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Ethiopia: Where is Religious Freedom Headed?

By Alemayehu Fentaw Weldemariam – TRANSCEND Media Service

The fear of an Ethiopian Spring has to be factored in the internal security matrix of a dictatorial regime such as Ethiopia’s, since the populist “spring” events in the MENA region have proven to be a potent means of removing dictatorships in North Africa.  The lesson is powerful.  It is evident that the Ethiopian security apparatus has seriously taken this factor into account with the mounting crackdown on journalists, opposition leaders, and Muslim protesters.

The current Ethiopian regime also has a rational fear of Islamist terrorism.  But it is questionable whether that fear arises from a threat posed by the Ethiopian Muslim population.  I would argue that the threat principally emanates from Al-Shabab in Somalia and the Ogaden National liberation Front (ONLF) in the Somali Region of Ethiopia.  Al-Shabab is part of the international terrorist network of Al-Qaeda, while the ONLF is a domestic insurgent group doubling down on Islamism and ethno-nationalism.  Another domestic insurgent group that might possibly leverage both Islamism and ethno-nationalism is the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), although that would be a challenge given the OLF’s stated secular policy of religious equality.

It seems to me that it is high-time that the Muslim movement for religious freedom has to prove that it is free of what I call the “mencha menace mentality” of some ethnic and religious groups.  If any one ethnic-based political group, say the OLF or the ONLF, uses this to mobilize its constituencies to take violent action against not only the non-Muslim population but also the government of the day, the movement certainly runs the risk of losing not only any broad-based popular support, but also any legality.

The word “mencha” is for the Oromo machete. It was used recently in a public speech by Jawar Mohammed, a high-flying Oromo and Muslim activist based in the U.S., when he said they would cut the necks of non-Muslims in his hometown in Arsi.  Following this speech, Jawar has turned out to be more of a liability than an asset to the cause of peaceful Muslim protesters.  It was very sad to see a brilliant, Western-educated young man turn himself into a Merchant of Mencha Menace. It seems that he’s completely carried away by Oromo ethno-nationalism so much so that he has deliberately fused altogether the Muslim movement with the Oromo nationalism of OLF.

I am not sure what the peaceful resistance rhetoric of Ethiopian Muslims means in practical terms in the face of the Mencha rhetoric of Jawar, and by extension Badr Ethiopia, an Islamic non-profit based in Washington, D.C., which according to some observers, constitutes the core of the Diaspora support of the movement back home.  Dr. Derese Kassa replied to my recent social media post in the following words, “the one horrifying reality that you aptly pointed out here is the regression of a broad-based popular nonviolent movement for basic human rights sizing itself down both in scale, essence and tactics.  Scale-wise to representing Oromo nationalism. Essence-wise from a social movement to an organized party movement of one or more political groupings. And tactic-wise from nonviolence to violence-talk of mencha mindsets and tone. If these attempts consummate, then we shall talk of the movement in general as the ‘market of menace’”.

There is no more telling example of the growing dominance of this mentality and mode of thinking among the young Oromo elites than what Kadiro Elemo recently posted on social media.  Elemo said, commenting on the police brutality in response to the protests that took place at the Eid Al-Fitr prayers on 7 August 2013, that “[t]he singularity of the image [of] Ethiopia as a Christian island explains the logic of the rise of Muslims with machetes against the Ethiopian forces.”  This is tragic in more than one sense.  I’ve been following the Muslim protests from the start and my heart goes out to the victims of the repression.  But whether he meant that by way of explanation or justification, and if his claim that Muslims are rising with machetes against non-Muslims is correct, which I really doubt, then I don’t see what he is accusing the security forces of perpetrating.  The only logical implication is that the security forces are discharging their duties, i.e., keeping the peace and public order.

Another factor influencing public perceptions has to be the rumor circulating that the ongoing Muslim protests are being supported by Egypt.  It is doubtful that an unstable Egypt is likely to destabilize Ethiopia by sponsoring Ethiopian Muslim protests, especially since the recent Egyptian military ousting of the Morsi-led government.  However, since Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have declared an “open option” to restore its regime through the use of any subversive measures, including the military, this “rumor” could become a “fact” in the security mindset of the current Ethiopian government.

My prognosis of the protests is that they will surely grow to such a degree that the Ethiopian Government becomes too frustrated to effectively manage the situation.  However, I do not expect the protesters to resort to violent means in the course of their protests.  My fear is that the government will eventually resort to more force than is warranted under the circumstances, and recent events indicate that this may be already taking place. Since this past Saturday, news reports out of Ethiopia claim that some 12 people have been killed, 35 wounded, and hundreds arrested in Arsi in connection with the Muslim protests, although the Ethiopian state television reduced the numbers of the fatalities to just three.  This is in addition to the killing of seven protesters in Assassa in April 2013 and Gerba in October 2012, which included a large number of wounded and the imprisonment of a number of protesters on terrorism charges.  It is expected that the Muslim protesters will continue to come out en masse on Fridays and that the security forces will be expected to provoke them in order to use deadly force.

Turning to the issue of how justified are the demands of the protestors, that is, to what extent is the Ethiopian government meddling in religious affairs, it is important to consider the legal regime governing religious freedom in Ethiopia.  The Ethiopian constitution provides for freedom of religion and requires the separation of state and religion.  Article 11 provides for the separation of state and religion, and stipulates that state and religion are separate; that there shall be no state religion; and that the state shall not interfere in religious matters and religion shall not interfere in state affairs.  In addition, Article 27 guarantees freedom of religion, belief and opinion and provides that all Ethiopian citizens have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.  This right includes the freedom to hold or to adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice, and the freedom, either individually or in community with others, in public or private, to manifest this religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.

Without prejudice to the provisions of sub-Article 2 of Article 90, believers may establish institutions of religious education and administration in order to propagate and organize their religion.  These protections and rights continue, in that no one shall be subject to coercion or other means that would restrict or prevent his or her freedom to hold a belief of choice and that parents and legal guardians have the right to bring up their children ensuring their religious and moral education in conformity with their own convictions.  The freedom to express or manifest one’s religion or belief may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, peace, health, or the education, public morality or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others, and to ensure the independence of the state from religion.

Nevertheless, the Muslim community in Ethiopia has for nearly two years now been holding protests at mosques around the country against what it perceives as Ethiopian Government interference in religious affairs.  The protesters are demanding that the current government-selected members of the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (Majlis) be replaced by elected representatives, and that elections for Majlis representatives be held in mosques rather than in the Kebeles.  Some members of the Muslim community accuse the Ethiopian Government of controlling the Majlis and sponsoring the propagation of Al-Ahbash, a little known sect of Islam.  Given the rich and robust legal framework in place for the protection of religious freedom in Ethiopia, what is it that is holding the Ethiopian Government back from respecting religious freedom?  Why does it resist with unwarranted deadly force under the circumstances? Of course, this points to another important factor, namely, Ethiopia’s regional role as the military powerhouse of the Horn of Africa and its international role as key partner in the war on terror in the Horn and continued enjoyment of the assistance that come with the status from the West.  But it does more than anything else confirm our initial proposition. By engaging in a sheer show of force, the regime hopes to deter any future possible mass protests.
Alemayehu Fentaw Weldemariam holds a joint appointment at University of Texas’s LBJ School of Public Affairs and Austin Community College. Most recently, he’s been appointed as Visiting Professor of Government at Suffolk University in Boston.
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