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Ethiopia: Governing 
the Faithful
Ethiopia: Governing 
the Faithful
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Ethiopia Must Continue to Help Stabilise South Sudan
Ethiopia Must Continue to Help Stabilise South Sudan
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

Commentary / Africa

Ethiopia Must Continue to Help Stabilise South Sudan

Addis Ababa can win economic and security gains if it perseveres with its impressive commitment to peace efforts in South Sudan. With its new two-year membership on the UN Security Council, Addis Ababa has the opportunity to better connect regionally-led political processes to UN action. 

Ethiopia’s commitment to peace-making in South Sudan has been critical for regional stability. It has much to gain from continuing this engagement, including a secure border and trade with a stable neighbour. But achieving lasting peace after South Sudan’s two-year-long civil war is a long-term undertaking.

Ethiopia has shown strong leadership and a level of direct involvement in peace efforts in Sudan and South Sudan that few countries can match.

The African Union High Implementation Panel (AUHIP) peace talks on the conflicts are held in Ethiopia. Addis Ababa led the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD, a regional body) peace process on South Sudan and is a guarantor of the August 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS). It deploys peacekeepers to the UN Mission in South Sudan and is the main contributor to the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (on the Sudan-South Sudan border). It is also expected to be the lead contributor to the 4,000-strong UN Regional Protection Force (RPF) based in Juba.

Ethiopia’s two-year membership on the UN Security Council (UNSC) should be an opportunity to better connect regionally-led political processes to UN action.

Implementing the ARCSS and the Regional Force

Following the July 2016 fighting in Juba, ARCSS has been reshaped, and the RPF and national dialogue process created to reinforce its principles. Concerted support is required from Ethiopia, fellow IGAD member states, the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC, overseeing ARCSS implementation and reporting to the IGAD heads of state) and the UN to reduce conflict under an inclusive government.

These processes, and the RPF’s role in supporting them, are fluid and interconnected. For example, a successful negotiation between the transitional government and an armed group increases the chances of successful dialogue between communities caught up in the conflict. There is now a window of opportunity to shape and provide capacity-building to efforts to make the new South Sudan transitional government more inclusive.

Given the trust deficit that exists between South Sudan’s government and opposition figures, the UN’s RPF has a role to play in helping create conditions conducive to ARCSS implementation and national dialogue.

Ethiopia’s support for talks between these parties makes it a critical partner in supporting inclusivity in Juba. For this to take place, the RPF must deploy and demonstrate its worth. In addition to JMEC, the RPF provides a direct link to Ethiopia and other IGAD leaders in their oversight of ARCSS and efforts to form a more inclusive government.

On the sidelines of the forthcoming AU summit, Ethiopia and IGAD leaders should consider what can be done to expedite RPF deployment and how it can be better tied to political engagement to support genuine efforts toward greater transitional government inclusivity.

Mutual Security and Prosperity

Ethiopia’s mediation and peacekeeping efforts also support stability at home. During Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s 28 October visit to Juba, he and President Kiir made assurances that they would not support rebels in either country ­– a critical restatement of a mutual understanding between the two countries.

Ethiopia’s border with South Sudan hosts cross-border communities that experience multiple, overlapping communal tensions that can lead to violence. A large Murle raid from South Sudan into the Gambella region last April required the Ethiopian army’s temporary deployment into South Sudan to secure the return of abducted children and to monitor both sides of the border. This took place during a separate period of intercommunal conflict in Gambella, which was exacerbated by the large numbers of refugees in the region.

Supporting South Sudan to reduce political and communal conflicts along their shared border – which requires effective and inclusive governance from Juba – will improve security in Gambella and reduce refugee inflows, which tend to exacerbate intercommunal tensions in the border region.

Violence and displacement are detrimental to the mutually beneficial cross-border trade that was growing fast before South Sudan’s civil war started in 2013. Stability and security can enable development rather than humanitarian crisis in the impoverished border regions and beyond.

Ethiopia should not waiver in its commitment to ensuring a peaceful South Sudan and use the many tools at its disposal – IGAD, ARCSS, JMEC, the RPF and its term since January on the UN Security Council – to support an inclusive and stable government in Juba. Successful peace-making will ensure greater stability in Ethiopia and facilitate sustained trade and economic development – which is to everyone’s benefit.