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June 17, 2021
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Ethiopia Risks Unravelling for Lack of PR When PR Matters the Most

Ethiopia Risks

By Yonas Biru (Ph.D)

The following is an excerpt from my August 23, 2018 Facebook Blog on Koki Abesolome’s page, flagging the danger of not having a functioning PR system.

“TPLF and its tribal scholars are beaten in every way but one. They are winning the propaganda war… I have written at least four blogs flagging that failing to establish an effective PR unit is allowing TPLF to limp longer with its last leg – its propaganda campaign. The sooner the government understands this and takes appropriate action the better Ethiopia will be for it.”

On April 6, 2019, at the first anniversary of PM Abiy’s administration, I wrote an open letter to the PM.

“The absence of effective communication strategy has allowed menacing activists to frame, control and drive the policy debate. Their narratives have become the dominant narratives of the media. They have proven to be tireless and vicious. The highways of history are riddled with corpses of excellent government visions, reforms and policies that were killed by unanswered negative propaganda. The fate of your reform depends on your success in winning the war of ideas that in turn depends on having a robust communication ecosystem and PR strategy.

I have been and continue to be one of Prime Minister (PM) Abiy’s ardent and loudest supporters. My support to the PM started with my June 16, 2018 blog titled “From ኡኡታ to እልልታ.” I believed then and I believe now that his bold aspiration for Ethiopia’s greatness and his vision to make it happen are two qualities that Ethiopia has been waiting for in a leader for over half a century.  

For those who are able and willing to see beyond the saddening and diabolical mass murders of innocent people, the systemic and institutional changes the PM’s administration has put in place over the last three years are building a foundation for sustainable security and peace.

The center of gravity of the nation’s political sentiment has shifted from tribal to pan-Ethiopian. The top ten parties accounting for 80% of the candidates for the upcoming election are Pan-Ethiopianist parties. The top five in the number of candidates, including PP (30%), Ezema (17%), Enat (7%), NAMA (6%), and Freedom and Unity Party (5.7%) account for 65.7% of the total candidates. Turning the tribal tide that had gathered strength over 40 years toward Pan-Ethiopianist political system is no small feat. This is what inspires and sustains my belief even when current pockets of turmoil and mass murders test my sense of confidence in the fidelity of the reform agenda.

This is not to say the growing mass murder does not put the nation at the risk of unravelling. It does. Though the probability is low, it is not negligible. The real problem that entails a very high cost is the increasing pessimism in the nation’s collective psychology that energizes anti-reform forces and undermines the successful implementation of the reform agenda. In the extreme, this can unravel the nation.

I write this blog as a follow up to my yesterday’s blog titled: “A Robust PR Could Have Avoided TPLF’s War.” The blog showed Ethiopia should take a lesson from TPLF’s war to avoid a similar consequence in our nation’s engagement with Egypt. Put simply, the message was that the best instrument to deal with the Nile conflict is a robust public diplomacy supported by lobbyist powerhouses.

The purpose of this blog is to show that the consequences of Jawar Mohammed’s “Ethiopia out of Oromia” movement, TPLF’s demand for tribal supremacy, and Shaleka Dawit’s and Eskinde Nega’s polarizing 19th century Ethiopian nationalism could have been significantly mitigated or largely averted with a robust communication ecosystem and PR strategy. 

Our current situation reminds me of a 1936 poem by David Abrahams.

Some men die by shrapnel and some go down in flames.

But most men perish inch-by-inch

In play at little games.

The little game chipping away at the PM’s transformative reform is his failure to use PR as a vital arsenal to promote his vision and protect it from anti-reform forces.

TPLF’s Demand for Tigrayan Supremacy

TPLF officials believe, as descendants of the Axumite civilization, they must be given more vote in national politics than the size of their population permits. The tribal demigods still live in a delusional universe of Axumite kingdom, not only with the Axumite frame of mind but also with Axumite artifacts, including dressing up like kings. They wanted to continue to live like resurrected kings with premium political position for their tribal status as descendants of the Axumite heritage.

Somali, Benishangul and Gambella tribal regions have nearly 2 million more people than Tigray. Together the three tribal regions have 35 seats in the parliament. Tigray has 38 seats. TPLF wants this to remain.

For 27 years, Ethiopians of Tigryan origin controlled nearly all high-profile government positions. In some areas, they held as much as 85% of top positions. After Prime Minister Abiy took power, he relieved some of them of their monopolistic control over the nation’s bureaucracy. TPLF claimed this was evidence that Tigrayans were targeted and discriminated against. Even after they lost power, they still expected to be afforded privilege for their tribal lineage.

This is the party that is winning the PR war, painting the Ethiopian government as anti-democratic that discriminates against Ethiopians of Tigrayan origin. A robust PR could have made them a laughingstock, exposed their lies and changed the trajectory of their engagement with the government and the international community. But Ethiopia does not have a PR system.

Team Jawar’s Unanswered Propaganda that has Fostered Mass Murders

Before returning to Ethiopia, the Qerro movement that Jawar built from scratch and led was peaceful. His followers’ signature protest signs were a white handkerchief, and crossed arms raised above their heads – a sign Feyisa Lilesa globalized at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic games. The peaceful movement was a stroke of genius, intended to bring down the Ethiopian government led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Once Jawar returned to Ethiopia, he started using the Qerro movement as his powerbase to disrupt the nation’s political order in a bid to appraise his political currency, as he transitioned himself from a protest leader to a power contender for the PM position. He decreed an ultimatum that:

  • The tribe-based political system that is “engrained in the current constitution is here to stay. It’s not up for discussion, let alone negotiation;” and
  • On September 13, 2019, Jawar issued a bold ultimatum to the Prime Minister’s party, the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), not to tinker with using constitutional reform as its election strategy.

His ultimatums culminated in a final warning that he “will not allow competition within the various Oromo parties… We cannot allow ODP to behave like a ship that has lost its compass… They cannot tell us this is their party, and they can do what they choose to do. We will not allow that.”  

As his ultimatums grew in number and scope, his foot soldiers dropped their white handkerchiefs and picked up machetes, knives and sticks weaponized with nails as their weapons of choice – their badge of honor. Terror became the lingua franca of their political lexicon to institutionalize Jawar’s political decree as the constitution of the land. It is disheartening that such a character and reckless juvenile was allowed to win the PR war. This has allowed him to incite tribal conflict that has lent itself to numerous incidents of mass murder. The cost of not having a functioning PR system can be measured by the number of mass murder victims, burned churches, destroyed businesses, scared social psychology, increasingly unravelling social fabrics, and weakening collective identity.

True the mass murder has resulted in diminishing Jawar’s political influence and raised the PM’s support in the Oromo tribal land as the silent majority started to speak up and push back. The opposite is true in the Amhara tribalist camp where the PM’s and the Amhara PP’s popularity have suffered because of the Ortho-Amhara clan that leverages the mass murder to polarize the situation in a bid to raise its political capital.  

Ortho-Amhara’s Polarization of the Nation’s Politics

Two characters epitomize the Ortho-Amhara phenomenon: Shaleka Dawit and Eskinder Nega.  Both strategically positioned themselves as counterbalance forces against Oromo tribalists.

Compare the Ortho-Amhara with Ezema. Ezema is an Ethiopianist party. It is anti-tribalism of all kinds, including that of Oromo. But the kernel of Ezema’s conflict with Oromo tribalists is coached as ideological not tribal. Ezema objected Oromo, Tegaru and Amhara tribalists with the same zeal and zest. The Ortho Amhara objection to Oromo tribalists was launched from the position of Amhara tribalism. It was a show-down and confrontation – a fight Oromo tribalists cranked and ratcheted. Its energy is spent on anti-Oromo demagogy, not on unifying Ethiopia.

The Shaleka, a graduate of Columbia University Law School, no less, demanded the Prime Minister to abolish the tribal Constitution by decree, dissolve the parliament, declare a state of emergency, end the current ethnic federalism, and make the 19th century Ethiopian nationalism great again.

A former communist and Mengistu Hailemariam’s lieutenant, the Shaleka is within his elements to demand a government by decree and brute force. His younger disciple, Eskinder Nega, a fundamentalist Orthodox and Amhara extremist to boot, established the Balderas party with false narrative about the Oromoization of Addis Ababa. He was not shy to state his movement of anti-Qerro.

Eskinder’s followers may wrap themselves with green, yellow and red and hoist their bible as a symbol of love and unity for the world to see, but the fact remains that Eskinder is an extremist Amhara tribalist. His followers had no word when he traveled to Gonder and took pictures with heavily armed Fannos. Even worse, his followers had nowhere to hide when he signed a coalition with the most extremist Amhara tribalist party.

Baladerads party has less to do with nurturing a unifying sentiment and more to do with building an anti-Oromo political environment, which it sees as the nemesis of Ethiopian nationalism. The group did not use verses from the bible. Instead, it relied on fabricated lies, falsely claiming Dr. Lemma Megersa has admitted that his administration was engaged in Oromizing Addis Ababa. The Story that Dr. Lemma Megersa has admitted about the planned Oromization was fabricated bullshit. But the government allowed it to marinate within the city’s consciousness. It was months later Dr. Lemma denied the accusation. By that time the Balderas polarizing political party had already been born.

The Otho-Amhara clan may not have propagated mass killings. But it has capitalized and continues to capitalize on mass murders for political gain. In Benishangul, criminals killed Amharas’ Oromos, and Shinashas. The Ortho-Amhara clan marketed it as an Amhara genocide. In Shashemenie, Welega and other Oromo regions, Amhara and other tribes were targeted and subjected to mass murders and forced displacement. The Ortho-Amhara marketed it as Amhara/Orthodox genocide.

All people of conscious, including the Amhara and even the Ortho-Amhara clan, have every reason and moral obligation to call for the end of mass murder. What is wrong with the Ortho-Amhara clan is that it politicizes it, accusing the PM of being a party to the murder when in fact the government has arrested over 10,000 including members and leaders of Oromo PP.

This is another example where a robust communication system run by a professional team could have refuted and defused such polarizing politics. But the government’s hand and footprints are nowhere to be found in the PR landscape. That has cost us enormously in life and treasure. My fear is that if it is not addressed with urgency the cost can be enormous.

The answer to the question “how much should Ethiopia invest on PR” can only be answered in a question form: “How much should Ethiopia spend to avert the failure of its once-in-a lifetime reform agenda and its potential unravelling?” Do not ask how much. Do it without any concern for budget and tally the budget later. Ethiopia’s chance of getting out of poverty and its very survival depends on it. For the love of God and county do it.


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