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Ethiopia rally

By Donnelly McCleland

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Sunday [7 November] in a show of support for the Ethiopian government and armed forces. The rally comes a few days after the government declared a state of emergency earlier this week amid gains claimed by Tigrayan forces advancing toward the capital.  Protesters also spoke out against trade sanctions imposed by the US in response to what Washington called “gross violations” of human rights in the spiralling conflict. Similar demonstrations are also reported to have taken place in other cities around the country. (DW)

Competing narratives in an ‘information war’

Competing narratives paint very different pictures of what is currently happening in Ethiopia. Western mainstream media is dominated by a TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front)-informed narrative where the TPLF is portrayed as the oppressed and ‘underdog’ in this conflict. Coverage often omits known facts or twists information to mean the total opposite of what occurred. The current, legitimate, democratically elected Ethiopian government under the leadership of Nobel Peace Prize winner, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, is depicted as the oppressor and has been accused of all manner of wrongdoing.

A large majority of Ethiopians (as can be seen by the recent national election results in June and September 2021, in which approximately 80% of the eligible population voted, and where the ruling Prosperity Party won 410 of the 422 seats) are firmly committed to and supportive of their government. The 2021 national election is considered to be the first peaceful, democratic and transparent election ever to be held in the country, confirmed by 100,000 local election monitors and over 100 international election observers. The African Union (AU) released a statement commending these elections: “The Mission concludes that despite some operational, logistical, security, political and COVID-19 related challenges, overall, the pre-election and Election Day processes were conducted in an orderly, peaceful and credible manner. There was nothing, in the Mission’s estimation, that distracted from the credible conduct of the elections.

Many Ethiopians have expressed outrage and total disbelief at the way Western governments and their mainstream media have depicted the conflict. At the recent rallies in support of their government, many held posters decrying the West’s perceived betrayal of their nation. One poster read, “Shame on you USA,” while another stated, “We don’t need interference from abroad.”

False accusations that Mr Abiy’s government is deliberately “starving its own people”, “blocking humanitarian aid” from reaching displaced groups and carrying out atrocities in the region are widespread in publications such as The Economist, BBC, The Guardian, New York Times, Al Jazeera, and others, as well as on social media platforms, such as Facebook. Yet, according to former Facebook employee, now whistle-blower, Frances Haugen, Facebook is guilty of “fanning ethnic violence in Ethiopia.”

There is deep concern among Ethiopian observers and academics that the TPLF is winning the ‘information war,’ in that Western mainstream media appears to be receiving their information, not from Ethiopian journalists working on the ground, or well-informed local people, but, rather, it seems, from statements issued by the US administration, UN agencies, external organisations and TPLF spokespeople. It is also important to note that several high-ranking officials within bodies such as the UN, WHO and WFP are, or have been, affiliated with the TPLF. Some of these have been openly supportive of the TPLF in public forums like Twitter, despite their job descriptions requiring neutrality.

In their paper, ‘Failure to Stand for Democracy in Ethiopia Has Weakened Democracy Worldwide,’ authors Ann Fitz-Gerald and Hugh Segal draw the following conclusion: “The position that some world leaders have adopted on Ethiopia not only ignores the voice of over 100 million Ethiopians, as well as a very populous global Ethiopian diaspora, but also defies basic democratic values – values which Western countries are supposed to support. The West’s failure to call out the TPLF for its atrocities and breaches of international law – instead preferring to direct punitive measures towards the country’s duly elected government – reflects a selective and illiberal application of these values. By the US and its partners treating a terrorist organisation [the TPLF was previously designated by the US as a Tier 3 terrorist organisation in 2014, and this year, the Ethiopian government designated it a terrorist organisation] as equal to a democratically elected and legitimate government, the underlying values and principles of the West come across as inconsistent and contradictory.”

A year of open conflict after years of simmering dissent

Ethiopian forces have been locked in a protracted conflict with the TPLF for over a year. But animosity and disagreements go even further back. Ironically, the Marxist-Leninist, separatist Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF, also known as the Tigray Defence Force) was once the paramilitary group that played a key role in unseating the former Marxist DERG government. The TPLF led a coalition of movements named the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) from 1989 to 2018. During EPRDF rule, Ethiopia retained authoritarianism and merely shifted from a one-party state to a dominant-party state. After extensive anti-government protests (beginning in 2014, but escalating from 2016), the TPLF dominant leadership was ousted in 2018 and Dr Abiy Ahmed was voted to replace Hailemariam Desalegn who had resigned in response to the widespread protests. Senior lecturer at Keele University in the UK, Awol Allo, explained the EPRDF’s demise in an opinion piece for Aljazeera (December 2019): “Despite its claims to be an effective revolutionary instrument to advance the interests of marginalised ethnic groups, EPRDF has always been a hodgepodge of ethnic groups that served the interests of its most dominant member, the TPLF, and ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist for nearly three decades.”

Dr Abiy (of Oromo and Amhara heritage) initially attempted to rebrand the EPRDF and deal with its shortcomings (a key aspect being that the EPRDF only represented four regions, while five others were excluded), but it soon became clear that superficial reforms could not resolve EPRDF’s crisis of legitimacy and address its crippling dysfunction, so he took the dramatic step of dissolving the four constituent units of the coalition and forming a single pan-Ethiopian national party (while broadening the representation to those regions previously excluded, thus allowing greater representation in government – improving legitimacy). Three of the four ethnic parties within the coalition, OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM, voted overwhelmingly to join the party, while the TPLF, which created these parties and the EPRDF coalition, rejected the idea as “illegal and reactionary” (as a proponent of ethnic federalism and being from a minority region, the TPLF was not comfortable with the way the Prosperity Party operates – being semi-centralised, where representation is determined by population size of the respective regions).  Thus, after years of dominance, the TPLF withdrew to its homeland where it whipped up resentment.  What is important to note, however, is that despite being in power for 27 years, the TPLF did very little to uplift the lives of the general Tigrayan people, who remained as poor as ever, with an estimated two million Tigrayans continuing to depend on international food aid, even before open conflict in 2020.

After several openly defiant moves against the Federal Government of Ethiopia (including proceeding with regional elections when the central government had postponed elections due to COVID-19), the TPLF launched its planned war against the Ethiopian government in the early hours of 4 November 2020 with surprise attacks on the Northern Command’s headquarters in the Tigray capital, Mekelle, and bases across Tigray. TPLF fighters and sympathisers within the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) killed many ethnic Amharan soldiers as they looted the army’s heavy and mechanised weaponry. The TPLF themselves called these attacks “a pre-emptive strike” for the purpose of “self-defence”, and yet most Western mainstream media outlets continue to refer to these pre-emptive strikes as “alleged attacks”. The Ethiopian government took the multi-pronged attack for what it was – a declaration of war (an insurgency) – and responded by sending in the troops to restore order. By the end of November 2020, the ENDF had captured Mekelle. A caretaker government comprising members of Tigrayan opposition parties was subsequently installed. The TPLF staged a strategic retreat but continued the fight in rural areas. This pre-emptive strike by the TPLF occurred as Tigrayans were struggling to avoid famine amidst the region’s worst locust plague in 25 years, again demonstrating little concern for Tigray’s general population.

Recent events

In June 2021, the US Biden administration insisted that the Abiy government declare a unilateral ceasefire, which they did. Tigray’s caretaker government subsequently fled Mekelle, and the TPLF (with no intention of adhering to the ceasefire) returned, capturing thousands of withdrawing ENDF troops. The TPLF, firmly rejecting the ceasefire, then went on the offensive, taking their war into neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions. On 5 August, the TPLF seized control of the historic city of Lalibela – a UNESCO heritage site, famed for its ancient rock-hewn churches. Less than a week later, on 11 August the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) announced it had forged an alliance with the TPLF to oust the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The Ethiopian government forces responded to the TPLF’s advances, and fighting has been concentrated in the east of Amhara Region, particularly in North Wollo Zone (where Lalibela is located) and South Wollo Zone (where the strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha are located).

On 17 September 2021, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed published a historic and extraordinary “Open Letter to President Joe Biden.” Heads of state typically communicate through diplomatic channels, private letters, discuss issues of mutual interest in person or on the phone or make their views known through newspaper op-ed pages. Communication between heads of state via open letter is, to say the least, uncommon. Despite President Biden speaking on numerous occasions about his concern for the situation in Ethiopia, and particularly with other heads of state, he has not attempted to communicate directly with the democratically elected Prime Minister of Ethiopia, and thus Dr Abiy resorted to an open letter. In his communication, he expresses the country’s deep disappointment and confusion over the US’s response towards them, a staunch ally: “As a long-time friend, strategic ally and partner in security, the United States’ recent policy against my country comes not only as a surprise to our proud nation, but evidently surpasses humanitarian concerns.” In his letter, Dr Abiy aired out the entirety of his concerns and convincingly articulated the reasons why his government regards the TPLF as terrorists, went on to explain why the US should support its historical anti-terrorist ally’s operations against them, and exposed the double standards driving Washington’s policies against his country. He ended with: “We have seen the consequences and aftermaths of hurried and rash decisions made by various US administrations that have left many global populations in more desolate conditions than the intervention attempted to rectify. It is essential to point out here that Ethiopia will not succumb to consequences of engineered pressure by disgruntled individuals for whom consolidating power is more important than the well-being of millions. Our identity as Ethiopians and our identity as Africans will not let this come to pass. The humiliation our ancestors have faced throughout the continent for centuries will not be resuscitated in these lands upon which the green, gold and red colours of independence have inspired many to successfully struggle for their freedom!”

On Friday 5 November, the TPLF stepped up their attack on the Ethiopian government by linking with opposition groups to form an alliance looking to unseat Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The signing took place in Washington DC (USA) and includes the Tigray forces that have been fighting Ethiopian and allied forces, as well as the Oromo Liberation Army now fighting alongside the Tigray forces and seven other groups from around Ethiopia. The spokeswoman for Prime Minister Abiy, Billene Seyoum, addressed the new alliance Thursday evening when she tweeted that “any outliers that rejected the democratic processes Ethiopia embarked upon cannot be for democratisation,” pointing out Mr Abiy’s opening-up of political space after taking office in 2018, and how his reforms included welcoming some opposition groups home from exile.

Ethiopia’s geostrategic significance and key role-players

Ethiopia has in recent years demonstrated its tremendous, yet untapped potential as a leader on the continent. Economically, the African Development Bank Group explains: “Ethiopia’s economy grew by 6.1% in 2020, down from 8.4% in 2019, largely because of the COVID–19 pandemic. Real GDP growth in 2021 is projected to fall to 2%, then recover to about 8% in 2022, led by a rebound in industry and services.” Ethiopia’s economic recovery and growth are heavily dependent on a peaceful resolution to the conflict. A stable, economically prosperous Ethiopia has incredible potential for its people (at over 115 million, it is Africa’s second-most populous nation, after Nigeria), and the region. Diplomatically, Ethiopia has long been a provider of security in the region, helping to stabilise Somalia and South Sudan and offering important support during Sudan’s transition. The decades-long conflict with neighbouring Eritrea was also resolved under Dr Abiy’s leadership.

It is important to ask the question why a major African nation and long-time ally of the West suddenly finds itself isolated and its actions largely misinterpreted. To answer this, it is necessary to examine the contextual impact of the geopolitical competition for both water and natural resources. Egypt (still central to US Middle East peace plans) and Sudan are both contesting plans for the filling and water-sharing arrangements of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). For the past decade, Ethiopia has been building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), about 40 kilometres from the border with Sudan. Once complete, the GERD will be capable of producing as many as 6,450 megawatts (MW) of electricity, ranking it as one of the world’s largest dams and by far Africa’s largest dam by electricity production. Sudan and Uganda have both built large Nile dams in recent years, and there are numerous older dams on the Sudanese portion of the Blue Nile. Until now, the Nile’s largest dam was at Aswan, Egypt (installed capacity of 2,100 MW). It is very important to note that the Aswan dam, completed in 1970, transformed Egypt by ending the Nile’s seasonal floods, creating hundreds of thousands of acres of newly arable, irrigated land, and bringing electricity to millions of Egyptians. More importantly, it was also built without consulting upstream countries, drawing on antiquated colonial treaties to which Ethiopia, which escaped colonisation, was never a party. Perhaps one issue that unites Ethiopians, no matter their political views, is that their country has the absolute right to develop and use its hydroelectric potential on the Blue Nile (or as the river is named in Ethiopia, the Abay). And that potential is now on the cusp of being realised. In Ethiopia, despite a war, a struggling economy, and growing international pressure, the GERD is an indisputable priority and a point of national pride.

The geopolitical interests of various major powers in the Horn of Africa, such as the US, China, the UK, Russia, and France, should not be underestimated, yet is often overlooked in light of a ‘hot war’. As with similar situations elsewhere and before, the evolving strategic interests and decisions of these global actors will play a role either in achieving an equitable and sustainable solution to the conflict or in escalating it.


In October 2020, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) warned that the fragmentation of Ethiopia would be “the largest state collapse in modern history”, and would likely lead to “mass inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict; a dangerous vulnerability to exploitation by extremists; an acceleration of illicit trafficking, including of arms; as well as a humanitarian and security crisis at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East on a scale that would overshadow the existing conflicts in South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen.” Such a grave warning should galvanise the Body of Christ to pray and intercede for Ethiopia like never before.

A critical component for believers is to be informed. This article has clearly demonstrated the tremendous impact that the ‘info war’ has had in escalating and perpetuating the conflict in Ethiopia. It should thus be evident to Christians how important it is to pursue truth and seek discernment. James 1:5 reminds us: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” INcontext, as a Christian media organisation, seeks to unpack various news stories around the world and provide a Christian perspective (often overlooked/ignored/avoided by secular news sources) to assist believers in this truth-seeking and discerning process. Numerous Ethiopian Christians have expressed a deep disappointment and sense of betrayal at the way that Western governments and media have misrepresented the situation in their country, adding to the already tragic conflict.

Religious liberty analyst, Elizabeth Kendal, explains in her book After Saturday comes Sunday: “’Humanitarian interventions’ have little to no humanitarian value. They are military interventions made in pursuit of economic and geostrategic gains; they are merely presented as ‘humanitarian’ for domestic consumption.” We should not be deceived. It is also important to note that very often, civilians are used as pawns and sacrificed in the pursuit of military or political mileage. There have been clear indications that civilians have been used as ‘human shields’ in Tigray and abused by fighters on all sides of the conflict. There is no denying that civilians are suffering in Tigray, Afar and Amhara; they deserve our concern and compassion.

The best solution for Ethiopia is a peaceful resolution to the conflict. To date, it has only been the legitimate Ethiopian government that has attempted a ceasefire (to their detriment militarily), and yet traditionally democratic Western nations have not supported such efforts but continue to throw their weight behind the insurgent (terrorist) TPLF which has not once made an effort towards peace. Although a peaceful solution may seem an impossible task, the Ethiopian Government can take courage from the lessons learnt from the Rwandan genocide and their reconciliation process.

The Ethiopian Church (in all its representations) desperately needs the support of the larger body of Christ. It is tremendously challenging for the Ethiopian Church to pursue peace-making efforts and reconciliation when there is such a temptation to choose sides (whether on the basis of ethnicity, religious affiliation or political leanings). It will take Godly intervention at this stage to steer Ethiopia out of this war and avoid further atrocities and loss of life. Prime Minister Abiy is a professing follower of Christ, who carries a huge responsibility on his shoulders to lead this richly diverse nation. He too needs godly wisdom and discernment to govern righteously.

Please pray with us for the following:

  • For the Lord to clearly guide Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his government and grace them with divine wisdom, discernment, and courage to end this conflict and reunite their nation
  • For the Lord to protect and sustain the Ethiopian Church – the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church, as well as the Catholics and Protestants (which includes ever-increasing numbers of converts from Islam) – as we recognise the spiritual dimension of this earthly conflict
  • For Ethiopian believers to resist the temptation to take ‘earthly sides’, be alert to a diet of lies and hatred about their fellow citizens, and remain committed to pursuing Christ and constantly seek God’s perspective on the situation



Image: REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri