Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 511, 11 May 2022

Ethiopia: Rising communal tensions
Poulomi Mondal

In the news
On 7 May, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet voiced her concerns regarding the recent clashes between the Muslim and Christian communities in Ethiopia's northwestern Amhara region. The Islamic Affairs Council of Amhara blamed heavily armed "extremist Christians" for the attack. 
As on 11 May, the death toll remains unclear even a week after the violence. Gondar's Mayor Zewdu Malede, suggested an investigation team to address the situation. He added: "In my evidence, both Muslims and Christians lost their lives in the attacks."

Issues at large
First, a brief background. Since 2018, after the victory of prime minister Abiy Ahmed dethroning 27 years of TPLF stronghold in Ethiopia, there has been a prolonged conflict between Tigrayan leadership and the federal government. Apart from different political interests, the contrast in the religious aspects have widened the polarization between the two communities. While Abiy is Pentecostal and a propagator of religious plurality, rebel groups from Ethiopia and Amhara are mostly followers of Christianity. Therefore, attacks on the minority Muslims on the grounds of rising Islamic extremism in Ethiopia has a political background.

Second, the exploitation of ethnoreligious space. The infiltration of different actors dominant in Christianity and Islam from Ethiopia's Amhara region, the Oromo Liberation army, and TPLF against the national army and Eritrean military add an important religious dimension to the conflict. Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers have often carried out deliberate looting and destroying of Christian and Muslim cultural heritage sites. For instance, the November 2020 massacre at the Aksun center of Christianity killed close to 800 civilians. Similarly, the historic Al-Nejashi Mosque was gunned down during another offensive. The already diversified identities get complicated with the further juxtaposition of separate ethnic identities like (Amhara, or Gondor) to existing religious connotations pushing back collectivism.

Third, growing extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa and Ethiopia. One of the biggest threats to Ethiopia is the rise of extremist tendencies centering on funded Wahhabism by massive oil wealth of Saudi Arabia. Ethiopia also plays between Riyadh and Tehran's primacy in the region with Eritrea previously being an Iran ally and Ethiopia for Saudi. Simultaneously, groups like ISIS and Al-Shabab have been active in Ethiopia's eastern borders over the last couple of years, thus furthering tensions.

Fourth, external infleunces. Turkey's restoration efforts of an ancient mosque and tomb along with the covert support for the Muslim Brotherhood's teachings harbors deep antagonism. Sudan was previously under the sharia law and Egypt had strong radical Islamic movements like Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad. These countries are often blamed for backing the Islamic faction of rebels in Ethiopia and for promoting extremist religious vision amid the conflict on the GERD project. Despite the 2000 Algiers Agreement and the 2018 Agreement, the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia remains a bloody wound due to ramping militarization and an increasing number of refugees causing ethnogenesis between the countries.

In perspective
First, Ethiopia currently faces acute food shortages, religious extremism, and political rebels raising concerns about human insecurity. Second, the role of Orthodox Christians and Muslims in polarizing the communities, playing the "us vs them" game against each other and simultaneously against the government can be seen as a collective of ethnoreligious and security offshoots worsening the dire condition of Ethiopia. Third, corrective measures such as propagating inter-religious peace efforts and the practice of peaceful cohabitation need to be taken at the domestic level to avoid Ethiopia sliding into hate-filled chaos. The federal administration needs to have open lines of communication with the rebel and dominant religious groups to have an inclusive peace-building mechanism.

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