Some thoughts on how the spokespersons of the Ethiopian government make such a terrible use of their visibility

Ethiopian authorities tend to comment quite a great deal on foreign reports about Ethiopian affairs. As if they could not stand the intrusion in their national business. In addition to traditional press releases, their main mean of communicating their irritation is the weekly online briefing “A week in the Horn”, published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This briefing generally deals with political and economic events and achievements of the week, mostly with regard to Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa. From time to time it also includes an irate statement invariably denouncing “flawed methodologies and inaccuracies” from foreign observers who consistently fail to receive government’s approval. They are accused of distorting the truth and their reports are met with plain and simple denial.

Over the years I had come to think that such statements translated political short-sightedness and accounted for a quick-tempered decision-making process rather than the matured response expected from a party that has been ruling for over two decades. I also thought those statements were endemic to the EPRDF, Ethiopia’s ruling party. Recently, however, when browsing through the archives of Le Monde Diplomatique, I came across a 1973 piece reviewing Ethiopia’s achievements and challenges. The authorities at the time, under Emperor Haile Selassie, wrote back a long letter challenging each and every fact and arguing about how little the journalist had understood about the country (through “unsupported criticism” and “tall tales”). In light of this letter,  the idea that there could be some sort of continuity in responding to criticism (a mix of sarcasm and denial) that would be running beyond political affiliations, an eloquent trait of Ethiopian politics so to say, is rather valid and could be further investigated.

An entrenched loathing for HRW

The authorities’ favourite target is evidently Human Rights Watch, an international organisation which denounces human rights abuses around the world, and whom the Ethiopian government disregards altogether. Hence, HRW reports are always received with discourteous public statements and (mostly imprecise) counterclaims. When HRW published a report about the situation in the Ogaden area of the Somali Regional State in June 2008, the authorities retaliated with a commission and an item in “A week in the Horn of Africa” where they denounced hearsay and lack of sources on behalf of HRW, who had hidden its informants’ identity to protect them from retribution. Whether trying to humiliate HRW or merely pretending to demonstrate some kind of good faith, the press release further argued that none of HRW’s abuse claims are true but that the commission to the Somali region did find a case of torture in a Jijiga jail that HRW did not even document. It also argued that its commission relied on the cooperation of villagers, former ONLF cadre and NGO staffers, thereby implying that there are so little abuses that no one is wary of speaking the truth to Addis Ababa’s central government.

The organisation was yet again rebuffed soon after for having a persistent point of view about human rights abuses in the area. Thus, a press statement issued on December, 8 2008, denounced a HRW report on Somalia:

[…] it has been published so soon after Ethiopia made public a devastating and critical investigation of a Human Rights Watch report on Somali National Regional State of Ethiopia. This exposed extensive flaws in Human Rights Watch’s methodology and conclusions. It is therefore extremely disappointing to find that this report has continued an extensive use of journalistic reports, drawn virtually all of its evidence from hearsay and second-hand information gathered outside Somalia, and from the propaganda of terrorist groups, and involves nothing more first-hand than a few telephone conversations with anonymous informants. 

Surprisingly however, I believe that the organisation’s October 2013 report about Addis’ central police station of Maekelawi has not yet been acknowledged by the authorities.

Arguing against all

The Ethiopian government does not hesitate to mock its major international partners either. Hence on March 6, 2009, “A week in the Horn” plainly argued that:

The US State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report on Ethiopia, issued on February 26, makes allegations of all sorts and it is extremely difficult to refute most of these as they refer largely to conjecture and anecdote. (For the Government’s Press Statement on the Report see the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Website) The readiness of the authors of the report to level allegations at every instance is nowhere more clear than in the part of the report that deals with prison and detention center conditions. The report makes sure to paint prison conditions in the ugliest light possible. But more interestingly, the report typically alleges that, despite lack of reliable statistics that prove its allegations, “there were deaths in prison due to illness”. Unless the authors were convinced that prison inmates were somehow expected to live forever, it is only natural that such things happen not only in prisons but also in the wealthy suburbs of Addis. But the causes are, as can be expected, as diverse as one can imagine.

More recently, a piece on the current state of the Ogaden area in Martin Plaut’s blog triggered yet again a long commentary by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Now I would not want to underestimate the impact of Mr. Plaut’s blog but one could legitimately wonder if its visibility is indeed large enough so that a governing authority would feel the need to respond to such kind of news outlet too. The Ministry’s signature flair was applied anyway to counter this particular piece: lingering on little details as much as on the general content of the recriminated report, refuting everything, sentence by sentence, criticising the methodology as much as the facts themselves, while never really supporting counterclaims with sources of any kind.

Rather than demonstrating a strong analysis capacity and taking advantage of the spotlight to address the country’s issues, the authorities produce precisely the type of argumentative and cagey claims they attribute to others, looking ridiculous and drowning potentially pertinent assumptions (such as, for instance, that the ONLF might not be as representative of the Ogadeni population as they claim) in a sea of irrelevant accusations. On top of which they insert, at best, half-true statements, such as “Aid organizations operate freely as do a number of NGOs, and there are no problems in entering the region though some areas are subject to security constraints because of ONLF terrorist activity”.

The authorities’ sore spot is clearly the issue of human rights. They produce sour answers to every claim from international observers, and have made sure that their national press and human rights civil society organisations, who could be gathering first hand evidence, are properly gagged. Human rights are, however, only part of the bigger picture that is the preservation of Ethiopia’s public image as a whole. That is why when an Ethiopian Airlines plane was diverted by one of its pilot seeking asylum in Geneva in mid-February 2014, the Ethiopian Ambassador to the UK wrote a letter to the director general of the BBC to strongly urge the media company to hire more qualified security correspondents than the one who had commented and criticised the efficiency of security measures at Bole Airport (see footnote #2).

———-

1- The links to “A week in the Horn” briefings from 2008/9 are invalid–the briefings from before August 2011 appear to have been removed from the website. Their full content is available in my personal archive for review (and most probably in the MOFA’s archive department too).

2- This statement was posted on 21 Feb. 2014 on the Facebook page of the Ethiopian MOFA:

#News: Ethiopia’s ambassador to the UK points out BBC’s factually inaccurate comments on Ethiopian aircraft incident

Ethiopia’s ambassador to the UK on Tuesday (February 17) wrote to the Director General of the BBC to correct what he termed the “damaging and factually incorrect statement made by Mr. Frank Gardner (a BBC security correspondent)” regarding security issues at Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport. The security correspondent, while commenting on the recent Ethiopian Airlines incident in which a co-pilot had rerouted a plane to land at Geneva, had remarked that security was loose at Bole Airport. Ambassador Berhanu Kebede pointed out that Mr. Gardener’s statement was factually inaccurate. The Airport, he noted, has “a high reputation for its exceptional security provisions amongst international flight-safety regulatory bodies”. The Ambassador added that Bole International Airport was “periodically audited and at no time has it been found in breach of the international standards that world-leading airport service providers are required to meet”. The Ambassador emphasized that it was absurd to relate the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 702 incident, which involved a member of the flight crew, to the issue of airport security arrangements. The incident which involved no threatening activity, no weaponry, and no violence, had nothing to do with any airport security details. It could not, the Ambassador said, be viewed “as a consequence of breach of security at Addis Ababa Airport.” It was, in fact, quite clearly, an “isolated case of failure of responsibility on the part of a single crew member who was in charge of the aircraft”. The Ambassador’s letter urged the BBC to balance “Mr. Gardner’s prejudicial testament by voices better qualified to render expert opinion on such matters”.

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