No sooner had the devastating war in northern Ethiopia had come to an end after the signing of a peace agreement in November 2022 than Ethiopia has been engulfed in one crisis after another. The nation has been synonymous with internal strife and war of aggression by foreign enemies throughout its history. The past five years in particular have been one of the bloodiest with hundreds of thousands killed and injured, millions more displaced from their homes, and property worth billions of birr was destroyed in the war and hundreds of internecine conflicts. Many anticipated that the cessation of hostilities following the peace deal heralded the dawn of a new era. Sadly but not surprisingly, this hope was recently shattered by a wholly manufactured crisis that has grave implications for the nation and beyond.
Tensions have been running high over the past fortnight in the wake of the schism within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), which has the largest following of all religious institutions in Ethiopia. Confrontations that led to the deaths, injuries and arrests have been taking place in the capital Addis Ababa and other parts of the country since the establishment of a breakaway Holy Synod, dubbed the “Holy Synod of Oromia and Nations and Nationalities”, by three Archbishops who appointed 25 episcopates and their subsequent excommunication by the EOTC’s Holy Synod. The Holy Synod has also been at loggerheads with the federal and Oromia region governments, accusing them of supporting the “renegade”, allegations they deny. The threat of instability posed by the inability of the parties involved in the dispute and the government’s putting of its thumb on the scale, whether perceived or real, must be dealt with as soon as possible.
As a secular state the constitution of Ethiopia clearly enshrines the principle of separation of church and state. The supreme law of the land provides that the state shall not interfere in religious matters and religion shall not interfere in state affairs. This means religious institutions and their followers have the right to freely exercise their faith, even in public, free from government oversight or prescription. However, it goes without saying that religious freedom forbids the government from carrying out one of its basic functions—enforcing the law in a manner consistent with the tenets of the rule of law—when the application of such a right violates with the legitimate exercise of other equally legitimate freedoms. This said, given the fact that religion is an issue which evokes deep running emotions, the government needs to perform a balancing act 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. Disagreements between the followers of a religion are best worked out by its leaders and followers on the basis of the cannons and dogma of the faith. Any unwarranted interference by outsiders is liable to trigger bloodshed. The government, security apparatus, political parties and different interest groups ought to display impartiality. To make matters worse the palpable tension gripping the country is being exacerbated by individuals and groups which are fueling conflict on social media. In these troubling times it is of paramount importance to heel in elements bent on destabilizing Ethiopia in furtherance of their sinister motives. At the same time the general public must turn a deaf ear to them and assist every effort to resolve the rupture within the EOTC through peaceful and legal means only.
The present generation would do well to peruse the annals of history to appreciate that Ethiopia had to go through several trials and tribulations to get where it is now. Its predecessors managed to rebuff the aggressors and expansionists as one because they put Ethiopia above their differences. The strong bond they had forged for eons allowed them to do so in spite of the tyranny they were subjected to at the hands of successive rulers. The abyss Ethiopia is staring into currently makes it absolutely imperative for well-meaning citizens who feel genuinely aggrieved by events offensive to deep-held beliefs to wise up to the end-game of those intent on fanning the flames of 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 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 discord and violence. If cooler heads prevail, the specter of violence and instability that the rift in the EOTC poses is can be averted before things spiral out of control.