Norwegian professor received death threats from Ethiopians in exile
One of the world’s leading experts on Ethiopia, professor Kjetil Tronvoll, is being harassed by Ethiopian authorities, and has received death threats from Ethiopians in exile.
Tronvoll is professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjørknes University College in Oslo and has done research on Ethiopia and Eritrea since the beginning of the 1990s.
He also has a background as a professor of human rights from the University of Oslo and has as a researcher been connected to the London School of Economics in the UK, Columbia University in the US, and Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia.
The ethnic and political divides are strong in Ethiopia and this isn't the first time Tronvoll's received harassment and threats.
However, when the Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed – who in 2019 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – launched an offensive military operation against The Tigray People's Liberation Front in November 2020, the agitation and threats against Tronvoll reached another level.
Organized campaign to discredit
The Norwegian professor’s analysis of the offensive was not well received in Addis Ababa. Authorities there started what Tronvoll calls a well-organized campaign to discredit him.
The leader of the Ethiopian intelligence service INSA, Shumete Gizaw, among other things accused Tronvoll of being paid by the The Tigray People's Liberation Front to spread disinformation about the war in The Tigray Region.
The accusations are firmly rejected by Tronvoll.
Still, they were distributed by the Ethiopian national news agency ENA, and quickly reached Ethiopians in exile, also in Norway. This unleashed a storm of threats, including death threats.
Asked Norwegian foreign services to help
Toward the end of December, Tronvoll contacted the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and asked them for help.
“There's an active coordinated campaign of hatred against me, from Ethiopian activists who are spreading false information and unfounded accusations, and which seemingly is coordinated with Ethiopian authorities,” he said.
Tronvoll asked that his case be brought up with Ethiopian authorities, and demanded that the accusation from the head of INSA was retracted.
The Norwegian MFA confirmed that they were taking the case seriously, and promised mid-January that the Norwegian embassy in Addis Ababa would address the issue “on a general basis” with Ethiopian authorities.
Hit back at critics
The harassment against Tronvoll however didn’t cease.
“I can inform you that the formal “campaign” against me in governmental media, where unfounded accusations are being promoted, continues,” he wrote in a new letter to the Norwegian MFA.
Recent statements from prime minister Abiy Ahmed do not suggest that the Ethiopian regime will stop at their attempts to discredit researchers like Tronvoll. At the beginning of this month, the Ethiopian prime minister tweeted to Ethiopians abroad to “hit back” at those who criticize the development in the country.
Had to cancel event
There is little doubt that this message was well received. Few days laster Tornvoll was supposed to appear in a debate together with experts from Egypt and Somalia, organised by the Norwegian Council for Africa. The topic of the debate was the conflicts that have arisen between Ethiopia and neighbouring countries as a consequence of The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia.
News about the debate resulted in renewed death threats against Tronvoll, allegedly from Ethiopian nationalists and Amhara-activists. The Norwegian Council for Africa found it safest to cancel the event.
“We had to prioritize the safety of the participants and their experience of the situation”, says leader of the Council Aurora Nereid to the newspaper Bistandsaktuelt (link in Norwegian).
Norwegian partner country
“To receive threats when you analyze war and human rights abuses is an experience I have lived with for years. But that activists who are encouraged by the Government in one of Norway’s so-called partner countries manage to limit freedom of speech here in Norway, is remarkable,” Tronvoll says.
“I hope the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice and Public Security will handle this issue with the level of seriousness that it demands”, he adds.
Ethiopia is one of ten countries that are deemed so-called partner countries in Norwegian development policy. They are selected as partners for long-term development cooperation with Norway, and have for the past 20 years received around 6,3 billion NOK, so close to 744 million USD, of Norwegian development funds. This is according to figures from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (link in Norwegian).
According to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (link in Norwegian), Ethiopia received around 500 million NOK last year, and 700 million NOK the year before that.
A case of politics or police?
The Norwegian News Agency NTB have requested to see the communication between the Norwegian embassy in Addis Ababa and Ethiopian authorities concerning the harassment and threats that Tronvoll has been subjected to. They have yet to receive an answer.
State Secretary Jens Frølich Holte writes in a general answer to Tronvoll that he should consider reporting the threats he has received to the police.
“Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ine Eriksen Søreide, has expressed concern about hate speech and has raised the issue of respect for human rights during talks with Ethiopian authorities. We will continue to do this. Serious threats that are presented through social media is something the police should look at. Such issues should be reported to the police,” Frølich Holte says.
Tronvoll is not too happy about this response. He points to the fact that such a police case most likely ends up being suspended.
“This is why I’ve sent a note of concern to The Norwegian Police Security Service in November last year, asking them to do a risk assessment of my situation. They however declined this, as they claimed it was not within their mandate,” says Tronvoll.
The Ethiopian embassy in Sweden, which is also accredited in Norway, denies any knowledge of death threats against Tronvoll.