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Lesson for Ethiopia’s Engagement with Egypt: A Robust PR Could Have Avoided TPLF’s War

“It cannot be overstated that smart public relations strategies are the key to success in ending the suffering of the people of Syria” (The Final Call).

“PR is An Instrument for Guaranteeing Sustainable National Peace and Security” (Jonathan Aliede, National Open University of Nigeria).

Yonas Biru (Ph.D)

By Yonas Biru

The purpose of this blog is twofold. First is to highlight missed opportunities to avert TPLF’s war. In this regard, an important lesson that can be drawn from this is that a robust PR must be an integral part of Ethiopia’s arsenal in its public diplomacy engagement with Egypt. The second is to show that the role of the Ethiopian diaspora in international public diplomacy is limited and  any attempt to bankroll and lead a lobbying campaign is futile, no matter how noble and patriotic the desire may be.

TPLF’s War Calculus was influenced by its PR

TPLF’s war calculus was influenced by its PR. A robust PR could have changed the trajectory of the confrontation. In preparation for war, for nearly three years, TPLF was working on its PR both within the Tigray tribal land and internationally. The rise of nationalism indoctrination in pre-war Tigray was at its highest. Tegaru nationalism was linked with militarism, dramatizing TPLF’s vaunted prowess of invincibility.

Military parades were showcased regularly with an overabundance of flag-waving audiences. The aim was to shape and mold the psychological power of resistance against the Ethiopian national army. The strategy was copied from pre-war Germany and Japan and pasted on Tigrayan war psyche. Tigrayans were touted as a special breed – the Israel of Africa. Such bravados as “War is our culture” and “War is what we do for pastime” became TPLF propaganda staple and Tigrayan portrait of Spartan warriors. 

On the international front, the strategy was to mislead the international community into thinking: 1) The Abiy administration had become authoritarian; 2)TPLF military was superior to the Ethiopian military; 3) if war started, the entire region would be destabilized; and 4) the only solution was a national dialogue inclusive of all parties with the aim of forming an interim government. The international community not only embraced TPLF’s narrative of an impending civil war that could destabilize the entire region, but  also began echoing the need for a national dialogue.

The rising tide of nationalism in Tigray and the international community’s support and call for a national dialogue were critical factors in the calculus of TPLF war.The rising tide of nationalism and the indoctrination of invincibility among TPLF militia were critical to prepare the people for war. `On the international front, the calculation was that given Ethiopia’s geo-strategic position the international community will pressure the Ethiopia government to meet TPLF’s demands to avoid regional destabilization. TPLF’s lobbyists went into an overdrive to convert TPLF’s narrative into US, EU, and UN pressure campaigns.

How did this influence TPLF’s war calculus? TPLF believed that if it won the war, the international community would not condemn it. It would be in the driver’s seat in the national dialogue to form an interim government. In the event it lost the war, the international community will come to its rescue to pressure the Ethiopian government to share power. Without this calculus TPLF would not have gone to war.

A robust communication and public diplomacy campaign could have altered TPLF’s war calculus by refuting and defusing its false narrative. An informed international community would not have been swayed by TPLF’s unanswered propaganda. The issue is not whether the US and EU failed to understand TPLF’s game. The fact is that in the US and EU both national and international policies are made with the influence of lobbyists. TPLF had a plethora of lobbyists. Ethiopia had none.

It is not difficult to understand the Ethiopian government’s belief that a resource poor country such as Ethiopia needs to feed its people rather than spend millions on lobbying. One thing we must  learn from the Tigray war is that the cost of not having a lobbying powerhouse to represent our interest in the international arena is hundreds of times more than the cost of hiring one.

For example, the cost of lobbying in Washington and Brussels (EU) may cost Ethiopia upwards of $5 million per year for the first year in order to catch up for lost times. The cost of not having lobbying representation may go in hundreds of millions in terms of reduced international aid, tourism and foreign direct investment (FDI). That is why nations such as Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan and South Sudan, spend millions on lobbying every year.

The Diaspora Cannot Lead the Lobbying Effort

The diaspora cannot fill the gap in our nation’s international public diplomacy. The most the diaspora can do is to support and supplement the government programs not to substitute them. Diaspora groups who are promising to fill the gap on their own fail to appreciate the challenges. Ethiopia’s adversaries are collectively spending upwards of $600,000 per month on lobbyists. The diaspora’s attempt to hire $10,000 to $35,000 a month lobbying firms is  a futile attempt, no matter how noble and patriotic the effort may be.

The consequences of their imprudence and folly are dire and potentially dangerous to our nation. It is dangerous because it gives the government false hope that the diaspora can fill a gap. That leaves Ethiopia without proper representation.

There is one universal truth about diaspora communities regardless of their country of origin. Outside of remittances to their families, their contributions to their country of birth are primarily limited to knowledge transfers. Nations who tap on their diaspora knowledge base have benefited enormously. Countries such as Korea, India, Vietnam, Brazil and Chile are good examples.

In general the diaspora community’s financial contributions are mostly insignificant.Only in nations where the diaspora has the opportunity to invest through diaspora bonds and diaspora trust funds that they contribute significant funds to their motherland. Because of stringent US investment restrictions, Ethiopians cannot benefit from diaspora bonds and investment trust funds. That is why the Ethiopian Diaspora Trust Fund (EDTF) fell far short of its expectations. Ethiopia’s lobbying needs cannot and will not be met by the diaspora.

Lessons from the War in Tigray Must Inform our Conflict With Egypt

The chance that Egypt will trigger a full blown war is slim. However, if it happens the cost will be astronomically more than the cost our country sustained because of the war with TPLF. War is not the only option Egypt has. It has many other options, chief among them is arming opposition elements and creating chaos. We need to understand Egypt’s calculus of war treats and intransigent posturing are influenced by its international PR campaign.

Ethiopia urgently needs a robust communication and PR ecosystem to refute and diffuse Egypt’s threat. The diaspora should not give a false hope to the government. There are many areas the Diaspora can support the government. Substituting its duty in international public diplomacy is not one of them.


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  1. I read news coming out of Sudan today about the next filling of the dam that left me roaring in laughter. I was down on the floor laughing until it hurts, man! The news tells what the foreign minister said about it. Foreign Minister Mariam al-Sadiq al-Mahdi has stated that her government has ruled out military action. Really? Was that even on the table in the first place? If someone was even dreaming about that in Khartoum, I demand an apology. Somebody there should wake up and apologize right now!!!

    In a related topic, the former Sudan Irrigation and Water Resources Minister Osman Atum has told the entire world that the first or the 2nd or 3rd filling of the dam will never adversely affect the flow of water from the Blue Nile. You heard it all from the horse’s mouth!!! End of story!!!
    Bob!!! Hit it!!!
    Singin’, don’t worry, about a thing
    Worry about a thing, no
    Every little thing, gonna be all right
    Don’t worry
    Singin’, don’t worry, about a thing
    I won’t worry!
    ‘Cause every little thing, gonna be alright

    You heard that ya-khadaab el-Sisi?


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