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How Not to Write A Book Review: Reply to Yonas Biru (By Daniel Berhane)

Daniel berhane-book-review
Daniel Berhane

(Daniel Berhane)

Last Sunday, Yonas Biru (PhD), wrote an article entitled “Daniel Berhane’s Book “War on Tigray” Manifests the Curse of a Depraved Intellectual” which was awash with a stream of derisive phrases: “Daniel embodies and personifies the tribalized intellectual culture”, “Daniel’s book epitomizes this  failure, manifesting intellectual decadence writ large”, “Daniel is not alone in displaying a sense of arrogance and Tigrayan invincibility.” At times Yonas portrayed me as a representative of Tigrayans, at other times as a typical of “our Ivy League educated asses [who are] permanently branded “TRIBAL” with a hot iron, as if we are the cattle generation with animal instinct.”

Yonas is known for using provocative adjectives, hence I tried to read past those phrases. Since he claimed a lofty intellectual high ground, I expected him to find holes in the arguments of my book. Regardless of the time and effort an author puts, the probability of error is never zero.

#1/ The first order of business for a book reviewer is providing a concise summary. Yonaas had no interest in that. Based on sentences scattered in Yonas’s article, my book “attempts (in futility) to present TPLF and Tigray as victims of Amhara and the Federal government”, “attempt[s] to accuse the Ethiopian government, Eritrea, and Amhara as the perpetrators of the war”, and “[accuses] the Ethiopian government’s decision to involve Eritrea in Ethiopia’s internal war”.

What does “attempt” mean in this context? Is Yonas summarizing the book’s central themes or unveiling subtexts or implicit arguments? While I endorse those assertions, they were not my book’s main themes, which were focused on the structural factors and on why things turned out the way they did rather than an episodic narration of the few months before the War.

#2/ Instead of quoting the book for inaccurate sentences or inconsistent arguments, Yonas’s review was entirely based on his belief that the book’s “narrative starkly conflicts with [Daniel’s] social media footprints both before and after the war started”. While my social media posts could be a supplementary component of a book review when they are relevant, they can never be a substitute. In other words, Yonas’ piece was, at best, a social media review – inaccurate at that – not a book review.

#3/ It was difficult to tell which of Yonas’ statements treated me as an individual “depraved intellectual” and which of those portrayed me as a representative of TPLF or Tigray’s government or the entire people of Tigray. Those distinctions are not as abstract as Yonas wishes to believe.

In his previous articles, Yonas had bestowed on me the title “TPLF’s senior advisor” and  “one of the founding members of Digital Weyane(whatever that means). This time he simply quoted a segment of my bio that reads: “My role varied from community organizer to political party member, from election observer to prominent activist”. The political party referred to in my bio was not TPLF but an opposition party.

#4/ Book reviewers use the discourse as an opportunity to highlight some issues and present their own arguments. While that’s a digression from the primary purpose of a book review, it is understandable a book would serve as a catalyst for debates on pertinent issues. Oddly, Yonas was not making any discernible arguments.

Yonas tried to justify Eritrea’s role in the War by referring to the partnership between TPLF and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) forces during the armed struggle and by claiming that “Eritrea was approached both by the TPLF and the Ethiopian government [and] President Isayas chose to side with the latter”. Strangely, his evidence was my 2018 tweet: “To my Eritrean brothers and sisters…. Whoever wants to kill Tigrayans would have you as his next target. We’d better stand together”. The tweet’s content was irrelevant to Yonas’s claim and was posted two years before the War. Though, Yonas failed to mention the date of the tweet. My prediction of the War on Tigray was accurate; history will tell if a similar fate awaits Eritreans.

At any rate, Yonas was justifying the Eritrean invasion and atrocities in Tigray. If colluding with a foreign force is an episode that can be trifled and easily rationalized, how come he found TPLF’s alleged motive grabbing state power as a heinous crime justifying a genocidal war: Yonas wrote: “The TPLF wanted the same privilege after it lost the levers of power. That was the root cause of the War.”

Similarly, a confusing claim of Yonas reads: “People like Daniel link it to the 2020 elections in Tigray and the postponement of the national election to 2021.” Yet, he presented several paragraphs long argument replete with provisions of the federal constitution as to claim Tigray’s election was illegal, to justify the subsequent suspension of federal budget subsidy and related services, and to underline the federal government’s prerogative to dispatch military force into Tigray. It is difficult to determine whether Yonas was demonstrating the link between the election and the War or arguing against it.

#5/ Yonas’ review was replete with qualifiers obscuring his position.

Despite his lengthy argument to demonstrate me and Tigrayans in general as responsible for the War, he dropped vague qualifier sentences. He said, “This is not to say there are not genuine Tigrayan intellectuals”, without mentioning some or telling us where to find them. He noted, “[this doesn’t mean] the Ethiopian government, Amhara and Eritrea have not contributed to the war” without explaining it. Interestingly, he wrote at one point, “TPLF and the Abiy administration were preparing for war”.

#6/ Yonas’ review had several inaccuracies.

After reiterating his support for the War, he claimed: “[Abiy is] responsible in the mismanagement of the War […] I have written several articles arguing the PM’s decision to enter Mekelle in November 2020 and to subsequently declare the TPLF as a terrorist organization was responsible to escalating the law-and-order campaign into a civil war”.

I couldn’t verify Yonas’ claims. But his article published on Ethiopian reporter (https://www.thereporterethiopia.com/10479/) on November 21, 2020, about a week before the fall of Mekelle, recommended Tigray/TPLF should cancel the election and disarm and in exchange, the federal government halts the War.

Regarding Ethiopia’s designation of TPLF as a terrorist group, Yonas wrote a lengthy piece entitled “In the Ethiopian War: the West Sides with a Terrorist Group” in March 2021. That was two months before the federal government made such a designation in May 2021. (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-05-06/ethiopia-declares-tigray-oromia-groups-terrorist-organizations) Politely put, Yonas’ claim was detached from fact.

#7/ Speaking of inaccurate claims, there are many to go by. Yonas blamed Tigrayans for the termination of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE). He claimed:

“The most important question is why aren’t Ethiopians (most importantly Tigrayans and Amhara) not protesting? Sadly, Tigrayans do not do anything without getting a cue from the TPLF. The TPLF does not want the investigation to continue because it knows the crime it has committed, including crime against humanity.

Leaving aside Yonas’s derisive remark of Tigrayans, his statement contradicts the statement by TPLF Central Committee two weeks ago, calling for the extension of ICHREE’s mandate. (https://addisstandard.com/news-tplf-central-committee-calls-for-un-experts-mandate-extension-full-implementation-of-pretoria-agreement-admits-internal-weaknesses/)

#8/ While I appreciate Yonas for taking the time to write a review and it actually left me in doubt as to whether he actually read it, and would rather not engaged in mud-slinging, I am compelled to point out a few points.

Yonas claimed that the reason that the Amhara are not in favour of the ICHREE due to “their fear that Amhara Special Forces and Fanos will be found guilty as charged”. In another section of his review, Yonas quoted the US State Department’s long-awaited designation issued on March 2023:

“Members of the ENDF, EDF, and Amhara forces also committed crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and persecution. Members of the Amhara forces also committed the crime against humanity of deportation or forcible transfer and committed ethnic cleansing in western Tigray.”

However, by May 2023 Yonas took it upon himself to draft a manifesto for Fano and publish it on Borkena website. So, it is hard to say where actually Yonas stand on this issue.

Yonas’ use of my social media posts was unethical, misleading, butchered, and lacking the date and web address necessary for verification. But there is a pattern that suggests it is deliberate. He attempted to create a false equivalence between the crimes perpetrated by Ethiopia-Eritrea-Amhara forces and misconduct by TPLF by quoting the renowned Alex de Waal as saying that “TPLF [was] responsible for starvation crimes”. Yonas used that (mis)quote elsewhere, including in an article entitled “How TPLF Turned Foreigner Experts into an Army of Propaganda Ninjas”, (https://eastafricanist.com/how-tplf-turned-foreigner-experts-into-an-army-of-propaganda-ninjas/) published at the EastAfricanist in February 2021.

Since Yonas didn’t want to provide the date, web address, or extended quote of the materials he cited, it took me a while to pinpoint the original text. It turned out to be Alex de Waal’s December 2021 article in which he blamed all actors in the War for the misery of Tigrayans. 

“There are strong indications that all three belligerents in the Ethio-Eritrean War—the Ethiopian army and allied militias, the Eritrean army and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—are responsible for starvation crimes, either deliberately or recklessly.[…] The TPLF is de facto the responsible authority for large parts of Tigray’s rural areas, which in addition to local people, currently also host many people who left the towns and cities when Eritrean and Federal forces moved in. […] it appears, [TPLF] made no plans for the needs of over 5 million people. Its leaders must be called to account for that reckless and inhumane (in)action.”

Actually, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, article 8(2)(b) (xxv), defined starvation crime as “intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival”. De Waal took the liberty to expand it to include “recklessness” and “inaction”. I understand and share his moral indignation. But Yonas’ attempt to portray equivalency with the deliberate and systemic acts of the Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Amhara forces to starve Tigrayans was simply false.

I reiterate that I appreciate Yonas’ and Borkena website’s engagement in reviewing my book. Though I could have said much defending my social media posts and/or slinging mud on Yonas, I refrained because I didn’t want to discourage prospective reviewers. But I hope prospective reviewers would take a lesson or two from Yonas on how not to write a review of my book, which is available at Amazon.

— 

Daniel Berhane is an author, a lawyer by training, a journalist by choice, a pioneer in the Ethiopian social media landscape, a prominent activist, been put on the government’s most-wanted list for speaking his mind, and spent about two years under siege. 

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of borkena.com

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9 COMMENTS

  1. I’m gonna be chillin’ right here and watching these two gentlemen go at it. It reminds me of ‘good ole days from the late 60’s and 70’s. Go get’em tigers!!!!

  2. Having said that, I still encourage the author of the book to keep writing. When there are two sides to the story, we would like to hear from both. That way we can shake all the narratives up and make up our own independent mind.

    Meanwhile, I have a question for the author of the book Obbo Daniel Berhane. So much has been said and written about Eritrean government involvement in the war that raged in Tigray and the two adjacent regions of Amhara and Afar. My question is what a sovereign nation should do when deadly missiles start raining on its citizens from next door? There is no denying of the fact that missiles had hit certain sites in Asmara where innocent civilians might have been killed at their work place. How should a sovereign state respond to such deadly attack? I look forward to hearing from you.

    Blessings to you and your family!

    • Dear (Obbo) ኣይተ Ittu Aba Farda,
      Eritrean forces were in Tigray long before those rockets were launched to Asmara Airport. The world has documented everything, so it is futile attempt to try to make people assume that Eritrea joined after the rockets.

      • I guess my question was for Obbo Daniel but may be he is tied up to respond. But if you are him or talking on his behalf, I turn to you to answer my question. What do you do as a sovereign nation when missiles started raining down on your innocent citizens from outside your country and from next door? Remember those were not rockets but longer range missiles with more powerful warheads. They were not Katyusha rockets. Imagine if one of those had landed at the center of Asmara or even if someone drops them on you at the center of Mekele on schools teeming with students. So what do you in response? Don’t try to hit around the bush by telling me some people were in Tigray already this or that.
        I don’t usually respond to comments like this unless they are by polite individuals.

    • Most revered Obbo Ittu Farda,

      Long before the rockets reached the Eritrean capital, the Eritrean army was operating within Tigrayan territory. In order to exact retribution after being humiliated by the Ethiopian army headed by the TPLF, the Eritrean army transgressed international law.

      Article 2(4)

      “4. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the
      threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations” quote unquote ኮት አንኩት

      PFDJ, Higdef, and thugs have harbored animosity for Tigrayan leaders ever since they conceded defeat in the conflict, which lasted from May 1998 to June 2000. They invaded Tigrayan sovereign land because they were fixated on the need for retaliation and to slake their thirst for babarism and the annihilation of Tigrayans. It is not about the rockets, nor even the fabricated story of slained soldiers, so-called Northen commanders, etc. that was introduced by Aby Ahmed, who throw dust into each and every Ethiopian citizen, including religious leaders.

      Dismantle Mahibrekidiusan , satanic organization. No more Mahibrekidusan in Tigray and Oromiyaa; They are sponsoring the killings of Tigrayans and Oromos and rest of nationalities. Fannos are supported by Mahibrekidusan for killing non-Amhara ethnic members.

      • I guess my question was for Obbo Daniel but may be he is tied up to respond. But if you are him or talking on his behalf, I turn to you to answer my question. What do you do as a sovereign nation when missiles started raining down on your innocent citizens from outside your country and from next door? Remember those were not rockets but longer range missiles with more powerful warheads. They were not Katyusha rockets. Imagine if one of those had landed at the center of Asmara or even if someone drops them on you at the center of Mekele on schools teeming with students. So what do you in response? Don’t try to hit around the bush by telling me some people were in Tigray already this or that.
        I don’t usually respond to comments like this unless they are by polite individuals.

  3. pity type intellectuals the type that sidetracked Ethiopia’s stride from feudalism to leftist ideology that put the country back to the middle ages..and then the tribal ethnic system which is dragging it into the stone age…pity..pity

  4. Dismantle Mahibre seytan, socalled mahibrekidusan. This criminal gang should not be allowed to set its feet in Tigray and should be banned in Oromiyaa Dismantle Mahibre seytan, socalled mahibrekidusan. This criminal gang should not be allowed to set its feet in Tigray and should be banned in Oromiyaa

    Yonas Birus is a terrorist, a proponent of hate speech, and someone who sets the bar for intellectuals in terms of lacking an ethical code and a humanistic, balanced way of thinking. He justifies the killing of innocent civilians and promotes terrorism and ethnic chavinism in Ethiopia, along with his gang members. Yonas biru and his gang members already caused the massecre of civilians, including defenseless children.
    Dismantle Mahibre seytan, socalled mahibrekidusan. This criminal gang should not be allowed to set its feet in Tigray and should be banned in Oromiyaa. Fannos should stop killing non-Amhara people.

  5. Humble Commentary , 12 Oct 2023

    And, here I go with the modern history of an Ancient Country ETHIOPIA.
    Reading all the commentaries, one can’t help musing upon varied thinking and exchanges !
    1). One wonders of certain disagreements etc
    2) What is the cause of the mysterious phenomenon?
    3) Why is it that MODERN Ethiopia, loaded with magnificent, countless, supremely educated citizens, with the highest
    academic Degrees fail to understand each other and progress Ethiopia towards what it deserves.
    4) Or is it some mysterious phenomenon that prevents “modern” Ethiopia to refuse its ADMIRABLE history around the
    Globe
    5. Why is it that Ethiopia refuses its FOUNDATION of natural characteristic, which is well known around the Globe?

    6. Finally, I wish to express my admiration upon https://www.borkena.com for its FANTASTIC service in the progressive
    development of one of the Ancient Countries around the Globe >>> YES! YES! YES! ETHIOPIA.

    7. SHOULDN’T THAT BE THE IMMEDIATE ETERNAL ISSUE ??? JUST AN HONEST QUESTION, PLEASE.

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