In a response to Fana Gebresenbet and Yonas Tariku’s recent Debate piece in ROAPE’s journal, ‘The Pretoria Agreement: Mere cessation of hostilities or heralding a new era in Ethiopia?’. Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, Alex de Waal, Martin Plaut, Jan Nyssen, Mohamed Hassen, and Gebrekirstos Gebreselassie argue that the article reproduces the central narrative threads of the propaganda of the Federal Government of Ethiopia. This is, they argue, ‘false and potentially defamatory’.
By Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, Alex de Waal, Martin Plaut, Jan Nyssen, Mohamed Hassen, and Gebrekirstos Gebreselassie
In a response to Fana Gebresenbet and Yonas Tariku’s recent Debate piece in ROAPE’s journal, ‘The Pretoria Agreement: Mere cessation of hostilities or heralding a new era in Ethiopia?’ [the Debate piece is free to read until the end of the month] asserts foreign commentators on the subject are supporters of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and that claims of genocide are a TPLF propaganda ploy. This is false and potentially defamatory. It reproduces central narrative threads of the propaganda of the Federal Government of Ethiopia. Fana and Yonas suggest that new Ethiopian voices have somehow ‘reframed’ the debate, but they produce no evidence of such intellectual reframing. The Pretoria negotiations confirm that the Tigrayan Central Command considered the human losses in case of protracted war and made the decision to sue for peace at any cost; yet the AU process does not resemble Ndubusi Ani’s formulations (2019) of any ‘African solutions’. Subsequent to the Pretoria Agreement, the Federal Government is politically shape-shifting in response to circumstance, and the people of Tigray continue to suffer extreme hardships. Fana and Yonas show little nuanced political understanding or empathy, indicating the lethargy of public discourse in Ethiopia today.
We are writing in response to the recent article ‘The Pretoria Agreement: Mere cessation of hostilities or heralding a new era in Ethiopia?’ (Fana and Yonas 2023). We are surprised that ROAPE, which since its founding in 1974 has been a bastion of academic rigor and a commitment to scholarship in the cause of progressive social change (Review of African Political Economy, 1974), cleared this piece for publication.
Fana and Yonas observe that foreign commentators took different and conflicting positions over the Tigray war. That is correct. Their allegation, that named critics of the Federal Government of Ethiopia (FGE) are supporters of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is neither substantiated nor correct. The determination of those who mentioned discontent among some Tigrayans over the TPLF decision to sign the Pretoria permanent cessation of hostilities, are ‘spoilers’ is false and potentially defamatory.
Fana and Yonas claim that their own analysis somehow transcends a polemical dichotomy among non-Ethiopians, pitting commentators who support the FGE against those who support the TPLF. This is not the case. Instead, the article reproduces central narrative threads of FGE propaganda. One of these is that an unprovoked TPLF attack on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) was the cause of the war. This is a propagandist claim which an increasing volume of well referenced academic work demonstrates to be false or at least ‘disguises more than it illuminates’ (Plaut and Vaughan, 2023, Assefa Fiseha, 2023). A second is that claims of genocide are a TPLF propaganda ploy. Thus, they reject out of hand the special forum in the Journal of Genocide Research on Ethiopia (Ibreck and de Waal, 2022), presumably because they prejudged the papers to be TPLF propaganda. On the contrary, the forum editors do not come to a conclusion as to whether genocide has been perpetrated in Tigray. The forum instead includes essays on historic violence in the Ethiopian peripheries, atrocities inflicted on the Oromo in the 19th century by the expanding Ethiopian empire, massacres by Italian fascists, and the Red Terror. The aim is to connect scholars of Ethiopia to scholarship on mass atrocities, on the basis that ‘recent violence in Tigray, or elsewhere in the country, cannot be understood in isolation’ (p. 85). Regardless of the qualification (genocide or ‘only’ genocidal intent), Fana and Yonas minimize what happened in Tigray in terms of massacres and deliberate starvation of civilians.
The authors suggest that new Ethiopian voices have somehow ‘reframed’ a debate distorted by foreigners, but give no indication of who has done this, where or how. To the contrary, we see no evidence of intellectual reframing other than privileging writers who happen to agree with the FGE. We see plenty of unsubstantiated ad hominem abuse. We see a coordinated effort by those associated with the current government to decry the record of the twenty-seven years of government by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front as an unmitigated catalogue of political failures, all of them attributable to the TPLF. Again, we see no effort to undertake a critical, balanced assessment of the record of those decades.
The most detailed account of the Pretoria negotiations, backed by documentation, is that published on the Kenyan website The Elephant shortly after the deal was signed (Concerned African Scholars, 2022). What this confirms is that the Tigrayan Central Command (both TPLF and non-TPLF military leaders) made the decision that the combined forces of the ENDF, the Eritrean Defense Force and Amhara regional forces were determined to continue their offensive, regardless of the human cost on both sides, and that the international community would do nothing to stop them. Consequently, they sued for peace. Those who trumpet the Pretoria Agreement, such as Fana and Yonas, imply that ‘might is right.’ Those who approach the agreement in a critical light, are concerned that the lesson to be drawn is that mass atrocity and starvation may be effective tools of war.
The authors also suggest that their dismissal of foreign scholars is consistent with an anti-colonial, ‘African solutions’ political stance. This is at odds with the one source they cite (Ani, 2019). Additionally, the AU process does not, in fact, resemble any of Ani’s three formulations—African agency, following indigenous African principles, and African-led innovation. It has, at most, a partial resemblance to ‘African agency’, but only in the limited sense that African Union officials held tight to the control of the process. The AU did not invoke any of its norms, principles and mechanisms during almost two years of conflict and starvation. The last-minute agreement it brokered raises more questions than answers when measured against the norms, principles, and mechanisms of the organization itself.
The authors claim that the Pretoria Agreement is ‘a turning point marking… the beginning of the end of ethno-nationalism’s hegemonic centrality to national politics.’ To the contrary, we submit that one of the features of the current FGE is political shape-shifting in response to circumstance, and this includes embracing the multinational nature of Ethiopia governed under a federal arrangement just in new configurations.
Some seven months after the Pretoria Agreement, the people of Tigray continue to suffer extreme hardships. Millions remain displaced. Large areas, including Western Tigray, are still occupied by Eritrean and Amhara forces, contrary to the stipulations of the Agreement. Humanitarian assistance is not commensurate with needs. Rehabilitation of the health, water and agricultural infrastructure destroyed in the war—much of it looted or wrecked by the deliberate actions of the ENDF, EDF and Amhara forces—has not yet begun. We are surprised that the editors of a journal which has long prized its solidarity with subaltern populations and their struggles for self-determination, chose to publish an article which makes almost no reference to this suffering.
There is a wider phenomenon of denying, minimizing or misrepresenting the horrors that have been inflicted on the peoples of rural Ethiopia, notably Tigray. Over the last two years, academics, journalists and human rights investigators in Ethiopia have been facing an attempt to make as difficult as possible to ascertain facts and even worse, impossible to establish an accepted minimum basis of agreed facts (Aljazeera, 2021; Committee to Protect Journalists, 2022). This is a deliberate and coordinated campaign. We shall write about this separately.
For our purposes here, it suffices to write that Fana and Yonas, based in Addis Ababa, appear indifferent to the horrors suffered by their fellow citizens in Tigray and elsewhere in Ethiopia. This stands in contrast to the lead author of this rebuttal, Mulugeta, who has been in Tigray throughout the war and witnessed firsthand the sufferings of the civilians in Tigray. Fana and Yonas show little nuanced political understanding or empathy, which is a discouraging indicator of the health of public discourse in Ethiopia today.
Fana Gebresenbet and Yonas Tariku’s recent Debate piece in ROAPE’s journal is available to read for free here, ‘The Pretoria Agreement: Mere cessation of hostilities or heralding a new era in Ethiopia?’
Mulugeta Gebrehiwot is the founding director of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS), Addis Ababa University and a senior fellow at the World Peace Foundation. Alex de Waal is the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Martin Plaut is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London. Jan Nyssen is emeritus professor at Ghent University and a physical geographer. Mohamed Hassen is a professor of history and expert in the history of the Oromo people and Ethiopia. Gebrekirstos Gebreselassie is a researcher based in the Netherlands, and the founder and chief editor of Tghat.
Featured Photograph: A man passes a destroyed tank on the main street of Edaga Hamus, in the Tigray region, Ethiopia (5 June, 2021).
Ani, Ndubusi, 2019. ‘Three Schools of Thought on “African Solutions to African Problems”.’ Journal of Black Studies, 50.2, 135-155.
Assefa Fiseha, 2023. ‘Tigray: A Nation in Search of Statehood?’ International Journal on Minority and Group Rights.
Fana Gebresenbet and Yonas Tariku, 2023. ‘The Pretoria Agreement: Mere cessation of hostilities or heralding a new era in Ethiopia?’ Review of African Political Economy, DOI:
Ibreck, Rachel, and Alex de Waal, 2022. ‘Introduction: Situating Ethiopia in Genocide Debates,’ Journal of Genocide Research, 24.1, 83-96.
Plaut, Martin, and Sarah Vaughan, 2023. Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War. London, Hurst.
 At a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council on Sudan on 11 May 2023, the Ethiopian delegate voted against a resolution calling for a ceasefire and human rights reporting, on the grounds that it was not a timely move, and an ‘African solution’ along the lines of Pretoria would be appropriate. Sudanese democracy activists demurred saying they could not wait for two years for such steps.