Religion,Peace and the Future of Ethiopia

Written in June 2002 and posted in 2013 this paper is being republished for the second time.

“Given the widespread rise of new religious movements in the rest of Africa, and their frequent external financing, the challenge for the State in Ethiopia is to to learn how to live with this new phenomenon, to be sensitive to its dangers, possibly deal with some of its grievances, seek to reach accommodation with it while protecting (up to a point) the interests of long established faith groups, such as the EOC and mosques. In doing so the objective of the government must be to prevent civil conflict on the back of religious differences, for which in Ethiopia all the ingredients are present — implying a regulating and mediating role by a democratically legitimate secular state.”

These were concluding notes of the presentation on Religion,Peace and the Future of Ethiopia in 2002. Readers have requested for the full version of the paper and the introductory remarks posted on August 7 2013. Here it is.

Given the recent developments in the country and the misguided assertions by some that current events herald the emergence of radical Islam in Ethiopia I find it timely and relevant to post it. What we see now is the maturity of that movement and not the beginning of it and the paper might help to provide a framework of analysis and locate the history of the crisis. The paper had several limitations and I am sure many wouldn’t agree with some of the assertions but it tries to walk through some of the salient features of political Islam while simplifying the powerful concepts or skipping them entirely. Indeed, there are minor references in each paragraph that could sustain large scale research. For obvious reasons I have glossed over or skipped much of the details.

The paper was an attempt at understanding the early rise of political Islam and locating the pockets of Wahabism and presenting a powerful, and not necessarily complex, set of analytical tools that can be used to look back and explain why the trend developed the way it did; to look around and make sense of the changing religious equilibrium in the country; and to look forward so that we can develop relevant policy tools.

Home to a number of Sufi brotherhoods Islam in Ethiopia has largely been tolerant and pragmatic. However its inclusive and protective (of other religions and cultures) character is increasingly under attack. In a sense, this is nothing very new, as there has been revivalist movements in all religious throughout history. Except the times are different and that new and ceaseless advances are slanting it in one direction.

When I stepped in to the stage with the analysis on the early rise of political Islam of the Wahabi variant in 2002 very few Ethiopians shook their heads. Sadly, the EPRDF played defence. Indeed, top officials expressed disgust. The government hit back with a statement that ‘all religions coexist peacefully as per the constitution and I am making it up’. Government policy was based on the fallacy that drumming up peaceful coexistence and the constitution itself will have the power to check the spread of radical Islam in Ethiopia. It’s utter nonsense. Which is not to say that solidifying and respecting the constitutional order doesn’t help in arresting the emergence of religious conflicts. My response was like- Ignore it and you (and the country) will be in for some rude surprises. And the surprise came six or so years later when the government reacted in a rush and began to take the problem seriously. The most amazing thing about the whole incident, as with other predictions in relation to Somalia, Eritrea and even the 2005 elections, was that they were so predictable.

The EPRDF-led government remained stuck, often flirting, with the problem (partly due to the logic of ethnic alliances and elite pact) long enough to appreciate the ‘big threat’. And, of course, a lot of analysts avoided the issue. The local media was disinterested. This is a shame on several levels. Many intellectually curious Ethiopians have missed the subject that is controversial, sensitive, powerful and highly relevant to every aspect of Ethiopia’s future. The government failed to quickly and prudently understand the identity of the problem and map out the necessary strategies on an issue very critical to Ethiopia’s existence.

I was not attempting to explain how the trend might have been automatically thwarted. I was only discussing the future of religion and peace in the country. I was hinting the sense that the country may be running against time, but the EPRDF controlled the clock. I wonder whether all what happened indicates that the government can now see what went wrong with its inattention and consequential policy formulations,e.g the use of the very notion of lamping the issue as terrorism. One can but hope.Download full text here religion Ethiopia ROAPE federalism.doc