My observations on ‘Muslims protest’ in Ethiopia

My observations on ‘Muslims protest’ in Ethiopia

A couple of months ago I had a two weeks’ vacation in Ethiopia. Since I can’t go to my country of origin i.e Eritrea, I am becoming a regular visitor to what I now call ‘my second home’ Ethiopia. Growing up in Eritrea I was associating the name Ethiopia with disgust; I used to hate everything that is Ethiopian, one can understand why I used to behave like that once they have come to recognize the level of brain washing by the endless PFDJ media propaganda. Hence, it became customary for many young Eritreans like me, to think that Ethiopia is our number one enemy but, not any more. Today Eritreans are increasingly getting aware of the sense of brotherhood we share with our Ethiopian counterpart. I feel we Eritreans need Ethiopia and as much as Ethiopians need us, we will one day build a harmonious peaceful co-existence, perhaps we could be economically integrated at one stage.

 Needless to say Ethiopia is the only country in our region today that is standing with the oppressed Eritreans. What is happening to Eritreans in Sudan and Egypt is excruciating to bear, however, the Ethiopian people and government’s open door policy towards Eritreans is healing the previous wounds. We recognize your deeds, and we are always grateful for your generosity and hospitality. 

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the country for the first time. After my visit I was able to see firsthand what Ethiopians think of Eritreans. Above all I have never felt as a guest, I was welcomed like a king, I was cursing myself for hating too much to the people who happens to love me this much, and I opened my eyes after blinded for years by propaganda. The fact that we share similar culture and language made me feel at home. Above all the hospitality made me fall in love with the people at first sight; hence, I decided to frequently visit Ethiopia if I got the opportunity to do so.  

 Being an Eritrean I had to ask for a visa first, I collected it in matter of a couple of hours from the Ethiopian Embassy in Stockholm. I took Ethiopian Airlines from Stockholm on the evening hours. The plane was full to capacity by Ethiopians visiting their motherland, among them many foreigners as well. Being an Eritrean felt jealous, I could see how proud the Ethiopians were flying with their own internationally renowned airline. And here I am let alone to enjoy flying with the airline of my own, I am deprived of seeing the very country of my own. Any way after ten hours of flight the pilot told us that we were about to land in Addis Ababa in ten minutes. I began to see through the window of the plane, and I was amazed seeing a new housing construction, it was like seeing a new city in the making. We landed at the Bole International Airport at about seven o’clock in the morning.

The airport was overcrowded with a large number of arrivals, hence, it took us more than one hour in checking out, and with the ever increasing number of visitors the government should seriously consider building additional airport to tackle this problem. I had to first change money and took a taxi to my favorite hotel ‘Ras Hotel’, in the down town. Even though, it was an old hotel, their service is quite good.

After meeting with some of my relatives and friends, whom I got to know them from my previous visit, I decided to take a tour of the city alone, in the hope of making other new friends. I found a different Addis Ababa from my previous visit in many ways. There is a noticeable price hike, the hotel that used to cost me 250 birr, on my previous visit now the costs more than doubled. Almost everything increased in terms of living expenses. I was wondering how the ordinary people are coping with such an inflation, but I also learnt that the government was taking serious measures in making price devaluation. One can sympathize with the government as the rise in price is a global phenomenon that came with the economic crisis and the global food shortage in 2008.

The other significant change I witnessed is that Addis Ababa’s Muslims residents are getting more religious. Everywhere, I noticed many young bearded men and young women wearing the burka, this was something I have never noticed in my previous visit. Having heard Muslims were demonstrating against, what they call government interference in their religious affairs; I began to make my own investigation on the issue. Is there a genuine Muslims discrimination in Ethiopia today? Before I began my research on this subject I decided to read the modern history of Ethiopia, and so as to compare and contrast their current state of affairs. I find two fascinating books one by Bahru Zewde ‘A history of Modern Ethiopia’ and the second one by Prof. Kinfe Abraham ‘Ethiopia from bullets to the ballot box.’ Having read these two books I came into conclusion that Ethiopian Muslims played an insignificant role or mostly were non-existent in shaping the political life of modern Ethiopia. With the exception of Muhammed Ali of Wollo, who later become Ngus of Wello only after his conversion to Christianity and changed his name into Ras Mikael (1877). Tragically his grandson, Iyassu, who once took control of the reign of power in Addis after the death of Menelik, was deposed in 1916, charged with apostasy. Due to his Muslim ancestry he was the only Ethiopian leader, who tried to make a number of concessions towards Muslims, only to get deposed soon after he married a woman from Muslim parents. Hence, it was very clear to see Muslims were treated as a second class citizen in their own country for many generations. But is this the case in today’s Ethiopia? What is the state of religious and political freedom for Ethiopian Muslims today?

 I decided to have some informal discussion with some young Muslims, however, fearing I could be a government agent, most of them turned down discussing the issue with a stranger, but I sensed resentment in their faces. Those who would speak up, reject the notion that the government is discriminating them today. And I have observed that this view is shared by most of the older generation; some of them even accused the young as mainly inspired by the Arab spring without genuine reasons to protest, others state they are simply manipulated by the diaspora based Salafi preachers. Hence, they succumb to the fact that never in Ethiopian history Muslims have come this far to enjoy their religious freedom. They fear such a sit-in demonstration could only help in constraining the very freedom they have been enjoying over the past few years. Hence, it is important to note that not all Ethiopians support the action of the protesters.

But I wanted to get to the bottom of the truth, why are Muslims demonstrating and is the government interfering in their internal affairs? If so why? Isn’t the new constitution prohibits the government from interfering in the religious affairs and vice versa?

I decide to read about this issue on the internet and in the private newspapers which are mostly, in circulation inside Addis Ababa only. One can hardly say there are private newspapers in the country; due to the high price ordinary people could only afford to pay to borrow them but not to own them. The government may not be willing to subsidize them, however, in the interest of nurturing the free press something should be done, so as the newspapers could easily reach to the common people. However, reading the contents I really doubt for those criticizing the government in preventing the free flow of information, the private newspapers publish full of articles that harshly criticize the government policies. However, unlike the situation in Eritrea the diaspora based Ethiopian opposition websites and Eritrean government official websites are inaccessible inside Ethiopia, including Aljazeera website. Later I have learnt that they were blocked by the government intentionally, accusing endangering national security of the country. 

Back to the main topic, the issue of domestic Islamic extremism was not long ago that began to be seen as serious a security threat by the government. According to my understanding, it was after the 2009 the issue came into the spotlight of the government. Especially after the 2010/11 shocking incident of burning churches by some Muslims mobs in south western Ethiopia forced the government to launch of crack down on Islamic extremist groups in containing the problem. The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi repeatedly blamed at the time such a havoc was brought mainly caused by the “elements of the Kawarja sect and other extremists” preaching of religious intolerance in the area.

  The government decided to tackle the issue head-on at a national level, hence, began to organize different inter-religious understanding forums to tackle the issue. The Mejlis under pressure from the government began to tightly control the Islamic centers and the self-appointed preachers. The youth leaders in the Mejlis began to openly challenge their peers and other senior Imams that accusing them they are succumbing to government pressures in introducing a new form of Islamic teaching called ‘Al’ahbash.’ After Friday prayers from the Awelia mosque they began organizing a massive sit-in protest calling for the resignation of the Mejlis and for a new election to take place. Legally the Mejlis ‘Islamic council’ can’t be dissolved before their term is over. The issue became very delicate for the government, in one way the constitution guarantees freedom of worship and forbade the government from interfering in their internal affairs. On the other hand the government feared the Mejlis is to be over-taken by Islamic extremists. Taking this advantage a number of Salafist Muslim scholars and Christian missionaries for that matter have been pouring into the country in proselytizing locals. Hence, they have got a perfect opportunity to spread their own version of Islam on the mostly moderate Muslims, who have been living in peaceful co-existence for hundreds of years.

The Meles government of was unwilling to see the issue getting out of hand; having defeated the threat of extrimism from Al’shabab, an Islamic extremist group in Somalia, Ethiopia could not allow home grown extremists to challenge the state. The very constitution which helped to settle generations old Muslims grievances: is now exploited to pose a big challenge to the government that believed it closed the bitter chapter. It needs to be mentioned that most of Ethiopian Muslims casted their vote for EPRDF party representatives, thereby, a number of ministerial portfolios is being held by Muslims in the current government.

 In his last speech to the parliament the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi tried to downplay the sit-in protest in Addis by attributing as the consequences of the government’s bold measure of enforcing tax collection. It is obvious the government can’t tolerate the protest to continue an abated; with the absence of Meles Zenawis wisdom and political intellect the incumbent leader seems struggling to contain the situation. Recently the mayor of Addis Ababa blamed the sit-in protest is creating a major obstacle in the social and economic life of the city. The protesters have been declaring they would continue their peaceful protest as long as the government failed to listen their voice and release the organizers of the protest, who are now in prison awaiting trial.

 So far the government has taken a commendable measure in restraining from using force in dispersing the protesters. But how long will the government’s tolerance last is something that we have to wait and see. The fact that Muslims can exercise such a protest is a big achievement in itself, and the credit goes for the government that remained unprovoked by the persistent protest. My advice is they should continue to do, once, they began crackdown on the protesters the issue will easily exploited by international human rights organization in jumping to criticize the government thereby this would encourage for the Muslim protesters who would be viewed as victims in a situation. And such instability will potentially deter the flow of foreign direct investment the government seriously in need to boost the domestic economy. The silent majority Ethiopian Muslims should raise their voice and say ‘enough is enough’ before it is getting too late.

Finally I would like to conclude that Islamic extremism is a global phenomenon, there is no country in the world today, that is not facing such a threat. The issue becomes more acute, when the society in a given country is multi-religious. The current situation in Egypt is a case in point, after the Muslim brotherhood took power, Coptic Christians are preparing to become second class citizens in their own country. When a certain religious group took control power, where there is a multi-religious belief, one can make a good case for real discrimination. That was the case in Ethiopia in the past, where there was no clear separation between religion and state Muslims were among the main that were marginalized by such a system. However, the reality of today is quite the opposite, the separation of religion and state in the constitution is the biggest achievement, where the Muslims especially should appreciate and celebrate. 

Filmon Kahsay




Bahru Zewde ‘A history of Modern Ethiopia 1855-1991’. p.120. 124.

Kinfe Abraham ‘ Ethiopia from bullets to the ballot box’ p. 223

William Davison ‘Ethiopia: Police Arrested 130 People in Church Burning Incidents’ VOA

Aaron Maasho ‘Meles Zenawi blames Muslim sect over church attacks’ Reuters

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