Ethiopia at the receiving end of Biden’s ‘woke’ foreign policy:


Rasmus Sonderriis
18 min readDec 22, 2021

Pacifist virtue-signaling at the expense of American values and interests. This sums up the Biden administration’s backstabbing of a hard-won democracy in Ethiopia, executed by a veritable pantheon of villains to conservatives, from Obama era officials to CNN, Facebook and many more. If Ethiopia has become a foe to Democrats, should she be a friend to Republicans? Here is the case for a big and urgent yes.

Ethiopian democracy might have been securer, if the American-Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee, AEPAC, had been as influential as its near-namesake AIPAC. So far, it has extracted a promise from governor-elect Glenn Youngkin to boost trade ties with Ethiopia, after 120 volunteers, drawn from a total of 100,000 Ethiopian-Americans in Virginia, canvassed for the Republican, celebrating his narrow victory. The other candidate, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, was doomed when he declined to criticize the White House’s Ethiopia policy.

“School choice was raised on the campaign trail, but now when there’s finally democracy where we came from, the wish for friendly relations between our two countries, (USA and Ethiopia) decides our vote,” explains chairman Mesfin Tegenu. “Historically, this has been overwhelmingly for the Democrats, but we’re crossing party lines in droves.”

They are appalled by the Biden administration reviling and sanctioning Ethiopia, even with a dangerous enemy marching on its capital. But would Republicans do better?

“Well, Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, who knows Ethiopia well, has championed our cause. And (Trump’s Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo, called it ‘terrorism’ when we were first attacked. Under Biden, we’re just being ordered to make concessions to the terrorists.”

The AEPAC chairman is referring to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, TPLF, made up chiefly of ethnic Tigrayans. It was founded in 1975 to make a Marxist-Leninist revolution, but its leaders are no longer plucky rebels from the bush. Rather, they are the stuffy old guard who filled the upper echelons of ministries, public as well as private corporations, and especially the military during an authoritarian regime lasting from 1991 to 2018. Many of its members have also been appointed to jobs in international organizations, most prominently the TPLF stalwart Tedros Adhanom, Director General of the Word Health Organization, WHO.

Portuguese politician Ana Gomes knows Ethiopia well and is able to connect the dots

Popular protests pushed the TPLF from power on the national stage in March 2018, when the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed began to liberalize both the economy and the politics. The TPLF retreated to its stronghold, the northern region of Tigray, protecting former cruel and corrupt officials from federal court orders, and enforcing its own interpretation of the constitution. Despite the tension, negotiations continued until November 3, 2020. That night a highly coordinated sneak offensive was launched on five federal army bases in Tigray. The TPLF has since justified it as a “pre-emptive strike” needed to take hold of armouries. Reports of thousands of soldiers being gunned down by their own comrades-in-arms, some of them in their sleep, shocked the Ethiopian public, as did, five days later, the massacre of at least 1200 non-Tigrayans in the small town of Mai Kadra. This tipped the country into war, engulfing three of its eleven regions, killing thousands and displacing millions.

Pacifist USA

At a recent press briefing in Ethiopia, Biden’s Special Envoy, career diplomat Jeffrey Feltman, accepted that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is democratically elected and has a constitutional mandate. He also acknowledged that the TPLF “would be met with unrelenting hostility if it entered Addis (Ababa, the capital) today”. In his own chilling words, this would be “a bloodbath situation”. And yet, he insisted repeatedly that the US “is not taking sides”. This might sound like disavowing US support for democracy in its faceoff with those who would commit a bloodbath against it, but the point was to rebut the widespread perception, the “false rumors”, that the US has indeed sided with one warring party. With the TPLF!

Frustrated and misunderstood though Feltman feels, this is what Ethiopians take away from the months he has been bombarding their government with pacifist rhetoric, urging it not to defend itself and to ground its air force, even when the rebels were advancing, while demanding an unfettered supply line into enemy territory on pain of more punitive US sanctions on an already sputtering war economy. Feltman would do well to take this advice from fellow American David Steinman: Repair US credibility by apologizing to the Ethiopian people for complicity with the TPLF. Then, after regaining trust, the US will have a friendly Ethiopian ear, including for airing human rights concerns.

Feltman wants to save Ethiopia’s unity, he says. The threat of a Yugoslavia-style breakup has long loomed large, as ethnic cleansing by violent fringe groups, and not just in Tigray, has, from the outset, been the main challenge to Abiy Ahmed’s vision of coexistence without authoritarianism. However, preventing the dreaded ‘Ethioslavia’ calls for strengthening, not undermining the central government.

Instead, Feltman and the rich world’s aid-industrial complex echo the tired mantra: “There’s no military solution, only a negotiated one”. But what if the opposite is true? How can the international community know this better than the Ethiopians who did try to negotiate for years? The tried and tested recipe for peace and stability is rule of law and state monopoly on violence. Mindless pacifist mantras are to be expected of large international organizations, but when trotted out by Biden’s envoy, it sounds more like reckless abdication of superpower responsibilities. As conservatives well know, blanket pacifism on one’s own behalf is suicide, while pacifism on behalf of others is suggesting that they commit suicide. Unsurprisingly, China, Russia, Turkey and even Iran have jumped on the opportunity, and who can blame the Ethiopians for taking the help on offer?

The role of Obama era officials

This raises the big question: why? The US did not become the number one superpower by shooting itself in the foot. Although BLM seemingly sided with the TPLF, other extreme leftists have had a field day selling their trademark idea to Ethiopians that the US is fundamentally evil, the destruction of Ethiopia simply serving its evil ends. One suspects that, had the White House chosen to support the central government, these same left-wingers would have sided with the TPLF to satisfy their America-bashing. Leave that as it may, Ethiopians are not in a mood to turn down support from any quarter. Besides, the anti-American sentiment sweeping Ethiopia would vanish instantly, if just a handful of Republicans were to come out and denounce the Democrats’ Ethiopia policy. Just witness the love storm directed by Ethiopians towards Senator Inhofe on YouTube and Twitter.

So how to explain it? It did raise eyebrows when, back in 2015, Obama called the TPLF-dominated national regime “democratically elected”. This was mostly shrugged off as realpolitik, but these days the historical chumminess between the TPLF and the Democrats is being revisited. Some Ethiopians have produced a highly recommendable video on the topic. Susan Rice, a former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, has never hidden her friendship with the TPLF strongman, Meles Zenawi, forged in service during the Obama administration. Also USAID Administrator Samantha Power and Feltman have a history as eulogizers of the late strongman. Biden’s Ethiopia policy is being crafted by old hands whose track records make them deeply distrusted by the Ethiopian people.

The Democrats have mostly closed ranks over the matter, though congressman (D) John Garamendi from California warned that “a collapse of the elected government in Addis would not be in anyone’s interest”. Diaspora Ethiopians have assiduously courted left-wingers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, but gotten nowhere.

This is not to suggest that Republicans should take kneejerk opposite stances, nor that Ethiopians should give up seeking bipartisan support for their democracy. But perhaps it is a clue that US foreign policy, whether in pursuit of idealistic values or national interests, is not as rational as people believe. It is responsive to petty personal prejudices. And even, this being 2021, to the mental contortions of wokism.

Trigger word ‘genocide’
In woke call-out culture, questioning a claim of racism is so profane that it amounts to complicity. And who wants to be a racist? As John McWhorter describes in his recent book “Woke Racism”, white liberals are so afraid of the racism label, it paradoxically drives them to commit racist acts, for instance, by heaping condescension on Blacks, who need frank criticism as much as everyone else. In a very similar vein, the mere accusation of genocide can whip up a counterproductive frenzy of virtue-signaling with no questions asked. Who wants to be an apologist for genocide? A dramatic narrative always beats objective truth, and sometimes even self-interest.

The TPLF began to weaponize this as far back as in 2005, accusing the opposition of being “Interahamwe” (the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide). From day one of this war, the word ‘genocide’ was placed right, left and center by the TPLF’s activist online army and gobbled up as intended. Notice that, in the absence of proof, hedges are sometimes inserted. CNN’s Nima Elbagir talks of “possible genocide”. An article in The Guardian, penned by great and good names with no particular knowledge of Ethiopia, gets the bigger picture and many details wrong, yet admits that “to prevent genocide we must sound the alarm before we arrive at certainty.” Translation: we fancy ourselves too much as noble saviors to care about evidence, let alone about understanding the political context.

It seems so much safer for wannabe do-gooders to denounce one genocide too many than one too few, or, in the case of Susan Rice, to make up for her failure to denounce the genocide in Rwanda by denouncing one somewhere else. But actually, it amounts to inflammatory hate speech! It demonizes Ethiopians, prompting cries for revenge. Worst of all, the specter of annihilation conjures up a “total war”, the term used by Goebbels, or a “people’s war”, as TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael puts it. Thus, the powerful trigger word ‘genocide’ is not just a formidable tool to ensnare Western journalists and politicians eager for moral grandstanding. It also serves as a perfect pretext for TPLF to subjugate the Tigrayan people to kill-or-die militarism.

In fairness, it did cause public revulsion and sapped morale across Ethiopia when, in December 2020 and early 2021, federal forces, and especially their allied Eritrean troops, in the course of combating a guerilla insurgency, committed war crimes against Tigrayans. This was widely condemned, and many Ethiopians demanded a troop withdrawal from Tigray, which is what they got on 28 June 2021. Atrocities were not only admitted but documented by the government-appointed and surprisingly independent Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The prime minister lamented them too and promised accountability. The courts have so far indicted 53 Ethiopian soldiers, and convicted four, both for rape and for murder. This process must carry on, even though no cooperation on human rights can be expected from the TPLF, which has consistently denied all allegations. A recent report, drawn up in full cooperation between the EHRC and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, concludes that war crimes have been committed by both sides, but finds no evidence of genocide, or of using starvation or rape as a weapon. Only the TPLF is found to have committed ethnic cleansing in Mai Kadra. This verdict has been largely ignored by foreign journalists eager to sex up their reporting and by politicians keen to come across as saving Africans.

Static media narrative

It was right of the US, and in keeping with popular sentiment in Ethiopia, to urge federal forces, while they were on Tigrayan soil, to treat civilians and PoWs humanely, and also, as soon as military necessity would allow, to get the Eritrean troops to leave. It is permissible to criticize an allied government short of undermining it in the middle of a war.

However, after the Ethiopian government withdrew and declared a unilateral ceasefire on 28 June, the TPLF called it “a sick joke” and invaded the neighboring regions, looting, killing, raping and vandalizing on a much greater scale. Their claim to victimhood seemed weaker and weaker, the longer they marched south into Amhara region and towards the capital. They also attacked eastwards into Afar, seeking to cut off the country’s trade supply line from Djibouti through the desert. The Afar people paid with devastated towns and countless lives to prevent this in a heroic display of loyalty to Ethiopian unity, giving the lie to the TPLF claim to represent ‘oppressed’ minorities.

And yet, after months without any fighting in Tigray, the media narrative remained that the war was in Tigray. At this point, online TPLF activists, including a coterie of old Western friends of the TPLF, pivoted from victimology, from glum talk about “genocide” in a quivering voice, to waxing romantic and triumphalist about high ground taken and artillery being pointed at new towns, with not one word about the TPLF massacres, of which there is a long history, or even about the systematic destruction of health facilities, universities, and other infrastructure.

Regardless, the US government continued to condemn and slap sanctions on the pro-democracy side only. The UN World Food Program continued to supply the TPLF with hundreds of trucks, its aid convoys clearly being diverted to military purposes, yet blaming the Ethiopian government for a “de facto humanitarian blockade”. It was ignored that TPLF invaders were wreaking havoc on both access points into Tigray, namely western Afar and northern Amhara, that the TPLF had murdered Ethiopian soldiers tasked with helping Tigrayan farmers fight a locust plague (food insecurity in Tigray was widespread even before the war), that the TPLF was diverting all Tigrayan resources to its war, and that, while federal forces were in control of the Tigrayan capital Mekele, power and telecoms were restored, and food aid was even paid for by the government supposed to be on a mission of ‘genocide’.

Two resident UN officials were dismissed after complaining about the anti-Ethiopian bias of UN high-ups, while Ethiopia was deemed to have no right to demand the replacement of seven UN officials caught supplying the TPLF leadership with satellite communications equipment. The official UN line has been that any criticism of its aid workers is “irresponsible”, as it undercuts trust in them and hence puts their lives in danger. As if that massive loss of trust in them had nothing to do with supplying the TPLF with equipment to get Ethiopians killed on both sides of the war.

Thankfully, the much-announced fall of Addis Ababa never materialized, as the tide of the war turned. The prime minister went to the battle front himself, and on 20 December, the TPLF announced a full withdrawal from Afar and Amhara. Had the Ethiopian government followed Feltman’s and many a Western organization’s advice to just cease hostilities, even supposing that TPLF had done the same, there would still have been 1.8 million Amhara and Afar people displaced, who are now going home to bury the dead and clean up the mess left by the invaders.

Ethiopians know best, but Americans can holiday with them

Now Abiy Ahmed and his government have to make a big decision. Are their forces going to enter Tigray to disarm and demobilize the TPLF, at the risk of prolonging the war? Or should they stop at the border to Tigray, at the risk of the TPLF regrouping and attacking once more, thus also prolonging the war? The Biden administration is clearly advocating for the latter, and this could be right, or it could be wrong. One thing is certain: the Ethiopian government deserves support regardless of its sovereign choice. It is much better placed to know what needs to be done than the State Department. The simplest way to put it is that American values and interests are better served by Abiy Ahmed winning than losing.

The official US red-alert travel advisory continues in effect, but Ethiopians in the diaspora are planning “the Great Homecoming” to boost the economy and help rebuild the war-torn regions. You may be surprised to learn that this is a wonderful time for a holiday in the biblical African nation. Avoid certain areas, and this is a very safe, low-crime country, for instance, the lush and beautiful coffee-growing region of Oromia, which surrounds Addis Ababa. There is so much historical heritage and natural scenery. Going out is jaw-droppingly inexpensive. And just being there shows your support and will be much appreciated. If you state your disagreement with your government’s Ethiopia policy, expect to be treated like a hero.

Alas, the war may not be over, but here are some lessons that can already be learned.

First casualty of war
Reputable news outlets have assured the public that Kyle Rittenhouse is a white supremacist and that parents protesting CRT in schools are domestic terrorists. But at least this is all very easy to rebut. When it comes to foreign affairs, by contrast, the public often knows too little to take mainstream media to task for bias and slander. Keep in mind the old adage that the first casualty of war is truth. This is even more so in an underdeveloped country, where winning the sympathy of the number one superpower has a massive psychological effect and is a key part of the war effort. Much of the debate on social media consists of listing the other side’s war crimes, or denying those of one’s own side. The wise option is to withhold judgement, as we know the evidence can be genuine, false, even fabricated. The journalists assigned to covering the conflict are mostly generic so-called “Africa experts” with limited access to local sources because of the language barrier. This is a climate for agenda- and narrative-driven reporting to thrive, with little about who is fighting for what, but plenty of morbid sensationalism. In a display of silly Western navel-gazing, much ink has also been spilled on Abiy Ahmed’s supposed unworthiness of his 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. Really, who cares? It is a nice little recognition to have, but the opinion of five Norwegians is of no interest compared to the security of 115 million Ethiopians.

Of all the dirty tricks played on Ethiopia by mainstream media, from portraying the democratic government as the aggressor to absurdly bad-faith translations, CNN takes first prize for an impressive innovation: attempting to terrorize a whole city!

CNN’s big scare
“Trump was right about CNN”, is the most commonly heard phrase among Ethiopians these days. The channel chose early on to go with a narrative of savage tribalism, ignoring the political analysis, while psychoanalyzing Abiy Ahmed with obsessive contempt, as a tinpot dictator almost as evil as Donald Trump. Dr. Yonas Biru has written a fuller account of CNN’s smearing of Ethiopia than what this space allows for, but one episode stands out and surely would have had ruinous consequences if CNN has tried it in a rich and powerful country.

To give some context, by early November, it was obvious on the ground that Ethiopians of all backgrounds, including ethnicities with historical grievances, were rallying in a crisis response to defend their new democracy. However, the story in mainstream media was that the prime minister’s popular support was crumbling and his government facing imminent collapse. Western embassies urged their citizens to leave the country. If CNN and “Africa experts” in mainstream media were to be believed, the fall of Addis Ababa would resemble that of Kabul in terms of speed. “A matter of weeks if not days”, was the oft-quoted phrase. Then on November 5, this spine-chilling news was broadcasted to television sets across the world:

It would have been easy for CNN to verify and disprove its own headline, as the nearest TPLF forces were 200 miles away. Ethiopians saw it as deliberate fake news, as CNN conducting psychological warfare to instill panic and damage their economy. Notice it says “Tigrayan troops” rather than “TPLF troops” in keeping with CNN’s line that the conflict is tribal rather than political, even though many Tigrayans support the national government, for instance the Minister of Defense, who knows what would be his lot in any “bloodbath situation”.

Five days later, the prime minister’s press secretary, Billene Seyoum, had the opportunity to complain about it on CNN live. The interviewer, Becky Anderson, snapped back angrily that “we stand by the findings as well as the language used in our reporting” and blamed it on the Ethiopian government for restricting the press. Ethiopia is still seeking an apology. It begs the question if CNN would have gotten away with something like this:

Facebook’s tone-deaf tone policing

Facebook has long been criticized for ignoring small ethnic militias in Ethiopia stoking deadly hatred on its platform. It is easy to see how the financial incentives produce this outcome. The social media giant gets vast amounts of content but almost no revenue from Ethiopia. Carefully moderating so many people in so many languages would turn servicing the country into a loss-making operation with no particular publicity value in return. And yet, facilitating massacres is a not a good look in this era, when corporations are supposed to flash their social responsibility.

On November 3, a cost-effective and seemingly PR-friendly fix was found. At the peak of the rebels’ military advance, Abiy Ahmed made a stirring speech to save the country from the forces of chaos and tyranny. “We will bury the TPLF terrorists,” went one line, though the original in Amharic had more of a Churchillian ring to it, vowing to defend the country whatever the costs may be. The people responded by mobilizing. Even famous athletes were moved to risk their precious lives by going to the front. Facebook waxed sanctimonious and deleted the prime minister: “You have violated our community standards against inciting violence”.

Say no to identity politics

Imagine if the rest of the world boiled down US politics to one big fight between Blacks and Whites, the only occasional nuance being that they vie for alliances with Latinos and Asians. This is the crudeness with which mainstream media has treated the complex Ethiopian identity politics. It may be easier to sell to editors than an essay on how to square ethnically-based regional autonomy with multiculturalism and freedom of movement, or about the fine line between addressing historical grievances and feeding into modern power games. But these are the tough balancing acts of wise governance needed to check ethnic chauvinism, the seed of genocide. A sober look at the political landscape of Ethiopia reveals that the multiethnic coalition in office is better placed than anyone else to take on these challenges. Conversely, since Tigray accounts for as little as 6% of the population, the TPLF’s hope of prevailing relies precisely on stirring up ethnic resentment. Just as the woke try to make everything about race, the TPLF likes to make everything about ethnicity. Its supporters will put out tribalist bait and hate-mongering nonsense about the Amhara “seeing themselves as white”, that there is such a thing as “Amhara privilege” and that “Abiy is the Oromo face of Amhara supremacy”. Accordingly, it makes perfect sense that the TPLF engages in alliances with violent fringe groups of ethnonationalist extremism. Thankfully, this strategy has flopped. Ethiopians of all ethnicities do have a common identity, just like Americans of all races do. They also know too well that a TPLF takeover would not merely set the clock back to 2018. It would start with scenes of carnage and continue with decades of war.

Abiy Ahmed personifies Ethiopian unity in diversity. He speaks three of the country’s languages (including Tigrinya, the language of Tigray), he hails from the largest ethnic group, the Oromo, but his ancestry is mixed and his gospel-singing wife is Amhara. He is also an Evangelical Christian with a Muslim father and an Orthodox Christian mother. As for placing him on the Western political left-to-right spectrum, it speaks volumes how he changed the ruling party’s name, which had “Revolutionary Front” in it, to “Prosperity Party”.

Other sources

Before you start a Republican grassroots movement for Ethiopia, you may want to read more about the conflict. I unhumbly suggest my own recent reportage from Ethiopia, “Do-gooders doing bad”, which was reprinted in some Ethiopian newspapers in November. Though most Ethiopian commentary presupposes native knowledge of the country, some have done a great job of explaining to foreigners how we got where we are today, including the aforementioned video about the Democrats in charge of Ethiopia policy. Desta Heliso has produced a reader-friendly overview from a Christian and pro-American starting point, and so has Girma Bekele. Yonas Biru also focuses on achieving a policy change in the West, avoiding some of the anger that is understandable but rarely fruitful. Other recommendable sources are the working papers of veteran Dutch Ethiopia researcher Jon Abbink, who insistently predicted that the TPLF offensive was ultimately doomed, and various articles by the Canadian professor Ann Fitz-Gerald, who recently had the distinct honor of being disinvited from a one-sided debate panel on Ethiopia at Yale University, and penned this important piece together with Bronwyn Bruton.

Meanwhile, AEPAC continues to approach American politicians with the hope of making new friends for Ethiopia, regardless of political orientation. “We have been very vocal with our view that the international community must throw more support behind the democratically elected government of Ethiopia to bring this conflict to a peaceful end,” says chairman Mesfin Tegenu.

Register as a follower to receive more Ethiopia-related content



Rasmus Sonderriis

Danish-Chilean journalist who has spent a total of over six years in Ethiopia since 2004