This is a brief take from Getting Ethiopia Dead Wrong by Veteran Horn of Africa Correspondent, Rasmus Sonderriis
They rank among the great and the good of our media, academia, humanitarian work, politics and diplomacy. Yet they demonized a friendly people and fueled a big war with dire mis-predictions and shocking lies. Who were they? How could they get away with it? What was the full picture that they so distorted? And why?
The foreign correspondent struggles to convey a context unfamiliar to the audience in brief dispatches. It saves words to build upon the widely-known elements of “the single story about Africa” that the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has warned against. There is also a huge cultural meme on Ethiopia and man-made famine that is easy to tap into. And parallels to the Rwandan genocide are much catchier than explaining the complexities of Ethiopian affairs.
However lightly sourced, a quick fix of horror is intensely emotional. This long-read also aims to be moving, but on the basis of patient insight. Part 1 goes through the predictions and mis-predictions that revealed so much about correct and incorrect models of Ethiopian reality. Part 2 examines the widely-overlooked history that led to the conflict. Then Part 3 exposes some eye-popping contrasts between the claims and the evidence, between the high repute of the communication channels and the lowliness of the slander. Finally, Part 4 analyzes the incentives behind getting Ethiopia dead wrong. Without denying, trivializing, let alone justifying, any of the crimes that were indeed committed on both sides in the course of this brutal war, the conclusion is as scandalous as this: The media-borne narrative that Ethiopia’s motivation was to commit genocide was concocted to confer legitimacy on the violent pursuit of power.
This was always obvious to the majority of Ethiopians, and to foreigners like me, with longstanding immersion into Ethiopian society. What we said all along has today been confirmed, namely that the federal forces’ victory was not a recipe for genocide, but the only realistic path to peace. By standing in its way, Western powers caused immense damage to Ethiopia and to democracy worldwide, as pointed out by the largely ignored scholars who did get Ethiopia right.
I tried to get the message through as well, although newspapers that had previously published me and recognized my Ethiopia expertise could not let me write for them on this war. They would have come under accusations of propagandizing for the most heinous acts, without the background and confidence to argue back. Thus, however right I was on Ethiopia, I totally misjudged the West. I assumed that my own cultural realm, the world’s strongest democracies and our free press, would, by and large, have the back of an elected government against an authoritarian aggressor. This overestimated the power of context analysis and underestimated the single story about Africa.
The facts are appalling enough without exaggeration. Genocide became an activist mantra and a media buzzword, but failed to become an official designation. And, in fairness, the most knowledgeable diplomats privately shared our perspective and worked behind the scenes to soften the betrayal of Ethiopia. After all, TPLF supporters are also angry with the international community. Sending arms to the rebels was something proposed only by the craziest of crazy journalists. And yet, the politician braving the cries of “genocide denial” was a rarity.
A paralyzing fear of standing with Ethiopia was instilled by big media trumpeting the stereotype of dark-continent savagery. Supposedly serious organizations favored anonymous witnesses over forensics. Body-snatching hyenas were repeatedly conjured up. Into this sensationalist slipstream jumped a string of noble-cause-hunting public figures with vivid ideas but little knowledge about Ethiopia. Many of them may have been well-meaning and deceived by disinformation that played skillfully to their prejudices. I have a naïve dream that just one of them will be moved by this paper to apologize.
When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the danger of the single story about Africa, I assumed it was the danger to non-Africans of not understanding Africa. Today I realize that, to the Africans who are not understood, this danger is deadly. Luminaries in rich and powerful countries poured obscene amounts of fuel on the fire. Their demonization of Ethiopians was less about Ethiopians than about self-projection. They pontificated about peace, while passing off the alternative to war as extermination. They waxed indignant about hate speech, while saying the enemy is a genocidal rapist. They preached international humanitarian law, while conniving with the recruitment of child soldiers. They fancied themselves as championing minority grievances, while siding with extremist ethnonationalism. They radiated charitable zeal, while pushing for the misery of some of the poorest people in the world. There are an inordinate number of such opinion formers who abused their establishment position and moral authority for a rotten cause, even more than the many who will be named and shamed here. Above all, lazy journalists took their cues from a handful of openly pro-TPLF academics and UN high-ups, who were elevated to neutral experts, even to moral arbiters, and whose disgrace, nothing less, this paper aspires to bring about.
Despite the heartbreaking sacrifices borne by her children, strong and single-minded Mother Ethiopia survived this attempt at her life. She has become warier, but remains friendly. It is high time to respect her and make amends. One way is to give aid. Even better are trade and investment. But most important is understanding.
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