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Ethiopia: Governing 
the Faithful
Ethiopia: Governing 
the Faithful
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Ethiopia: Prospects for Peace in Ogaden
Ethiopia: Prospects for Peace in Ogaden
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Men sing after taking part in morning prayers to celebrate the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr, in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, 17 July 2015. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
Briefing 117 / Africa

Ethiopia: Governing 
the Faithful

Ethiopia’s struggle with domestic religious radicalisation has shifted toward top-down intervention, a policy that has contained violence but is generating new risks. Political accommodation and compromise are vital to defuse faith-based radicals’ opposition to what they perceive as overly secular rule by the dominant party.

I. Overview

Ethiopia provides a significant example of the struggle governments are undertaking to find and implement effective policy responses to faith-based violent extremism and sectarian conflict. Given both demographic shifts and greater religious freedoms, the management of religious conflict and practice has of necessity been a complex and sometimes fraught task. A changed context has seen the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government shift from mediating conflict between faith groups to regulating religious practice, especially where there are political or extremist overtones. Local actors have used the state’s interventionist inclinations in the confessional realm to gain advantage in wider leadership struggles within Ethiopia’s ethnically based regional states. Opposition groups, not always within formal parties, have also used religious issues to score political points. The Ethiopian experience shows not only how faith is an increasing political resource, especially at local levels, but also lessons that can be learned from top-down interventions in the religious sphere.

Although often regarded as a predominantly Christian country, the confessional landscape is diverse and evolving, and religion is increasingly politicised by a range of domestic actors, including the state. Faith runs deep, and its religions (particularly the Orthodox Church) have at various times in history been intimately connected to the Ethiopian state and its administration. Always a significant but institutionally disadvantaged minority, the Muslim population has grown in relative terms in recent decades and is at least as numerous as that in Sudan, Ethiopia’s predominantly Islamic neighbour. Previously discriminated against (including by the state), Muslims and Protestants have embraced and capitalised on the lifting of religious restrictions by the 1994 secular constitution. 

Faith-based communal conflicts have, in modern times at least, been rare though deadly, bringing prompt community and government responses. Sporadic confessional violence over the last decades has not translated into a real threat to a long tradition of religious (though often unequal) co-existence. While inter-confessional tensions remain, they appear to have been largely superseded in recent years by tensions between the government and faith communities. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and Muslims alike have accused the former of undue interference in their internal religious affairs, whereas the government sees itself as holding the secular line against politicisation and extremism. 

Ethiopia, like its immediate neighbours, is faced with difficult policy choices involved in guarding against internal radicalisation through systematic (at times constitutionally questionable) interventions that have tended to favour established religious authorities. The government, and donors keen to support global efforts against violent extremism, should always consider first, the risk of such interventions to the state’s neutrality as mediator, and secondly, that taking sides in intra-religious debates could exacerbate communal faith-based conflicts. Above all, those backing interventions should always seek better understanding of what faith means to multi-ethnic, religiously diverse societies like (but not limited to) Ethiopia, in which the distinction between group and individual identity is often not well defined, and rival local actors are apt to make use of religious disputes where social and governmental constraints inhibit open political competition.

Nairobi/Brussels, 22 February 2016

Report 207 / Africa

Ethiopia: Prospects for Peace in Ogaden

The most credible attempt at talks to end decades of armed conflict in Ogaden may soon resume, but concerted efforts need to be made to guide them to a peaceful resolution.

Executive Summary

Nearly a year after the talks facilitated by Kenya between the Ethiopian government and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebels stalled in October 2012, there are signs that the process may restart. Ostensibly, it was the ONLF’s refusal to recognise the Ethiopian constitution that halted the initial dialogue, but that issue covers more fundamental divides, and these remain. Nevertheless there are solid reasons why this is a promising time for both parties, as well as neighbouring countries and other international partners, to try to renew meaningful talks. Two decades of deadly conflict – especially an intense five-year, relatively successful government counter-insurgency campaign – have exhausted the local Ethiopian-Somali population sufficiently to push the ONLF back to the table. Likewise, Addis Ababa’s determination to accelerate economic growth, especially by exploiting the resources of its lowland peripheries, not least hydrocarbons, also argues for sustainable peace.

Ethiopia’s commitment to the talks is important but undermined by a parallel strategy of piecemeal deals with disgruntled ONLF members. Concessions to the rebels risk alienating the “loyalist” stronghold that the federal government has built up within the majority clan – the Ogaadeni – in the Ogaden region, formally called the Somali National Regional State (SNRS). These tactics have proved useful in the counter-insurgency campaign, but a meaningful peace process will have to address the clan tensions and exacerbated intra-communal violence they have also deepened.

The drive for peace has suffered from the death in August 2012 of longstanding Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who took a strong personal interest in resolving the Ogaden conflict and had the power to negotiate a deal. Though his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, is a potential dove, he lacks the political strength to challenge the military-security hawks who led the counter-insurgency operations and are, at best, sceptical of the need for a deal with the weakened ONLF.

The ONLF’s leadership lacks a unified vision of the talks’ outcome, shifting along a spectrum of options, between reconciliation with the state in return for significant autonomy and outright secession. Though the Ethiopian constitution formally allows for secession, it is not a real option for the government and is complicated by pan-Somali irredentist dreams, driven by the Ogaadeni clan’s transnational reach. In its attempts to guard against the subversion of its cause by wider Somali interests, the ONLF has been forced to look for allies further afield, especially Eritrea, whose invaluable tactical support has embroiled an internal Ethiopian issue in wider regional rivalries. Unless its regional relations, especially with Eritrea but also with Somalia, improve, Addis Ababa will continue to view the Ogaden issue through a national security lens.

Kenya’s involvement in the peace talks is based on security cooperation with Ethiopia, especially over Somali issues, as well as growing aspiration to increase bilateral economic ties. Transnational clan links also pushed it to take on facilitation, led by a team of Kenyan Ogaadenis, including a government minister, two parliamentarians and an ex-civil servant. However, Nairobi was distracted by its March 2013 election, which partly contributed to loss of momentum in the process. The team has now had its mandate renewed by President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government, but its task is complicated by the growing instability in Kenya’s Somali counties and the Kenyan military intervention (under the African Union Mission in Somalia, AMISOM) in neighbouring southern Somalia – two regions dominated by the Ogaadeni clan.

Balancing Ogaadeni interests in the three neighbouring states would make it more possible in the longer term to build sustainable regional peace. The international community – traditional donors and new economic actors interested in Ethiopia’s resource-rich peripheries alike – should give their attention to renewed talks. Development aid and economic partnerships could significantly improve prospects for Ethiopian-Somali communities exhausted by years of counter-insurgency, marginalisation and political violence. But the peace talks can only transform sub-regional economic integration if they address fundamental governance issues – especially resolution of historical Ethiopian-Somali grievances.

A meaningful peace process requires unprecedented concessions from both sides and, potentially, enhancement of Kenya’s role from facilitator to guarantor, as well as the channelling of technical support through the regional peace and security organisation, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). To improve the prospects of a new round of talks, the parties could consider a number of options:

  • a greater role for Kenya’s good offices in light of its shared security concerns with Ethiopia and the shared stakes of its Ogaadeni facilitators for regional peace. IGAD could also conceivably play a role, especially through its Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism’s (CEWARN) Rapid Response Fund designed to prevent and mitigate pastoralism-related conflict;
  • shared acknowledgement of the post-1991 devolved administration’s achievements, especially the investments of the last five years, and of the potential for further reforms in the regional government (in partnership with the existing SNRS administration), particularly if a balance is maintained between ensuring security and pursuing much needed development; again, IGAD’s technical programs on pastoralism could be supportive;
  • a potential role for both traditional clan- and state-based justice in accounting for crimes committed during the conflict and achieving reconciliation within Ogaadeni sub-clans and with other Somali clans, perhaps including a commission of inquiry, led by neutral Ethiopian and Kenyan elders, into the 50-year legacy of conflict in the region;
  • commitment to greater transparency of the trade and customs regime in SNRS, including creative concessions, eg, incentives to pay duty on cross-border Somali trade with Kenya and Somaliland; and
  • recognition of the federal government’s authority over oil and natural gas concessions, but also shared commitment to public scrutiny of exploration’s impact on pastoral livelihoods and consultation on regional social and economic development if commercial exploitation starts.

Nairobi/Brussels, 6 August 2013