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HARD EVIDENCE

Has the Ethiopian prime minister gone to the frontline of a warzone?

Ethiopia's prime minister dressed in a suit, staring directly into the camera with a stern expression on his face.
REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Laureate prime minister stunned the world when he declared he would be heading to the battleground.
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After Abiy Ahmed announced he would lead his country’s soldiers on the front lines of the war against the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), a TPLF affiliated media has offered 11 million birr ($230,000) for information on the whereabouts of the prime minister.

Tigray Media House, the US-based online media outlet that has been actively documenting the crisis of the war from the perspective of the northern rebels, made the offer in its live-streamed program on YouTube on Nov. 23 (link in Amharic.)

“We only need information on which front he is at, to which we would gladly pay 11 million birr,” said the presenter, comparing it to the 10 million birr the Federal government had offered on information on the whereabouts of the rebels back when it was in control of Mekelle.

The prime minister seems to have given in to the pressure to prove he is on the battleground, recently releasing a video on Twitter.  Abiy, appearing in the video in army attire and leading a group of soldiers in an open field, stated that he is in Kasagita, Afar region. He also shared some victory news and vowed to recapture two rebel held territories today.

The year-long conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, displaced more than two million, and left hundreds of thousands facing famine-like conditions. After the rebels had retaken most of Tigray, including its capital Mekele, they have pushed into neighboring Amhara and Afar regions and are pushing towards the capital.

The whereabouts of Ethiopia’s prime minister have been a major topic of speculation

While some didn’t think the offer from Tigray Media House was serious and was just aimed at ridiculing the prime minister, the question of Abiy’s whereabouts has been a hot issue since Ethiopian state media said on Wednesday that prime minister Abiy Ahmed had gone to the front lines to lead the Ethiopian army against the Tigrayan forces.

Online feuds over demands for the picture of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate at the battlefront have been ongoing. Pro-rebel accounts circulated demands for his picture, claiming they needed evidence that he was in action. His photo became the latest topic in the information war on social media that has been another battleground since Ethiopian federal forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front TPLF started fighting in November 2020.

However, the calls were not welcomed by pro-government accounts who labeled the appeals as malicious and accused them of being aimed at obtaining Geodata, GPS coordinates that are stored as metadata embedded in photo files and could be used to identify the location where the photograph was taken.

Another campaign was launched to counter the calls for Abiy’s pictures urging people not to share the prime minister’s pictures saying the rebels are trying to locate him.

The whereabouts of the prime minister have also puzzled his adversaries according to tweets by the spokesman of TPLF, Getachew K Reda.

Ethiopian leaders going to the war battle themselves have long been the tradition, with very rare exceptions. Abiy is sticking to this long standing common belief of the Ethiopian way of leadership that was followed by the likes of Menelik II, who defeated Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa and  Emperor Yohannes IV, who was killed in battle in 1889.

On the other hand, as part of the state of emergency measures, the Ethiopian government, allegedly yesterday, banned all unauthorized reporting on military engagements and war front updates.

Prominent Ethiopian figures are joining the prime minister on the battlefront

Since Abiy stated that he is heading to the front, prominent Ethiopian public figures have vowed to join him. Among them are Ethiopian Olympic heroes Haile Gebrselassie and Feyisa Lilesa.

A legend in Ethiopia, Haile has two Olympic gold medals, eight World Championship victories and set 27 world records.

The other athlete Feyisa won the marathon silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics and became famous for holding up his crossed wrists as if they were shackled to draw global attention to the crackdown on demonstrators demanding political reforms in Ethiopia.

Opposition figures, political party leaders, and artists have also vowed to join the war on what they describe as an existential threat to Ethiopia. In contrast, TPLF supporters denounce this as an effort to rally public support behind the war effort.

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