On Perception, Reality and Leading Leaders
Much has transpired in Tigrai over the last year and a half that divorces perception from reality. Foremost is the humanitarian crises, claiming a million to death, disease, and hunger. The realization that external actors could play an outsized role in determining the fate of a nation claiming millions is a shocker. Tigrai needs humanitarian aid with the dignity it deserves. The awareness that a shred of incompetence in leadership, communication, and tolerance on the part of Tigrai might be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back is also a hard pill to swallow. So, we ask, where is Tigrai at this juncture? Is there a divide between perception and reality? Is there an art of leading our leaders?
Well, the reality is, this: Tigrai is standing at a crossroad to survival. The diplomatic path seeks to spare the people without further bloodshed. The military option seeks to achieve the same goal using force. So, the question is this: “is Tigrai pursuing these alternatives effectively?” How do Tigreans perceive Tigrai’s performance so far? The proximate that perception is to reality, the better. The further the perception, the worse. The same equation also applies to Tigrai’s enemies. Cambridge Dictionary says “a person who hates or opposes another person and tries to harm them or stop them from doing something” is an enemy. Tigrai’s enemies are actively opposed or hostile towards Tigrai’s right to access to humanitarian aid, social services, and right to self-determination including election. They are also “actively” deploying their military to surround Tigrai until it surrenders or starves to death, hence the nomenclature: Tigrai’s enemies!
It is very important to understand this crossroad-reality when thinking about the rumors or “talks” of negotiation. Tigreans, I think, should not confuse negotiation with cease fire talks. Negotiation intends to bring about mutually beneficial outcome via compromise, farsightedness, goodwill, and tolerance. Cease fire talks attempts to cool of the skirmish before it goes out of control. I think the so called “negotiations” are, in reality, “cease fire talks” and nothing more. A genuine negotiation, whose ideal outcome is reconciliation, can proceed, in this case, after the crime of genocide has been properly adjudicated and reparations fully made.
Germany and France fought 350 times over a thousand years. Today, they are pillars of the EU. This was possible because the leadership of post-war Germany was willing and able to “sincerely” acknowledge its fault and France reciprocated the gesture. Same thing with post-apartheid South Africa. Eternal conflicts ranging from Kashmir to the West bank remain open wounds because nobody took responsibility. In any event, Tigrai’s enemies are “actively” starving and isolating Tigrai. They are also “actively” mobilizing their forces to either deter or reinvade Tigrai. So, it is important not to confuse “talks” with “negotiations”, lest our perception divorce with reality.
The next question is, I think, will Tigrai’s enemies succeed? This forces one to juxtapose Tigrai’s scorecard with its enemies. First, can Tigrai’s enemies reinvade Tigrai? The worse scenario is they might. But does invasion guarantee occupation? Well, history, including recent events prove nobody can occupy Tigrai using force. In other words, invasion is a bad strategy to implement in Tigrai- a bitter pill its enemies swallowed. So, we are left with the anaconda strategy. Can Tigrai’s enemies choke Tigrai to submission? This is a novel strategy Tigrai’s enemies are piloting these days that one can’t rebut via Tigrai’s historical precedent. So, one must assess the reactions: 1) Will Tigrai’s military endure it? 2) Will the international community tolerate it?, and, most of all, 3) Will Tigreans stop farming? I think at least one out of the three reactions is a solid “no!” One cannot choke Tigreans to submission. But why?
I think Tigreans cannot be choked to submission for two main reasons. First, Tigreans have clear objectives: a) securing humanitarian corridor, b) liberating Western Tigrai, c) exercising their right to self-determination. A clear objective guarantees effectiveness. By contrast, Tigrai’s enemies do not have a clear objective simply because they are decentralized. One would be hard pressed to derive a common goal from Asmara, Addis, or Bahir Dar, let alone from the near and far cheerleaders. Second, Tigreans have a just cause. Philosophers like Aristotle, Acquinas, Bentham, Mill, Kant, and Rawls have ascribed different meaning to justice. But the golden rule: “do unto others what you would have them onto you” converges them. Tigrai is pursuing self-determination. It never infringed on others right to the same. By contrast, its enemies are trying to quell its right to self-determination. So, the question is “do Tigrai’s enemies want anyone to bar their rights to self-determination?” For example, does the Eritrean tyrant want anyone to invade Eritrea? The answer is a resounding “no”. So, them invading Tigrai cries injustice- as simple as that.
When one juxtaposes Tigrai with its enemies in terms of: a) capability, b)goal, and c)cause, any reasonable person would acknowledge the popular slogan that “Tigrai will prevail!” as a statement of fact than a mere rhetoric. Tigrai will indeed prevail!! By now, any sane person would admit to two facts: 1) Tigrai’s military fit is next to noone, and 2) drones and human waves do guarantee a sustainable military victory. So, when one examines the concrete strategies objectively, one would understand that Tigrai’s enemies stand on a losing ground. But do Tigreans or its enemies see their predicament this way? Well, the answer is, in my view, “not necessarily!”
The next question, thus, becomes: “why do most misinterpret political reality?” I will not go in detail on why Tigrai’s enemies are disillusioned for obvious reasons. But I will say this about them: they believe it all depends on the “power of imagination”. If one shows a prosperity devout the picture below, she/he would say that its up to him/her to decide if the person in the picture is a young lady looking away or an ugly old lady looking forward when, in reality, the lady in the picture can either be young and beautiful or old and ugly (See pic below).
For example, when one shows them the “concerning” reports of UNOCHA, IMF, and high prices, they ask one to just look at the little gardens they set up or the slams they renovated in Addis and imagine prosperity. In short, they suffer from a type of delusional disorder psychologists call: “grandiose”. A grandiose sense of worth is an opprobrium in Tigrai’s culture. Tigreans are humble to a fault. However, there are certain cognitive biases, organizational pitfall, and international outlooks that I think may distract Tigreans from reality, by the way of creating misperception. I will try to explore these, very briefly, as follows.
Every individual is vulnerable to a cognitive bias/es. What stand out for me are biases like confirmation bias (interpreting new evidence according to one’s beliefs or theories), sunk cost (thinking a past loss one paid higher price is more important than a past loss one paid less for- even though both losses are in the past), post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, because of this, i.e., if x happened after y, y was caused by x) (read Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman and Trevsky for more on cognitive biases).
Let me bring out a sensitive issue like Tigrai Army’s abrupt u-turn from Addis Ababa’s doorsteps for demonstration. Some people thought Tigrai Army’s undefeated track record makes it invincible to future challenges. This is a confirmation bias for, despite one’s beliefs, all militaries have vulnerabilities. Others thought the decision to u-turn was wrong because the sacrifice was highest. This is sunk cost bias because you do not pursue a mission because you already sacrificed a lot; you do it if you see judge it will succeed. Some believed Tigrai’s Army u-turned because external forces asked it to U-turn. This is a post hoc ergo propter hoc-since one event following another does not mean it was triggered by preceding event. After all, Tigrai’s Army u-turned right after one leader of its enemies declared he will march to the battle field. So, are we to conclude, Tigrai’s Army u-turned because that joker “allegedly” marched to the battle field? This and other sorts of cognitive biases might confuse some Tigreans. Gauging the state of the Tigrean mind is important because public opinion is an important factor that shapes government action, not just vice versa.
Now, cognitive dissonances do not morph in a vacuum. There are organizational level factors that trigger these biases. In other words, people are misled by organizations (media, political, or other institutions) or executives (different leaders) somehow (via reputation or formal position of authority) positioned in conveying information. The most important organizations, in this context, are those shaping public opinion. The organizations involved in the business of shaping public opinion have not, I think, utilized the tolls of persuasion. Out of the three means of persuasion Aristotle identified in Rhetoric, only two (ethos-credibilityand pathos– emotion) were utilized, leaving out logos (reason).
TA’s/TDF’s leaders asked Tegaru to “have faith” in the impeccable track record of their fighters, appealing to ethos. Tegaru’s media also churned out footages that stir anger in the bombings, courage in the prisoners, solidarity in the diaspora, solace in international castigations, appealing to pathos. All of this is well but incomplete- short of logos a reasonable explanation or a set of reasonable explanations arranged in sensible order. A persuasion lacking logos triggers credibility issue. A credible statement meets three prongs. It must be sufficiently detailed, it must be consistent, and it should be plausible. The organization involved in shaping public opinion as well as leaders who convey information with authority should be careful lest they provide insufficient information, conflicting statements, or promise things they cannot fulfil. It is necessary to audit (credibility check) the information coming out of Tigrai with care.
Another factor that confuses many is the civil-military relations in Tigrai. Political scientists tell us that there are three ways military and political leaders collaborate during wartime. Some like Huntington say the military should work under political leadership- which is the dominant view (Clausewitz’s way). Others say military leaders should be given autonomy after the first fire is shot- this is an old (Sun Tsu’s way)- when he beheaded concubines against king’s wish). The third way recommends democratic consultation on equal terms- this theory lacks solid historical precedent. There are historical options that support or debunk these theories.
It seems to me that, historically, Tigrai’s armed struggle has been collaborative, even though political leaders made key decisions. I think this norm, which I suppose is already institutionalized, has been successful in the past and should be retained in tandem with the norm of holding decision makers accountable. When a wartime political leadership creates military blunder, that leadership should be held accountable for that specific mishap. It does not mean the military leadership be promoted to try out political decisions, unless one shifts his/her paradigm to the Sun Tsu way where political leaders are rendered mute during wartime- setting a dangerous precedent of military dictatorship. Derg took power because the military elite thought it is better positioned to resolve the country’s problem- which was, as Tigrai’s 17 years’ popular struggle proved, not the case. Soldiers are supposed to protect, not lead.
Another factor that confuses most people, I think, has to do with inter-organizational turf battles. The most prevalent turf battle, especially pertaining foreign affairs, is the turf between diplomatic and military leaders. One wants more resources to solve a problem using negotiation; another wants to solve problems using force. The rivalry between different government departments is a natural and eternal fact. Some leaders will always prefer to address Tigrai’s problems using diplomacy; others will always lean towards force, and that is the reality the top executive should balance in politics. So much for issues arising at the executive level.
The political industry transcends the executive branch. In this context, political parties and non-state media also want to get their voices heard. The biggest challenge here is discovering the middle ground. These actors are in a difficult situation where they have a duty to convey their views and interest without wrecking the bodypolitik, i.e., the core values and interests gluing the society together. They are expected to master the art of criticizing without triggering needless squabble among the people.
Tigrai has a loyal opposition for the first time in history which, in my view, must be nurtured. I also think the parties should consciously strive towards political maturity in words and in deed. This can happen if all stakeholders, including the governing party, talk and behave in a civilized, tolerant, and far sightedness manner, shunning pettiness. That, of course, begins with all loyal opposition parties acknowledging the incumbent party is legitimately elected to lead the people for some time.
A change in circumstances, i.e., unexpected war does not make the election null and void. Yes, the war begun before lower echelons of administration could elect their leaders. But that very circumstance, the war, gives the Tigrai government a prerogative to declare a state of emergency to pursue non-conventional method of administration- a power did not but can exercise. A government under emergency has the duty to protect the people by proclaiming an obligatory military draft. It can call on all able-bodied citizens to serve in the military. That has happened in advanced countries during the two world wars and external engagements like the US-Vietnam War. The Tigrean government did not exercise this power because the people rallied behind it. Here, the most important thing, is to remember that Tigrai has a government. Tigrai is not the anarchy its enemies dream it to be.
The fact that Tigrai’s government is restored to its rightful place is a great achievement. The aftermath where it asserted itself by establishing a formidable force is equally appreciable. Further, the fact that it built the capacity to deal with external actors in short span of time is also praiseworthy. But this does not mean that it is perfect. Tigreans should definitely provide information in identifying these weak spots and recommend solutions in good faith, accepting their government has the prerogative to act on them.
For example, one may notice that Tigrai’s government’s ability in conveying its message to the public is poor. What does one do? First, one must define what “poor” means. Is the problem with framing, with consistency, with dissemination? One must provide evidence. If there is indeed inconsistent, for instance, one must identify the consequence. For example, one might argue inconsistent information could harm credibility, sparking division. Then, one must address why one thinks there is inconsistency. Is it because those conveying information did not reach consensus on what they should publicly say? After this, one must recommend a solution. Should Tigrai’s leaders set a mechanism where they reach consensus on what to say/not say on sensitive matters before speaking on media? Finally, one must have a good faith that its elected leaders will take note of the matter and emerge better.
In short, it helps to: 1) pinpoint a problem using specific evidence, 2) explain why it matters, 3) explain its cause, 4) suggest a solution, and 5) trust the recipient will listen A reasonable person would go through these steps of constructive feedback. Basing criticism on vague generalizations devoid of actual time, person, place, and manner of fault holds no water except delusion, naivety, or an ulterior motive. The better one bases his/her argument on logic and evidence, the persuasive it becomes. Of course, one may also resort to emotions or morals, equally potent tools of persuasion. But reason and evidence are universal as different people are triggered by different emotions and subscribe to different moral values.
Now, let me address some misconceptions pertaining international relation. The nature of man shapes the nature of the state; the nature of the state shapes the nature of the relations among states, and vice versa. The information we get from state and non-state level organizations is thus influenced by systemic forces. The comparative position of different actors within and outside Tigrai affects how Tigreans interpret developments in Tigrai. This takes us to the major schools of international relations. Realism (one that solely rests on hard state power) and liberalism (one resting on the soft power of global norms and institutions) are the dominant schools of international relations.
Many portray these schools as being mutually exclusive. I disagree. I subscribe to Mortimer Adler’s portrayal of these schools as a pessimist’s and an optimist’s perception of international relations. Nations lean towards cooperation when they trust others and pursue power politics when they lose their trust in others. Policy is contingent on context. The problem with Eritrea and North Korea is their blatant disregard for global norms. Military strength does not solve all problems. Likewise, the problem with countries that end up being invaded, i.e., appeasers during League of Nations, World War II, Kuwait, and now Ukraine) is their blind faith that global institutions will come to the rescue.
Tigrai, I think, should, as Teddy Rosevelt put it: “speak softly and carry a big stick”. It must carefully tread on a tight rope without losing core principle or causing needless bickering. It should bring all instruments soft power to bear because everything is weaponized these days (Read Weaponization of Everything by Galeotti). In any event, it is important, I think, to avoid putting oneself in a box of one school of thought and assume “only power/morals dictates this world” because, in reality, both do. Human nature that is gullible to both force and reason.
To conclude, much has transpired in Tigrai stirring misperception. But the reality is that Tigrai is standing at a crossroad where it will determine its fate the easy way or the hard way. Either way, looking at the fundamentals, I think that Tigrai is positioned to ultimately rule its own destiny. It already has a clear goal, an adequate capability, a just cause to place it among the society of nations. What remains, in my view, is reconciling perception with reality by continuously assessing the loopholes present at the cognitive, organizational, and systemic levels. Most importantly, the shapers of public opinion from Tigrai ought to set reason and credibility as a cornerstone of communication, noting that public opinion also shapes policy (that it’s a two way street), always bearing in mind of other nations whose pursuit of self-determination remains pending for lack of potent orchestration.
Further, Tigreans should never forget they are undergoing a genocide. It matters less how or why it is taking place than how to stop it. Tigreans must prioritize how they can defeat this extinction project. They have restored their government and have established a formidable force. So, now, they should converge all their energy in supporting the government they elected and restored by any means necessary. But they should also know that their leadership is made of human beings who might make mistakes. They can rectify mistakes by providing constructive feedback where they identify problem, explain why they matter, trace their cause, suggest an antidote, and put trust their elected government will listen. This way, Tigreans can lead their leaders, prevail against their enemies, and flourish perpetually.