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Ethiopia’s Failed Public Diplomacy is Bordering on National Emergency

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abiy demekeYonas Biru*

Egypt’s and TPLF’s international public relations (PR) campaign against Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed whom they are brilliantly using as a proxy to attack Ethiopia has reached a critical mass and is gathering energy and power. Their campaigns are not peculiarly sophisticated. As far as sophistication goes, they can be described as a run-of-the-mill campaign in the bottom half of the totem pole of PR campaigns. Nonetheless, they are winning because Ethiopia has willfully forfeited the game. With well-designed and executed PR, Ethiopia can defuse the coordinated attacks and shift Ethiopia’s response posture from defense to offense in short order.

To be clear, the proposed PR offensive for Ethiopia is not about a counter propaganda campaign. Most successful PR campaigns are those who masterfully present the truth in full context to defuse false claims, acknowledge wrongdoings where appropriate, frame the government’s domestic communication and international public diplomacy agenda, articulate the narratives and ensure their speedy implementation.

Where Ethiopia Failed vis-à-vis Egypt

In substance, the difference between Ethiopia’s and Egypt’s positions on the Nile River pertains to legal rights to an equitable and reasonable share of the Blue Nile waters and the management of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Ethiopia is on equally solid grounds whether the focus of contention is on water-sharing or dam management. In deciding which option to focus on, it should concern itself with two issues: which option is more amenable to develop an effective PR strategy and which one brings Sudan onto Ethiopia’s side. Ethiopia did neither. It ended up following a negotiation strategy that played into the hands of Egypt. This allowed Egypt to spin a non-issue into an existential threat to its existence and a matter of concern for global security.

To help Ethiopia in its international public diplomacy, an Ethiopian Diaspora and Local Experts Task Force conducted a study that showed Ethiopia would lose $41.7 Billion if the filling of the GERD by five year. It is not hard to imagine what Ethiopia’s loss would be if Egypt prevailed to delay the filling of the dam by as much as 21 years as it demanded. The Ethiopian government failed to use the study as part of its international PR arsenal. Three of the eight Taskforce members (the writer of this article who served as Chair of the Task Force, Professors Lemma Woldesenbet and professor Tadele Ferede) ended up being members of the PM’s Independent Economic Advisory Council.

Where Ethiopia Failed vis-à-vis TPLF

When the US invaded Iraq it launched a two-pronged war: On the military front and PR front. The PR front was critical in mobilizing international support. In Ethiopia’s law enforcement war against TPLF, the focus was on the military front. PR seemed an afterthought and haphazard at best, or totally absent at worst. This is true especially the first three months. As this writer has noted in a recent Ethiopian Herald opinion piece, “In the Ethiopian War the West Sides with a Terrorist Group.” It is unimaginable that we are losing the international PR to such a group.

Why are TPLF and Egypt targeting the Prime Minister?

They are craftily using the ethnic card. Attacking Ethiopia as a country can unite the people. But attacking the Prime Minister (an Oromo) will resonate with certain tribal parties in Ethiopia. That is why we see such headlines in international media as “Nobel Peace Prize Winner to Belligerent Warmaker;” “From peace prize to civil war in a year;” and “Ethiopia’s prime minister trades his Nobel Peace Prize for civil war.” All this despite TPLF’s arrogant admission that it started the war.

Recently, Sudan has joined the “whack-the-mole” game against Ethiopia. The risks come in cascades, spirals and runs as Egypt, TPLF and Sudan are strengthened by and feeding into each other’s efforts. The coordinated international PR attack has very little (if any) chance of forcing Ethiopia to concede to either Egypt’s, Sudan’s or TPLF’s demands. The damage will be in the nation’s and the PM’s political brand. If left unanswered, it can have incalculable negative impacts in three different areas.

First, some nations may cut part of their development aid to Ethiopia. It is very unlikely to see a significant decrease in international aid because Ethiopia is too important a geopolitical real estate for the West to abandon her, knowing China and Russia are eagerly hoping for such outcome to expand their sphere of influence in a key geopolitical area. But there is a potential risk of losing some aid. Negative international media creates undue public and political pressure on Ethiopia’s bilateral and international partners to impose sanctions, including blocking or freezing foreign aid.

Second, there is a risk of significant decline in foreign direct investment. International investors are not keen to invest in a country that is being bombarded as a perpetrator of genocide and mass rape in major international newspapers and magazines, including the Economist, Washington Post and New York Times.

Third, the most negative outcome is an emboldened local opposition that capitalizes on the nation’s perceived weakness. TPLF was all but destroyed militarily. Its efforts are now focused on resuscitating itself, drawing its energy from the oxygen it gets from international intervention. This in turn is giving the light that shines a sliver of hope to the remnants of TPLF in Tigray and reviving their demolished psychology. Dr. Merera Gudina’s recent announcement that his party will not take part in the upcoming national elections is part of the international narrative that the democratic reform has been abducted by the PM.

Ethiopia’s misguided adage “በስራህ እንዲያዩህ እንጂ እንዲሰሙህ አትሞክር” has undermined the need for a PR strategy and proven futile in a world where the governing creed is “if you do not talk, I cannot see you.” In the US and Europe, where talk is gold, there are firms for hire whose business is talking on behalf of others.

Such firms are run by former senators and retired cabinet members with close ties with current government officials and lawmakers. Each lobbying firm has what is called a media placement unit. They work closely with editors and owners of newspapers to get their narratives out. They make things happen. The Amharic word may be “ጉዳይ አስፈጻሚ”. The English expression in the US is “the grease that helps turn the wheels of government on national and international policy issues.”

Lobbying is not corruption. It is part of the governance mechanism through which interest groups from teachers’ associations to potato farmers and mega corporations to neighborhood churches defend and advance their interests. Evangelist and Catholic churches often retain multiple lobbying firms, each with a team of lobbyists, to press their agenda ranging from health care to international relations and poverty to abortion rights. One gets what one demands through his/her lobbyists not what one deserves.

Why Ethiopia’s Failure in the PR Realm Has Become a Matter of National Security

In three short years, the world’s opinion about Ethiopia’s transformational socio-economic reforms and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s leadership has gone from እልልታ to ኡኡታ. In 2018, the international media’s narrative of Prime Minister Abiy was inundated with accolades. He was praised as a “visionary democratic leader,” and a “hope for Africa.” CNN credited the PM with “saving the country from civil war.”

The reform agenda that the PM is leading is the same reform agenda that the world unanimously praised in 2018. A critical question imposes itself on us: What caused the world to swing from the PM is a visionary leader who is poised to uplift Africa to a villain who is pushing the entire horn of Africa to the brink of collapse? The simple answer is Egypt and TPLF.

For three years Egypt unleashed a barrage of unanswered international campaigns against the PM. In 2021, TPLF implemented Egypt’s blueprint in hiring US lobbying powerhouses to target the Prime Minister as one who is destabilizing the entire region over “the war against the people of Tigray.”

Former Ethiopian Ambassador Berhane Gebrekirstos (one of TPLF’s founders) is spending his days going from one lobbying firm to another on K Street in Washington DC, where the movers and shakers of America’s lobbyist firms are situated. Such firms do not come cheap. They charge up to $100,000 per month. TPLF is said to have signed contracts with multiples of them. The Ethiopian government failed to respond, giving TPLF an open field to frame and control the narrative.

The Benefits of Lobbying Firms are Far More than the Cost of Acquiring Them

In 2018, America’s top 100 companies spent a total of $2 Billion in Lobbying. This was $20 million per company. In return they brought in a total of $400 Billion in government contracts and grants. In other words, for every dollar they spent on lobbying they racked in 200 dollars.

Lobbying is not limited to American firms. Nations who wish to influence US international policies spend millions of dollars on high-power lobbying firms. This can be discerned from titles of newspaper articles such as: “Pro-Israel donors spent over $22m on lobbying and contributions in 2018” and “Egypt assembles bipartisan powerhouse lobbying team for post-Trump era.

Between January 2017 and August 2018, foreign governments spent over $530 million on US lobbyists. To name just a few Sub Saharan African countries, Nigeria spends tens of millions a year. Similarly, Kenya spends millions every year. South Africa spent $7 million in 2017 alone. This is the government alone. Mega corporations hire their own lobbyists. In 2019, South Sudan paid lobbyists $3.7 million for better Trump ties.

In 2019, Sudan (North) had three different lobbyist firms working on its behalf. Our government’s budget is $0.00. South Sudan has a GDP (PPP) of about $15 billion. Ethiopia has a GDP (PPP) of $260 billion. South Sudan is part of the international PR engagement to protect and advance its national interest. Ethiopia exists outside of the American and European lobbying orbit. What we are suffering now is the outcome of this.


In light of the above we strongly recommend the following steps and urge the Ethiopian government to implement them with a sense of national security urgency.

  1. Without any consideration of cost, Ethiopia must hire three lobbying powerhouses in the US, including an African American, liberal leaning and conservative oriented firms. The three firms may cost Ethiopia up to $5 million per year in total. The cost of not having them will be exponentially higher (notes explaining why we need three firms will be sent to the PM’s office in confidence).
  1. Ethiopia needs a high-level advisory council to develop strategy for a robust communication ecosystem and PR complexcovering the realm of both domestic and foreign public diplomacy. Given the urgency and extremely critical nature of the issue at hand, the proposed Council is advised to report directly to the PM. This must be done in parallel to hiring lobbying firms with a sense of urgency.
  1. Ethiopia must mobilize African American civil rights leaders and churches. Each Civil Rights organization has hundreds of churches they work with. President Biden came to the White House riding on the back of black voters. The last thing he will do is ignore their intervention. (How the Ethiopian government failed in this will be sent to the PM’s office in confidence).


  1. The Prime Minister needs to consider appointing a special envoy to mobilize support from African countries.There are Ethiopians in the diaspora with deep contact with leaders of key African countries that can serve in this capacity. If Egypt prevails with international help, it will have a detrimental impact on 10 Nile basin countries. It is in their interest to stand up with Ethiopia. Similarly, if the TPLF issue is allowed to stand through international pressure, it will create a precedent that will destroy many African nations. As the Time magazine noted, “TPLF has been demanding greater local autonomy in response.” René Lefort, an expert in Ethiopian politics, noted TPLF’s demand is “to govern Tigray with as little external interference as possible [with] a true confederalism.” TPLF request violates the nation’s constitutional order because the Ethiopian Constitution is federalist not confederalist. When it was unable to achieve its goal through the nation’s democratic process, it resorted to launching a war as a political tool to extort concessions. This is a dangerous precedent for Africa.

Nations who fall behind in the game of international public diplomacy fall to the wayside or find themselves at the mercy of their detractors. Ethiopia is in such a dire position. The consolation is that the situation is reversible because Ethiopia is in the right. Ethiopians in the diaspora regard helping their mother country as a duty. They await their country’s beacon call to contribute their fair share. But the diaspora can play only a supporting role to the government that leads with a robust strategy and adequate budget.

In the US and Europe where lobbying powerhouses are shakers and movers of domestic and international policy, Ethiopia has no chance of winning the international PR battle against Egypt, Sudan and TPLF without help from lobbyist powerhouses. We urge the government of Ethiopia to implement the above four proposals as matters of national security urgency.

We will prevail! But we must act with a sense of national emergency. God bless and protect Ethiopia.

* The author is former Deputy Global Manager of the International Economic Comparison Program at the World Bank. Currently, he is the chair of a committee established to develop the work plan and institutional and organizational framework of the PM’s Independent Economic Advisory Council. The views expressed in this article are his independent views as an Ethiopian citizen.