The Crisis In Ethiopia with Nima Elbagir | Crooked Media
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June 03, 2021
What A Day
The Crisis In Ethiopia with Nima Elbagir

In This Episode

  • Yesterday, the U.S., Canada, and a number of European countries called for a ceasefire in Ethiopia, where government forces have targeted an ethnic group called Tigrayans with horrific attacks that have been described with elements of a “genocide.” Reports have suggested that millions of people have been displaced with an unknown number killed. We spoke with Nima Elbagir, a senior international correspondent at CNN, about the ongoing crisis in the country.
  • And in headlines: opposition leaders agreed to form a coalition to lead Israel, a cargo ship burns and sinks in Sri Lanka, and NASA will send spaceships to Venus.





Akilah Hughes: It’s Thursday, June 3rd. I’m Akilah Hughes.


Gideon Resnick: And I’m Gideon Resnick, and this is What A Day, the podcast that is on every great playlist at Pride events.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah. In between Gaga and Donna Summer, there’s sometimes a 20-minute podcast about the news.


Gideon Resnick: Yep. And for that part, the party is just kind of bad. On today’s show, a conversation with Nima Elbagir, a senior international correspondent at CNN, about the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia.


Akilah Hughes: Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed first ordered a military offensive into the country’s northern Tigray region last November, sparked by his attempts to consolidate power. Joining the government’s forces were Eritrean soldiers, and together they targeted Tigrayans, an ethnic group that represents an estimated 6% of Ethiopia’s population. But yesterday, the U.S., Canada and a number of European countries called for a cease-fire. They cited U.N. officials who recently warned of impending famine in the region. This came after the U.S. already imposed sanctions against Ethiopia to try and end the violence, which has been utterly horrific and described in terms like genocide and ethnic cleansing.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, and it’s difficult to get access to fully up-to-date information, but reports have suggested that millions of people have been displaced, with an unknown number of dead—at least in the thousands. And the reported atrocities have been truly unfathomable, with a massacre occurring at a church, mass rape and sexual violence against women, and detainment Tigrayans.


Akilah Hughes: And the full scale is likely unknowable. Government forces have issued crackdowns on aid groups, journalists and more. But Nima Elbagir has been able to continue reporting on the events for months, and joins us to try and get a sense of the horrors going on. Nima, welcome to What A Day.


Nima Elbagir: Thank you for having me.


Gideon Resnick: Just to get everybody started here at up to speed, can you give us a brief overview of the underlying circumstances and tensions that actually led to this recent ongoing violence?


Nima Elbagir: I think the simplest way to understand is that it was a competition for power between former allies of Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. You know, the TPLF had been the senior partner in the ruling coalition for all those years and were themselves accused of violations, huge repressions against freedom of speech, and the TPLF, they pushed through with elections last year when Ahmed asked for elections not to move forward. He, as yet, has not been democratically elected. And what happened is it deteriorated into essentially what is being perceived at the moment as an ethnic cleansing. So it’s, instead of targeting the political group, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, it became very much about targeting the Tigrayans and the Tigray region in general


Akilah Hughes: That is devastating. And, you know, some reports describe atrocities being committed by the Eritrean forces who’ve been fighting on the side of Ethiopia’s central government. You’ve been covering the conflict very closely for months now. Can you talk about some of what you’ve witnessed firsthand?


Nima Elbagir: With ethnic cleansings, with crimes against humanity, war crimes—what, in my experience, tends to differentiate them from, you know, the kind of violence that is just a tragic consequence of war, is the cruelty of it in ways that teach everybody else around them lessons. So you have a region that is incredibly devout. Aksum is believed to be where the Ark of the Covenant is. This is, you know, it’s an incredibly rich cultural heritage. And for a lot of Tigrayans, they believe that if you die and you’re buried in ground that is not consecrated, then your soul can never be at peace. And that was one of the things that we were seeing from very early on, is that people, first of all, were not being allowed to bury their loved ones for days. And then eventually when they were allowed to bury them, they were told that they couldn’t bury them on consecrated ground. Oh, I mean, it’s sort of like a very kind of personalized form of violence—continued to deteriorate into mass rapes, and then rape in public spaces, and rape in front of loved ones, and family members being forced to rape women, again in a region that is very conservative.


Akilah Hughes: Wow.


Gideon Resnick: Uh. From the reporting side of things, how difficult is it to actually report? And what might we not know about what’s going on as a result of those difficulties?


Nima Elbagir: I think we don’t know.—you know, I think if we’re lucky, we know maybe 30 to 40% of what is going on. Even now we were speaking to contacts that we had in Mekele, the capital of Tigray. The Internet’s down, they regularly drop the communications network, the cell phone towers. And the extraordinary thing is that Abiy Ahmed was the head of the surveillance, the communications surveillance unit. He set that up inside the intelligence bureau. So he knows better than anyone. I mean, when we were, when we started looking into this in December, one of the things my boss, head of news gathering Debs Rayner, kept asking me is how, you need to figure out how you would perpetrate war crimes or a possible genocide in the 21st century and then almost kind of retroactively kind of reverse engineer it to figure out how we get in. And I think what was really fascinating for all of us is how much we ended up kind of falling back on a lot of the kind of, you know, the old fashioned ways of doing things, just calling as many people as we could, getting as many phone numbers as we could, getting people to actively go to places with phones. And also, just ethically, how do you acknowledge that people are taking this huge, huge risk? So many of the people we speak to, half of the time, the battle is to tell them: no, you absolutely cannot do that, we cannot have this conversation about doing that. Because most of the time they say to us: well, I’m, I’m probably going to die anyway, you know, so at least I want to do something that is valuable for my community and for my family.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah.


Gideon Resnick: Wow.


Akilah Hughes: Wow. How do you report on this and, you know, protect yourself from the sort of trauma of reporting on, you know, like you said, an ethnic cleansing? I think that a lot of people wouldn’t be brave enough to be there to speak to people and so I’m just curious about what that experience has been like for you as someone who’s so close to the story?


Nima Elbagir: That’s a very good question, because, you know, I’m immediately uncomfortable now, so it’s a good question.


Akilah Hughes: [laughs]


Nima Elbagir: You did well. I think that it’s always important to remember what is yours and what is not yours. And one of the mistakes that often we make is to presume that this is your pain and it’s not. And I think on some levels that is incredibly patronizing for the people whose pain actually is. We in general, I think, tend to focus on how just extraordinarily so many of the people we’ve been speaking to are, and how—not just resilient, but just how determined and how sophisticated about the ways forward. You know, the diaspora has been haranguing their representatives in the US, diaspora in Europe have been haranguing representatives. So I think you, you kind of just have to know what is yours to carry and what isn’t.


Gideon Resnick: One other thing that had been kind of on the schedule in the coming days was a general election in Ethiopia, but that had been pushed to you later this month. What are some of the implications of that when it comes to the conflict? How, if at all, would it affect what is actually going on?


Nima Elbagir: I think the worry is that it will, it will really harden the position of the prime minister and his remaining allies, because the European Union has withdrawn observers, the US is not going to be sending observers, most of the opposition parties are either sitting it out or, a lot of their leadership—the main opposition party, a lot of its leadership—has been jailed. So the worry is that you’re creating this situation where, and again, you know, with possible genocides, with ethnic cleansing, it is this sense of a community under attack. And it’s, it’s us against the world. And the worry is that if this goes ahead and Abiy Ahmed is voted in with minimal, you know, minimal opposition or, you know, without the world rubber stamping it at the very least or acknowledging that this was in any way a credible election, that it will force him and his allies to believe that there is, that the only way through this is with more violence. And we’ve seen that since the sanctions were announced against them. They had a Voice of Freedom Day in which they were chanting against the United States and against the international community. You know, they’ve been making a lot of threats online. It is a real worry that the feeling is that, well, I’m six months in at this point—six, seven months in—the only way out of this is through it.


Akilah Hughes: Is, is there anything heartening about the fact that the story is being covered internationally as a crime against humanity? You know, have you, have you sort of heard anything about that or what? What’s your feeling on that?


Nima Elbagir: I think where it’s heartening is, again, with the people who are being targeted. For them this really feels like it took too long for the international community to speak out. Now I think the only way forward is an increase in economic pressure. Sanctions are awful and a blunt instrument and they’re messy, but when we speak to people inside Tigray, they really do believe in it. And a lot of the Ethiopian-American advocates that are speaking out in the US, they believe that it was too slow but now that we’re here, that people, that they should really be committed to as a path forward. And in fact, and I believe the U.S. is now looking at not just their own economic sanctions, but voting against any ability for the Ethiopians to raise money via international institutions like the World Bank or the IMF. At the very least, it sends the message that this is, that this is taken seriously, and that this is unacceptable.


Gideon Resnick: What ultimately do you think is the future going to hold for Ethiopia, and what has to change going forward?


Nima Elbagir: I think the real worry is this threat of intercommunal violence. So we’re already seeing other areas and other communities, the clashes between them. Ethiopia is a collection of nations, and you kind of almost have to think of Ethiopians in the sense of it’s almost like the United States, right? Like it’s a union that has been opted into, and in a way given when this union was opted into it was, it was incredibly progressive and ahead of its time. But if people feel this vulnerability that you as a minority—and I think the Tigrayans are only 6% of the population—that you will be targeted, then the message that that sends to other nations within the Ethiopian nation is that this is no longer a safe place. And that’s, that’s really worrying for people.


Akilah Hughes: Well, Nima Elbagir, senior international correspondent for CNN, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. We really appreciate it.


Nima Elbagir: No, thank you so much for giving this a platform. It’s just incredibly important.


Akilah Hughes: We’ll link to Nima’s work in the show notes so you can learn more. And also link to several aid organizations in Ethiopia so you can help in. That’s the latest for now.


Akilah Hughes: It’s Thursday, WAD squad, and in place of today’s temp check, we’re mourning another recently deceased corner of the Internet. This one was more short lived than anything we’ve discussed before. Here’s an anchor on Fox News talking about the site’s bright future, just one month ago today:


[clip of Fox News about From the Desk of Donald Trump] Former President Trump launched a new communications platform. We’ll bring that up for you. Here’s the website right there. It appears on his website, and allows Mr. Trump the ability to post comments, images and videos, and communicate directly with his followers.


Akilah Hughes: Well, as it turns out, this advanced communications tool was a Tumblr, and it was permanently shut down yesterday after attracting limited engagement and reportedly making Trump feel frustrated. It’s now been scrubbed from the Internet, but we were able to enlist a group of elite hackers to retrieve its greatest post from May 19th, 2021. Gideon, please read it so we can move on and put this behind us forever.


Gideon Resnick: “Stick with Kirstie Alley! She’s a great actress, loved by so many people, and a true original. She is also strong and smart. Many millions of people greatly appreciate her support of our country.”


Akilah Hughes: Wow. Future generations will be glad we preserved that post in particular, which is real and came from the former president’s personal website. Thanks for looking back with us. Stay safe. And we’ll be back after some ads.


[ad break]


Akilah Hughes: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Gideon Resnick: Opposition leaders in Israel agreed to form a coalition government yesterday, paving the way to oust longtime right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This is huge for a government that has had four inconclusive elections in just the last two years. The new coalition was put together by centrist leader Yair Lapid, and it features a spectrum of political ideologies. It was hastily finalized just an hour before the deadline, emphasizing just how badly everybody wanted to end Netanyahu’s 12-year rule. The alliance also includes a small Arab party making it the first Arab group to join a government in Israel. There is one catch to all of this: for the first half of its four-year term, the coalition will be led by Naftali Bennett, who openly opposes a Palestinian state and is known to be even more far right than Netanyahu, if you can believe it. After two years, Lapid will take his place. Now, members of the coalition have seven days to present the government to parliament for a vote of confidence.


Akilah Hughes: A cargo ship off the coast of Sri Lanka that’s been burning for almost two weeks is now sinking. Local coast guards have been working actively to prevent the shipwreck from becoming an even bigger ecological disaster than it already is. The ship happens to be carrying some of the worst possible things for the environment, including 25 tons of nitric acid, plastic pellets, and over 300 tons of fuel oil. Officials don’t know what started the fire, but they say it might have to do with nitric acid leakage. Sri Lanka banned fishing along a 50-mile stretch of the coast where plastic pellets are starting to pile up on its shore. Authorities are now monitoring the ship in case there’s an oil spill.


Gideon Resnick: Yikes. NASA will send two unmanned spaceships to the one planet where they can escape every human being AND Elon Musk: Venus.


Akilah Hughes: Hey!


Gideon Resnick: NASA has sent missions to Venus before, but not since 1990. In the past year, there has been a renewed interest in what I’m calling the planet of love and sexiness, after chemicals were discovered there that indicated the possibility of living organisms. One of NASA’s two upcoming Venus missions DAVINCI PLUS (starring Tom Hanks}, will further examine those chemicals and we’ll also study whether Venus ever had an ocean. The second mission, VERITAS, will determine what Venus is made of, and make 3D maps of the hellish and scorching hot planet. Let’s go ahead and put those maps on Zillow so maybe I can find some property in my price range.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, I hope that you get to live with the aliens, Gideon.


Gideon Resnick: Thank you.


Akilah Hughes: Ginger ale will hold on to its status as the king of travel drinks on two major airlines because alcohol service will not resume following a rise in passenger misconduct. Both American and Southwest Airlines recently announced that they would keep in place suspensions on alcohol they imposed at the start of the pandemic. American will let people in first and business class order booze because as we know, the more money you have, the better behaved you usually are. [laughs] Oh, my God. According to Sara Nelson, head of the Flight Attendants Union, reports of unruly behavior from passengers are 20x higher this year than usual. Much of that stems from federal mask mandates, which have led some passengers to compete with flying babies to be the most loud and annoying. In some cases defiant unmasked passengers have gotten violent with staff. American plans to restart alcohol service in the main cabin on September 13th—wow, cutting the close—the same day the mask mandate is set to expire. At that point, the only thing drunk people will have to get mad about is how they cut out all the good scenes in “Call Me By Your Name.”


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, in Pride Month no less. Shame.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah. Come on now. Just put them back. [laughs] And those are the headlines.


Gideon Resnick: That is all for today, if you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, uncensor Call Me By Your Name, and tell your friends to listen.


Akilah Hughes: And if you’re into reading, and not just words in support of Kirstie Alley like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Akilah Hughes.


Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And put us on your Pride playlist!


Akilah Hughes: I mean, it can be the end of the night. I’m not saying it has to be the first song.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, it’s a nice wind down, maybe. Some light news to end the evening.


Akilah Hughes: Kashaka slaps, y’all.


Akilah Hughes: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media.


Gideon Resnick: It’s recorded and mixed by Charlotte Landes.


Akilah Hughes: Sonia Htoon and Jazzi Marine are our associate producers.


Gideon Resnick: Our head writer is Jon Millstein, a*nd our executive producers are Leo Duran, Akilah Hughes and me.


Akilah Hughes: Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.