A changing Ethiopia: Divisions, fear, and unfounded accusations
An open letter to Ethiopian authorities by Professor Kjetil Tronvoll.
Recently I have experienced repeated and grievous ad hominem attacks from an Ethiopian government spokesperson and internet trolls associated with the regime, demonstrating how toxic and divisive the political context in Ethiopia has become. The slur campaign against me and other academics cannot, of course, be compared to the atrocities and abuse experienced daily by many civilians of all walks of life across Ethiopia. However, the orchestrated campaign against scholars and analysts working on Ethiopia is symptomatic of deeper political undercurrents throwing the country once again into political turmoil and conflict.
Pro-government Amhara nationalists in the diaspora and Eritrean internet trolls launched the personalized attacks and slur campaign against me some months back as a precursor to the war against the Tigray regional state. I became an opportune target because of my long-term research engagement on political developments in Tigray. I authored the first comprehensive report on the 1995 elections and status democratization in Tigray, criticizing the constrained political context and the suppressing of dissenting voices already. Several of my publications since then have analyzed the relationship of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) with its constituency and the overall “democratic pretensions and performances” of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
Due to this engagement, I have over the years collaborated closely with colleagues at inter alia Mekelle University, where I am (or was?) an adjunct professor. As part of this collaboration, I conducted a research-observation of the Tigray regional elections in September 2020 to understand how ordinary Tigrayans perceived the vote and their relationship to the federal government.
My presence in Tigray during the elections greatly provoked both Ethiopian nationalists and the federal government. On my return from Mekelle, I was briefly detained at the Bole International Airport by intelligence officials. The critics do not seem to understand that researching a process does not imply endorsement. (A research article on the Tigray election is forthcoming.)
As an anthropologist, my research objectives have always been to cast light on the subaltern voices and their grievances: on people who are marginalized from the political arena and exposed to the abuse and subjugation of power. I cut my teeth on authoritarianism living in a small village in highland Eritrea in the transition from war to independence in 1991-93, doing my dissertation work on the peasantry’s relationship with Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Since the fall of the Derg, I have been a close observer of both Eritrean and Ethiopian political developments and have always felt at home and welcomed among the local people – be that in Hadiya or Sidama, in Oromia or Amhara, or Tigray and Afar – all places I have been working as part of my research undertakings in Ethiopia (or in Eritrea for that matter).
An orchestrated campaign
Recently, however, the accusations and social media campaigns have intensified to a level not experienced earlier, including Ethiopian government officials’ involvement. For example, on 16 December, the Director-General of Information Network System Agency, the national electronic intelligence agency, outrageously accused a handful of foreign scholars and analysts of being paid agents of disinformation without providing any evidence. (The state-run Ethiopian News Agency identified the accused, including me, by pictures, shown several times during the broadcast).
All of us strive to analyze the situation in Ethiopia to alleviate and mitigate conflicts, and I am certain none has received any payment – I have not – or other incentives from any actor, Ethiopian or otherwise. The powerholders in Ethiopia seem to view our analytical contributions as a threat to their attempt to craft a hegemonic narrative on the war and are hence doing their utmost to fabricate lies to undermine our credibility as independent analytical voices.
It is even more concerning to observe how low the authorities and associated actors are willing to stoop to defame and delegitimize some of us. Fabricating the most disgraceful lies of abuse to discredit my integrity and work ethics, and spreading it on social media, is now apparently the new norm; oblivious to the fact that such lies also create their social reality. The shocking lies remind me of an Ethiopian proverb: “Where there is no shame, there cannot be any honor.”
As a professor of human rights for many years and currently a professor of peace and conflict studies, I have always strived to understand how people at the receiving end of authoritarian policies and power abuse understand politics. To do so, one needs to associate with and position oneself in the same context as the victims of political power. Political marginalization and abuse need to be analyzed from the perspective of those who suffer from it. In many ways, this is provocative to the ones wielding and holding political power; hence the researcher will be perceived as an annoyance at best, or an enemy at worst.
Constrained relations with EPRDF
During my research on human rights, elections, and conflicts in Ethiopia over three decades, I have had numerous altercations with the authoritarian state’s cadres and agents in various locations across the country. However, on occasions when the cadre system turned too hostile, local inhabitants often have come to my rescue. For instance, during the 2000 elections in Hadiya, when I was detained by the EPRDF security and held in a secret house because I had witnessed the violence against the people and opposition candidates and the manipulation of the vote, local villagers came to my protection even though they did not personally know me. But as a “guest” in their village, they felt obliged to provide support and oversee that nothing untoward “happened to me.” They rallied around the secret house and stood guard throughout the night to prevent the cadres from making me “disappear.”
To be clear, as a researcher analyzing political power, I believe it is essential to interact with and listen to the political, military, and security elite’s representatives. Both victims and perpetrators of power abuse have stories that are important to listen to in order to fully understand how what may start as genuine political visions of development, in whatever ideology it is articulated, may morph into authoritarianism and subjugation. Hence, I have always pursued an open and transparent research approach and have maintained high-level contacts with EPRDF officials throughout my 30 years of research.
At times I had constrained relations with the former EPRDF leadership, but nevertheless, a certain degree of respect and decorum was maintained. My many books and articles criticizing their political performances and human rights record were often used as stepping-stones for interaction with the political leadership to obtain “their point of view” on my work. To their credit, I maintained access to the country, and top-ranking EPRDF officials, including the last two prime ministers Meles Zenawi and Hailemariam Dessalegn, who often made themselves available for critical research interviews.
A non-communication strategy
However, since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rose to power, a rather ironic change – considering the opening of democratic space immediately after he took office – of accessibility towards how the decision-makers craft policies have emerged. I have repeatedly reached out to high-level representatives of the ruling party and government to ask for research interviews to learn from and understand their new visions and policies, alas mostly in vain.
Earlier this year, after TPLF declined to join the Prosperity Party (PP), I actively contacted all relevant Tigrayan representatives in the PP leadership (they were not that many to start with) to hear what they thought about the situation in Tigray. From the top-leadership and down the ranks, not one single official was willing to meet and inform me why PP had the best to offer Ethiopia, let alone Tigray. As so often experienced in non-democratic regimes, the incumbent and power elites believe they have all to lose and nothing to gain from interacting with independent researchers. Better, then, to shut them out with the hope that they eventually will give up.
A non-communication strategy is fair and well, as I do not have any ‘right’ to demand an interview with the Ethiopian government representatives. However, the modus operandi in Ethiopia today goes way beyond non-communication. It is the advent of something new and much more sinister. Today, traditional Ethiopian values of hospitably and decency seem to be forlorn by the ruling clique.
High-level officials and government spokespersons are openly touting lies and fabrications to their constituents, designed as targeted attacks against independent scholars and analysts. Concomitantly, the ruling clique relies on a raft of internet trolls to advance their hegemonic narrative and attack anybody who may offer a different interpretation of the ongoing conflict and encourage peaceful political solutions instead of violence. Interestingly, the three social media camps most active supporting the war on Tigray can be loosely characterized as Amhara nationalists, pan-Ethiopian nationalists who are nostalgic for the country’s “glorious” past, and Eritrean trolls. This informs us of which political base the PP government has in Ethiopia.
From an analytical point of view, this shift in Ethiopian political culture is interesting to observe. One may ask why a government struggling to combat two armed insurgencies (in Tigray and Oromia) and widespread political unrest, in the midst of a global pandemic and a deep economic down-turn, use time and resources to discredit a handful of independent scholars and analysts? What does this tell us about the political culture and inclinations of power in the ruling clique?
For one, despite the rebranding to PP, it speaks volumes to the continuity of the EPRDF-era authoritarianism and suppression. As with the EPRDF, PP cadres (mostly the same, only the label has changed) seek to apply against an international audience the same intimidation and harassment they use to silence and quell any protests and critical voices at home. The fact is many of us have worked for decades in such hostile environments, have not given up, and are still carrying on.
So, what explains the government’s new posture on propaganda and fabricated lies? One plausible explanation is that it is a desperate act by a regime insecure of their domestic and international standing, perceiving all criticism as evidence of their lack of a broad-based societal anchoring. It may also be a reflection of their fragile internal coherence, as Abiy was brought to power on the back of the Qeerroo protest movement in Oromia, a base he subsequently deserted and replaced with much more radical elites of “nationalists.” To keep the dispersing political fractions in PP at bay (particularly between the Amhara and Oromo components of the party), the ruling clique uses the state’s coercive means to silence critical domestic and foreign voices who point out that apparently “the Emperor is not wearing any clothes.”
Academic freedom under threat
Press freedom has been rolled-back for some time now, with the closure of critical media houses, arrests of several journalists, and charges pressed, forcing a high-level of self-censorship among media organizations in the country. Equally concerning, however, is the more recent trend of restriction on academic freedom. Lately, many Ethiopian colleagues have shared with me the fear and anxiety they experience under the new political order, forcing them to suspend research projects and keep quiet to protect their jobs, as well as their physical wellbeing. Thus, it is even more important than ever that those of us who are situated in international research environments continue to defend academic freedom by researching and providing critical analysis to Ethiopia’s donors and the international community at large on Ethiopian political developments – despite its unpopularity among the ruling clique and its supporters.
As a scholar striving to understand subaltern voices, marginalized groups, and the abuse of power, being personally at the receiving end of such power abuse is – despite its toll – also enriching my understanding of authoritarianism. Rest assured, my research perspective will remain the same no matter who inhabits the Arat Kilo party offices or the Palace in Addis Ababa. A confident leader who believes in his or her policies and visions would welcome any constructive criticism from domestic and foreign researchers to improve policy development, governance, and political accountability. A weak and insecure leader, on the other hand, opts for the easy way to try to muzzle voices of criticism. However, history has time and again proven which strategy will make an enduring positive impact on a country’s development.