TPLF and Egypt PR campaign not sophisticated but it is causing a significant harm to Ethiopia which will have a serious repercussions. The situation is triggering a petition campaign to bring the matter to the attention of Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed : “PR is a Matter of National Emergency for Ethiopia”
Ethiopia’s public relation gap is triggering a petition to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. A US-based Ethiopian Economist who worked for the World Bank, Yonas Biru, is one of the concerned Ethiopians spearheading the action.
In the write-up for the petition, he makes the point that “Egypt’s and TPLF’s international public relations (PR) campaign against Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed whom they are brilliantly using as a proxy to attack Ethiopia has reached a critical mass and is gathering energy and power.”
But that is not explained in terms of sophistication. The reason is located somewhere else.
Furthermore, while it is indicated that “the coordinated international PR attack has very little (if any) chance of forcing Ethiopia to concede to either Egypt’s, Sudan’s or TPLF’s demands,” it could have significant harm for Ethiopia in four different areas. And that is the very reason that organizers of the petition think that Ethiopia should take PR gaps as a matter of national security. To that end, it makes four recommendations to redress the challenge. The full text of the write-up is provided below :
Petition to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed
To Address Ethiopia’s Public Relations Gap As a Matter of National Emergency
Prepared by Yonas Biru, PhD
Egypt’s and TPLF’s international public relations (PR) campaign against Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed whom they are brilliantly using as a proxy to attack Ethiopia has reached a critical mass and is gathering energy and power. Their campaigns are not peculiarly sophisticated. As far as PR sophistication goes, their efforts can be described as a run-of-the-mill campaign on the bottom half of the totem pole. Nonetheless, they are winning because Ethiopia has willfully forfeited the game.
Recently, Sudan has joined the “whack-the-mole” operation against Ethiopia. The attacks come in cascades, spirals and runs as Egypt, TPLF and Sudan are strengthened by, and feeding into, each other’s efforts. The coordinated international PR attack has very little (if any) chance of forcing Ethiopia to concede to either Egypt’s, Sudan’s or TPLF’s demands. The damage will be in the nation’s and the PM’s brand. As explained below, if left unanswered in a systemic and aggressive manner, the damage to our nation can be significant in four different areas.
To be clear, the proposed PR offensive for Ethiopia is not about a counter propaganda campaign. Most successful PR campaigns are those who present the truth in full context, acknowledge wrongdoings where appropriate, provide a path for reconciliation, frame the government’s domestic and international public diplomacy agenda, articulate the narratives and ensure their speedy implementation. The petition provides four specific recommendations not only to defuse the coordinated attacks against Ethiopia, but also to shift Ethiopia’s posture from defense to offense in short order.
Where Ethiopia Failed vis-à-vis Egypt
In substance, the difference between Ethiopia’s and Egypt’s positions on the Nile River pertains to legal rights to an equitable and reasonable share of the Blue Nile waters and the management of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Ethiopia is on equally solid grounds whether the focus of contention is on water-sharing or dam management. In deciding which option to focus on, it should concern itself with two issues: which option is more amenable to develop an effective PR strategy and which one brings Sudan onto Ethiopia’s side. Ethiopia did neither. It ended up following a negotiation strategy that played into the hands of Egypt. This allowed Egypt to spin a non-issue into an existential threat to its existence and a matter of concern for global security.
To help Ethiopia in its international public diplomacy, an Ethiopian Diaspora and Local Experts Task Force conducted a study that showed Ethiopia would lose $41.7 Billion if the filling of the GERD is delayed by five years. It is not hard to imagine what Ethiopia’s loss would be if Egypt prevailed to delay the filling of the dam by as much as 21 years as is demanded. No international organization or bilateral government can defend a ridiculous proposition to force Ethiopia whose GDP (PPP) per capita, according to the World Bank database, is 13% of that of Egypt to delay its development by 21 years so Egypt’s development will not be affected. The Ethiopian government failed to use the study as part of its international PR arsenal. Three of the eight Taskforce members (the writer of this article who served as Chair of the Task Force, Professors Lemma Woldesenbet and professor Tadele Ferede) ended up being members of the PM’s Independent Economic Advisory Council.
Where Ethiopia Failed vis-à-vis TPLF
When the US invaded Iraq, it launched a two-pronged war: On the military and PR fronts. The PR front was critical in mobilizing international support. TPLF has been on a PR spree before, during and after the war. True, Ethiopia was forced to defend itself from TPLF’s war. Unfortunately, its focus was entirely on the military front. PR seemed an afterthought and haphazard at best. This is true especially during the first three months. As this writer has noted in a recent Ethiopian Herald opinion piece, “In the Ethiopian War the West Sides with a Terrorist Group,” it is unimaginable that we are losing the international PR to a terrorist group. The gap in Ethiopia’s PR has also allowed TPLF, the international media and the diplomatic community to champion Jawar Mohammed as a political prisoner rather than as a criminal suspect.
Why are TPLF and Egypt targeting the Prime Minister?
Egypt and TPLF are craftily using the ethnic card. Attacking Ethiopia as a country can unite the people. But attacking the Prime Minister (an Oromo) will resonate with certain tribal parties in Ethiopia. That is why we see such headlines in international media as “Nobel Peace Prize Winner to Belligerent Warmaker;” “From peace prize to civil war in a year;” and “Ethiopia’s prime minister trades his Nobel Peace Prize for civil war.” All this despite TPLF’s public admission that it started the war.
As noted above, the coordinated international PR attack has very little (if any) chance of forcing Ethiopia to concede to either Egypt’s, Sudan’s or TPLF’s demands. The damage will be in the nation’s and the PM’s political brand. If left unanswered, it can have incalculable negative impacts in four different areas.
First, During the first two years of his term, PM Abiy was the darling of the West that was anxious to show off his bold leadership reform agenda as a model for the rest of Africa. Western analysts piled on accolades for his “path for prosperity” whose success “could ignite economic change through emulation equivalent to South Korea’s influence on Asia in the 1970s” The young PM elbowed out Rwanda and Kenya to capture the most coveted position of Africa’s development model. The two nations now see a path to reclaiming their position as the Ethiopian PM is portrayed as a villain in Western media. Their recent anti-Ethiopia moves are partly influenced by the calculus of regional leadership.
Second, some nations may cut part of their development aid to Ethiopia. It is very unlikely to see a significant decrease in international aid because Ethiopia is too important a geopolitical real estate for the West to abandon her, knowing China and Russia are eagerly hoping for such outcome to expand their sphere of influence in a key geopolitical area. But there is a potential risk of losing some aid or forgoing potential new resources. Negative international media creates undue public and political pressure on Ethiopia’s bilateral and international partners to impose sanctions, including blocking or freezing foreign aid.
Third, there is a risk of significant decline in foreign direct investment. International investors are not keen to invest in a country that is being bombarded as a perpetrator of genocide and mass rape in major international newspapers and magazines, including the Economist, Washington Post and New York Times.
Fourth, the most negative outcome is an emboldened local opposition that capitalizes on the nation’s perceived international weakness. TPLF was all but destroyed militarily. Its efforts are now focused on resuscitating itself, drawing its energy from the oxygen it gets from international intervention. This in turn is giving the light that shines a sliver of hope to the remnants of TPLF in Tigray and reviving their demolished psychology. Dr. Merera Gudina’s recent announcement that his party will not take part in the upcoming national elections is part of the international narrative that the democratic reform has been abducted by the PM.
The commonly quoted Ethiopia adage “በስራህ እንዲያዩህ እንጂ እንዲሰሙህ አትሞክር” has undermined the need for a PR strategy and proven futile in a world where the governing creed is “if you do not talk, I cannot see you.” In the US and Europe, where talk is gold, there are firms for hire whose business is talking on behalf of others.
Such firms are run by former senators and retired cabinet members with close ties with current government officials and lawmakers. Each lobbying firm has what is called a media placement unit. They work closely with editors and owners of newspapers to get their narratives out. They make things happen. The Amharic word may be “ጉዳይ አስፈጻሚ”. The English expression in the US is “the grease that helps turn the wheels of government on national and international policy issues.”
Lobbying is not corruption. It is part of the West’s governance mechanism through which interest groups from teachers’ associations to potato farmers and mega corporations to neighborhood churches defend and advance their interests. Evangelist and Catholic churches often retain multiple lobbying firms, each with a team of lobbyists, to press their agenda ranging from health care to international relations and poverty to abortion rights. One gets what one demands through his/her lobbyists not what one deserves.
How the World’s Opinion Changed on Ethiopia and the PM
In three short years, the world’s opinion about Ethiopia’s transformational socio-economic reforms and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s leadership has gone from እልልታ to ኡኡታ. In 2018, the international media’s narrative of Prime Minister Abiy was inundated with accolades. He was praised as a “visionary democratic leader,” and a “hope for Africa.” CNN credited the PM with “saving the country from civil war.”
The reform agenda that the PM is leading is the same reform agenda that the world unanimously praised in 2018. A critical question imposes itself on us: What caused the world to swing from the PM is a visionary leader who is poised to uplift Africa to a villain who is pushing the entire horn of Africa to the brink of collapse? The simple answer is Egypt and TPLF.
For three years Egypt unleashed a barrage of unanswered international campaigns against the Abiy Administration. In 2021, TPLF implemented Egypt’s blueprint in hiring US lobbying powerhouses to target the Prime Minister as one who is destabilizing the entire region over “the war against the people of Tigray.”
Former Ethiopian Ambassador Berhane Gebrekirstos (one of TPLF’s founders) is spending his days going from one lobbying firm to another on K Street in Washington DC, where the movers and shakers of America’s lobbyist firms are situated. Such firms do not come cheap. They charge up to $100,000 per month. TPLF is said to have signed contracts with multiples of them. The Ethiopian government failed to respond, giving TPLF an open field to frame and control the narrative.
The Benefits of Lobbying Firms are Far More than the Cost of Acquiring Them
In 2018, America’s top 100 companies spent a total of $2 Billion in Lobbying. This was $20 million per company. In return they brought in a total of $400 Billion in government contracts and grants. In other words, for every dollar they spent on lobbying they racked in 200 dollars.
Lobbying is not limited to American firms. Nations who wish to influence US international policies spend millions of dollars on high-power lobbying firms. This can be discerned from titles of newspaper articles such as: “Pro-Israel donors spent over $22m on lobbying and contributions in 2018” and “Egypt assembles bipartisan powerhouse lobbying team for post-Trump era.”
Between January 2017 and August 2018, foreign governments spent over $530 million on US lobbyists. To name just a few Sub Saharan African countries, Nigeria spends tens of millions a year. Similarly, Kenya spends millions every year. South Africa spent $7 million in 2017 alone. In 2019, South Sudan paid lobbyists $3.7 million for better Trump ties.
In 2019, Sudan (North) had three different lobbyist firms working on its behalf. Conspicuously, the cost of acquiring the three firms is listed at $0.00. This means somebody else is paying for them. It would not be unreasonable to suspect Egypt could be footing the bill. South Sudan has a GDP (PPP) of about $15 billion. Ethiopia has a GDP (PPP) of $260 billion. South Sudan is part of the international PR engagement to protect and advance its national interest. Ethiopia exists outside of the American and European lobbying orbit. What we are suffering now is the outcome of this.
In light of the above we strongly recommend the following steps and urge the Ethiopian government to implement them with a sense of national security urgency. The items are listed in the order of their priority.
1. Without any consideration of cost, Ethiopia must hire three lobbying powerhouses in the US, including an African American, liberal leaning and conservative oriented firms. The three firms may cost Ethiopia up to $5 million per year in total. The cost of not having them will be exponentially higher (notes explaining why we need three firms will be sent to the PM’s office in confidence).
2. Ethiopia needs a high-level advisory council to develop strategy for a robust communication ecosystem and PR complex, covering the realm of both domestic and foreign public diplomacy. Given the urgency and extremely critical nature of the issue at hand, the proposed Council is advised to report directly to the PM. This must be done in parallel to hiring lobbying firms with a sense of urgency.
3. Ethiopia must mobilize African American civil rights leaders and churches. Each Civil Rights organization has hundreds of churches they work with. President Biden came to the White House riding on the back of black voters. The last thing he will do is ignore their intervention. (A note will be sent to the PM’s office in confidence).
4. The Prime Minister needs to consider appointing a special envoy to mobilize support from African countries. There are Ethiopians in the diaspora with deep contact with leaders of key African countries that can serve in this capacity. If Egypt prevails with international help, it will have a detrimental impact on 10 Nile basin countries. It is in the best interest of Nile basin countries to stand up with Ethiopia. Similarly, if the TPLF issue is allowed to stand through international pressure, it will create a precedent that will destroy many African nations. As the Time magazine noted, “TPLF has been demanding greater local autonomy in response.” René Lefort, noted TPLF’s demand is “to govern Tigray with as little external interference as possible [with] a true confederalism.” TPLF request violates the nation’s Constitution because the Constitutional order is federalist not confederalist. When it was unable to achieve its goal through the nation’s democratic process, TPLF resorted to launching a war to extort political concessions. This is a dangerous precedent.
Nations who fall behind in the game of international public diplomacy fall to the wayside or find themselves at the mercy of their adversaries. Ethiopia is in such a dire position. The only consolation Ethiopia has is that the situation is reversible because Ethiopia is in the right.
In the US and Europe where lobbying powerhouses are the shakers and movers of domestic and international policies, Ethiopia has no chance of winning the international PR battle against Egypt, Sudan and TPLF without help from lobbyist powerhouses. We urge the government of Ethiopia to implement the four recommendations as a matter of national security. Ethiopia Shall Prevail!
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