What Twitter hashtags reveal about Ethiopians isn’t good

Thursday March 26th 2020

By Zecharias Zelalem.

Ethiopia’s citizens throughout history have proven robust and resilient when it comes to countering state abuse and authoritarianism. The Mengistu Haile Mariam led regime behind the military siege that arguably contributed to many of the 1984 famine deaths for instance, was overthrown a few years afterwards by a coalition of rebel armies. Peasant rebellions against the imperial “blue blooded” aristocracy and student uprisings are part and parcel of often brutal chapters of Ethiopian history, often defined by struggles against tyranny or erasure. In retrospect, it can be fairly described as a country with a history of birthing selfless, fearless visionaries devoted to undoing the damage done by the power wielding elite. In this day and age meanwhile, the sword has been traded by the pen and tech savvy men and women have used the technological tools at their disposal to mobilize the justice seekers and freedom lovers to put a collective foot down against the establishing in Ethiopia of what has for many years been described as a police state.

In the 2010s, social media platforms Facebook and Twitter were used to great effect to shake the foundations of dictatorships across the Middle East and Africa. The post communist era Ethiopia which to western observers appeared so promising that former US President Bill Clinton hailed then newly installed Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as being among Africa’s promising “new generation of leaders,” never held a candle to those rosy portrayals. By the late 2010s, Ethiopia’s rulers were in the eyes of most Ethiopians, a group of corrupt former rebels who shared a lack of vision and a decadent gluttony for ill begotten wealth. For years they thrived in the lack of accountability, the lack of a free press and beneath the coated protective layer of supporters and paid propagandists who used as pretext, the party’s contributions to the overthrow of the preceding dictatorship as justification for their devouring the country’s resources by its ruling clique. But journalists, activists and opposition politicians and selfless citizens paid a great sacrifice to ensure that the leadership which had monopolized the state’s assets, wouldn’t do the same to the flow of information. The frustration, the fury and the facts gave the masses the impetus. It resulted in mass protests against the establishment, which started in the country’s Oromo region before igniting similar protests in the Amhara region. The once impenetrable defenses of the authoritarian regime saw its trenches broken on both fronts. The fallout saw subsequent rebellions in the Konzo zone, the Somali region and elsewhere in Ethiopia. The downfall of Ethiopia’s EPRDF government is accredited to those who refused to keel or submit, in line with the legacy of previous generations of Ethiopians.

In the era of reform ushered in by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018, the voices condemning state abuses and injustice still reverberate among Ethiopians on social media. Perhaps owing to the higher standards expected of government by the citizens still reeling from almost three decades of autocratic rule, people appear unwilling to compromise on basic freedoms and rightfully so. Despite this, the calls for compassion and humanity are often revealing the fractured nature of Ethiopian society as a whole.

Modern Ethiopia’s territorial sovereignty was safeguarded by still resistance to attempts by Italy to colonize it, but the border’s demarcated limits were drawn up years prior by the victors of brutal conquest amongst Ethiopia’s various indigenous kingdoms and tribes. Today, Ethiopia’s 100 million citizens are descendants of the warriors of opposing entities during the country’s age of conquest, including both those who shared in the spoils of victory, and those who were defeated, brutalized and reduced to serfs on land once ruled by their forefathers.

As a result, there is no consensus amongst Ethiopians for how the country’s “founding fathers” would be portrayed. Emperors and army chiefs are revered as heroes by some and loathed as bloodthirsty killers by others. The country remains deeply divided when it comes to historical figures of yesteryear, and this division is often greatly reflected in the political ideologies adhered to by Ethiopians today.

About a week ago, Ethiopians on Twitter and Facebook mobilized to campaign for the restoration of phone and internet services to parts of Oromia in the country’s west. The federal government has cut off much of the Wollega region’s access to these vital services it says because it needs to do so to help its army in operations to wipe out armed rebels of the Oromo Liberation Army which operates in the area. But critics, including international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch say that in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet and phone shutdown have cut off people from the reliable flow of information. At this time, this flow of information they argue, is crucial in helping the nearly thirteen million people affected contribute to protecting their communities from the coronavirus.

Widely circulated poster accompanying many of the social media posts calling for an end to the state’s blocking of internet and phone services in western Ethiopia

The Ethiopian government hasn’t officially responded to the demands by activists, but a party official openly admonished the campaign urging the government to restore these services to western Ethiopia, calling it an attempt to breath new life into the armed OLA militants. Internet outages were commonplace during the last few years of EPRDF rule, often used to suppress news of government crackdowns and state killings. Old habits appear to die hard as the current government is accused of doing exactly that as army atrocities have been reported throughout 2019 in areas affected by the internet outages.

The calls for the restoration of communication services to the region are getting increasingly vocal and coverage by both local and international media has amplified the campaign. The bulk of the social media posts linked to the campaign are for now traceable under the hashtag #ReconnectTheWestETH. It is far from being the first Ethiopian social media campaign calling for the government to restore internet services in Ethiopia. However, this time round, the demographic of Ethiopian Twitter users choosing to join the campaign and that of those who have selected not to, can be broken down on political, ethnic and ideological lines.

There may be nothing outwardly political about this most recent of Ethiopian social media based activism campaigns. However, it is quite noticeable that upon careful observation, the near entirety of the several hundred or so Ethiopians on Twitter who have tweeted under the hashtag, are Ethiopians of ethnic Oromo ancestry. It is virtually the same on Facebook. Non-Oromo Ethiopian voices calling for the government to restore internet services to Wollega are few and far between. There may be countless external factors which contributed to the lack of non Oromo voices in this campaign, such as the fact that the campaign and those who launched it are primarily Oromos with Oromo followings. But after all the press coverage by the likes of prominent American media outlets such as the New York Times and the Voice of America it’s unlikely that the mass mobilizing behind #ReconnectTheWestETH escaped the newsfeeds of prominent Ethiopian activists, politicians, bloggers and humanitarians who are often the quickest to offer commentary on anything trending in Ethiopian circles. So why so muted this time round?

There can be no rebuttal to the argument that the restoration of internet and phone services to western Ethiopia would aid greatly in keeping people informed about the spread of the deadly virus. Ruling party official Taye Dendea’s assertion that state run television and radio are sufficient is in this day and age, an insult. The inability to communicate by phone has hindered preventive efforts and there are news reports of a reported lack of awareness or knowledge about the coronavirus in rural areas affected by the outages. As mentioned, it’s pretty much rebuttal proof. Nevertheless, there’s a lack of ethnic diversity amongst Ethiopians echoing the calls and it is linked to the historical differences amongst Ethiopians cited above.

Ethiopians who saw their cultural and linguistic rights trampled upon by the winners in Ethiopia’s nineteenth century age of empires, are today also at the forefront for calls to properly recognize separate and not necessarily all-inclusive ethnic entities. The Oromo, whose language was deemed unfit for academic instruction by Ethiopian monarchs of the twentieth century are principle among them. As a result, there are plenty of Ethiopians of Oromo and other peoples hailing from subgroups and cultures who survived institutional efforts to hasten their extinction, who are less than eager, or cautious about openly embracing a collective Ethiopian identity. Many will choose to self identify with their ethnic or religious affiliation.

On the other hand, Ethiopians whose language and cultures never risked extinction aren’t privy to these sentiments and thus have no qualms with embracing a national identity which in history has never threatened their personal heritage. As a result, there is oftentimes a lack of understanding or acceptance for the reluctance of others to share the same zeal for the common identity. Although the Ethiopian identity and all it encompasses has arguably morphed from its exclusive nature over the past thirty years, for some the inter-generational trauma remains. As such, depending on one’s lineage, ethnicity, family history and political affiliations, one’s openness to embrace the symbols that on paper bind Ethiopians together, varies greatly.

For those who are unable to comprehend the reluctance of fellow citizens to adopt a single common identity, the biggest roadblock preventing them from allying themselves with those who launched the #ReconnectTheWestETH social media campaign, is the fact that it would align themselves with supporters of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). The biggest qualm isn’t the destructive role the groups may have in the ongoing conflict in Wollega, but the fact that neither group subscribes to a belief in a single Ethiopian identity. The single biggest threat to not only an ideology, but an entire mentality, are various organizations espousing as a creed the promotion of one’s cultural or ethnic identity. In the eyes of many of those silent this week, no matter how justified the cause of restoring internet to millions of people who have had the clock turned back a good decade or so is, if it could potentially score points for an organization that doesn’t adhere to what is called “Etyopiawinet,” then it isn’t worth backing. Others are likely silenced due to their support of either the ruling Ethiopian Prosperity Party or their admiration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the bias fuels their ability to sidestep supporting a cause which would serve the common good.

As disappointing as this is, those who are screaming into the rhetorical bullhorns today wouldn’t be fit to cast a stone at those who remain silent today. Unfortunately, the humanity of too many Ethiopians on social media is strictly expressed within the political dogma of whatever camp they may belong in. Many of those campaigning today were on the social media periphery only months ago, when like today, Ethiopians had arisen demanding action from the government for similarly humanitarian based reasons.

The kidnapping of some 17 students, mostly girls, of ethnic Amhara ancestry from the Dembi Dollo University in Wollega, provoked outrage and calls for their freedom when the BBC broke the story this past January. The heartbreaking pleas of the families, all of whom hailed from mostly farming communities in rural parts of the Amhara region, were gut wrenching to listen to. Months after their abductions, there was no trace of the missing students and it became increasingly clear that both the federal and Oromia regional governments as well as the Dembi Dollo University administration were unwilling to address the plethora of complaints and accusations of neglect, dillydallying and of covering up the truth behind the kidnappings.

Government officials were caught on record lying to journalists, telling them that the students had been found and were back in school, others went as far as denying that a kidnapping had taken place. The Prime Minister’s Press Secretary Nigusu Tilahun went as far as delivering a statement on state media, in which he claimed that the number of kidnapped students was actually 27, and that 21 of them had been freed after the intervention of government negotiators. Evidently, none of this was true and the students are yet to be found. The anguish of their parents continues.

Poster used as part of the social media campaign calling for the releases of the 17 kidnapped Dembi Dollo University students

On social media, the campaigns were under a number of hashtags, including #BringBackOurGirls and #BringBackOurStudents. International media picked up the story as parallels were drawn between their plight and that of the Chibok girls, kidnapped by Boko Haram militants back in 2014. Amnesty International was among the human rights organizations that lobbied for the Ethiopian government to get to the bottom of the affair. Protesters in the Amhara region held demonstrations in the Amhara capital Bahir Dar and a number of other towns across the region. At all the rallies, protesters chanted slogans which slammed the government for its misleading statements and all-round lack of sincerity in delivering Ethiopians any sort of closure. It has now been over a hundred days since the students disappeared.

Elsewhere, it would be inconceivable that the kidnapping of innocent youths could divide people on political lines but it became rather evident almost immediately that amongst Ethiopians, it had done exactly that. As the plight of Amhara students in no way conflicts with the ideologues behind the promotion of the single common Ethiopian identity, adherents from Ethiopia’s right wing camp were front and center in using the hashtag to alert the world to the disappearance of the students. There were very few Oromo voices in the campaign and renowned Oromo figures and activists also refrained from joining the chorus of calls for accountability over the abductions.

What likely ruled out participating in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign was the fact that the culprits behind the abductions were at the very least, closely affiliated to Oromo Liberation Army militants in the area. In several communiques released to the public, OLA militants inadvertently admitted to being in control of the area surrounding the Sudi village outside Dembi Dollo where the students were kidnapped, as the abductions took place. The OLA presence in Wollega has been criticized by residents, even long time supporters of the OLF as aimless. The group doesn’t enjoy unanimous support among the Oromo. Like most Ethiopians, they don’t have the stomach for war, with the memories of recent wars and the brutal crackdown that killed over a thousand protesters during the Oromo uprisings of 2016-17.

Many Ethiopians don’t differentiate between the OLA militias formed two or three years ago and the half century old OLF organization seeped in history and folklore. As a result, a large number of Oromo social media personalities instead preferred to highlight inconsistencies with the claims. Conspiracy theories about the kidnappings being orchestrated by the government or about them not having taken place at all were pandered to. But many wouldn’t get on board due to an unwillingness to concede that an organization operating under the name of the Oromo was in the wrong. Others wouldn’t want to chastise the many ethnic Oromo members of both the regional and federal government and the Dembi Dollo University administration who have been on the receiving end of backlash for their questionable conduct throughout the saga. It would be deemed throwing an ally under the bus. All in all, joining the crusade against the yet to be identified kidnappers would risk intensifying scathing attacks against individuals across government and the forests of Wollega who subscribe to the same ideologies and who are united in their belief in the existence of separate ethnic based identities. The residue of the attack would sting too close to home. The lives of 17 innocent students from rural Amhara communities wouldn’t be worth the gamble.

What these two Twitter hashtags reveal about Ethiopians above all is that far too many of the loyalists of various political entities or camps exhibit a common hypocrisy when it comes to the sentiment of humanity. Humanity is severely restricted and made to adhere to guidelines that will ensure that it can be expressed so long as it doesn’t open the door for opposing camps to draw blood in the never ending Ethiopian political squabble. This is demonstrated at all levels, from lowly social media trolls to prominent party leaders.

For instance, newspaper columnist and popular activist turned politician Eskinder Nega is a prominent figure of the right-wing camp and was among those who campaigned vigorously to amplify the call for action with regards to the abducted students. He used his social media platforms for the cause, posting a picture of himself holding up a paper with a printed message calling on the government to provide answers. Predictably, let alone express solidarity, he hasn’t made any mention of the currently trending campaign calling on the government to restore internet and phone services across western Ethiopia.

Across the pond, renowned Oromo activist and Oromo Federalist Congress party member Jawar Mohammed directed his post to Ethiopian President Sahlework Zewde, asking her to push the government reconnect western Ethiopia to the world. It was among several posts he has published via his Facebook account, in support of the campaign. Jawar’s Facebook account is the most influential Ethiopian Facebook account with almost two million followers. His Twitter presence isn’t too shabby either, he can brag having over 166k followers there. He is yet to issue a single message expressing compassion for the kidnapped students or their parents. Jawar has been criticized for his editorial decisions while at the helm of the Oromia Media Network (OMN) as throughout 2019, OMN sidestepped reporting on the outbreak of military hostilities between the OLA and the Ethiopian army, avoiding not only all mentions of hostilities in the region, but even censoring the arrest of an OMN journalist Jaladin Abdulqadir despite his being detained for months. What’s not up for debate is his being of the same ilk as other Ethiopians whose activism or campaigning is demarcated along ideological lines.

It is incredibly worrisome that the influential crème de la crème of Ethiopian social media can have their arm twisted into turning a blind eye to atrocities, state incompetence or general wrongdoing if it’s deemed suitable for a political cause. The cultural stubbornness and inability to compromise on so called core principles despite a clear willingness to compromise on humanity shows what’s lacking ahead of Ethiopia’s general elections. A lack of vision. With an inability to see beyond personal leanings, it is incredibly difficult to picture how the jostling politicians would be able to offer a compassionate ear to Ethiopians of diverse mentalities, philosophies, hopes and aspirations if there’s a stringent determination not to call out parties, individuals, allies from one’s own constituency when that person is in the wrong.

The last two major trending hashtag campaigns revealed that the partisan divide is deep and that it has eroded humanity to the effect that one can only “love thy neighbour,” after verifying that the neighbour is a card carrying member of the same political organization. This piece ends on with same inquisitive note that this writer, left crestfallen by the sorry state of our politics has in the past used to end analyticals dissecting hidden yet obvious cracks in society: where is Ethiopia’s true “unity” camp?

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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