by Our Own Correspondent (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 3, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1433)
Crescent International recently interviewed an Addis Ababa-based Muslim journalist and Islamic activist on the current situation in Ethiopia.
Given the oppressive policies of the regime against its people and severe restrictions on freedom of speech, we are withholding his name.
Crescent International (CI): How would you characterize the overall situation in Ethiopia today?
The overall situation in Ethiopia is critical and problematic. The country seems to be going back to one party rule. There is only one opposition member in parliament. Laws are approved without discussion or debate that affect millions of Ethiopians. Official statistics uncritically accepted by international organizations depict a rosy picture but the real situation is quite different. The poor are becoming poorer. The gap between rich and poor is widening at an alarming rate. The government has become quite intolerant of religious, political and journalistic activities. It is common to see people who criticize the government being charged with terrorism offences.
CI: The Western corporate media often creates the impression that Ethiopia is struggling with food shortage. How true is this assessment?
The Ethiopian economy is largely dependent on agriculture that provides livelihood for about 80% of the population. Even though the country is often described as “the water tower of Africa” and has a large land area that could easily be cultivated through irrigation, farming is largely dependent on rain. This dependency on rain has resulted in drought and food shortages in some parts of the country. Additionally, the controversial land policy of the government has contributed much to the drought. However, this doesn’t mean that the country is always struggling with food shortages. There are cases of drought in some parts of the country but not to the extent that the Western media portrays.
CI: What is the position of Muslims in Ethiopia?
The Ethiopian Muslim community is the third largest Muslim community in Africa. However, due to various factors, they are a social minority in the country despite their great number and being the first community to accept Islam even before a majority of the people in Makkah. Ethiopian Muslims have not been active participants in the affairs of the country until very recently.
CI: Is there an active Islamic socio-political movement in Ethiopia? If yes, does it have a solid political, economic and social program to propose to the Ethiopian society? If no, why has such a movement not come into existence?
The Ethiopian Muslims have been in deep slumber until recently. They were systematically excluded from education. When modern education was started in Ethiopia at the beginning of the 20th century the minister of education was the Pope. Students were expected to learn Christianity together with the academic subjects. Therefore, Muslims never tried to send their children to modern schools lest their children changed their identity and religion. It was only after 1991 that Ethiopian Muslims felt the need for education as well as spreading Islam openly. Only 13% of undergraduate students are Muslims. At the postgraduate level, we constitute less than 2% of the student population.
Everyone feels the need for an active socio-political movement. However, there is shortage of skilled manpower to start such a movement. Previously, particularly in 1995, there was an active movement led by the country’s Muslim intellectuals and youth. This movement was brutally crushed by the government. Many leaders of the movement were either sent to prison or exiled. The memory of this movement had scared into silence many intellectuals until the government openly interfered in the religious affairs of Muslims by supporting a heretic group named Ahbash.
CI: We often hear of elections in Ethiopia. How free and fair is the electoral process?
There are certain criticisms against the ruling party regarding election fraud. In many places, especially in the rural areas, people will give their votes to the ruling party whether they like it or not. If a certain region does not vote for the ruling party, it will be punished through various mechanisms. The government will hold its subsidies on fertilizers and infrastructure development will be unthinkable in such places. The town of Dessie offers a good an example for such punishment.
Further, there are also certain cases of mischief including inserting intruders inside opposition parties and bribing opposition party leaders thereby weakening and undermining these parties. The 2005 election and post-election phenomena clearly depict the above fact. Food aid is also used as a political tool. Regions that gave their voice to the ruling party will be given better food aid.
CI: Is there credible opposition to the present regime?
The Ethiopian opposition parties are organized with the aim of just being in opposition. There is no credible opposition that has a clear program that can challenge the ruling party. During the 2005 election, the country had seen two major and credible opposition political parties. However, after the election and the subsequent turmoil, the ruling party dismantled the opposition parties. Currently, there is only one member of opposition in parliament. The political space has become very narrow and opposition parties’ members are being jailed under the cover of “the anti-terrorism law”. The ruling party controls businessmen, government employees and even the youth through various mechanisms. Business organizations that do not support the ruling party are levied higher taxes than those that support the party. Government employees who are not members of the party and who do not contribute money to it do not get promoted.
Since the country is surrounded mainly by Muslim neighbors the government has always been suspicious of Muslim activities. Therefore, it has controlled the only supreme organization responsible for Muslims’ affairs. The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council works under cover to implement the ruling part policy.
CI: In many parts of the world there is systematic and institutionalized persecution of Muslim activists and Muslims in general. Is it also the case in Ethiopia?
In Ethiopia, the government takes Muslims as agents of foreign powers and latecomers. Since the country is surrounded mainly by Muslim neighbors the government has always been suspicious of Muslim activities. Therefore, it has controlled the only supreme organization responsible for Muslims’ affairs. The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council works under cover to implement the policy of the ruling party. There has been no election in the council for the last 13 years. The council has remained against the rights of Muslims including wearing hijab and congregational prayer in universities. Leaders of the council have been telling the government repeatedly to close Islamic NGOs and schools stating that these organizations are “incubators of terrorists”. They have also played an active role in creating a rift between Muslims. Recently, the government closed some Islamic NGOs and has given one of the largest and oldest Islamic schools (Awelia Muslim Mission School) to the council. The council in turn recently proposed to delete Arabic and religious courses from the school curriculum. It also expelled the teachers of those subjects on December 30, 2011.
Moreover, three journalists of a bestselling magazine that is very critical of the government’s violation of the rights of Muslims have been detained by police. After their detention, the society mounted unprecedented pressure and the journalists were released without a proper trial. The court informed the journalists that they are released but the case is not closed yet. These and other actions of the government imply that there is a systematic persecution of Muslims in general and activists in particular.
CI: What is the Ethiopian public’s perception of the Islamic Awakening in the Muslim East?
As part of the global Muslim community, Ethiopian Muslims have been looking at the Islamic Awakening with great admiration. It has also encouraged them to think about their position in the country. There have also been demonstrations against the activities of the government and the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council. Every Friday people gather outside Awelia Muslim Mission School and demonstrate. So far, the crowd has elected a committee to facilitate the demonstration and submit the question of the Muslim Society to the government. The committee has been able to collect 80,000 signatures and has presented its demands to the government.
CI: What foreign powers have the greatest influence and why?
Ethiopian society has been a closed society for a long time. Ethiopians, especially the Christian North, have always taken themselves as God’s chosen, beautiful, courageous people that have never been colonized, with a unique civilization, alphabet and historical places. Therefore, they have always detested anything related to foreigners. However, this trend is changing. The rhetoric that “we are the chosen civilized people” is continuously challenged by drought and poverty. In urban areas, Hollywood has been very effective in brainwashing the youth and incubating Westernized ideas.
On the other hand, many educated Muslims have been busy searching for their identity and trying to reconcile modernity with religious values. In this regard, Muslim dominated countries have influenced the Ethiopian Muslim youth.
Apart from this, the government has been greatly influenced by the United States. The Ethiopian military forces have sacrificed their lives for a US proxy war in Somalia.
CI: Recently the Ethiopian government announced it will get involved in fighting al-Shabab in Somalia. Is it a move supported by the people? What will be the result of this involvement and is it in the interests of the Ethiopian state and society?
Ethiopian history is “a history of war”. In the last 20 years, the country has experienced one of the deadliest battles in Africa. It has also been fighting with many rebels such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which fights for the secession of the Ethiopian Somali Region. In addition to this, the military has waged war against al-Shabab with the financial as well as logistical assistance of the US.
However, Ethiopians know the meaning of war better than any other neighboring country. Therefore, nobody supports war on any grounds except if there is a clear danger to the security of the country. Ethiopians do not believe that al-Shabab is a threat to Ethiopia. Rather, they believe that Ethiopians are fighting the war for the US.
CI: What is the current situation in regards to the conflict with the Oromo Liberation Front?
The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is one of the military organizations that fought the previous regime together with the current ruling party’s military wing. Before 1991, they had a strong alliance. However, after the demise of the previous regime in 1991, the two organizations were unable to agree on certain terms and the OLF was expelled from the country. Recently, the parliament approved a law declaring it a terrorist organization and therefore banning it. According to the new law, any activity related to this organization or reporting anything related to it in any media will be punishable by law. The government has also been able to create a rift in the political leadership of the organization and lure some of its leaders to abandon their struggle.
CI: What key issues do you expect will dominate the socio-political and economic scene in Ethiopia in the next five years?
The current condition of the country makes it very difficult to predict. Religious tensions have been growing. This has led to the burning of many religious places especially masjids and conflict between Muslims and Christians has been on the rise. These tensions will grow as long as genuine attention is not paid to the root causes. Muslims still face a serious problem to build masjids or practice their religion freely in some towns. Government officials still think that Muslims are outsiders and the country belongs to Christians only. Additionally, if the recent legal demands of the Muslims are not met, there could be prolonged conflict and enmity between the government and the Muslim society.
The upcoming election will also be one of the dominant political scenes. Many people are dissatisfied with the ruling party. Therefore, they will take the next election as an opportunity to show their dissatisfaction. This could happen only if the opposition parties become strong and active. The current leader of the country has also hinted he will resign from power. He has been in power for the last 20 years.
The relationship between the newly born South Sudan and Ethiopia could also dominate the scene. The Ethiopian government has been keen on supporting South Sudan in various ways. The two countries have signed a number of agreements. Many Ethiopians are also traveling to South Sudan for jobs.