The past two months were high time for Anti-Ethiopian groups. The El Nino drought and the unrest in Oromia state were a rare opportunity for diaspora based groups that always wished and tried to violent overthrow of the constitutional order. However, they were denied of options except holding photo-ops in Eritrea. This year was different, it was like a dream come true, for them off course.

The El Nino drought affected nearly 20% of the population, an economic slowdown that creates fertile ground for discontent. The drought and its handling didn’t generate enough trouble for them to utilize as was seen from the level of their activities. But then comes the unrest in Oromia. The unrest, which was the result of an exceptional bad governance in the state, ended up in the people airing their grievances. The diaspora based far right groups were reluctant at first on whether to back the protests, after all the protesters are the antithesis to everything they stand for. As months went by the attempted to co-opt and even hijack the Oromia protests, only to end in failure.

It was then that they came up with a new unrest plan that will give them a cause to rally 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 trumpets ultra-nationalist “Ethiopianism” mantra to cry this hard for regional ethnic borders. But their Ethiopianism placards never fooled anyone anyway.

Returning to the background story, 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 instrumental 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”, (FYI their name, the villages and even the mounts all bear 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.

Map - Nationalities in northern Ethiopia [published by Derg regime]
Map – Nationalities in northern Ethiopia [Derg regime]

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 re-balance 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 asked local opposition groups for a comment. The opposition coalition MEDREK, in which a “Tigrean” opposition party named ARENA is a member, responded favorably. The coalition asked for “a peaceful resolution of the identity question”, a seemingly harmless response with a tacit endorsement of the VOA’s claim of existence “an identity question” and “an unrest” on the ground that led MEDREK (ARENA) to ask for “peaceful resolution”.

That statement drew an ire from Tigreans of different political orientations on social media. Arena, probable with the hope of getting some of the huge diaspora funds going to local opposition parties, doubled down on its statement by announcing its rejection of the flag of the federal republic in favor of the old Unitarian flag. That was, even though insignificant, a success for the diaspora far-right groups. But so far, the diaspora groups and the VOA failed to create unrest in the area even though they managed to raise ethnic discord and war of words in the social media. They however succeeded in diverting attention from people protesting at bad governance in Oromia state, get some attention to themselves.

The VOA intensified its campaign by keeping the issue significant coverage at a time when real troubles are happening in several places in Ethiopia, except in Wolkait, where the VOA is interested. The supposed “re-balancing 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 feudalism and have no education in historical analysis. Even they weren’t given professional interviews in which the journalist is supposed to raise the questions that need to be raised. At this point, it’s fair to assume that wasn’t an accident but by design.

The criticisms on the station has forced to allow one renowned historian named Gelawdios Araya to present the real historical account the VOA chose to shun. 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 Ethiopianism and Stalinism) weren’t mentioned in all this coverage.

No one on VOA questioned the phony 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. I wonder what the American tax payer say if it 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 the America is viewed favorably.

The government of Ethiopia, however, knows what is being cooked and have a responsibility of protecting the nation from foreign subversive propaganda. It bears the responsibility for the failure to do that.


Fetsum Berhane is an Ethiopian resident, economist researcher and a blogger on HornAffairs.

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