On Saturday 23 June, a man reportedly dressed in police uniform attempted to throw a grenade towards the speaker’s platform during a pro-government rally in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Eyewitnesses report that rally attendees grabbed the would-be assassin, and the grenade exploded in his hand. At the time of writing, two are confirmed dead and around 156 wounded, of whom at least six are critical. The rally in Meskel Square was a show of support for Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali (41), and for his radical reform agenda.
|Pro-government rally, Meskel Square, Addis Ababa, 23 June 2018|
Elected in late March by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) four-party coalition, and sworn into office on 2 April, Dr Abiy has hit the ground running. But as the grenade attack indicates, not everyone is pleased.
See: Grenade attack caused blast at rally for PM Abiy Ahmed
Al Jazeera English (VIDEO) 23 June 2018
Ethiopia’s New Prime Minister: Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali
On 15 February, after years of escalating civil unrest and political paralysis, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn submitted his resignation.
Defense and Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy (D&FA, the magazine of the International Strategic Studies Association), Issue 3/2018, assessed the leadership change as having profound and global significance.
|Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali|
English transcript of PM Abiy's maiden speech,
courtesy OPride.com (Oromo Pride is an independent news agency)
In D&FA’s estimation, “The election of Dr Abiy may come to be seen as the most significant strategic shift in the Horn of Africa/Red Sea strategic zone since the coup against Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1974 . . .”
The pro-Soviet Dergue (military junta) that seized power in 1974 systematically dismantled Ethiopian national identity in line with Marxist ideology. And as D&FA explains, it is a wound from which Ethiopia has never recovered, causing Ethiopia to remain internally focused and fractured.
However, D&FA believes that, “Dr Abiy has the potential to reassert Ethiopian unity, in part because he is an Oromo leader” and the Oromo – the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia – has long been the most restive and opposed to the Tigrean control of government.
D&FA makes it clear that the EPRDF coalition did not elect Dr Abiy because he is weak and pliable. To the contrary, when it comes to leadership, Dr Abiy is a rising star. He is a former soldier, having served as a colonel in intelligence and communications. He is also a technocrat and cyber warfare expert. He has a PhD (2017) in conflict resolution . . . and more. D&FA describes his career as “intense”, noting that Dr Abiy, despite his youth, has already served as Minister of Science and Technology (2016-2017), Director of the Federal Science and Technology Information Centre (2013-2016), and Director of the Federal Information Network Security Agency (2007-2010).
D&FA continues, “Dr Abiy, for all that his name reveals his Muslim birth, is a Protestant Christian, having – like many Muslims now associating with the ruling elite in Ethiopia – converted from Islam to Protestant Christianity. So it is interesting that, for all that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was seen as often subordinating itself to the Government since, essentially, 1974, the EPRDF leadership has itself associated more with Protestantism.”
Dr Abiy was born in 1976 in the restive, Muslim-majority Jimma region of south-western Ethiopia. The youngest of 13 children, his father was a polygamous Muslim and his mother (the fourth wife) a Christian. Deutsche Welle (DW) notes that when violent unrest erupted between the region’s Muslim and Christian communities, Abiy “actively engaged in a peace forum for reconciliation”. OPride adds: “Abiy completed his Ph.D. at the Institute of Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa University with his doctoral thesis entitled ‘Social Capital and its Role in Traditional Conflict Resolution in Ethiopia: The Case of Inter-Religious Conflict in Jimma Zone.’ His dissertation was built around the work he had done in a government led mission to resolve conflicts between Christian and Muslim communities in his hometown of Beshasha.”
Dr Abiy is married with three daughters.
For a more detailed profile see: 10 quick facts about Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, OPride.com.
Prime Minister Abiy’s reforms are causing alarm among those invested in the status quo; consequently, resistance is to be expected.
In power for less than three months, PM Abiy has already removed Ethiopia’s intelligence and military chiefs along with the national security advisor and several other older government officials. “These people have been in the system for far too long and are by and large blamed by the public for the problems,” said Awol Allo, an Ethiopian commentator who teaches law in Britain. “My worry is that he’s moving too fast in a country without the institutional safeguards to implement these policies.”
PM Abiy has also made moves to liberalise the economy, privatizing key state-run industries – among them Ethiopian Airlines and Ethio Telecom – industries in which many EPRDF elites are believed to be entrenched. Such big reforms carry big risks.
Further to this, he has lifted the state of emergency and released thousands of political prisoners.
Peace with Eritrea
One of PM Abiy’s most controversial moves – and the one that would be of the most interest to religious liberty observers and analysts – is his move to make peace with Eritrea.
|click on map to enlarge|
On Tuesday 5 June 2018, Stratfor Global Intelligence reported: “After years of bad blood, Ethiopia is taking steps to mend fences and reach an agreement on its shared border with Eritrea. On June 5, Ethiopia’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, opted to accept an agreement that would give Badme, a town on the border, to Eritrea. If Ethiopia follows through, the move could help settle some of the differences between the two archrivals on the Horn of Africa.”
Disputed border to of Badme to be recognised as Eritrean territory
CGTN Africa, 6 Jun 2018
Ethiopia accepts peace deal with longtime rival Eritrea
France 24, 6 June 2018
In announcing the move to pursue peace, PM Abiy explained: “All that we have achieved from the situation of the last 20 years is tension. Neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea benefit from a stalemate. We need to expend all our efforts towards peace and reconciliation and extricate ourselves from petty conflicts and divisions and focus on eliminating poverty.”
PM Abiy rejected the characterisation of relations between the two countries as a “no war no peace” situation, arguing that the psychological burden and the endless antagonism means that the two states are in reality, still in a state of war. “Every Ethiopian should realise,” he said, “that it is expected of us to be a responsible government that ensures stability in our region, one that takes the initiative to connect the brotherly peoples of both countries and expands trains, buses, and economic ties between Asmara [the Eritrean capital] and Addis Ababa.”
But as Ludger Schadomsky, the head of DW’s Amharic Service, observes, Abiy’s reforms have not been welcomed in all corridors of power. In particular, “he has alienated powerful people in the security and military establishment who view his recent peace initiative vis-a-vis Eritrea with great scepticism”.
click on map to enlarge
Indeed, PM Abiy’s peace overture is eliciting strong resistance from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a political party which forms part of the ruling EPRDF four-party coalition, and which has dominated government for decades. The move is also opposed by Ethiopian veterans of the war and other Tigrayan settlers living in Badme as well as ethnic Tigrayans living in Tigray province, along the Eritrean border.
It goes without saying though, that peace with Eritrea would radically transform the security situation in the Horn of Africa. Indeed, the implications of peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea are absolutely enormous. And as Al-Jazeera notes, the ball is now in Eritrea’s court.
Eritrea and its President, Isaias Afwerki
Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive states and its president, Isaias Afwerki, is one of the world’s cruellest dictators. Eritrea is also one of the world’s most severe persecutors of Christians, in particular Protestant Christians, thousands of whom have suffered appalling abuse and inhumane mistreatment, including torture, in Eritrea’s prisons and desert camps. The state generates thousands of refugees per month, many of whom are Christian [RLPB 235 (6 Nov 2013)].
All secondary school students must complete their compulsory military service in order to graduate. Yet while in military service, these teenagers are abused and mistreated, their Bibles are confiscated, and unrepentant believers (in particular Protestants) are beaten and tortured.
Of those who have fled, thousands have become stranded in camps in Sudan or Libya, while others have fallen prey to human traffickers who sell them to terrorists who then hold them in bunkers in the Sinai desert where they are tortured for ransom [RLPB 205 (10 April 2013)].
|Survivor: Eritrean Christian refugee, Philemon, tortured in the Sinai desert.|
"God brought me out of the deepest darkness . . ."
Religious Liberty Monitoring: Eritrea
World Watch Monitoring: Eritrea
Morning Star News: Eritrea
Submission to CCPR by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) April 2018
Critically, Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki legitimises his repression and the cruelty on the pretext that the war with Ethiopia never really ended, and as such, Eritrea must remain on a permanent war footing and in a permanent state of emergency.
Unsurprisingly, Afwerki – who has been Eritrea’s president since independence (1993) – is not rushing to embrace PM Abiy’s peace overture.
Marcos Hailemariam (not his real name), an Eritrean refugee living in Addis Ababa told The Ethiopian Herald that he suspects the Eritrean regime will either ignore Abiy’s overture or find an excuse to discount it.“First of all,” he said, “the no war no peace situation is one of the pretexts the regime uses to extend its life span as a dictatorial regime. If the tension between the nations is solved the people would raise various questions against the dictatorial regime.”
The analysts at the ERI platform agree, suggesting that PM Abiy’s move could “pull the rug from under Isaias’ feet”.
“Removing this state of no peace, no war denies him [Afwerki] the pretext of national security and puts Isaias in a dilemma – either way, it could be the beginning of the end of the unravelling of his dictatorship. The fact that he is unable or unwilling to respond in kind is likely a reflection of that concern. . .
“He [Afwerki] is probably afraid that either way would spell his undoing. He is facing a dilemma, because that could be the beginning of the end of his regime. With an end to the state of no war, no peace in sight, there would be no excuse for business as usual for the regime.”
See: The Missing Facts in the Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Debate
ERI Platform, 12 June 2018
It took Afwerki two weeks to respond to Abiy’s offer and to confirm that Eritrea will send officials to Addis Ababa to “gauge current developments directly and in depth”.
On Wednesday 20 June, Stratfor Global Intelligence reported: “Dynamics in East Africa have the potential to change dramatically in the near future. After weeks of silence, Eritrea’s reclusive president, Isaias Afwerki, finally weighed in on June 5 reports that Ethiopia could give disputed territory to its longtime enemy. During Eritrea’s Martyrs Day, Afwerki stated that the recent events in Ethiopia warranted attention and that his country would send a delegation to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, to discuss potential cooperation.
“While seemingly insignificant on the surface, the move from Afwerki is likely borne of desperation. The president has justified his decades long grip on power by claiming that Ethiopia wanted to wipe his Red Sea country off the map. Indeed, Eritrea’s political and economic systems have largely revolved around the need to maintain a huge military apparatus that is capable of going toe-to-toe with Ethiopia. However, Afwerki slowly transformed that system into one that perpetuates his rule, and he has used illicit activities to buy support from military elites.
“Addis Ababa’s decision to flip the script has, at least temporarily, called into question the narrative that Ethiopia presents an existential threat. Because of this, Afwerki is compelled to at least appear willing to hear out the Ethiopians to appease his people and avoid potential protests. But luckily for Afwerki, there are also signs that hard-liners in Addis Ababa may be prepared to fight the reforms that new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is pushing. For example, the key party in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front [TPLF], recently voiced its concern over the recent zeal for reform and said more deliberations were necessary. In the context of Ethiopia’s politics, this likely means the hard-liners are preparing to bite back to reassert control and ensure they continue to profit from the regional rivalry.” (emphasis mine)
|PM Abiy (in blue jacket) visits |
victims in hospital, 24 June.
The blast has sent shock-waves through the country. Mohammed Ademo, political commentator and founder of OPride.com, told Al-Jazeera, “Abiy’s effort to move the country forward has angered those who for a very long time maintained a stronghold on the country’s politics and economy. They are trying to scare people and undermine the prime minister so they can send a signal that he is not capable of stabilizing the country. Many Ethiopians are shocked that people would go to such lengths to stop what they [many Ethiopians] see as a really positive move – the reforms they say this country really needs.”
Reasserting Control: Further to this, on 24 April, World Watch Monitor reported that, “Ethiopia’s northern Tigray State is considering adopting a new law that would restrict Christian activities to within official [Ethiopian Orthodox] church compounds. . .
“A similar law was recently ratified in neighbouring Amhara State which, together with Tigray, is home to most members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and local church leaders fear other states will copy the move.”
PM Abiy's radical reforms -- especially his peace overture with Eritrea -- are infuriating Tigrayans, (especially those in the TPLF) and threatening powerful people who profit from the status quo. In this context, it is highly likely that this move by the governing authorities in Tigray and Amhara regions is not religious policy so much as it is reactionary politics. It would be interesting to know what the Ethiopian Orthodox Church's position is on such an unconstitutional law (see Article 11), one that in some ways mimics Eritrean policy. It is a move the central government will surely challenge, hopefully before too many Ethiopian Protestants are negatively impacted.
Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.
She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).