This is the second part of a two-part series on online and Poetic misinformation in Ethiopia. You can read the first part here.
On November 17, the parties that make up the ruling coalition of Ethiopia, with the exception of the Revolutionary Democratic Front of the Ethiopian People (EPRDF), declared that they have agreed to merge.
The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the oldest of the four parties, decided to reject the agreement and delay the fusion, which paved the way for unrest in the confusing political transition instigated by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which began in April 2018.
However, the measure is expected to reduce ethnic divisions and violence in the country prompted by speech and hate, misinformation and misinformation on social media.
The announcement came after several universities in Ethiopia became hotbeds of aggressive battles of misinformation between political groups after in November 2019 they killed two oromo students of Woldia University, located in the Amhara region, north of the country:
“I've checked mine and said,‘ he is Oromo. ”Then one of them hit me with a metal stick and the other one with a rock. I fell down and fainted. When I became conscious, I saw myself laying in pool of blood. ”Https://t.co/ILfzpRIMiv
– Tigist Geme (@TigGeme) November 13, 2019
“We heard someone knocking on the door and we opened. We had no idea of the struggles that occurred in other parts of the university. One person asked for our identification cards. They saw the identification of a student from the south and another from Tigray and returned them ”.
“He looked at mine and said,” It's an oromo. ” Then one hit me with a metal stick and the other with a stone. I fell and passed out. When I regained consciousness, I found myself lying in a pool of blood.
On November 10, 2019, it was reported that there was a dark fight between Oromo and Amhara students at Woldia University.
So, a spiral of rumors, spread by the social media, had warned of the attacks of one group of students against the other, and this triggered widespread panic among students from universities located outside their home states.
Government authorities have called for calm, and Prime Minister Abiy denounced the rumors and promised that if local authorities do not enforce the law and restore calm, the government will close the universities.
The panic in the various universities in the country has revealed the deep roots of ethnic tensions in Ethiopia, where ethnic tensions are often simplified as a conflict between amharas and oromos, and also as a symptom of a complex and deadly struggle for power within the Revolutionary Democratic Front of the Ethiopian People (EPRDF).
The EPRDF is the coalition of four ethnic parties: Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), the Democratic Movement of the People of Southern Ethiopia (SEPDM) and the Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF), which they currently constitute the leadership of Ethiopia.
Since 1991, the EPRDF has been the central actor in Ethiopian politics. However, in the last two years, it has virtually disappeared as a cohesive coalition, although it continues to rule the country.
The party is immersed in a deadly and relentless struggle for powers, especially for ethnic reasons among its four members, and supporters and members of each ethnic party are taking their fight to the social media.
Coalition members, especially ADP, ODP and TPLF, were openly flirting with belligerent groups of the nationalist opposition. They are fighting each other and leaking shameful stories to opposition media that fuel the current misinformation fire.
The stories that filter are sometimes completely invented. More often, they are deceptive or biased, gathered to serve the purposes of these parties in their power struggle.
For example, in October, amid growing tension, Seyoum Teshome, a leading social media commentator, began publishing a series of dubious screenshots with email exchanges supposedly obtained from the email account of a prominent member of TPLF Teshome, a strong supporter of Prime Minister Abiy, has been in prison twice in 2016 and 2018, for unknown reasons.
The emails obtained claimed that the main members of the TPLF were planning to incite chaos in Ethiopian universities, to undermine the confidence of Ethiopians in the ability of Prime Minister Abiy to guarantee security in the country.
“Murder Plan” by Jawar Mohammed: Disinformation Case
On October 21, Jawar Mohammed, a prominent Omo political activist and ex-ally of the then Prime Minister Abiy, wrote several updates on Facebook in which he reported the events that occurred near the door of his home in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia.
Collectively, in his publications in three different languages, Omo Afan, Amharic and English, he denounced that a squad of federal police approached his home after midnight and ordered his protective team assigned to him by the Government to pack and leave .
Since April 2018, the Government has eased restrictions on the media and allowed opposition party leaders and activists, previously banned, to return to Ethiopia, and provides security details, including Mohammed.
In the updates, Mohammed warned that if armed men tried to get close, his protective team would defend himself and blame the government in case of a bloodshed.
In the hours after his updates, among concerns and expectations of supporters and detractors, Mohammed appeared in a live broadcast on Facebook broadcast by the Oromia Media Network (OMN), of which he is co-founder and current executive director. During the broadcast, he intensified his confrontation with the government authorities and accused them of a plot to kill him.
But government authorities, including Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, denied Mohammed's accusation, said that if they wanted to kill him, they would not have given him security.
His statements triggered a chain of reactions that began with a meeting of followers in front of his home in Addis Ababa.
There were street protests in parts of Oromia, the largest region of Ethiopia, which in turn triggered violence in the demonstrations, followed by what the media described as “community violence” in the region.
Minority groups that openly accuse the Oromia administration of discriminatory practices also protested in Adama Nazeret, a city in eastern Oromia; episodes of sporadic violence caused deaths between both minority groups.
In one of the deadliest episodes of the numerous cycles of violence in Ethiopia, at least 86 people died and several were injured between October 21 and 23, 2019 in Oromia.
The images and videos that circulated on social media after the violence show that the Ethiopians have inflicted extreme violence and atrocities to their fellow citizens, which has caused widespread fear and community tension.
When violence declined in the region, a new online battle began for interpretations and assignment of blame.
The growing polarization in ethnic lines flooded Ethiopian social media with very different interpretations of violence: Amhara nationalists, Ethiopian nationalists and Ethiopian Orthodox followers of Tewahedo used terms such as “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide,” while nationalists de Oromo and Sidama used phrases such as “government-driven violence.”
These interpretations strained relations between mostly Amharas and Oromo elites, which led to insults full of misinformation and misinformation.
Mohammed's critics did not skimp on assigning blame, spread stories, images and memes on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that attributed responsibility to him.
They say it caused violence with false accusations of a plan to assassinate him and deliberately awaken the nationalist sentiment.
In addition, one of the emails that Seyoum Teshome published on October 25, 2019 states that Mohammed and the TPLF were working covertly to incite violence in Oromia in order to prevent the merger of the EPRDF.
Opponents described the violent incident as a massacre caused by the publications of Mohammed on Facebook, a story that has become popular on Ethiopian Twitter with the tag # October2019massacre (October 2019 massacre). They asked for a harsh response from Prime Minister Abiy, who is an Omo, who is routinely accused of being too soft on Mohammed or working in secret with him.
Mohammed's allies see the protest in Oromia as a victory that prevented an attempt on his life and acclaimed protesters in Oromia as heroes.
They blame the deadly violence on Amharas nationalists and other opposition political parties.
The majority of Omo defenders and politicians who showed their solidarity with Mohammed said that the Otoms were waiting for the opportunity to protest, with their accusation of a murder plan like the straw that broke the glass. In a protest video widely spread on Facebook, protesters were heard insulting Abiy, they call him “Habesha”, a term popularly used to refer to Ethiopians as a whole, but Omo nationalists use it to accuse an oromo who is Yielding to interests we don't take.
Mohammed is a kind of protest teacher, media executive and political strategist in his community. With almost 1.8 million followers on Facebook, he used his page to guide street protests, raise funds and request information from groups within the EPRDF that helped remove the formerly dominant TPLF, which for years had blocked social media and arrested and tortured to bloggers.
Even then, the EPRDF was able to actively use social media to mobilize support, spread misinformation and attack opponents, including Moahmmed. Moreover, the true precursor of the vertiginous current misinformation that exists in Ethiopian social media began in 2014.
For years, paid online commentators linked to the EPRDF published comments that favored party policies and attacked opponents. Commentators are known as cocas, amharic expression that means “despicable cadres”. Apparently, cocas were hired by members of the EPRDF coalition in an attempt to manipulate public opinion.
Cocas united easily around stories and memes generated by the EPRDF. For example, when Tedros Adahanom, a member of the TPLF, appeared in the elections to lead the World Health Organization (WHO) as CEO in 2017, he mobilized thousands on Facebook and created the impression that he had broad support.
Also, Mohammed has exploited the seismic changes that are occurring within the EPRDF. On his Facebook page, he often publishes and provides expert analysis on live streaming on OMN's Facebook, and introduces himself as someone who receives the most important secrets of the EPRDF. He publishes without a particular program, sometimes several times a day, and some days he does not publish anything. His publications offer information on what he usually calls collective interest, grievances and alleged threats from the Oromo people.
The OMN Facebook page, with one million followers, is one of the fastest growing pages among Ethiopian media organizations.
Mohammed ranks first among Ethiopian political figures in the number of followers of his verified Facebook page, which has 1.8 million followers. No other Ethiopian public figure with political influence comes close to him.
This article is part of a series of publications that examine interference on digital rights through methods such as disruption of broadcaster networks and misinformation during key political events in seven African countries: Algeria, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe. The project is funded by the African Fund for Digital Collaborative Rights in International Information and Communications Technology Policy for Eastern and Southern Africa (CIPESA).