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Ethiopia: Governing 
the Faithful
Ethiopia: Governing 
the Faithful
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Can a “Humanitarian Truce” Help End Ethiopia’s Civil War?
Can a “Humanitarian Truce” Help End Ethiopia’s Civil War?
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

Podcast / Africa

Can a “Humanitarian Truce” Help End Ethiopia’s Civil War?

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Crisis Group expert William Davison to discuss the Ethiopian federal government's offer of a humanitarian truce in its seventeen-month war against forces from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. 

After almost seventeen months of devastating civil war in Ethiopia, the federal government on 24 March announced what it called a humanitarian truce. The offer would ostensibly allow aid into Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, which has, in effect, been under a blockade for months and where millions face what the UN describes as a serious lack of food. The government’s unilateral truce declaration comes after its offensive in late 2021 pushed back Tigrayan forces, who had advanced to within striking distance of the capital Addis Ababa – the latest about-face in a war that has seen the balance of force between federal troops and Tigrayan rebels swing back and forth. It also comes alongside other signals that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed may have tempered his initial goal of crushing Tigray’s leadership. 

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood, Naz Modirzadeh and William Davison, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Ethiopia, discuss the causes and significance of the government's proposal. They map out the military dynamics on the ground and the evolving calculations of Tigrayan leaders, Prime Minister Abiy, other Ethiopian protagonists in the conflict and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, whose forces were also fighting alongside the federal troops against the Tigrayans. They talk about the role of foreign powers in supporting President Abiy Ahmed and in pushing for peace and break down how regional relations are shaping the conflict. They ask how optimistic we should be that the truce eases Tigray’s humanitarian disaster or even serves as a foundation for peace talks and how such talks might surmount the thorniest obstacles – notably resolving a territorial dispute in Western Tigray – to a political settlement.  

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Ethiopia page.

Contributors

Executive Vice President
atwoodr
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Senior Analyst, Ethiopia
wdavison10