Ethiopia: The Alex and Mulugeta Comedy Hour! Exciting! Delusional! Now with Mangoes! Sponsored by… Denial!

Jeff Pearce
14 min readMar 9, 2021

Alex de Waal is not getting enough fresh fruit in his diet. Neither is his radio sidekick, poor Mulugeta Gebrehiwot.

I guess that requires an explanation. De Waal has been having phone chats with his pal and colleague, Mulugeta, a former TPLF fighter also associated with the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. Mulugeta has claimed he fled Mekelle and has been up in the mountains, where he also suggested what “connects me to the rest of the world” is “an old transistor” which he bought “from a militia [sic],” one with an unreliable battery that can run out and leave him “out of communication for two, three days.”

This, of course, begs many questions. Does he mean an old fashioned transistor radio? If so, why bother? Presumably, if he’s using a cell phone to call Alex, he could get data and Internet on the phone, even on an older model. If he’s hiding out with TPLF guerrilla forces, it’s not like he can run to a London-style red phone booth that has a land line. Okay, so presumably mobile —

But wait. Mobiles need cell towers, and since it’s a war, how is he still phoning from up in the mountains, because the TPLF made a point of destroying infrastructure as they retreated, and if you buy the TPLF version, the federal army destroyed it all. So either way, how is he making this call?

Someone clever out there might think, Well, satellite phone. But that would be incredibly stupid, as satellite phones work on radio signals, and with the right tech, you could track the signal and trace the user. And duh, you’d still need to go through a reliable service provider.

So, maybe Mulugeta is simply not up in the mountains. Instead, he’s wandering around some local farmland or in Mekelle, where every so often he likes to check in on current events.

I hereby propose a “Where’s Waldo?” game for Ethiopians with Mulugeta Gebrehiwot. A Where’s Mulugeta? Have you seen this man?

If so, make sure you take a pic and have the surroundings in the background, and date-stamp it, too! Especially since Mekelle has now been retaken by federal forces.

We’ll come back to his current whereabouts in a moment. In the most well known episode of their little radio drama, billed as an “Interview with a Senior Tigrayan Leader” on Eritreahub, Mulugeta talked about 42 divisions, which I’ve pointed out before is profoundly absurd.

Now Mulugeta is back with another whopper, and it’s the highlight of the latest episode of the Alex and Mulegeta Comedy Hour! But strangely enough, this time we’re not treated to an audio version, nor does de Waal link a transcript to his prominent article about it. And unless I’ve missed it, I haven’t found one released elsewhere, such as on Eritreahub, as of my publishing this.

Instead, de Waal writes this: “A few days ago, Eritrean and Ethiopian troops cut down the mango orchards at Adeba and Tseada on the Zamra river in south-central Tigray. It’s not a massacre, a mass rape or torture. But chopping down those fruit trees is evidence for the war aims of the leaders in Asmara and Addis Ababa.”

Oh, really? Then he quotes Mulugeta from their phone call of March 1.

After that, de Waal really doesn’t have much to say. He quotes the Bible, and he quotes the Koran about cutting down fruit trees — as if we all need a Greatest Hits from scripture to remind us it’s a dumb idea to practice wanton deforestation. In fact, de Waal buries his main accusation and doesn’t get to it until near the bottom: “Destroying them is a specially egregious form of starvation crime.”

Remember that terminology, starvation crime.

There’s a good reason he phrased it that way.

But it feels like something is missing here. They destroyed the town of Samre. Doesn’t that sound kind of significant?

Why is there not an estimated casualty count here? Why isn’t de Waal passing on from Mulugeta more anecdotes about people? Last time, Mulugeta claimed, “Wherever they’re moving, whomever they find, they kill him or her. [It’s] an old man, a child, a nursing woman, or anything.”

It’s awfully strange that Mulugeta would boldly declare that Eritrean and Ethiopian forces destroyed an entire town, and then de Waal doesn’t offer from him any quotes with more compelling details on what exactly happened.

Yet de Waal wrote this for an article for Foreign Policy published on March 3:

These atrocities are ongoing. On March 1, leading Tigrayan scholar Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, in a rare phone call from the mountains, described how Eritrean troops had razed villages, cut down mango orchards, destroyed irrigation systems, and slaughtered dozens of people from young children to grandparents in the town of Samre and the villages of Gijet, Adeba, and Tseada Sare in recent days. ‘Famine is coming,’ he said. We should heed Mulugeta’s warning: Action now is essential to stop further crimes and a vast humanitarian catastrophe.

Again, why is he not offering specific quotes from Mulugeta about the alleged slaughter?

Unless de Waal somehow made a conscious decision to leave some things out.

I mean it’s a whole town. No refugees fled in a specific direction? No talk of survivors? Instead: fruit.

Just a minor question, too: How do you know victims were grandparents? Children are visually identifiable. Grandparents, you need to know who’s related to who. Mulugeta, according to de Waal, did not say seniors or elderly, he claimed grandparents. The choice of term is revealing, designed to tug at the heartstrings.

Now remember what Mulugeta also told de Waal: “They came up with Sino trucks, they loaded the grain of the peasant and … it is even difficult to explain it in words, the level of destruction.”

Well, somebody must have found the words to explain it, and then passed them along to Mulugeta, because he tells us a moment later, “That’s what we heard today, I received the report two hours ago.”

In other words, “we” were nowhere near Samre, he was nowhere near Tseada. He can’t tell you what level of destruction happened, if it happened at all, because he didn’t see it for himself. We’re getting the news from a guy (de Waal) who knows a guy (Mulugeta) who knows a guy (anonymous… assuming he exists).

So I do think people should track down our courageous source! “Yoo-hoo, Mulugeta! Where are youuuuu?” We can even use #YoohooMulugeta to share tips and sightings.

On the other hand, as much as we all want to say howdy, maybe we don’t need to ask him after all. Maybe we should be asking someone else, because gawd knows, the Western media won’t bother to.

According to reliable sources on the ground, neither Ethiopian forces nor any other force apart from the TPLF were at the location.

And according to Mulu Nega, the head of the interim Tigray administration who sent a team out to investigate the claims, if the villages were impacted at all, it was from a distance because of fighting between the ENDF and TPLF forces which involved artillery and heavy machine guns.

And as for the mangoes? Well, there never was any plantation — only one farm of a single proprietor with TPLF sympathies who abandoned the land after the fighting.

The trees are still there. For that matter, so are the villagers, and if the mangoes are missing, they were picked by the villagers in the surrounding area.

“Alex de Waal knows better than what he purported,” says Mulu Nega, “for he has been a close confidante of the TPLF, and Mulugeta Gebrehiwot is a TPLF veteran and is still at large, hiding in the valleys. Therefore he shouldn’t consider and present Mulugeta’s allegations as authentic eyewitness accounts. That’s an utter deception and unbecoming.”

On one level, the latest allegations are outrageous — indeed, they’re ridiculous. But they’re also tragic because we are still seeing reporters for some of the most influential news operations in the world get sucked in and acting as propaganda delivery systems for the TPLF. Here is Jason Burke, a seasoned investigative reporter currently based in Johannesburg for The Guardian, from his report on March 8:

Notice that the second paragraph attempts some balance. But why is the first paragraph have “independent observers and TPLF officials told the Guardian.” Why is there no comment at all from the government? Except mentioning near the bottom of the story the government’s more general denial statements. Did he even bother to ask for a fresh quote? If so, why is there not even a line addressing specific allegations, if only to say the government didn’t respond or denied them?

Notice that Burke mentions the alleged massacres at Axum and at Dengolat as if they are established fact and hangs this quick summary on the peg of the Human Rights Watch report, one with serious methodological flaws that replicate those of the initial Amnesty report.

As is proved with video footage of Axum taken on one of the days the massacre supposed to happen, along with other contradicting bits of evidence, the “massacre” is a lie.

You can stack up all the phone interviews you want, but you still can’t go back in time and erase people walking around peacefully under bright sunshine outside the very church where you claim celebrations were cancelled.

Now if there were killings around or near Axum on those dates, yes, they require urgent investigation, but this needs to be done properly — in Axum. Not just taking on faith a few long-distance phone calls and dubious satellite imagery. And The Guardian story gets worse:

“The [Tigrayan] youth are very angry. Until recently, [the TPLF] couldn’t train or arm all of the volunteers that were coming to them … In recent days, they are telling them to come forward again,” said one TPLF administrative official who fled Tigray for a neighbouring province and is in touch with former colleagues there.

William Davison, an Ethiopia analyst with the International Crisis Group, said there were multiple accounts of young men joining the the military wing of the TPLF as news of atrocities spread. “There seems to be almost unanimous outrage … It’s very difficult to say how big the rebel force is now but all indicators suggests that manpower is not a problem,” he said.

Again, why is Burke not counter weighting this perspective of “very angry” Tigrayan youth with any specific response from government or military officials for the federal government? Even if true, why take this TPLF official’s damn word for it? How can you know?

And then… Ugh. Like the toe fungus that refuses to go away, there is William Davison. I guess we’re all supposed to ignore the fact that Davison was deported by Ethiopian authorities, and so has a clear conflict of interest in playing analyst of the situation. I guess we’re supposed to ignore, too, that Davison is infamous in policy circles for bullying those who contradict his analysis in public or that he runs Ethiopia Insight, playing “journalist” while also working for Crisis Group.

But besides all that, why are you talking to this guy? When he’s Not. Even. There.

Modern journalism is so wonderful. You just call a guy who pulls assertions out of his ass about “unanimous outrage” and “indicators.” Maybe it’s “very difficult to say how big the rebel force is now” because you have no genuine hard facts.

And since we’re talking about things pulled out of thin air, let’s circle back to Alex de Waal.

Because we’re left with a couple of other urgent questions: why was de Waal bothering to devote a short article to trees and mangoes instead of the greater horror that an entire town was destroyed? On Twitter, Ethiopians with good common sense already dismissed this nonsense with the hashtag #MangoGenocide.

But I’m wondering… Does he have another agenda?

Well, I have a theory. The UN Security Council is scheduled to have an open debate later this week on Food Security. Alex de Waal’s favorite topic these days when given the chance to talk about it is starvation, and his most recent book, in fact, is titled, Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. But that tome is getting old…

Heyyyy, wouldn’t it be really useful if there was a current example that Alex could bring up to the policy wonks in New York? And that sure would keep his ideas relevant, wouldn’t it? Sure is convenient then that Mulugeta warned him just in time for the meeting, “Famine is coming.”

The book by de Waal includes this chapter:

It’s worth pausing here for insight into how de Waal thinks, because these lines leap off the page at me:

When I challenged foreign journalists with the argument that there was no evidence for substantial increased mortality, I was told that it wasn’t as rosy as that, and aid agencies were reporting some hotspots of serious malnutrition. Probably they were right. But even such pockets of acute hunger and their concealment do not stand comparison with the horrors discovered by Michael Burke and Mohammed Amin in 1974 or Jonathan Dimbleby in 1973. Journalistic memories are short.

On his last line, I agree. Heaven knows, I’ve witnessed the goldfish attention span of some reporters. I would even agree he’s right that “pockets” of acute hunger can’t compare with the “horrors” of past decades.

But look at his reasoning. He makes a denial. He’s told what aid agencies report from direct dealing with the populace, which certainly can’t be faked, and he even concedes probably they were right.

But instead of challenging his own assumption and investigating further, he dismisses these instances because “small” hunger isn’t as big a deal as “substantial mortality.” For Mr. de Waal, everything is relative, and he accepts what he likes to see and disregards the rest.

And he’s doing it again. Mulugeta is Scheherazade in the mountains (more likely, Mekelle) spinning tales of impossible army division numbers and fallen mango trees, and the Big Brain of the World Peace Foundation eats it up. And unfortunately, probably shares it all with U.S. intelligence officials and policy makers.

But de Waal’s blind admiration for the TPLF goes way back. In this same book, he reminds us, “In the mid-1980s, the people of Tigray were the epicentre of the great famine.” Okay. He discusses the TPLF’s strategy, and a little later on come these stunning lines: “In due course, this commitment to the welfare of the people — and its ‘anti-famine policy contract’ — was reciprocated by a solid show of support for the TPLF and readiness to make enormous sacrifices in pursuit of its armed struggle.”

These words were published in 2017. They are breathtaking in their display of a lack of integrity.

Because in 2010, the BBC published on its website its story: Ethiopia famine aid ‘spent on weapons’ — written by none other than the Africa editor at the time for the World Service, Martin Plaut.

Many Ethiopians already know this story and link it on social media all the time because it lays bare the truth. A senior TPLF member named Gebremedhin Araya, disguised as a Muslim merchant, swapped useless bags of sand for cash from aid workers, then handed the money off to his leaders, including Meles Zenawi. The theft was confirmed the TPLF’s Aregawi Berhe, who told Plaut that they ripped off $100 million from the aid workers while leaving their own people hungry, spending the cash mostly on weapons “and building up a hard-line Marxist political party within the rebel movement.”

Now there is no way that an experienced analyst like Alex de Waal, who keeps track of current affairs in Africa, could be unfamiliar with this reportage.

And it is not a case of the facts being in dispute. Plaut found two sources formerly with the TPLF itself who provided the details and admitted to the theft.

And yet Alex de Waal chose to ignore this and write what he did.

This is a man who gets quoted and interviewed by major media, whose lines appear in the Irish Times, who has a dangerous influence on the thinking of leaders in the EU, the UN and DC. And he falls for the equivalent of a teenager’s prank phone call, punking the international community in turn.

The hope is that we’re reaching a tipping point, because all the shameless lies are starting to add up that even U.S. and UN officials must soon see what’s been staring them in the face — if only they’d look. We’ve had the “battle-hardened” troops of the TPLF get humiliatingly crushed within a month. We’ve had the phony rape allegations of Mona Lisa Abraha, outed by her own father. Instead of being a target for derision, I think she should be pitied for being manipulated, and her story is ultimately still tragic for her being a pawn and her making life harder for real victims of rape during wartime.

On top of all this, as the house of glass cracks in the alleged “Axum Massacre” narrative, we’re told hyenas ate the corpses on the mountain near the town, and the implication is that this is why investigators won’t find the mass graves promised in lurid witness accounts.

So, Human Rights Watch and the TPLF are now telling the world the dog ate their homework. As the Brits like to say, pull the other one.

And now #MangoGenocide. Like Trump’s final days, the bizarre attempts to deceive increase. But lest we forget — because it wasn’t so long ago — it was in those final days that Trump proved the most dangerous, his rabid goons storming the U.S. Capitol and getting people killed in the process.

Well, here’s why we should really be concerned. This is from the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:

Following the announcement by the Ethiopian Office of the Prime Minister, on 3 March, that humanitarian agencies will have access to operate in Tigray on the basis of notification to the Ministry of Peace, humanitarian partners are working to increase the presence of staff on the ground as rapidly as possible…

Similarly, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), through a letter sent to the President of the United Nations Security Council, on 3 March, has expressed its readiness to facilitate humanitarian access to relief operations to areas under their control.

This should be setting off alarm bells in a BIG way. History could repeat itself, and we could see once again, aid operations and humanitarian initiatives unwittingly financing the TPLF, playing midwife to the rebirth of a terrorist organization that’s also successfully morphed into a criminal oligarchy.

But we need the UN to listen. Because the brains with the Biden administration aren’t listening, and for better or for worse, as they go, so might go the international community. Those who stand with Ethiopia need to get them to listen.

The world needs to know how flawed and riddled with lies and errors all this coverage is. America’s Secretary of State Antony Blinkin needs to know just how badly Western media is failing Ethiopia.

And the world needs to know who Alex de Waal really is. Blinkin needs to know who Alex de Waal really is. And once his credibility is shot, and no one at the State Department returns his calls anymore, we’ll see the Alex and Mulugeta Comedy Hour get cancelled. Mulugeta has been using his old colleague as a bullhorn, but when that stops, he’ll also be neutralized.

There will be no more tall, outlandish stories to tell. There will only be hiding. Possibly behind some mango trees.



Jeff Pearce

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.