My speech about the war in northern Ethiopia delivered at a public meeting at IDA (Danish Society of Engineers), Copenhagen, March 22, 2022.
Following an introduction by moderator Adam Moe Fejerskov and 10-minute talks by EU representative Kristin Fedeler and Danish ambassador to Ethiopia Kira Smith Sindbjerg. Followed by journalist Knud Vilby and a Q&A session.
Thanks a lot for inviting me here tonight.
It’s encouraging that the EU diplomat and the Danish diplomat have spoken, diplomatically, about carrying on development cooperation with Ethiopia. By contrast, the EU and Denmark have zero moral credit left on the account to lecture Ethiopians on how to go about their horrible war. The Ethiopians have just been through a traumatic near-death experience, in which their new-born democracy and their fragile unitary state fought for survival against the dictatorial old guard. Ethiopians who share our ideals of human rights and ethnic coexistence were expecting our support. But what did we do, us good people in the rich and powerful part of the world? We stabbed them in the back! It seems like Kristin and Kira realize how deeply unpopular Denmark and the EU have become in Ethiopia.
Why exactly? Well, let’s turn back time to the near-death experience at the beginning of November. The media continue to refer to it as ‘the Tigray War’, although by now four months have passed without any fighting in Tigray. Instead hell has moved to the Afar and Amhara states, where about 15 million people live under TPLF occupation. All equipment in hospitals, clinics, labs, schools, universities, offices, factories, yes, even waterworks, is being plundered and, if it can’t be transported to Tigray, it’s destroyed. Rapes and executions are the order of the day.
We may say, as many people have said, that this is revenge for other atrocities in Tigray committed before that by soldiers from Ethiopia and Eritrea. But justice it is not. An attempt at justice is what’s going on in Ethiopian courtrooms, where Ethiopian soldiers, 60 so far, are being held to account by their own side for the first time in the country’s history. Of course, we should support that and, by the way, our press ought to cover it, which nobody has done yet.
Alright, now back to the near-death experience. This is when the TPLF leaders and supporters change their tune. They no longer go on about a ‘war on Tigray’, but about conquering strategic high ground deep into enemy territory, pointing their artillery at new enemy towns. And they talk especially about how they are marching towards the capital Addis Ababa.
The so-called Ethiopia experts in the media immediately sentence this march to be a walk in the park, following the recent playbook from Kabul. “The government is collapsing, it’s a question of weeks, if not days”, is the cliché used again and again. The Danish embassy chimes in with the choir of embassies calling for their nationals to be evacuated. On November 5th, CNN even reports that troops from Tigray stand on the outskirts of the city. Wow, that almost got me worried, but, phew, just CNN fake news.
On November 9th in Washington DC, a grand press conference is convened, featuring leaders from no less than nine rebel movements who are joining in the triumphal procession, ready to share power. Nobody in Ethiopia has ever heard about these nine rebel leaders, though they’re recognized as Uber drivers. Never mind, the world press, including newspapers here in Denmark, lap it up.
The fact that the United States lets these people declare publicly how they are going to shoot their way to regime change convinces the Ethiopians that the USA is participating in the coup attempt.
So Biden sends his diplomat Jeffrey Feltman to Addis Ababa to say four-five times in one press briefing that, no, no, no, no, the US is not taking sides, neither for the TPLF nor for the government. But at the same time, he acknowledges that Abiy Ahmed’s government has democratic legitimacy and that, if the TPLF were to enter the capital, it would be “a blood-bath situation”. Spine-chilling stuff, right? But that’s when it’s official. The USA does not side with a fellow democracy against those out to commit a bloodbath against it.
Those were the anxious times when I wrote the long-read report from Addis Ababa that earned me the invitation here tonight. I stuck my neck out by writing the opposite of everyone else, namely that the TPLF was still “unlikely” to reach the capital. Granted, I never saw it coming that I would one day support Ethiopia against my own country Denmark, indeed against the entire Western world, but this semi prediction that the war was about to turn, well, at least I can brag about that today.
What was it based on? That I saw firsthand how Ethiopians were setting aside their disagreements to unite against a common enemy.
The TPLF and its supporters are constantly fanning the flames of ethnic resentment. They generalize about the Amharas being the oppressors who need to have their power taken away by the Oromos. They omit to say that Abiy Ahmed is Oromo. And that his government is truly multi-ethnic, including a Tigrayan minister of defense.
And what happened when it came down to it in Ethiopia? Proud Oromos, such as the marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa, volunteered to the front to defend Amhara state. Amharas learned to greet in the Oromo language. There was urgent fraternization across ethnic and political divides, that is, the complete opposite of what the TPLF had pinned their hopes on.
Because, in the short run, the TPLF has the best generals and a vast stock of money and weapons. But in the long run, its economic base in Tigray is too small to win. Getachew Reda, who appears to be the TPLF’s second in command, made it clear in an interview on BBC Hardtalk that he would be perfectly comfortable with Ethiopia falling apart. In essence, the TPLF strategy is: “If they won’t let us rule the country, let there be no country to rule at all.”
So apart from the drones, it was the togetherness, the shared will to save the unity of Mother Ethiopia, that upset the TPLF’s calculations. And incidentally made a lot of ‘Ethiopia experts’ look very foolish.
It all bodes well for the future, although disagreements are bound to reappear as the external threat is diminished.
Anyway, throughout the period when Ethiopians were mobilizing for battle, it rang out like a mantra from Denmark, from the European Union, from Western-funded organizations and think tanks. “There is no military solution”. The truth is there is no solution without at least a military component. Unless the solution is to commit suicide that is. The West consistently pushed for passivity: “Don’t send your fighter jets, keep them grounded, don’t buy drones or weapons, don’t mobilize more soldiers, no stirring speeches, arghhh, it’s so bellicose, we don’t like that, blah blah blah.”
This goes to show the importance of the narratives that we all carry inside our heads in order to simplify complex political conflicts. In that, I must include myself, of course. To me the narrative was: “A nascent, fragile, imperfect democracy defends itself bravely against a totalitarian enemy marching on its capital to commit a bloodbath”. Just like in Ukraine today. But the narrative that won the day was about a stereotypical, brutal African tribal war. Prime Minister Abiy’s speeches were labelled as war-mongering, but some of us found them inspiring, much like Zelensky’s rhetoric today.
Curiously, everyone in the West realized the danger of an “Ethioslavia”, of Ethiopia breaking up, followed by decades of civil war over the new borders, and 115 million refugees. But then, in the next breath, the reasoning would be, for instance in editorials in The Economist weekly and here in Denmark in Politiken Daily, that the West therefore had to push Abiy even harder to declare a ceasefire, that is, impose more sanctions on Ethiopia.
This is the equivalent of saying: “The patient is ill, but she is refusing our medicine, she says it’s going to kill her. So now we must beat her up, that’ll teach her to take the medicine that we tell her to take. Because we know what ails her much better than she does.”
Well, how we got that wrong! The patient survived, but only by ignoring our unfriendly advice. We owe the Ethiopians an apology, and that’s putting it mildly. Instead of analyzing the political context, instead of focusing on who is legitimate and who is not, we have been signaling our pacifist virtues, we have been arrogant and prejudiced.
What went wrong? Why did the narrative turn out so different from Ukraine? That’s a big question. Knud Vilby will talk about it after me, and we might discuss the various reasons here tonight, but the most important factor was probably the readiness to believe the TPLF’s s war propaganda about Abiy Ahmed supposedly being on an insane quest to starve and murder every single Tigrayan.
Yes, there are indeed genocidal potentials in Ethiopian politics today, and not just in Tigray. This is precisely why we need to strengthen the only realistic chance of democratic coexistence, which is the federal government! It has been militarily weak, so weak that it has, unfortunately, been forced to obtain help from the Eritrean dictatorship and from ethnic militias. Nevertheless, it’s not like there is a more moderate alternative to the current government.
And according to the UN “joint report” released on November 3rd, there is no evidence that Ethiopia has used starvation as a weapon, or that it has any kind of genocidal agenda.
I do not wish to play down the suffering in Tigray, but who is to blame? The TPLF has militarized society through and through. All resources from little Tigray are diverted to this big war, including over 1000 relief-aid trucks that have entered Tigray without coming back. The TPLF constantly attacks the same roads used by the aid convoys. Debretsion Gebremichael, TPLFs top leaders, has called it a “people’s war”, that is, what Goebbels called a “total war”. No wonder there is hardship in Tigray.
Helen Clark, who is a former Prime Minister of New Zealand and head of UNICEF, that is, she counts as one of the world’s great and good, wrote in the Guardian, in a piece full of misinformation about the war, that “to prevent genocide, we must sound the alarm before we arrive at certainty”.
But no, wild accusations without evidence don’t prevent anything, on the contrary, they pour more fuel on the fire. Helen Clark surely sees herself as an angel of peace, but she’s singing along to a militaristic refrain that tells ordinary Tigrayans they have the choice between killing and getting killed.
Yes, there has been a brutalization in Ethiopia, on both sides. Sadly, this is something we see in most wars, including in Ukraine. It’s all very well that we keep our heads cool and concern ourselves with the humanitarian aspect, including the civil rights of the vast number of Tigrayans who live outside of Tigray. But if we want Ethiopians to listen, we need to talk in a spirit of solidarity with their security challenges. Imagine, for instance, if we had given them the drones, instead of forcing them to buy from Turkey, then perhaps we could’ve asked for some favors in return.
My final point is remarkably simple: What is it that keeps the peace in our own highly successful countries? What is it? Is it power-sharing deals between the strongest warlords? Of course not, we have our democracy to distribute power. So, what is it? Is it pacifist sermons? No! So, what is it? This is no small matter. We’ve been told by the two diplomats here tonight that our development cooperation must not support a war economy. But how about supporting security? There is no development without security, without peace. And what keeps the peace in our own countries is the state’s monopoly on violence under democratic rule of law! This bears repeating. The state’s monopoly on violence under democratic rule of law! Good for us. Good for Ethiopia.