Deceit is its own damnation (part I)
Friday, 19 November 1999 09:10:01

It is now five months since the last major military engagement between the Eritrean and Weyane forces. There have been wide-spread reports on the enormous losses suffered by the invading Ethiopian forces in the Badme and Tsorona fronts. Africa Confidential (AC), which, presumably, has been gathering confidential material about what transpired in those military engagements, has now it appears completed its research, and reports in its latest issue of November 12, 1999, of major Eritrean losses, losses that had hitherto remained "confidential." We Eritreans have come to expect nothing of this semi-tabloid that pretends to be more. They call it Africa Confidential presumably to give the impression that it reports news items that are otherwise confidential. I cannot say whether its reports about other African countries is blessed with accuracy or integrity; but I can definitely say that its coverage of Eritrean affairs, especially those that pertain to conflicts with Ethiopia, is selective, biased, slanted, inaccurate and at times, even flagrantly fraudulent. It is the purpose of this article to support this observation by presenting specific cases of gross and malicious fabrications.

Throughout the liberation struggle, AC's coverage of Eritrean affairs was resentful of Eritrean successes, joyful at its setbacks and replete with inaccuracies and fabrications. One such example that stands out in my memory is their coverage of the 2nd EPLF congress (AC Vol.28,No.9) where they reported the death of Mesfin Hagos. The reality was that Mesfin Hagos was elected to the EPLF Central Committee at the same congress and not only did he survive the war, but he is still around, serving his people and nation in various capacities. Who was the confidant who told them that the death of Mesfin Hagos was announced at the congress? I find it just incredible that they didn't have the very un-confidential list of the people that were elected to the EPLF Central Committee? Honest mistakes are a fact of the business, one may argue, and this may just be one. Fair enough! But did AC apologize for such gross inaccuracy? Or did it at least correct its error? No! Doing that could have only lead its readers to cast doubts about the value of the "confidential" matters that it reports. But what is significant is the fact that minor errors in the names of ELF factions they made in the same report were corrected the next issue, with apologies to boot. In that authoritative sounding report, AC told its readers about a derogatory remark that they alleged Isaias to have publicly made about the government in the Sudan. I have my strong doubts about that. If they could report the death of Mesfin Hagos was announced at a Congress where he was elected to the EPLF leadership, then how reliable could they be on other matters?

A more recent example of this type of careless (that may even be mischievous) reporting that is never corrected or retracted is their report about the number of people killed in the unfortunate bombing of Mekele. In their June 12, 1998 issue, one reads, " Eritrean raid on Mekele killed nearly 200 civilians." All other reports put the number of killed and wounded at 100. In fact, the actual number of the people who died is 44. So why did AC add nearly 156 to that? Is this another "confidential" information that was only available to its editors? And why haven't they corrected it when they found out about it is erroneous? AC's editors may be reluctant to admit their mistakes because frequent corrections would only degrade the confidence readers would have on its reports and sources. But aren't they engaging in fraud when they fail to look back and mend their ways?

The record of AC's editors to gauge the historical significance of the confidential events they report on is also not that impressive. In March of 1988, the EPLF scored one of its most significant military victories against the Derg when it routed the Nadew Command, destroying three Ethiopian divisions of 20,000 men and capturing Afabet. As luck would have it, Basil Davidsion, a noted historian and Africanist, was at that time visiting the Eritrean liberated zones and from the vantage point of a historian, understood the full significance of the route. In a telephone interview he held with the BBC from the EPLF headquarters in the Sahel, he declared that the Eritrean victory was the most significant military victory by a liberation front since Dien Bien Phu. The implication of his assessment was clear: The route of the Dergue forces at Afabet was the beginning of the end for the Ethiopian occupation of Eritrea. Basil Davidson was not alone in making that assessment, however. Mengistu himself conceded as much when he pulled his forces from the entire western regions of Eritrea, hastily evacuating to Keren his garrisons at Tessenei, Barentu, Agordat and all the towns in between. With one victory at Afabet, half of Eritrea was included to the liberated zones under the control of the EPLF. In retrospect, it is clear that Basil Davidson's assessment was as accurate as one can get.

But how did the folks at AC view this stellar Eritrean victory? Not only did they down-play its significance, but even attempted to contradict the EPLF's account. The title they chose for their articls says it all: Ethiopia: A Battle Lost, a War in Stalemate. I am still amazed by their audacity when they dismissed Basil Davidson's views as that of an "excitable fellow traveler of the EPLF." Whereas the EPLF reported that about 20,000 Derg soldiers were killed and wounded in the battle of Afabet, the editors of AC declared that no such thing occurred and that Ethiopian casualties were only 10,000. And although other sources reported that the withdrawal of the Derg forces from the Western lowlands was hasty and disorganized (one report spoke of five tanks left in Tessenei), in AC's version, the evacuation was well-organized and impressive. I remember being very bemused by their assertions that would have the reader believe that they had a better perspective on matters taking place inside Eritrea. Can you imagine a couple of individuals, sitting in London, to claim to be in possession of more reliable information about Ethiopian casualties than the EPLF? You would think that it was General Patrick Gilkes' forces, and not the EPLF, that had done the decimating? But who knows, this couple of individuals may be blessed with super-human abilities. If not that, they may be confidants of one who is.

As momentous events took pace and Eritrean victory inched closer, AC's reporting was consistent in its denial of the possibility of eventual Eritrean success. Even as late as May 3, 1991, just three weeks to the total liberation of Eritrea, they wrote wistfully that Mengistu's reorganization of his government "could just succeed," presumably to stave off the eventuality of Eritrean independence. The Eritrean total victory on May 24, 1991 could have only been a total night-mare for the editors of AC. They didn't welcome it. There was no report on the triumphant entry of the EPLF forces to Asmara, the almost delirious reception of the fighters by the people of Eritrea or the euphoria that lasted for months. It may be because AC reports only on confidential matters and that there was nothing confidential about the EPLF marching to Asmara. The rout of the Ethiopian forces was so total that there was nothing AC's highly imaginative editors could conjure to down-play, contradict or detract. Instead, there was constant knit-picking with the EPLF as authoritarian and undemocratic. Its problems were invariably magnified ten-fold and its achievements reduced by the same proportion. Their hostility to Eritrean independence never waned. In one report, they even declared that Meles could not let Eritrea go and expect to survive. Typical AC stuff making grandiose and wishful statements.

And there is another reason why Eritrea's ultimate success was horrible news to AC; having consistently dismissed its possibility, Eritrean independence is an unpleasant testimony that AC's editors are only second-rate analysts. I know of no Eritrean who would take any of that confidential stuff on their menu seriously. Eritrean independence had come as stinging slap not only to AC but to other enemies of Eritrea as well; academics and self-styled experts who make their bread and butter out of propagating Ethiopian mythology. In 1985, a fanatical Peter Schwab definitively concluded that Eritrean independence was a pipe-dream. Hagaii Erlich had reached a similar conclusion in 1983 and in 1987, just months before the devastating defeat of its forces at Afabet, Christopher Clapham published a book and concluded that the Derg's revolution had prevailed and that Eritrean victory was not possible. Peter Schwab has mercifully faded away. But the others never stopped their inimical assault on Eritrea in the desperate hope that one day they would be vindicated and that the enormous efforts they expended writing books and penning articles that dismiss Eritrea was not all in vain.

The beginning of the current conflict was an opportune occasion for long time-enemies of Eritrea to unleash their merciless venom. As is customary with the news-media, they rushed to the "experts" for opinions and assessments about its causes and possible evolution. The leading news organization of the world, the BBC, is located in London, the home-town of Africa Confidential, as it is of Patrick Gilkes, the dean of the enemies of Eritrean independence. In London, Pat Gilkes, who has strong connections to both the BBC and AC, is regarded as the foremost authority on the Horn of Africa. Today, you can detect his views reflected in most reports on the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict that originate in his home-town. The unattributed reports of the AC and the Economist are particularly susceptible to his biased views and fabrications. Christopher Clapham is another Briton who is equally virulently anti-Eritrean. But his reach in the popular media is limited. His attempts to denigrate Eritrea in the academic arena can always be checked as the world of academe is less tolerant of "confidential" stuff.

>From the outset of the conflict, AC took a decidedly anti-Eritrean stance, resorting to its old tricks and becoming very brazen with its outright fabrications. Its May 29, 1998 issue carried a full report on the looming conflict. The most significant "confidential" information in that report is what the editors of AC alleged to be the disputed areas. They drew a large triangle, all of it inside Ethiopia, and which includes all of the Sheraro region of Tigray, and reported it to be the areas that Eritrea was claiming. Remember that on May 14, 1998, President Isaias Afwerki, in an interview with Eri-TV, had told the Eritrean people that Badme was Eritrean while Sheraro was Ethiopian. On May 20, 1998, he went further and using maps, clearly indicated that Eritrea was only claiming territories inside its well-known borders and that it was the Weyanes who were claiming large tracts of Eritrean lands that they have incorporated in their new map of Tigray. It is against this background that AC, in its May 29, 1998 issue, had the audacity to present to its readers a totally fabricated map of the areas claimed by Eritrea. Even the Weyanes, who at the beginning of the conflict lied that the Yirga Triangle constituted the disputed area, did not include Sheraro in the lands they alleged Eritrea to be claiming. Which begs the question: Where did the editors of Africa Confidential obtain the highly "confidential" information that would lead them so far astray on the identification of the disputed areas? The only other publication to ever show AC's fabricated "disputed areas" is the Economist . As a casual perusal of its pages would reveal, to the Economist, African affairs in general, and Eritrean-Ethiopian matters certainly, are only an after-thought. Its editor, nonetheless, must have found AC's version of the disputed territories implausible, for their June 13, 1998 article adds to AC's fallacious disputed territories, the areas that the Weyanes had put in their new map of Tigray. To its credit, the Economist has realized that AC's version of the disputed areas is a fraud and shows, in its Septermber 19, 1998 issue, the correct disputed areas, all of them inside Eritrea.

There is no excuse for what the editors of AC tried to do with their fabricated version of the disputed territories. There is no doubt in my mind that it was not an honest error; that it was a deliberate piece of dis-information whose purpose and motives could only have been to mislead. Had it been an honest error, they would have acknowledged their mistake. They haven't done that. But what purpose do such lies serve? People who may rely for their information on AC may have been deceived at the beginning. But as the Eritrean saying goes, "It is impractical to take cover while leading a stolen camel." And both the Weyanes with their bogus maps and AC with their fabricated "disputed zones" are finding out that truth does eventually prevail.

The military engagements of June 1998 were just too disastrous for the Weyanes to provide any worthwhile angle for the editors of AC. But the "total victory" announced by the Weyanes on February 28, 1999 was full of possibilities. AC's editors were probably busily organizing their "confidential" files and honing their thoughts when just a fortnight later, the Weyanes capped their fantasized total victories with the disaster of the decade at Tsorona. Footage of the horrors of Tsorona was beamed worldwide. There was little that AC could do with Badme, as the Weyane balloon had been totally deflated. But Tsorona was not just a military debacle, it was also a monumental public relations disaster. For the first time, the Weyanes were seen for what they really are; a medieval gang of criminals who have no qualms of employing inhuman tactics, tactics so primitive that the US government was forced to suspended all development aid to Ethiopia because of the human rights violations of the Ethiopian soldiers by their own leaders.

Coverage of the debacle of Tsorona was wide-spread. David Hirst's account was particularly devastating. His May 18, 1999 article in the "Guardian", which was carried by "The Washington Times" on May 24, 1999, presents graphic details of the primitive Weyane human-wave strategy and says, "...If the conduct of war is a measure of a government's fitness and ability to rule, then Tsorona is a terrible indictment of the TPLF..." A concerned Patrick Gilkes could not remain idle as condemnation of the Weyanes mounted and scorn was heaped on his beloved Ethiopia. His June 25, 1999 article titled The Biggest War in the World that appeared in the Independent is remarkable for the number of lies it packs. Some of them are:

  1. He reports that " [Eritrea] lost four or five of its six MiG29s to Ethiopian planes in earlier battles." This is bizarre because the Ethiopians have to date, announced that they have shot down only two Eritrean planes as you can read about it in the fanciful victory report they put out at the end of March 1999. Never mind that Eritrean sources admit to only one of their planes going down. What "earlier battles" could Patrick be referring to? And where did this "confidential" tip come from?

  2. Another lie of similar mold is, "When Ethiopian forces broke through at Badme on 26 February, they rolled back the Eritrean line, capturing thousands..." The Ethiopians have shown the ICRC only 300 Eritrean POWs. But Patrick Gilkes speaks of thousands. Could he be talking about the 1500-2000 civilians that the Weyanes claim to have captured in Addis Abeba and other Ethiopian cities?

  3. We also find the following, "Eritrea appealed for food aid in April; Ethiopia issued an appeal in May." It is true that, being obsessively self-reliant, Eritrea waited ten months before it appealed for aid in April 1999. But the "Ethiopia issued an appeal in May," part is a lie, as bare-faced a lie as you'll ever get. In fact, Ethiopia had appealed for aid to its war-displaced at the end of June 1998, just six weeks after the conflict erupted. Click here for a news item about the appeal that appeared in the Addis Tribune back then.

  4. And look at this astoundingly brazen lie: "...and the government has been demanding larger "donations" from Eritreans abroad,..." Where did this "confidential" piece originate? How does the Eritrean government issue its "demand" to Eritreans abroad? I suggest to old Pat to attend the next fund-raising event in London to see for himself how the Eritrean government does its demanding and how the Eritreans abroad do their responding.

  5. Patrick Gilkes writes, "Last week Eritrea failed to re-take Badme, the disputed triangle of desert in the Horn of Africa which all the fighting has supposedly been about since Eritrea seized it in May last year." How can Patrick Gilkes know that Eritrea tried to re-take Badme when he himself starts his article with, "Away from the gaze of most of the world's media?" Shouldn't he indicate somewhere that it was the Weyanes who told him so? But the lie I want to direct your attention to is in the "disputed triangle" that he mentions. The only triangle in the Badme area is the Yirga Triangle; but Eritrea has consistently declared that it is not contesting it. So what triangle is he talking about? The Badme areas that the Weyanes have incorporated in their new map of Tigray don't look like a triangle at all, not even if you are a topologist (a branch of mathematics which treats all closed figures as equivalent). But Patrick Gilkes and his Africa Confidential will never publish that fraudulent map of Tigray that is at the root of this conflict.
So many lies and in such relatively short article! But what is more fascinating is that Patrick Gilkes' article has already appeared, almost verbatim, in the April 30, 1999 issue of Africa Confidential. As if to counter the unanimous characterization by others that the Weyanes were using tactics reminiscent of W.W.I, AC gave its article the title, World-class war. That is subtle, isn't it? But shouldn't it have been, W.W.I.-class war? In style and substance, it is a typical Patrick Gilkes coming to mother Ethiopia's rescue. All mention of the carnage of Tsorona is eschewed. Instead, the Weyanes and Eritreans seem to have suffered equally with more Ethiopians dying and more Eritreans taken prisoner. The AC report, taken in conjunction with Patrick Gilkes' article of the Independent, does two things though: firstly, it conclusively establishes that he is the driving force behind AC campaign of lies, and secondly, the Weyanes must be in deep trouble when the likes of Patrick Gilkes abandon their usually authoritative tone for hesitant phrases like "appear to have" and "are said to have been." One example of this is:
"Several divisional commanders, including Fitui Belaineh, Kassai Weldetensai, Haile Gebrey and Asgedom Kifle are said to have been replaced, or even arrested."
Who says? Who was replaced and who was arrested? Patrick Gilkes' "confidential" brief-case fails him here. Just looking at how the supposedly Eritrean names are spelled tells you who his "confiders" are and is proof enough that this is nothing but a fabricated piece of dis-information. Although he has been dishing his propagandistic lies about Eritrea for decades, isn't it amazing that Patrick Gilkes has yet to learn that it is highly unlikely for an Italian to use the name John to refer to good old Jovanni.

The AC report of Arpil 30, 1999, that come out only 6 weeks after the Tsorona carnage, totally avoids mention of the human-wave tactics employed by the Weyanes. But Patrick Gilkes is not in pursuit of the truth. His objective is not to report the facts on the blood-soaked grounds of Igri Mekhel, but to convince the reader that the Weyanes' strategy of herding, in human waves, tens of thousands of ill-trained peasants to their death was not as bad as it was made out to be. In fact, he wants to prove that not only was it a viable strategy, but that it had produced results. But there are some questions that AC and its readers must dwell upon. Why is that no other source, except the Weyanes, and now Africa Confidential that tell of higher Eritrean losses? Recall that the Weyanes openly declare that this war is about "crushing Eritrean supremacy." So why is it that they have failed to show any evidence of their spectacular victories? Why aren't reporters flocking to Badme to see the evidence of the victories of "operation sunset" and the 100km of EPLF trenches that were overrun? Why, instead, do journalists keep trekking to Tsorona? And most pertinently, why are the editors of AC lying?

warsay Part II