In an extreme, textbook example of dangerous speech, a close advisor to the prime minister of the world’s 12th most populous country said last week, “Satan was the last of his kind. And they must also remain the last of their kind.” The audience applauded and even laughed, though in the current Ethiopian context the speech was immensely dangerous, so much so that a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department decried the speech by Daniel Kibret, to a group of high-ranking officials, as “dangerous and unacceptable.” More governments must loudly condemn it, and attach serious consequences for influential figures who speak this way.
Daniel, who is an advisor to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, went on to say “There should not be from now and forever any ground that would produce such kind of weed that could repeat them.” He seems to have learned the worst lessons about dangerous speech from other countries: in neighboring Kenya in 2006, for example, in the months leading up to an explosion of inter-communal killing, leaders of one ethnic group also used the term “weeds” to refer to members of another Kenyan group.
In this case Daniel never named the people he wanted to be wiped off the face of the earth, or as he put it in the same speech, “removed from their structural places, from people’s conscience and human mind…erased and disappeared from historical records,” but his audience surely understood him to be referring to Tigrayans, an ethnic group native to the northernmost region of Ethiopia.
Abiy began a military offensive there last November, against Tigrayan rebel forces led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting, nearly two million people have been displaced from their homes, and there have been many reports of horrifying atrocities, including rape and ethnic cleansing, by both sides but mostly by government forces. The government has also blockaded the Tigray region, forcing untold numbers of people into famine, and recent reports indicate that the TPLF has also been looting supplies. “If the situation does not improve Ethiopia will be the scene of a human tragedy on a scale unparalleled this century,” the British Ambassador to Ethiopia, Rita French, told the United Nations human rights council, in large part because of Ethiopian government’s “de facto blockade of Tigray.”
Yet many Ethiopians continue to support the government’s war in Tigray, and to resent Tigrayans, who dominated the Ethiopian government for decades before Abiy took power. There are bitter antipathies between Amharas, Tigrayans, and Eritreans, from previous conflicts including the Eritrean war of independence from Ethiopia. These make dangerous speech all the more potent. (Ironically, Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the war with Eritrea.)
Asked by a journalist to whom he referred in his speech last week in Amhara, a region in northern Ethiopia that adjoins Tigray, Daniel wrote that “ ‘they’ refers to the terrorist TPLF group.” That claim was backed by a spokesperson for Abiy, but it is preposterous, especially as neither Daniel nor Abiy has attempted to correct the widespread assumption that he referred to Tigrayans. In any case, calling for any group of people to be obliterated is to call for mass atrocities, and it is highly dangerous in the circumstances.
For most of the past year, Ethiopia has already seen a war rife with atrocities against civilians, and a famine of unspeakable proportions which will surely get much worse. Daniel’s genocidal speech will only bring even more suffering – by calling for it.