Ethiopia is a victim of ‘media slaughter’: Henok Teferra Shawl, Ambassador to France

By Olivier Caslin
Posted on Friday, 16 September 2022 08:21

Members of the Afar militia at a checkpoint at the entrance to the town of Abala, 480km from Semera, Ethiopia, on 8 June 2022. © EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP

Henok Teferra Shawl, Ethiopia’s ambassador to France, is convinced that the TPLF is to blame for the recent resumption of hostilities in Tigray as well as the international community’s lack of support.

Since 24 August, fighting has resumed in northern Ethiopia. After a five-month truce, the delivery of humanitarian aid has been interrupted once more, as clashes between government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebels intensify.

The African Union (AU) has extended the mandate of its special envoy to the Horn, Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, while the US envoy to the region, Mike Hammer, is trying to bring the two parties back to the negotiating table.

From Paris, Henok Teferra Shawl, who has been Ethiopia’s ambassador to France since 2018, gives his country’s point of view on a crisis that threatens the whole region.

Two weeks after fighting has resumed, what is the situation on the ground?

Henok Teferra Shawl: By invading the neighbouring Amhara region around Kobo, and thus launching hostilities for the third time, the TPLF decided to end the humanitarian truce that had been declared to allow aid to be delivered to the [war-affected] regions of Ethiopia. This truce had given hope that a negotiated peace was within reach. The TPLF shattered this hope when it launched the 24 August offensive.

Do you see them as the aggressors?

They themselves said they decided to undertake these attacks which have already caused the deaths of many civilians, the destruction and looting of many villages, as well as significant displacement of the population. Today, Ethiopians find it very disturbing that there has been no firm condemnation of this aggression, either by the international community or the media. Nor has there been a strong and forceful call for the TPLF to stop its attacks and opt for the path of dialogue.

How is this silence interpreted in Addis Ababa?

There have been statements calling on both parties to cease fire, which, to us, seem to contradict the reality on the ground. I repeat, we are clearly the aggressed ones and our military is defending the population and the integrity of our territory that is being invaded as the TPLF advances southwards. We do not understand why the aggressor and the aggressed are being equated. The international community must be consistent with itself.

Ethiopia wants peace and dialogue and we are sorry to see that a legitimate government, which has repeatedly shown its willingness to move towards a negotiated peace, is being treated the same as a belligerent party that has once again chosen to resume hostilities.

Why has fighting resumed? 

Because the TPLF still refuses to lose the political, economic and security power that it exercised until 1991 in a very authoritarian way. This exercise of power led to major demonstrations in the Oromo and Amhara communities, which led Ethiopia to undertake reforms to democratise itself, strengthen the independence of its justice system and liberalise its economy.

But the TPLF does not want to hear about all this, preferring instead to launch offensives from Tigray, which clearly demonstrate its desire to destroy the Ethiopian state. We will not allow our country to be destroyed. We will defend it and we expect our friends to clearly name the aggressor.

Do you feel that Ethiopia is being treated unfairly in this war?

For the past two years, Ethiopia has been subjected to a “media slaughter” by several major media outlets that openly advocate for the TPLF and our country’s destruction. We denounce this unequal treatment.

Last year, when the TPLF was advancing south, some media were already predicting that the capital would fall, which would destabilise Ethiopian society. When we made the decision not to enter Tigray so that humanitarian aid could be delivered and give peace a chance, we were met with silence, which was embarrassing for Ethiopians, as the TPLF was launching attacks in the Afar region to cut off supplies at that time. All this is generating a lot of anger in Ethiopia. Some have turned the tables, but Ethiopia has the capacity and resilience to overcome this crisis, even on its own.

Who are Ethiopia’s friends today?

While Africa as a whole supports us, the same cannot be said for Europe, where a number of countries have openly sided with the TPLF. Italy and Spain are friendly countries. France is also constantly seeking to maintain a balanced position in this crisis.

And the US, which has just sent a new envoy to the field?

I think the US has a much more balanced position today than in the recent past. It does not yet fully understand the situation and what is at stake, but the US is a lot more aware of what is happening on the ground.

We are willing to work with those who want to, in good understanding, in a region that is strategic for everyone.

How did the negotiations progress during the five-month truce?

After 30 years of power gained and kept by arms, the TPLF still believes it can use arms to impose a political solution. The 24 August attack was launched for this very purpose. We will remain in this stalemate as long as this group continues to be in this state of mind.

People have lived together for millennia and built a strong social fabric that can withstand the madness of a few.”

Whatever the party, the basic rules of a democracy are the same for all. You cannot use an army to impose yourself by force.

Should we consider a new federal architecture for the country, with or without Tigray?

One of our main complaints against the media is that they confuse Tigray with the TPLF. I would add that despite the most alarmist announcements, Ethiopia has not exploded. There may be fragmentation among our political elites, some of whom do not think twice before exploiting communal fault lines to advance their own agenda, but the communities themselves do not oppose each other. People have lived together for millennia and built a strong social fabric that can withstand the madness of a few.

What do you expect from the international community?

First of all, it should clearly name the aggressor. Not naming him encourages him to continue his actions. Secondly, that it exerts pressure so that the TPLF returns to the negotiating table. We have indicated our willingness to meet with them under the AU’s auspices.

It is up to Africans to solve this African problem. The AU has all the credibility needed to fulfil this mission and President Olusegun Obasanjo all the expertise and knowledge to play his role. This is the way forward.

What do you think of Eritrea’s entry into the conflict?

First of all, it is worth noting that the TPLF attacked Eritrea two years ago when it launched rockets into Asmara. TPLF leaders have openly stated on several occasions that they are going to overthrow the regime.

The TPLF is at war with everyone and its madness has caused the suffering of many civilians. That is why it is important to condemn its actions.

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