Ethiopian federal forces in Humera, near Tigray’s border with Sudan: to Abiy Ahmed the fighting is an operation against ‘traitors’ while to the TPLF it is a war unleashed by a ‘dictatorship’ © Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty

As Ethiopia’s federal government declared victory after an almost month-long conflict in the northern region of Tigray, another battle is raging: a war of words.

A fierce propaganda struggle is being waged on social media, in broadcasts and in print, with both sides trying to demonise the other in a strategy aimed at both a domestic and an international audience.

Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister, has tried to present the fighting against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front as an internal security matter against “terrorists”, and not a war, a claim that provided him with the basis from which to rebuff international pressure for mediation. With Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, now in government hands, for Mr Abiy the law enforcement operation is over.

Donald Trump’s administration appears to have some sympathy for Mr Abiy’s argument. Tibor Nagy, US assistant secretary for African affairs, declared before Mekelle fell that a “quick end to the conflict” was more important than mediation at that stage.

Members of the incoming administration of Joe Biden, however, have less time for Mr Abiy’s characterisation of the conflict, with former national security adviser Susan Rice warning against possible “war crimes”.

Domestically, say academics and observers, the language — where words such as “tyrant”, “genocide”, “daytime hyenas” and “dictatorship” have become commonplace — is aimed at demonising and “othering” the opposing forces in the conflict.

“Extreme positions have been framed on both sides,” said Ahmed Soliman, research fellow at Chatham House and an expert on the Horn of Africa. “Neither side is recognising the other’s legitimacy so the language is very heightened.”

While the fighting in Tigray, which began on November 3, was to Mr Abiy an operation against “traitors” and “terrorists”, to the TPLF it was a war unleashed by a “non-elected dictatorship”. Mr Abiy was chosen as prime minister in 2018 by a now-disbanded coalition and has never faced the electorate.

The war of words is likely to continue as the federal government hunts down what it calls the leaders of a “criminal clique” and as the TPLF mounts what its leader Debretsion Gebremichael called a fight for self-determination.

As both sides employ an arsenal of press releases, video clips, statements, interviews and proxy voices to get their message across, many “facts” are being contested in a way that observers say could raise already heightened tensions.

An Amnesty International report indicates that TPLF-linked militia were responsible for this month’s massacre of up to 700 Amhara in the town of Mai Kadra, but Tigrayan civilians may also have been slaughtered by Amhara militia fighting alongside the government.

Likewise, the TPLF admitted to a “pre-emptive attack” on federal troops on November 3 but said it did so because the federal government was about to invade Tigray. To Mr Abiy, the TPLF is illegitimate because it ran an illegal election in September; to the TPLF, Mr Abiy is illegitimate because he did not run a national election, because of Covid, in August.

Because of a communications blackout in Tigray, which has been sealed off to most journalists, the government’s narrative has taken stronger hold.

In this version, the TPLF ran a brutal and corrupt dictatorship for 27 years, holding sway over the east African country of 110m people through a constitutionally enforced policy of ethnic divide-and-rule. Since being shunted from power in 2018, it has sought to make Ethiopia ungovernable, this narrative goes, by sponsoring ethnic terrorism across the country.

In the war of claim and counterclaim, few deny that, in power, the TPLF presided over an authoritarian government, nor that it killed protesters and imprisoned opponents in their thousands. But the TPLF-dominated government, an ally of successive US administrations, was also routinely praised for overseeing rapid growth and development.

State media, which until a few years ago sang the praises of the TPLF-dominated government, has shifted 180 degrees. The Ethiopian Press Agency, the state news outlet, this month described the TPLF as being “obsessed by necrophilia”, a “genocide perpetrator”, and a “breast-biter” that “has been sucking the people’s blood for 27 years”.

“The main state media has always served the establishment in Addis Ababa,” said Gezaghn Kidanu, a lecturer at the department of journalism and communications at Bahir Dar University, adding that, in its own region, the Tigray-based official media parroted its own party line. “Turn on any television channel these days and you will hear, without quote marks, adjectives like ‘terrorist’, ‘rebellious’, ‘junta’, ‘tyrant’ from the media from both sides. It is very worrying.”

“This is almost stunningly Orwellian,” said Awol Allo, senior lecturer at Keele University, referring to what he said was the use of language to stake out a narrative in Ethiopia’s bitterly contested history.

On the government side, he said, the irony, was that most of present administration, including Mr Abiy himself, had been part of the old TPLF-dominated regime they were now so virulently attacking.

“Abiy Ahmed was head of the security apparatus,” he said. “The language the government is now using to malign and dehumanise the enemy is precisely the same as was used under the TPLF.”

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