemy troops defending the town.

Still, considering the overall evolution of the conflict and the communications surrounding it, official Tigray sources have broadly been closer to the truth and in general provided more practical details on the reported events—including photographic and video evidence.

Another key element in the battle of narratives is the difference between messages in English, sent out to be received by diplomats and the wider international community, and messages in local languages such as Amharic, Afaan Oromo, or Tigrinya, sent out to be received by the local population.

A prominent example in this sense is the January 2022 assurance given by the Amhara Regional President, Yilkal Kefale, to foreign diplomats of his readiness to engage in peace talks and to open humanitarian corridors into Tigray. On the very same day, he stated in Amharic during a ruling party conference that the people should prepare themselves to “destroy the TPLF terrorist group”.

This tactic is pursued under the faulty assumption that diplomats only consult English sources on Ethiopia. In reality, over the past year several embassies in Addis Abeba have invested in their capacity to translate documents, speeches, and interviews from local languages into English and have started giving more weight to these sources when analyzing the situation in the country.

Information obstructed 

While messaging from the Tigray government is usually better coordinated because of the strong command structure inside Tigray, this is not the case on the side of the central government, where there is apparently no system of information sharing between different federal entities.

Soon after the conflict in northern Ethiopia erupted, it became apparent that detailed information on military operations was only available to a select circle of people within the Prime Minister’s Office and the intelligence services.

The result of this information gap is a disconnect between developments on the ground and the accounts that are offered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the government’s communication team.

This became most obvious at the end of June 2021 when TDF took control of Mekelle and ENDF had to implement a hasty withdrawal from the city, but not before visiting the local UN office and destroying the communication equipment present there.

When diplomats confronted officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over this issue, their Ethiopian counterparts were eagerly anticipating updates from Mekelle, and admitted that they could not rely on the official information they had been given with regard to the situation in the north of the country.

It was only the next day that the federal government presented the narrative about a “unilateral ceasefire” being declared and a withdrawal being executed by federal troops.

Diaspora’s role

Since the start of the conflict, Ethiopian diaspora communities have become divided along the same lines as the domestic constituencies in Ethiopia. This happened in a context where many of the diaspora members have been affected by the lack of communication with their families back in Ethiopia and by experiencing difficulties in assisting their loved ones.

Following this polarization, many members of the diaspora started to engage in online activism, making them important actors in the battle of narratives.

Several click-to-tweet Twitter campaigns were designed by both pro-Tigray and pro-government diaspora groups in an attempt to influence the narrative on social media.

Amid an internet blackout in most of the areas where the conflict is taking place, these campaigns have become an increasingly prominent feature of the information environment, with the capacity to seriously amplify the spread of certain messages.

As a result, the few pieces of information received either directly or indirectly from the conflict areas have sometimes been over-interpreted and given excessive weight.

In general, the diaspora online activism has done little to contribute to a nuanced or solution-focused debate on the conflict in Ethiopia.

Internal accountability?

Since the start of the conflict, all parties have been using photographs and videos of war crimes in the framework of the battle of narratives. Many of us have seen the horrible videos of civilians being executed by security forces in Mahbere Dego and elsewhere.

The first such videos were watched and met with horror and condemnation, and the next ones were still watched, but only for a few seconds. Now, after almost two years of conflict, many diplomats and other Ethiopia observers have become numb to these recordings of executions and other terrible crimes.

In an effort to address requests from the EU and US to provide some form of accountability for crimes that were committed, the Ethiopian government established the Inter-Ministerial Taskforce, which recently presented its first report.

Unfortunately, the report shows a strong bias towards documenting crimes committed by Tigray forces during their occupation of Amhara and Afar, while no efforts were made to investigate any of the alleged crimes committed by, for example, Amhara forces in Western Tigray.

Several of the main actors have already declared that they have no trust in the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) headed by Daniel Bekele or in the Inter-Ministerial Taskforce set up by the federal government. A similar lack of trust is affecting the National Dialogue Commission, which is being boycotted by almost all major opposition parties in the country.

At this point, Ethiopia’s internal politics are too polarized for any meaningful truth-seeking or accountability to come from inside the country. The poisonous language that is used to demonize opponents is just one example of a toxic atmosphere which does not allow for a genuine debate on reconciliation or a search for the truth.

The involvement of Eritrean troops is another reason why truth and reconciliation cannot be achieved from within. 

After EHRC reported that Eritrean soldiers killed at least 40 civilians during the Axum massacre in late November 2020—almost certainly a vast under-estimation of the real number of victims—Daniel Bekele admitted to Western diplomats that it will be “very difficult” for the Ethiopian authorities to prosecute any crimes committed by Eritrean forces during the conflict in Tigray. 

Encouraged by propaganda and under the presumption that it is very unlikely that there will ever be real accountability, Eritrean and Ethiopian forces have been acting with a sense of absolute impunity.

Truth then trust

Evidence collected by the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE)—which was established by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC)—will be critical in order to end the battle of narratives, uncover the truth on what has happened in Ethiopia over the past two years, and start organizing meaningful accountability processes.

ICHREE is the only neutral body that has the mandate and the capacity to go beyond the narratives and examine all the available evidence in order to establish facts on crimes committed by all parties. The UNHRC’s recent renewal of the commission’s mandate is therefore welcome. It’s telling that, while Tigray authorities welcomed the first interim report presented by the international commission, the federal government rejected it.

The US, EU, and other partners must continue exerting pressure on federal authorities to convince them to work together with ICHREE and to allow its experts full access to all the sites across the country where war crimes and human rights violations have been reported. 

During the past months, it was mostly a lack of trust and confidence that has prevented the federal and Tigray governments from moving beyond an informal truce to starting formal negotiations.

The conflicting official statements released by the parties are only amplifying this lack of trust. This was illustrated by the May prisoner release negotiated by AU Representative Olusegun Obasanjo during the first months of 2022 that was implemented by the Tigray government but not reciprocated by the federal government, which claimed that those released were civilians dressed in uniforms rather than real ENDF soldiers. 

It is important for the EU and the US to signal to the warring parties that the battle of narratives is being understood for what it is, and that it will not prevent them from trying to establish the facts or from acting upon their findings.

Peace and reconciliation can only come once the disinformation campaigns stop and when a genuine search for the truth begins.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Billene Seyoum, Press Secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office, delivering a press briefing; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; 30 November 2021, PMO.

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