Ethiopia has a public relations disaster in its hands

“The performance or lack of public and diplomatic relations of the Ethiopian government has been pathetic and damaging.”

Guariscogroup chart via

By Fayesa Assefa

There is no doubt that Ethiopia won the military battle with the TPLF. But he failed to counter the fierce, multifaceted and well-orchestrated propaganda campaign of the TPLF. The campaign targets Western governments, multilateral agencies and NGOs. The TPLF uses its well-placed connections and looted cash reserves to present itself to the outside world as a victim and the sole representative of the people of Tigray. He instigated and worked with major news organizations to produce news feeds based on questionable sources, half-baked truths, and sometimes outright lies to concoct and spread a sinister message: in the war against the TPLF, the Ethiopian government and its allies are targeting the people of Tigray and committing serious human rights violations and creating a humanitarian crisis. Therefore, the international community has an obligation under international law to stop the crisis by putting pressure on the government. The Ethiopian Government has not effectively challenged these assertions and, in fact, appears to ignore them at its peril. Without question, these claims have turned into a narrative that the TPLF is not completely defeated and the Abiy military operation has created a humanitarian and human rights crisis. Therefore, the government must be pushed to negotiate with the TPLF to end the crisis.

Plan B of a defeated enemy

Realizing that it had lost militarily, the TPLF launched Plan B – a desperate propaganda blitz to save itself with aid from the West. So far, he has managed to get his sinister message across and tarnish the image of Abiy and his administration. Not sufficiently disputed, the false narrative created pressure on some in the West to condemn Abiy’s government and consider punitive measures. All of this seems unfair, especially since the TPLF was the source of the conflict and its 30 years of mismanagement, corruption and gross human rights violations have brought Ethiopia to this point. But we know that fairness is not a highly valued commodity in international relations.

Ethiopia is not an island. It needs allies and partners to foster trade and economic development, respond to humanitarian disasters, and strengthen peace and stability. The irony is that Ethiopia has the truth and the facts on its side and huge national support for its actions against the TPLF, but does not use them effectively to tell its side of the story and gain international support. The Ethiopians were freed three years ago from decades of repressive TPLF rule, although this freedom of repression did not reach the people of Tigray until the TPLF’s military defeat earlier this year. Liberation from the TPLF dictatorship did not come without costs and the transition did not go smoothly. Many have sacrificed their lives. Tigray and several other regions are experiencing humanitarian disasters and human rights violations. The TPLF and others molded by him made the transition difficult. The TPLF started the conflict and now calls for fault when faced with evisceration. He also wants to avoid being responsible for the crises occurring in other parts of the country as a result of his disastrous ethnic policy which has deliberately pitted one ethnic group against another. Any sincere attempt at reconciliation must first admit these two fundamental crimes.

Does the sanction really work?

The remnants of the TPLF want to see the West weaken Ethiopia by imposing sanctions on it. World history shows that, in general, sanctions are not very effective in bringing about the desired behavior change in target countries. In Ethiopia’s case, sanctions can make things difficult but would not result in a return to power of the TPLF. The only way this could happen is to change the balance of military forces on the ground. It would require western boots on the ground and a huge sacrifice. The TPLF is not that important and the cost of the intervention too high to justify a direct Western intervention, making such a foray outside the realm of possibility. In addition, Ethiopians from all ethnic and religious backgrounds have rejected the TPLF. In fact, they want the organization to be held accountable for the crimes it committed while it was in power. Most of its leaders are arrested, dead or on the run, its national organizational network is dismantled and its economic lifeline severed. So, in practice, the chances of the TPLF returning to power are nil. The West knows this very well and could try to take advantage of the crisis to demand concessions from Abiy in other areas of interest.

Nonetheless, Ethiopia must redouble its efforts in its media, public diplomacy and lobbying efforts to bring the truth to the world and stress the need for a fair and balanced understanding of the situation and political positions. Policies based on a false premise and half-baked truth with sinister motives will not result in lasting peace and stability. In fact, they could be counterproductive and make matters even worse and could introduce instability beyond Ethiopia into an unstable region. Ethiopia serves the best interests of the West as a reliable regional anchor of peace, stability and prosperity. Instability in Ethiopia could open up opportunities for malicious actors to gain a foothold in the critically important region straddling Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Need a course correction

Unlike the massive, well-oiled TPLF propaganda operation, the Ethiopian government appears to rely on occasional briefings to local and international media by a lone diplomat in its foreign ministry. Hampered perhaps by dysfunction and incompetence, the government is bombarded by the TPLF in this version of the war. He sleeps while Ethiopia’s image is sullied on the international stage. In fact, the government appears to be ceding the propaganda war to its militarily defeated enemy.

Given the vacuum, the Ethiopian diaspora is trying to do what they can to help counter the TPLF’s distortions and misinformation. This is good but insufficient and also involves risks. Sometimes well-meaning but misguided patriots give back to the appeal and demonization of influential figures in Western governments and institutions they see as sympathizers of the TPLF. This, in my opinion, is false, counterproductive, and plays directly into the trap of the TPLF – that the Diaspora is a hardcore irrational group, not worthy of engaging in seeking solutions. Furthermore, the diaspora is not in a position of authority to speak for the government and articulate its positions. The government should lead the effort. The best the diaspora can do is play a supportive advocacy role.

Where is Ethiopia’s chief spokesperson?

It is disconcerting that the public face and main spokesperson for Ethiopia, the charismatic and eloquent Abiy Ahmed, has not engaged the international media on the war and articulated his vision to the world. Beyond the prime minister, Ethiopia needs sophisticated, seasoned and experienced diplomats to walk the halls of legislative and executive bodies in the West and build strong relationships. They must sell Ethiopia’s uplifting message of peace, stability, unity and prosperity to the world. Ethiopia, armed with facts and a coherent and compelling history, should defend itself and quickly launch a public relations offensive.

Overall, the performance or lack of public and diplomatic relations of the Ethiopian government has been pathetic and damaging. It is disconcerting to watch the government struggle to tell Ethiopia’s story to the world and to maintain friendly and reliable international relations based on common interests. The government must make an immediate course correction to effectively combat the TPLF’s sinister propaganda war. It must bring together qualified, sophisticated and seasoned media, public diplomacy and government relations experts to develop and implement a winning media, public and government engagement strategy. It must strive to win the hearts and minds of the Western public and establish positive and mutually beneficial relationships with their governments. After all, the Ethiopian government represents a very important country with enormous potential. He has the truth, the facts, and 115 million people behind him for crafting and telling a cohesive, uplifting and compelling story.


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