How a Norwegian Researcher Panicked Western Capitals

December 18, 2021
The following is an English Translation of a December 18 article by Berit Aalborg titled The Power of Narrative in the Ethiopia Debate. Aalborg is Journalist and Political Editor of the Norwegian weekly newspaper Vart Land.

A few days ago, Vårt Land had a post in print by researchers Terje Østebø and Bjørnar Østby. They responded to my article "Western double standards in Ethiopia", and they say that I have written "misleading and speculative information about the war in Ethiopia".

In Vårt Land, we are concerned with releasing different opinions and perspectives. We are used to great disagreement and we strive for a civilized climate of debate. The situation in Ethiopia is both complicated and marked by opposing narratives. Both the researchers' and my texts are read into such narratives. In my previous article, I was therefore concerned to emphasize that someone might disagree with what I wrote.

Was Addis Ababa Really about to fall ? 

When Østebø and Østby call my text "speculative" and that it shows "poor insight" into the war in Ethiopia, the researchers use strong words. They choose a confrontational line against an analysis that is different from their own. At the same time, they omit to look at their own close research colleague, Kjetil Tronvoll, who has made very confident predictions about the same war. His statements dealt with a very complicated war situation, and were said in a polarized international exchange of words. When Østebø and Østby elegantly skip this, it weakens the credibility of their criticism.

Thus, it appears as if the dense research environment is unable to see itself and each other critically in the cards.

For a long time, Tronvoll has built up a great defining power of the picture drawn by the conflict in Ethiopia in the Norwegian public. He has also been a premise supplier in international media. On 1 November, Bistandsaktuelt published a statement from Tronvoll stating that "Addis Ababa is about to fall". This was also picked up by NTB. Tronvoll's prediction is close to the rebel groups' own statements. France24 had this headline on November 3: "Rebels say Ethiopia capital could fall within weeks".

Tronvoll's justification is interesting. He said: "The decisive battle was won this weekend. When the city of Dessie fell in 1991, it was only two days before the EPRDF forces captured the capital Addis Ababa. Exactly the same thing will not happen now, but we still see the importance of that city ». What he does not mention is that the attitude to TPLF was completely different in 1991. At that time, they had large sections of the people behind them when they waged guerrilla warfare. This is not the case now.

Parts of such an analysis he also presented in the podcast of columnist Østby. There, Tronvoll stated, among other things, that an order of magnitude of around 99 percent of the abuses that have taken place in the war must be attributed to the government.

Tronvoll is often referred to as one of the "world's foremost experts on Ethiopia". His strong statement that Addis Ababa will soon fall was in the pot of information that contributed to the agitated mood in both the Nordic capitals and several European countries. Several governments feared a TPLF coup and withdrew diplomats, researchers, aid workers, missionaries and other citizens from Ethiopia. This is despite the fact that many sources in the country had a different picture of the situation.

The War takes a Turn

Shortly after Tronvoll's statements, the war began to turn around. Government forces regained control of several cities in Ethiopia. Today, few believe that Addis Ababa will fall in the next few weeks, although few dare to predict what will happen in the long run.

It is surprising that an experienced researcher like Tronvoll did not take into account rapid changes in a complicated war, and that he did not consider it probable that access to military equipment could turn the dynamics of the war in a short time to the advantage of government forces. Both Tronvoll and Østby knew of Ethiopia's access to new weapons. On October 25, he was quoted on the BBC as saying that credible reports indicated that the Ethiopian military had provided Iranian and Turkish-produced drones in hopes of tipping the war in its favor. On November 12, he still told listeners of the podcast "What's Happening in the World?" what he wrote in the article «10 reasons why Abiy loses the war».

Tronvoll obviously possesses great detailed knowledge of Ethiopia. Yet his analyzes have relentlessly pulled in one direction: that the TPLF would win the war. And that Abiy Ahmed would lose it.

VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS: Many people in Tigray have been forced to flee after the TPLF seized power in Amhara this autumn. Reports show human rights violations and killings in this region. (AP Photo / AP)

Analyses Changes after TPLF Loss

Only after it emerged as a fact that TPLF had lost several important cities in the north, did Tronvoll change his analysis.

Does this show that Østby's and Østebø's close colleague Tronvoll had the combination of good understanding and insightful analysis of the dynamics of the war in Ethiopia? No. In that case, he chose not to use the knowledge. The statement helped to undermine confidence in the Ethiopian government's power of action. Definitely.

In the podcast in question, he openly speculated about various scenarios for taking power. He said, among other things: "You can get a political-military takeover of Addis. A negotiated transitions. That means an exit for Abiy. It may be the best thing now, to get a controlled takeover ».

The starvation and violations of human rights are both serious and highly reprehensible on both sides. No one should disagree.

Both of the two researchers who criticized me for speculative analysis and lack of understanding of the war in Ethiopia are Tronvoll's close colleagues. Østby and Tronvoll work together at Oslo Nye Høyskole, and Tronvoll often performs at Østby's foreign podcast. Østebø and Tronvoll have published several articles or research reports together.

The two authors of the article thus strongly oppose other ways of understanding this conflict, but omit to point out the obvious one-sidedness of a research colleague who has largely been given the go-ahead with his analyses. Thus, it appears as if the dense research environment is unable to see itself and each other critically in the cards. Their statements also appear as a desire to protect the research community's narrative against criticism - with harsh outcomes against others.

The starvation and violations of human rights are both serious and highly reprehensible on both sides. No one should disagree.

A number of reports, including one prepared by the UN and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, conclude that both sides have committed serious human rights violations. It states, among other things, that the government forces and their allies have abused Tigray in the period after the government forces' attack on Tigray. One of several reports came in January 2021: "Woman in Tigray: - I was looted, others were killed."

But my questions, which remain unanswered from the mentioned research community, are whether TPLF started and were drivers in the war we see today. And whether they have a significant responsibility for the actual human rights violations, violence and hunger that are reported. Not least in the cities outside Tigray that TPLF has controlled.

A number of reports state that the TPLF accounts for a significantly larger share of the war's violence, killings and human rights violations than the estimated one percent of these violations, as Tronvoll says in Østby's podcast - against 99 percent from the government side.

TPLF Plunders a Food Warehouse

After the government forces again took power in several of the cities in northern Ethiopia, there are now reports of massacres and major material destruction in these areas. In addition, there are reports that indicate that TPLF is looting medicine and food stocks that were to go to sick and starving children.

This is shown by several reports: An Amnesty report from November 2020 shows that TPLF supporters are involved in a massacre in which 600 people were killed with knives, axes and machetes. Another Amnesty report shows that survivors of TPLF attacks describe gang rape, looting and physical assault. A hospital was robbed. The UN recently announced that the Tigray region's forces have allegedly looted food storage intended for distribution to malnourished children and threatened with weapons. This led to the UN having to end the distribution of food to the hungry.

I can agree with Østebø and Østby's statement that "The warring parties neither need nor deserve our support. Only the injured do that ». But if the victims are to receive the support they deserve, all those who have committed crimes - on both sides - must be held accountable.

Of course, the role of the United States in Ethiopia can be questioned. But when the United States sits still and watches as representatives of rebel groups meet in Washington and plan coups, then it is difficult to regard the United States as neutral.

Recent statements by the TPLF have, however, made the US evasive role more understandable. An interview with former TPLF minister and now TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda has caused a stir in the media worldwide, after a feature on Tigray Television. Although there is some discussion about what Reda actually said in the interview, it is clear that he believes the United States has recommended the TPLF to form a coalition of rebel forces if they take Addis Ababa by force. Some also claim that he suggests that the United States is behind such a takeover.

This indicates that the TPLF has received some form of strategic advice from US teams on how best to take power. In light of this, it is perhaps no wonder that the United States sat quietly in the boat while the rebels conspired in Washington to coup in Ethiopia's capital.

TPLF chief: Getachew Reda has played a key role as spokesman for TPLF over the past year. The photo is taken from the period when the TPLF-dominated government ruled the country, and he was Minister of Communications. (AP Photo / AP)

Admittedly, the US State Department denies that they have given the TPLF such advice. In isolation, it may be true that no one in the US Foreign Ministry or their embassy in Ethiopia has done so. But other parts of the US foreign conglomerate may be behind it. There are more official actors than the US Foreign Ministry who pursue foreign policy. Some of them are the foreign affairs committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives and the CIA. It is also not unknown that the Pentagon is giving foreign policy signals.

It must also be pointed out that the US State Department has low credibility when it comes to admitting this type of revelation in public. This applies to their handling of situations in several parts of the world. There is reason to repeat Østby and Østebø's good description of US policy towards Africa: It is "no secret that US foreign policy in the global south has been and remains cynical and opportunistic".

America's double standards become apparent when we look at their own human rights abuses, killings and violence in war.

Some believe the United States can not be blamed for being one-sided in the Ethiopian conflict. They point out that the United States was very positive when Abiy Ahmed came to power. Others emphasize that the US special envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, has made persistent attempts to persuade both Abiy Ahmed and the TPLF to talk to each other. In the geopolitical picture, the United States is served by peace in the African Horn. Therefore, there is no reason to doubt that Feltmann has warned the TPLF against a military strike against Addis Ababa.

But he has also asked Abiy's government to come to the negotiating table without demands, in negotiations with a rebel force. America's own history confirms that they themselves would never accept such a setting. When this comes on top of the US imposing strong economic sanctions on Ethiopia, it will be costly.

The United States' own War on Terror

Pointing out America's double standards is both important and necessary. The main reason is that this double standard is increasingly a theme in African countries, which is to a limited extent captured in Western countries.

America's double standards become apparent when we look at their own human rights abuses, killings and violence in war. The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, in Pennsylvania, has been researching the wars and operations in the wake of 9/11. They have documented that the United States' own "war on terror" led to the deaths of 929,000 people as a direct result of the war. Of these, 387,000 are civilians. 38 million people are fleeing Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines as a result of the war. Many of the measures taken, such as detention, surveillance and the use of torture, have been heavily criticized by human rights organizations around the world.

The fact that the United States itself legitimizes murder and human rights violations, if it benefits the interests of the United States, confirms the cynicism. Double standards are about undermining a sovereign state in Africa and punishing the country financially for the same kind of actions.

Pointing this out is not the same as downplaying the violence, human rights violations and hunger in Ethiopia.

DOUBLE STANDARDS: People from Ethiopia and Eritrea demonstrate against what they see as US intervention in African politics outside the White House in Washington, USA. (Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP)

Abiy Ahmed's Role

Østby and Østebø ask the question whether it is possible to continue to believe that Abiy Ahmed can lead Ethiopia into a period of political and economic stability. But the most relevant question is this: Is there an alternative? Is an alliance led by TPLF - after a coup - a better solution?

TPLF's brutal rule over 27 years means that they have very low confidence and are unwanted outside Tigray. On the other hand, Abiy Ahmed has strengthened his position considerably in Ethiopia in recent weeks, because he has taken the lead and made it clear that the TPLF will not gain power in Ethiopia. What few people know in Norway is that many from Tigray also distance themselves from TPLF. One of them is Defense Minister Abraham Belay, who is said to be one of Abiy Ahmed's closest confidants in the government.

But a war has no winners, only losers. If the acts of war cease, it can hopefully lead to political dialogue with groups that feel wronged, cowed and politically neglected. This was Abiy's most important election promise when he was elected Ethiopia's leader in 2018.

Such a dialogue requires a strong political will on the part of all parties to find inclusive solutions. Not least for the Tigray population who have been subjected to abuse, hunger and heavy losses. This is an area where non-profit organizations, churches and mosques can contribute.

The most important role of the western countries must be to contribute constructively to this happening.

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