Evelyn Waugh would have a field day with what’s happening in Ethiopia right now. The talented author of Brideshead Revisited and Scoop was a racist little creep sent out by a rightwing, pro-Fascist newspaper in 1935 to cover Mussolini’s invasion. Just to give you an idea of the man, he wrote home to a friend, “I have got to hate the ethiopians more each day goodness they are lousy & i hope the organmen gas them to buggery [sic].”
Then as now, the government in Addis Ababa didn’t want the horror or embarrassment of a foreign correspondent getting killed at the front, so it kept reporters bottled up in the capital. But while the concern for safety is admirable, in the absence of facts, reporters and “analysts” will let their imaginations roam. They’ll often perform alchemy on rumors and turn them into substance, and they’ll speculate their way into doomsday and all of Africa on fire.
Back in 1935, a whole truckload of foreign correspondents came and went, abandoning Addis in the summer because the war still hadn’t broken out and wouldn’t until October. Ethiopia got the best and worst of journalism then. Waugh, who was a shameless liar as well as a bigot, filled his slim account of the war with falsehoods (titled with the weak pun Waugh in Abyssinia). At the opposite end of the spectrum was a young South African named George Steer who figured out how to visit the Ogaden to see what was really going on. He genuinely cared about Ethiopians and risked his own life years later, working with British and Patriot forces for the Liberation.
And today, just like in 1935, there seems to be a hell of a difference between the reality on the ground and what is circulating in the mainstream Western media. I am not suggesting there are Waughs still waddling about, causing trouble, but if you check the air, you can pick up the scent of a post-colonial condescension.
For instance, news operations in the West still park the background to this conflict in cover-your-ass language: Abiy claims that the TPLF attacked first or has been “accusing it of attacking two federal military camps in the northern region.” Except we now know for a fact — even if all the details can’t yet be confirmed — that the TPLF attacked first because one of its spokespersons openly bragged about it during a television broadcast.
Sorry, Not That Sorry
This week as I write this, the BBC had to apologize after it badly misquoted Abiy in a tweet that was left up for four hours. Reuters tweeted a story about Ethiopia with footage of the wrong country. Okay, mistakes do happen. But you have to wonder sometimes how much is honest error as opposed to being too lazy to give a damn. Last week, Al Jazeera ran a story that casually mentioned “Adwa was the site of an Ethiopian war victory over the Italians in 1839.”
Groan. The battle of Adwa was in 1896. Hey, it’s only celebrated every year in the nation and in Ethiopian disaspora communities around the world. And the story carried the byline of a correspondent in the capital.
So, can you really blame Ethiopians — whatever their background, whatever their politics — for getting fed up with how their nation and region are depicted? It’s been five days since that story was posted, and Al Jazeera still hasn’t corrected it, even though it’s been the source of jokes on social media (Note: they finally ran a correction on November 27). Imagine if you screwed up the date of the French Revolution or the year the American Civil War ended? We’d be talking hours, not days for the repair.
Meanwhile, humanitarian organizations certainly don’t lead by example. Gerry Simpson, an associate director with Human Rights Watch, likes to crank out tweets about Ethiopia with stock photos from Middle East wars and Somalia. Because hey, one part of Africa looks so much like the other, right? You can even confuse it with a different continent. Who’s going to know? At a guess, I’d humbly say the more than 100 million people who live in the country.
Then we have the instant shoot-from-the-hip assessments of others. Former UN ambassador Susan Rice, whom many in Ethiopia still loathe for her gushing praise of Meles Zenawi, decided to forego any nuance altogether and declare this:
Now as this is being published, we know there was shelling in Humera, with government denials that Eritrea may have been involved. And there’s a lot we still don’t know or can expect to know for a while about Mekelle as this piece goes online. But when Rice and Bader put their two cents in, they didn’t seem terribly interested in balance. The federal forces, however one thinks of them, are at least advising civilians to get to safety while TPLF leaders have openly called on civilians to arm themselves and go up against trained combat soldiers. Where is the condemnation over this? Why not chew out both sides?
Few Western observers seem to take into account that whether the TPLF remains popular or not in Tigray (and it’s worth looking into whether this is so and how the recent regional election was conducted), a good portion of the rest of Ethiopia loathe it for their decades of repression after the Marxist Derg were finally banished for good. For many, its leader Debretsion Gebremichael personifies that legacy.
As usual, going into the complex history doesn’t fit a nice 500-word column or a five-minute analyst interview on the TV networks, let alone a 30-second wraparound package for the evening edition. Today’s conflict is often portrayed in North America and Europe as “Abiy versus Tigray” without any recognition that a) whatever his quirks that leave some Ethiopians occasionally scratching their heads, Abiy remains popular with many within the country; b) there are those in Ethiopia who support the federal troops moving in, and no doubt, others who are more ambivalent and who strongly oppose it. In fact, you find few stories in Western media that even bother to ask ordinary Ethiopians what they think.
True, the situation has improved mildly over international media finding talking heads. Al Jazeera will interview Samuel Getachew. BBC’s Newshour chose to talk to Berhanu Nega — well, more like interrogate him. But you still have to wonder why TV networks abroad passed up contacting esteemed professors in Addis Ababa and in the diaspora to regularly talk to a British jackass who had the gall to tell Ethiopians they should adopt English as their national language.
I’m nobody (I wrote a book, big deal), and I’ve had invites in the past few weeks to public international forums where I could open my big fat mouth. And the temptation is so strong to be that guy, the “expert” Who Knows All when the wiser course of action is to shut up and listen. While yes, there are some Ethiopians who are nice about it and encourage me to have my say, I think it’s far better that these slots be given first to Ethiopians both at home and in the diaspora. And then if you still need someone like me, okay, let’s talk.
Television, Zoom shows, radio… the platforms make a difference. Twitter is ThunderDome. Everyone weighs in. You don’t like my book or what I write here, you can dump the volume back on the shelf or click away, your choice.
But with video platforms, it’s far too easy to crowd out insightful voices of Ethiopians who should get their say. If we truly want to be supportive allies and not idiotic white saviors, westerners should get out of the way of the people we supposedly care about.
That doesn’t mean we don’t stop telling facts or writing analysis or even doing the occasional TV interview. But it does mean we should knock it off once and for all in telling Ethiopians what to do.
Seriously, why is anyone listening to Herman Cohen when he makes incredibly tone-deaf arguments like this on Twitter?
I came up with a wonderful formula months ago, though I’m sure I’m not the first one to think of it. You take the latest Western stupidity, pluck out the words “Africa, African, Ethiopian, Kenyan, Somali, Ugandan, etc.” and then insert terms like “American” or “European.” Let’s see how much Mr. Cohen would like his advice adopted back home: “Best solution for the United States is a truly decentralized federal system in which the U.S. remains unified but each ethnic nation of Black people, Caucasians, Hispanics, Asians, has the self-determination they desire…”
It’s convenient for the western world to frame the narrative of Tigray as a David-and-Goliath tale of nation versus breakaway region, but what’s happening is more complicated. Everyone’s aware that if this conflict turns into an insurgency, the violence could go on for years and years. Duh. Can we please dig deeper? Because I have yet to see anyone in the West point out that if there is an insurgency, this doesn’t help the cause of an independent Tigray at all, it will undermine it.
A peaceful referendum could be held to settle the issue once and for all of Tigray’s future, the same way it has been done with the issue of Quebec separatism in Canada and Scottish independence in the UK. But again, the choice has to be theirs, and people in Tigray and greater Ethiopia have to decide for themselves if they like this idea or prefer another one.
With all the chatter over the conflict potentially spilling into Eritrea — no, wait, Kenya — no, wait, Sudan — no, wait — Ethiopians, again, are justifiably annoyed. As some ask in so many words on Twitter and Facebook, What is it with you guys? Are you wishing for a broader war? Are you hoping for more Africans to kill each other?
I was chatting online yesterday with Professor Kebadu Mekonnen of Addis Ababa University. “The position we take in the debate is always made with a heavy heart,” he commented. “It’s not like the Game of Thrones, that one can follow the house one likes. We know at the end of the day that we’ll all lose our compatriots. That’s something many of the ferenji commentators didn’t take to heart.”
And if all that isn’t enough, the conflict is taking place while a steady campaign of ethnic cleansing has gone on in the country. Laetitia Bader checked in over the Maikadra massacre with platitudes, claiming, “The lack of independent investigations & access to monitors make it difficult to corroborate and identify claims of who may be responsible for such abuses.”
And so I ask: Then what the hell are you good for? For months, there have been similar incidents — in Shashemene, Dera, the Metekal region, Mandura Woreda, the Gura Ferda district. Where was Human Rights Watch for these cases of slaughter? And please don’t tell me you wrote a stern tweet. There are Excel sheets of names of victims, and Ethiopian investigators have tracked down witnesses that are willing to give their accounts.
And by the way, just what do you consider an independent investigation? Does that imply only an American and European-based NGO? Because we’ve already seen Amnesty International apologize for screwing up and playing sides back in August. So I would really like to know why such groups are automatically trusted first before African institutions, given their recent track record.
Instead of “staying on brand” to show oh-so-sincere concern, how about you get someone to pick up a damn phone and call Addis Ababa and speak to representatives of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission about their preliminary report? And okay, yes, because we live in an age when the commission is regularly accused of partisanship, how about getting someone’s ass on a plane out to the refugee camps in Sudan and talk to witnesses there in the interests of balance and fairness?
The reality is that Ethiopians do not come in only one homogenous flavor — there are millions of citizens of mixed-heritage who don’t readily identify as just Tegaru, just Amhara or Oromo or Guarage or any single one of the dozens of other ethnicities in the country. So part of what has been going on with Tigray and with these episodes of ethnic cleansing is a nation coming to grips with a system that amounts to a kind of apartheid, forcing its citizens to walk around with ID cards that must have an ethnicity selected for them. And many seem to be sick of this.
The following was posted on Facebook:
Some will agree with this sentiment. Others may take strong exception to it.
It would be interesting for a major media outlet to further explore this aspect of what’s unfolding.
I personally find it amazing that to even suggest Ethiopians of different ethnic backgrounds still have things in common, that they might still feel solidarity thanks to history, is now supposedly a “political” position — and that somehow this is biased. I’m sorry, but let me call bullshit on that. Again, whether Ethiopians let Tigray leave its union in peace or work out a new constitution has to be decided by them. How Oromia fits in has to be decided by them. And it’s not biased or partisan to wish the best for a great family of a people to work out its differences, or to have the perspective that even if new political lines are drawn on a map, that their future will still be an inter-connected one.
Patriots to the Cause of Humanity
We can be reminded of this fact even in tragedy. According to the EHRC preliminary report on Maikadra, victims told its investigators that “other residents, who were Tigrayan themselves, helped several of them survive by shielding them in their homes, in churches and in farms.” Let’s assume for a moment that at least part of the report’s findings are true, that these accounts can and will be verified. Think about what it means. The report mentions a woman hiding 13 people in her house and then leading them to safety at a nearby farm. “She went as far as staying with them the whole night in case the group came back in search of them.” The report talks about another Tigrayan woman “who was hit on the arm with a machete while trying to wrestle a man away from attackers who set him on fire.”
Journalism — like drama — is fueled by conflict. And without conflict, the professional know-it-all analysts and the reps for the human rights organizations would each be out of a job, but luckily for them, “business is always good.” As much as the Western media routinely go on about the strife and killing in Africa, the examples above speak of the African spirit.
Evelyn Waugh delighted with spiteful relish in Ethiopian suffering. George Steer wrote two of the best books ever about Ethiopia, chronicling its people’s bravery and endurance. We can either have the best or the worst of professional standards in journalism and human rights, but the path seems fairly clear. Ethiopia is where humanity began, and any acts of courage at Maikadra in the face of despicable evil testify to that core of human decency that rises above the grudge of blood, the hatred of “the other.” When will such examples lead the international coverage?
And if ordinary Tigrayans have risked their lives to save Amhara, just as brave Oromo saved Amhara victims in previous incidents months ago, it’s pretty obvious that Ethiopians don’t need any lessons from the West over bargaining across a negotiation table or how war isn’t the answer (after the U.S. and its allies tried to answer the questions of where are those WMDs in Iraq, and how many innocents can we kill with drone strikes in Afghanistan).
Let’s allow Ethiopians to work out their own problems and come up with their own solutions. With that in mind, let an Ethiopian have the last word here. “There’s an enormous task ahead of us after this conflict is over, which is a careful rethinking of the Ethiopian state,” Professor Kebadu Mekonnen told me. “We need to give the next generation a hopeful future, a future that grants them the ability to go anywhere in the country and be treated with an equal moral standing.”