Ethiopia is a nation that seemingly cannot enjoy calm for a long stretch of period. Throughout its history the country has rarely avoided civil war, aggression by foreign powers or other forms of violence. If we just focus on the past three-and-half-years now since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to power, it has been embroiled in a war that has been raging beginning November 2020 not to mention internecine conflicts that have been averaging a week. Tens of thousands were killed and injured, millions more displaced from their homes and property worth billions of birr was destroyed during this time. Many had hoped that the recapture by Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) of large swathes of areas in the Amhara and Afar regions that had been under the control of the forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) until December 2021 heralded the return to relative peace. Sadly, this hope was dashed on account of two developments that should not have provoked tensions.
The first development is the controversy over the unsettled ownership of Meskel Square, a historical landmark located in central Addis Ababa. Claimed by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), which has the largest members of all religious institutions in Ethiopian, it often serves as a venue for public gatherings, demonstrations, cultural events and festivals, notably the Meskel Festival (commemorating the finding of the Holy Cross) from which it derives its name. The controversy arose following Mayor Adanech Abiebie’s remark a fortnight ago that the square belongs to all Ethiopians. Displeased by her remark, EOTC summoned her to appear before it to explain her position on the matter. She failed to turn up though due to prior engagements elsewhere. The other episode is the arrest in mid-week of an unknown number of people in Addis Ababa for allegedly displaying the national tri-color flag not bearing the regulation emblem during Epiphany celebrations. Though we are not ascribing blame here on any side it’s imperative to be mindful that both incidents may well inflame widespread resentment that potentially fuels unrest.
Ethiopia is a secular state where the principle of separation of church and state are enshrined in the constitution. According to the supreme law of the land the state shall not interfere in religious matters and religion shall not interfere in state affairs. As such religious institutions and their followers have the right to freely live their faith, even in public, without fear of government coercion. Needless to say, this does not mean that religious freedom proscribes the government from taking measures within the bounds of the rule of law when the application of such a right conflicts with the exercise of other equally legitimate liberties. However, given the fact that religion is an emotive issue which tends to kindle feverish passion, it’s of the essence that the government strikes a fine balance as it undertakes its law enforcement duties.
For a nation the majority of whose population is deeply religious, faith is a hot-button issue which needs to be handled with prudence. Ethiopia’s historical enemies and their domestic collaborators have always exploited religious sensitivities in furtherance of their sinister agenda. These adversaries have brazenly acknowledged so on several occasions, saying instigating religious conflicts helps them accomplish a long-sought political end—destabilize Ethiopia so that it comes apart at the seams and never develop into a force to be reckoned with. This calls on the part of well-meaning citizens who feel genuinely aggrieved by events or narratives offending deep-held beliefs to wise up to the end-game of those intent on fomenting hatred and division and refrain from falling into the trap they have set for them. At the same time it’s incumbent on the government, particularly as the national dialogue process is about to get underway, to demonstrate judiciousness when dealing with religiously sensitive matters and see to it that any and all actions it takes do not sow the seeds of distrust and violence. Failure is bound to have consequences that could very well be too awful to contemplate.