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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