People of conscience in Africa and around the world need to amplify the hushed whispers of African leaders about the blatant patronization with which they are judged, writes Yonas Biru.
By Yonas Biru, January 6, 2022
No other Nobel Peace Prize winner in recent memory has endured the wrath of the international media, the fury of global think tanks, and the scolding of UN, EU, and US officials as much as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed.
The Washington Post describes the decision to bestow the Peace Prize on him as “the tarnishing of the world’s most famous prize.” CNN wonders how the world fell for a “global pariah.” The Guardian has upped the ante, demanding the Nobel Committee “should resign over the atrocities in Tigray,” which PM Ahmed has allegedly committed.
Think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the National Interest Center have painted the PM as a “Nobel Peace Prize embarrassment.” The World Peace Foundation accuses him of “using starvation as a weapon of war.” A UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs states: “there is no doubt that sexual violence is used as weapon of war.” Another unnamed UN official claims PM Ahmed is using hunger to “starve the population either into subjugation or out of existence.”
Feeding on such frenzy, US Senator Patrick Leahy declares “crimes against humanity, and genocide are occurring in Tigray.” The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has spoken out about an ongoing “ethnic cleansing” and the EU envoy has accused PM Abiy of having a plan “to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years.”
A joint investigative report by the UN and the Ethiopian Human Right’s Council “could not confirm deliberate or willful denial of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in Tigray or the use of starvation as a weapon of war.” Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, affirms investigators did not find evidence of possible genocide. Further, officials of the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the UN Population Fund have characterized the accusation of using rape as a weapon of war as “media hype” and “very sensationalist,” respectively. Unfortunately, the truth did not stop the US from imposing economic sanction, depriving 115 million Ethiopians of badly needed international aid.
The purpose of this article is not to defend PM Ahmed or his government. It is to address the systemic ordinariness and manifest familiarity of unjustified attacks against African leaders. The wild allegations against PM Ahmed and the resultant economic sanctions have grave consequences, chief among them undermining what the Nobel Prize Committee regards as “important reforms that give many citizens hope for a better life and a brighter future.”
The international community cannot remain oblivious to the reasons why 26 of the 28 African, Asian, and Middle Eastern developing countries either rejected or abstained when the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution to investigate Ethiopia for serious human rights violations. Considering that senior UN and EU officials have been involved in hyperbolic attacks against PM Ahmed, the investigative commission that the UN is assembling at the request of the EU does not inspire confidence.
The nature and texture of the scathing criticisms often reserved for African leaders demand extraordinary measures. The UN and the African Union (AU) must jointly appoint a commission to investigate the validity (or lack thereof) of the allegations. If the UN rejects the request, the AU must do it alone.
Should the outcome lend credibility to the allegations of genocide, or deliberate use of rape and starvation as tools of war, the PM must dutifully relinquish the Nobel Peace Prize, extend public apologies, and face the consequences. If the investigation proves the allegations false, those who orchestrated them need to be held accountable.
The Cause and Conduct of the War
The conflict between PM Ahmed’s government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is due partly to a conflict in economic development ideology. Under TPLF’s 27-year reign, Ethiopia followed a socialist economic system. Jeffrey Feltman, President Biden’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, notes that PM Ahmed ushered in “ambitious economic and democratic reform programs and [took a] decisive shift away from discredited Marxist theories.”
A renowned Oxford economic development professor, writing in The Financial Times, suggests that PM Ahmed’s reforms can “ignite economic change” across Africa. Over a dozen international media such as France24 echo the same sentiment – that his reforms “have the potential to upend his country’s society and reshape dynamics beyond its borders.”
Unfortunately, the TPLF “refused to move one iota” from its socialist ideology of the “developmental state.” The motive for its war has been “to overthrow the prime minister” and regain its position as “the arbiters of power and money.” Its control over the “developmental state” for 27 years was the source of riches that allowed its leaders siphon off US$30 billion through illicit transfer to offshore banks.
A joint investigation by the UN and the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRC) have found: “The November 3 attack was only the first act in a well-orchestrated and rehearsed plan to usher in the disintegration of Ethiopia and replace it with a number of small independent or quasi-independent states over which Greater Tigray would reign supreme.”
A TPLF official, Sekoture Getachew, describes the war his party launched as a “lightning strike” to “cause a disarray [and] demobilize the federal forces.” He adds: “We brought the entire northern command consisting of 30,000 soldiers and 70 to 80 percent of the nation’s military firepower under our control, barring a few pockets of resistance.” Soon after, the acting president of the Tigray State, Debretsion Gebremichael, declares PM Ahmed’s government “illegitimate” and demands to dissolve it.
Inexplicably, Mark Andrew Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (2017-2021), accuses PM Ahmed of “picking a fight” and “sending Federal troops to Tigray in an attempt to resolve what was essentially a political argument.” For reasons only a truly independent investigation can attempt to sort out, the UN, EU, and US along with European and American media have formed a united front to stand with TPLF, a party the US has previously labelled as a tier III terrorist organization.
The Nobel Peace Prize Conundrum
PM Abiy’s acceptance speech at the Nobel Prize award ceremony exclusively focused on two themes: The violence of war as the epitome of hell, and the eminence of peace as a foundational tenet of security and prosperity. As fate would have it, a fear that he expressed in his acceptance speech that “the dream of peace has often turned into a nightmare of war” came to pass on November 3, 2020.
The PM’s choice was between two nightmares: Surrendering to TPLF or launching a military campaign against the TPLF. Surrendering to TPLF was unthinkable because the PM was bound by oath to defend the constitutional order from domestic and foreign enemies. Surrendering would also mean betraying Ethiopians who went through a three-year national uprising to get rid of the TPLF and reversing the ongoing political and economic reforms. The only choice available to him legally and morally was enforcing the constitutional order.
The International Double Standard
The conundrum in PM Abiy’s desire for peace and obligation for war is best articulated in President Barack Obama’s 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. His speech was delivered nine days after he ordered a surge of 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan to reverse the Taliban’s momentum. As President Obama asserts:
There will be times when nations will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified… Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “There were ten times more air strikes in the covert war on terror during President Obama’s presidency than under his predecessor, President George W. Bush.” The cost of the war in Afghanistan was enormous. At least 31,000 Afghan civilians were killed and well over 40,000 civilians were seriously injured on President Obama’s watch. Moreover, over four million Afghans were either internally displace or forced to leave their country of birth as refugees.
In retrospect, considering the international media’s vicious attack against PM Ahmed, one wonders about the conspicuous absence of a flash-mob of international media to throw a cascade of hyperbole at the US Nobel Laureate. There was no mention of the “tarnishing” of the Peace Prize. Nor was there a demand for the Nobel Committee to resign.
The international media’s treatment of President Obama was not an exception. History is replete with wars that the international media justified as necessary to protect the sovereignty and integrity of nations. America’s war in Kuwait, Great Britain’s war in Falkland Islands, and the more recent law enforcement campaign against the January 6 insurgents in the US are cases that stand out in stark contrast to how the international media treated Ethiopia’s war to protect its sovereignty and integrity.
War Atrocities and Humanitarian Crisis
No one denies the humanitarian crisis that the war has wrought. A joint UN and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission report has found all combatants committed “serious abuses and violations of human rights.”
Yet, as the record shows, the TPLF has shown little interest in averting the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia. In June 2021, PM Ahmed declared a unilateral ceasefire due primarily to the worsening humanitarian conditions. Sadly, the TPLF rejected it as a “a sick joke” and launched coordinated offensives on three fronts outside of its regional state. Three fronts, in the Amhara and Afar regions, were crucial areas for humanitarian access. Speaking to Reuters, the TPLF’s spokesman, Getachew Reda, notes that his Front’s “primary focus is to degrade enemy fighting capabilities.”
It is also open knowledge that TPLF forces looted “USAID warehouses” and “emergency UN food supplies at gunpoint.” While the world appeals to find a way to send food to 400,000 Tigrayans facing the risk of starvation, TPLF was ransacking humanitarian food warehouses to feed its 800,000 strong militia.
Further, on September 16, 2021, a UN tweet decried “Only 38 out of 466 [UN aid] trucks that entered #Tigray returned.” TPLF uses the trucks to transport its militia and military equipment. Unfortunately, the international public pressures PM Ahmed to allow more trucks into Tigray, which will end up being hijacked for military use, including for transporting child soldiers to their imminent death serving in human waves.
False Accusations Crowding Out the Truth
Three issues cause concern as to how verifiably false allegations crowded out the truth and became the prominent international narratives. First, there is the written statement by a former US Assistant Secretary of State, in which he “warned that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is financing some journalists who are making the Tigray situation look much worse than it is.”
Second, senior officials of the UN, EU and US have used their power of international influence to peddle verifiably false claims. Tedros Adhanom, the World Health Organization Director-General, a former high-level officer of the TPLF, regularly retweeted wild accusations of genocide and rape as a weapon. Even worse he posted a picture of child Tigrayan soldiers as young as 10 on his twitter handle with the caption “pride.” The tweet is still there but the picture has been removed.
Third, two UN whistleblowers, who happened to be of African origin, who exposed “some top U.N. officials globally sympathize with [TPLF] forces,” have been put under administrative leave and face termination.
A Credible Independent Investigation is Indispensable
Much as there is a need to establish accountability for the war and alleged atrocities committed by all sides, there must also be accountability for fabricated attacks by international officials. If left unchecked, the manifested international double standard with which African leaders are judged can distort the political power calculus in Africa in favour of rogue parties who use terror as a tool to win political concession. This will forever condemn African nations to live in perpetual conflict and poverty.
People of conscience in Africa and around the world need to amplify the hushed whispers of African leaders about the blatant patronization with which they are judged. A global moral voice needs to emerge from a chorus of voices to redeem or rescind PM Ahmed’s Nobel Peace Prize. This is very crucial not only to redeem his reputation and protect his transformative reforms, but also to free African nations from unwarranted international condemnation. Anything less would be being complacent and complicit with the all-too-familiar takedown of promising African leaders.
Yonas Biru worked for the World Bank for nearly two decades. In the last seven years of his tenure, he served as the Deputy Global Manager of the International Comparison Program (ICP). He has served as the interim chair of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Independent Economic Advisory Council and chair of the Nile Club that advised the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.