It is not an exaggeration to say that the nearly two-year-old conflict in northern Ethiopia has witnessed the most intense propaganda war of any intrastate conflict in recent memory. No other internal conflict, not least in Africa, became a war of propaganda and narratives for global public opinion and allegiance, covered extensively by the international media, to an equivalent extent. The Arab Spring in the last decade and the ongoing Ukraine war, two major crises of the smartphone era, have each generated their own intense information war to influence global public opinion. But these are popular uprisings engulfing a large volatile region and an interstate war involving a major nuclear power, respectively.
In order to conjure a useful historical comparison in which propaganda and “weaponized narrative” were equivalently an integral part of a domestic, non-geopolitical conflict like in Ethiopia today; one has to go so far back to the Spanish Civil War that ravaged the country in the fourth decade of the 20th century. Just like in the conflict in northern Ethiopia today, it appears the warring political factions in the Spanish Civil War were backed by different international “entities” (the cyber army today replacing the international brigade of yesteryears). Both the Spanish Civil War and the current conflict in northern Ethiopia use war propaganda to sway public opinion around the world through well-crafted atrocity stories and narratives. The difference is that today’s war propaganda uses social media networks rather than posters and cinema.
Historians credit this propaganda war with complicating and prolonging the Spanish Civil War, turning it “into a nasty, brutish fight, turning erstwhile neighbors into fervent enemies.” When the warring factions saw that propaganda could be more versatile than bullets and bombs, and when they came to realize that armed conflict alone could not resolve a highly fluid civil war, propaganda came to be regarded as the “ultimate weapon” to win the civil war. Except, this time around, in the current conflict in northern Ethiopia, it is not both warring factions that hinge their hope of victory on the propaganda front. Nor is the propaganda and narrative warfare in today’s information age symmetrical by nature.
The sudden collapse of the peace talks amidst enthusiastic approval by the international community and the immediate resumption of full-frontal fighting in northern Ethiopia has understandably confounded spectators and analysts alike. It is tempting to dismiss the propaganda war as a mere messaging spin equally deployed by both factions to blame the other side for the relapse to war and to focus instead on the thorny hardcore issues, such as “the blockade’ and the ineffectiveness of outside mediators, that are preventing the warring parties from compromising to start a formal peace talk. Even claims that there was never any serious intention or attempt to mediate a peaceful resolution to the conflict have been made.
But this would only be recycling staled accusations by the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) since the beginning of the peace mediation process. On closer inspection, these accusations should hardly be considered major impediments to a formal peace talk and a ceasefire agreement, let alone enough to justify a return to full-scale war. Besides, these excuses have long been woven into TPLF narratives in the propaganda war and should never have been taken at face value.
Despite all the protestation and counter-accusation, the evidence from the war front should have made it abundantly clear by now that the TPLF has been preparing for a multi-pronged offensive all along, and it is the TPLF that has started and escalated this round of fighting. However, given its military debacle the previous year, the TPLF can’t realistically expect to “lift the siege”—if that is even its military objective—much less put an end to this struggle by engaging in yet another round of armed incursion into neighboring regions.
What does the TPLF realistically hope to achieve by forgoing the peace talks and returning to the same military campaign that has repeatedly failed to produce any noticeable outcomes? This is the fundamental question that serious observers of this war should be asking right now.
The answer, sadly, is in the propaganda.
The Road Not Taken
Despite assertions to the contrary made by the TPLF and its allies in the west, there was a serious peace initiative by the African Union (AU) that received full support from the international community. The government has more reasons to want a quick peaceful resolution to this conflict and has demonstrated a sincere commitment to a formal peace talk.
The AU appointed the High Representative to begin and guide the mediation process in the conflict in northern Ethiopia a year ago, but it wasn’t until the Ethiopian government offered an “indefinite humanitarian truce” and the TPLF responded with a symbolic “cessation of hostilities” that the mediation process really took off and gained momentum.
Although this truce lacks the force of a negotiated, durable ceasefire, it is widely credited for reducing violence and clearing the way for unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray. The World Food Program (WFP) recently stated this humanitarian truce has allowed it to “reach almost 5 million people in Tigray” and this has improved humanitarian access in Tigray so much so that the WFP is said to have averted a full-blown famine in the region. It is also under the auspices of this confidence-building truce that the AU mediator was able to facilitate indirect and informal talks needed to negotiate the parameters for the anticipated formal peace talks later.
The details of the peace mediation process and the outcomes of the negotiations so far are shrouded in secrecy and there is very little to go by leaked media reports , which have been invariably denied by either one of the parties anyway. Under such secrecy and uncertainty, no one can say for sure what parameters are exactly agreed upon to open a formal peace talk and to agree on a permanent ceasefire. The only sure thing one can say at this point is that while the Ethiopian government wanted to start the peace talks without any pre-conditions, the TPLF wanted to see what it called the blockade lifted before talks began. The TPLF also declared that it wanted Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to act as a mediator in the talks, but it is unclear whether this request was made as a precondition or only to exert pressure on and undermine the AU high representative. When Uhuru subsequently joined the negotiations alongside the US, this particular TPLF request was finally accepted.
In what appears to be a post hoc justification for its aggression, the TPLF and its western apologists and propagandists are citing this unmet condition as a lack of commitment to peace talks by the government and the raison d’être for the resumption of the fighting. And no one in the media seems to have the sense to raise the important question: Does this really justify jeopardizing a truce that has done so much to facilitate humanitarian access to Tigray?
First of all, it is misleading to conflate the suspension of utilities and banking services with a blockade or siege. For this to be a blockade in the real sense of the word, it must also include the blocking of humanitarian access. This is not just semantics, and the TPLF and its propagandists understand this very well. That is why they vehemently object whenever the WFP announces there is no government hindrance to humanitarian assistance and that it has sufficiently scaled-up humanitarian assistance to Tigray. That is why they keep repeating old accusations and insisting that the government is “using hunger as a weapon of war and that aid operations were pitifully inadequate.”In fact, it is bizarre to claim Tigray’s population is under siege by the federal government in the face of overwhelming evidence that Tigrayans are running away from TPLF control and flocking en masse towards government administration in search of protection and humanitarian access.
Resuming basic services like banking, phone service, and electricity is crucial for the welfare of the general public and ought to take place early on in the peace talks. But this could and should only be done after a permanent ceasefire agreement is reached. It would be practically impossible, even reckless, for the government to restore these services on a token of cessation of hostility before the TPLF agrees to a ceasefire. While allowing for humanitarian access is the right thing to do before a peace talk and a worthy price to pay for peace, even when there is growing evidence to show that the TPLF is using humanitarian assistance to recruit and arm, a ceasefire agreement is the right condition and should be a price to pay for the restoration of utilities, not the other way around.
It is also important to remember that this is not the first humanitarian truce offered by the government. A similar “humanitarian ceasefire” had previously been proposed by the government, but it had been rejected by the TPLF with the implicit consent of western analysts and diplomats, it must be noted. This fact is now nearly forgotten in the fog of war propaganda. However, it was the Ethiopian government that was held responsible for the intensified war and worsening humanitarian situation and bore the brunt of the western sanctions that followed. The TPLF was only forced to accept the second humanitarian truce, and western powers bestowed their blessings on it, after the invading TPLF army faced a decisive defeat in the battle field and was forced to retreat back to Tigray. It would be rewarding for transgression and impunity, as well as promote additional aggression, to concede to the TPLF’s rigid and threatening demand for the restoration of utilities prior to signing a ceasefire deal.
It looks like the western world in general has not learned much from its diplomatic and policy failures to stop the war and humanitarian suffering last year. Invoking an eerie feeling of déjà vu, the media continued to perpetuate unsubstantiated narratives and fabricated claims, and the diplomatic community still insists on blaming both sides for this round of fighting as well. Even those analysts who were sensible and big enough to admit regrets for not supporting the previous humanitarian truce are yet again giving approval to the TPLF’s excuse for sabotaging the humanitarian truce and the peace talks.
So far, evidence suggests that the TPLF leadership initiated this round of fighting in the belief that it could extract a better concession and deal by leveraging the crisis it created rather than through the peace process. For this, they can always count on their prevailing advantage in the propaganda war for global public opinion, and, if past experience and opinion are any guides, their gambit may even pay off handsomely.
Information War and Peace
Many commentaries make the erroneous assumption that the TPLF propaganda campaign is normal and contend that both sides of the conflict are guilty of fabrication, exaggeration, and distortion. There is also research and analysis that claims to demonstrate that the pro-government camp produces even more aggressive propaganda when comparing the size of social media (twitter) accounts used and the volumes of disinformation outputs of the opposing information campaigns. However, doing so would be misinterpreting the nature of the propaganda war being waged in this fight and mistaking sheer force for influence. With the critical assistance of its strategically placed western intellectuals-turned-propagandists, the TPLF propaganda machine was able to master the contemporary information war, which goes beyond the conventional propaganda war and misinformation.
Scholarly study of weaponized narrative and asymmetric information warfare is only a nascent field, primarily confined to geopolitical conflicts, but it has a lot to inform us about the nature and scope of the information war in the internal conflict in Ethiopia. Contemporary information wars are largely wars of influence and weaponized narratives. They are not necessarily won by the side with the most information or the most accurate data. They will be won by those adept at effectively telling the meaning of the information and what difference it makes for the targeted audience. Contemporary information warfare is the perfect asymmetric tactic for pitting an unconventional, insurgent force like the TPLF against a dominating, established entity like the government.
Despite its relative advantage in size, the pro-government camp is usually reactive, disorganized, and appears to be misdirected even in the traditional propaganda war. But the weaponized narratives of siege and victimhood deployed by the TPLF propaganda machine are quite distinct and more deadly effective than traditional information attacks and disinformation.
To compare the TPLF propaganda’s monolithic, mutually reinforcing, weaponized narratives, specifically designed for the exploitation of western sympathies, with the spontaneous, reactive, and sporadic stories told by the pro-government camp is to confuse the deliberate and targeted with the natural. To use an analogy from one weaponized narrative study, such a comparison would be equivalent to confusing “natural anthrax for weaponized anthrax designed for speed of transmission, virulence, and exploitation of vulnerabilities in the body to destroy the ability to fight.”
TPLF propagandists seemed to have an intuitive understanding of their asymmetric advantage in weaponized narrative, and they deployed it effectively to undermine the peace process and for extortion. The TPLF fears an extended period of truce and peace talks would undermine its weaponized narratives. They started to object to the AU’s slow peace mediation process right from the beginning a year ago. Those media commentators and analysts now citing the ineffectiveness or partiality of the AU mediator for the failure of the peace talks are only repeating this old and tired accusation without adding much.
One might hope the TPLF should have by now exhausted the sympathies and patience of the west with its intransigency and aggression, but this doesn’t seem to be the case so far. To really appreciate the distinctive power of the weaponized narrative and the asymmetric advantage it bestows on the TPLF, contrast two recent stories, both originated from leaders of two major UN organizations, but one of which is weaponized and the other is what can be called a natural narrative.
Dr Tedros Adhanom, a card-carrying, fully paid-up member of the TPLF now heading the World Health Organization (WHO), recently lamented that the lack of international attention and help for Tigray may be due to racism. In other news, a week later, the chief of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) accused the TPLF of armed robbery and theft of fuel from the WFP compound. Guess which story is covered most in the western mainstream media? Although there is nothing new in Dr Tedros’s claim, only repeating tired accusations which should be outdated by WFP’s recent operations, it was packaged and delivered in such a way as to exploit western sensibilities to charges of racism, and it was bound to receive more hits and coverage in western media.
It is this seemingly inexhaustible advantage, more than anything else, that helps to perpetuate the fighting and humanitarian suffering in northern Ethiopia. Some might argue that despite the virtual propaganda war, the real war itself is costly and exhausting, and this should serve as a countervailing force. But remember what George Orwell noted in his Homage to the Spanish Civil War: “All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.” Those multitudes that are doing the real fighting and bearing the brunt of the war don’t seem to have much of a say.
If there is any hope of a countervailing force against the TPLF’s unrivaled advantage in propaganda and global public opinion, it should come from the outside in the form of a deliberate counterbalancing diplomatic effort, either by commission (of diplomatic pressures) or, better yet, by omission (withdrawing moral support and the partial pressure on the government). If the recent statements by the U.S. and the E.U. special envoys to the region are any guide, the western foreign policy establishment seems to have concluded that, in order to facilitate a peaceful resolution of this conflict by an outside mediator, the west should play the role of an honest broker and refrain from pressuring the government with undue sanctions. This approach is in the right direction and seems to have worked rather well by forcing the TPLF to accept the AU peace mediation. Let’s hope it will bring this conflict to a peaceful resolution soon.
Tiglun Manaye is an economist and a political commentator. He can be reached at [email protected].
Contributed by Tiglun Manaye