Gondar, a city at the Northern part of Ethiopia, saw a bit of an unrest on Tuesday. According to state media, the federal-state anti-terrorism task force moved in to detain a radical member of an extremist group that is usually referred as the Committee. The group has been active in the news this year for its active campaign to land claims against a neighboring state in Ethiopia. The government task force says the group’s activities included recent murders in at least three nearby localities.
When the task force moved in, the suspect and his right wing militia, sort of, opened fire and killed three law enforcement officers. The situation then escalated to include burning of a couple of small businesses owned by people from another ethnic group and a public transport bus. The situation has since deescalated even though it resulted in marring a rather peaceful and tolerant city.
What’s most depressing is that we had seen it coming. The state government has let the group spew charged rhetoric and on the ground incitement for months before putting a break to it. The VOA Amharic service, which is owned by the State Department has also been instrumental in the group’s activities. The role of VOA was so much apparent that I felt compelled to write a piece asking for caution. That call was not heeded by all including the State Department and unfortunately all my fears turned out to come true. Let me provide a background for what happened this week.
The diaspora right wing opposition have attempted to do something symbolic or significant for years with no avail. According to several reports of UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, the right wing groups were provided training, material support, and leadership from “Eritrean officials and diplomatic personnel” to destabilize Ethiopia. They however, were foiled by Ethiopian security apparatus.
This year was a game changer as Ethiopia was rocked with unrest in several localities in the regional state of Oromia. It was after their attempt to co-opt and even hijack the pro-federalism protests in ended in failure that the diaspora based far right groups came up with a new plan for unrest. The new plan, they hoped, will give them a rallying cause in what they see as their ideological base and also pile on Ethiopia's troubles.
They resuscitated a long settled issue and intensified their shrill using all possible media opportunities. The issue is off course a piece of land they claim was taken away from “their region” by Tigrai state a quarter of a century ago. I know, I know…It sounds absurd for a far right groups who trumpet ultra-nationalist “Ethiopianism” mantra to care this much for regional ethnic borders. Their placards never convinced anyone anyway.
These groups organized a committee of 20 guys at Gondar city (neighboring Tigrai state) and made two public meetings endorsed by the city mayor in which they managed to gather a maximum of 300 people. The participants, the organizers and the funders were not even the dwellers of the Wolkait area and chose the neighboring city as a base, probably due to the absence of a four-star hotel in Wolkait.
The Voice of America, run by State Department for (don't laugh) “promotion of democracy” was helpful in this campaign. The station, in unprecedented fashion, prepared a special coverage from a temporary studio in Gondar and conducted a lopsided interview with the committee. The coverage introduced a narrative that the people of Wolkait (an area found in Tigrai) are supposedly claiming “they are not Tigrean even though the speak Tigrigna”, their name, the villages and mounts all have Tigrigna names). The claim was bewildering for any sane person except for the far right crowd on the social media. The journalistic conduct of the VOA anchor Tizita Belachew was embarrassing for any self-respecting media that worries about its image. But then again VOA has never attempted to portray itself as fair and balanced, so no surprise there.
What followed was a war of words in the social media and a successive demonstrations of an outraged public at Wolkait. The VOA, after a torrent of criticisms from many quarters attempted to rebalance the slanted coverage by announcing “it tried and failed to contact” one Tigrean guy who posted criticism on VOA on Facebook. The anchor could have asked influential social media personalities for his address or even contact other influencers to give their idea. But then again 'balancing the coverage” was not a serious endeavor, just a mockery. After such a provocative coverage, the people of Wolkait, Tigrai continued on their marches debunking the wild claims of the diaspora far right groups and their State Department funded media. Those series of marches poured water on the fires lit by VOA and almost killed the agenda.
But the VOA wasn't going to give up easily. The station invited a series of local opposition groups and individuals for an interview in apparent attempt to keep the campaign alive. Still the diaspora groups and the VOA failed to create unrest in the area even though they managed to sow ethnic discord and raise war of words in the social media.
The VOA intensified its campaign by giving the issue significant coverage at a time when real unrests are happening in several places in Ethiopia, except in Wolkait, where the VOA is interested. The supposed “rebalancing of coverage” continued in being a mockery of epic proportions. For more than two months the VOA, instead of inviting constitutional historians and respected unbiased historians, preferred to call upon individuals who were part of the old feudal system or/and those that have no expertise in historical analysis. Even those interview weren't professionally conducted as the journalist failed to raise the questions that needed to be raised. At this point, it was fair to assume that wasn't an accident but by design.
The criticisms by many has forced the station to agree to interview one renowned historian named Gelawdios Araya which present the real historical account the VOA chose to shun up to that point. But that was too little too late to make up for the months of one-sided coverage. The ethnicity census results and ethnic maps of Ethiopia which were prepared by the previous far right “socialist” government (it claimed to follow “Ethiopian socialism”, a hybrid of non-multicultural Ethiopian-ism and Stalinism) weren't mentioned in all this coverage. No one on VOA questioned the extremist committee how come they spoke and were named in Tigrigna if they weren't Tigrean. It was like an election campaign newspaper asking its own candidate fluffy questions.
That was when I wondered what the American tax payer would say if S/he knew his/her tax dollars are going to unethical State Department radio in the business of fomenting yet another unrest in a poor African country. Especially when the country is a staunch ally of the United States in the fight against terror and one of few places where America is viewed favorably. I haven’t gotten an answer for that yet. Unfortunately, what I saw an attempt at fomenting unrest sort of materialized. And I hope this will not go unnoticed.
I had also warned the government of Ethiopia bears the responsibility for the failure to do whatever it can to protect the nation from foreign subversive propaganda. I haven’t seen it pursue any diplomatic or technological action to that effect. Hence, I want to remind it its own responsibility.