Church, Mosque and State in Ethiopia

Written by Hassen Hussein

The recent stand-off between the Ethiopian government and Muslim activists have seen scant media attention—not to the extent warranted by the unfolding situation.

In describing the current conflict, we should never lose sight of its historical roots. Viewed from this light, Prime Minister Zenawi’s actions these days are perfectly in keeping with the past. He is simply following in the footsteps of his predecessors. In this short piece, I would offer a cursory look at this history with the intent to provide perhaps a historical context to Jawar’s brilliant and insightful analysis.

Let me first state two axioms as a premise around which to weave my thesis in the form of a theoretical grounding. One, a society’s vital instincts are informed by its mythology—what Durkheim called the collective consciousness and Jung dubbed the archetype, the collective unconscious. These are the basic assumptions that underlie social and individual behavior. Second, states, like all organizations, are implanted with the genetic footprints of their founders. Complex systems theory tells us that the initial starting point matters. In situations where the founding myth of a state flies in the face of reality, competing narratives develop.

Many states suffer, unable to manage this phenomenon known in the lexican of organizational theory as the founders’ syndrome. As a result of its failure to adopt an all-encompassing master narrative, such a state experiences persistent conflicts, morphing manifestations of this same open wound.

The Ethiopian state is a textbook example. The modern Ethiopian state formation began in earnest with the coronation of Tewdros II (1855 –1869). The latter marked a turning point in the long history of the region: from then on the hegemony of the two Abyssinian groups was established, with the Ahmara at the apex and the Tigreans only a little shy from the top, both in substance and essence.

The Oromo (Wallo) was reduced to a subservient role, cast as the “other”. The turning point was represented not only by the reshuffling of the previously triangular power order—Amhara vs. Oromo vs. Tigray—into a bipolar arrangement but also by another significant development that continues to fundamentally shape Ethiopian history to date. This pertains to the development that catapulted religion from being an affair of the faithful into a vital state interest.  

Tewdros saw the biggest impediment to his messianic dreams, not to mention his goal of absolute autocracy, in the church, the Orthodox Church, and its large clergy. He did not quarrel with the church doctrine per se. What he had trouble with was the church’s categorical hold and spell on the peasantry. He wanted the church and its organs to be instruments of the state, a tool in his hands answering to his whims. Tewdros’ gaze was however not limited to the church, nor its expansive property or staff. His second preoccupation was how to maintain Abyssinian domination against the rise of the Oromo, just dealt the first phenomenal defeat in his hands.

Yohannes IV (1872–1889) was devoutly Christian, consumed with the zeal of a fanatic missionary. For him Orthodox Christianity was not just an instrument of the state but more; it personified the state. However, he soon discovered that his constituency was gripped by a sectarian strife within the Orthodox Church that pitted clergy against clergy, church against church. The cause centered on a highly divisive theological debate about the nature of Christ.

Seeing the discord as a mortal danger to his grasp on power, he convened a retreat of church dignitaries at a monastery.  He asked both sides to present their case before the emperor.

After listening to the merits of the arguments, he was to render a “just” ruling.  And ruling he did. The clergy agreed, each side sending their most able and eloquent theologians to plead their case before the reigning emperor. The opening day, both sides made their cases as strongly as possible. Yohannes IV listened intently. When the groups gathered the next morning to provide their knockout punches as to walk away with the trophy, being recognized as the official doctrine of the state, a few heads were missing but none bothered to notice.

Every passing day more heads rolled. A few days later, the clergy saw through the imperial intention and began to play to His Majesty’s fiddle.

Having overcome this sectarian tension in his backyard, Yohannes fixed his eyes southward, to the Wallo Oromo, who had long converted to Islam. Yohannes set for himself and his fledgling court the audacious ambition of cleansing the country from Muslims and “pagans.”  With a fervent dream of building a country without either of the latter, he gave an ultimatum: either convert or flee or face the wrath of the full might of the state. This was not just an empty threat but a state policy carried out with the efficiency, determination, and brutality reminiscent of the time.

Learning from the pitfalls of Tewdros, his captor, Menelik II (1889-1913) did not choose to pick a fight with the church but rather adopted it as partner. While inheriting his predecessor’s dreams, he replaced Yohannes’ heavy-handed tactics against Muslims with a more shrewd and cunning approach that was characteristic of his long reign. Since Menelik was not interested in the petty squabbles that had obsessed the Abyssinian homeland, his weapon of choice was the scalpel instead of the sledgehammer in intra-Abyssinian matters. He had a grand vision. He envisioned an empire, conquering the vast land, rich resources, and peoples of the South. He employed the church as vanguard of his heavily-equipped army.  Where the clergy failed, the sword followed.

Haile Silassie (1930 –1974) did not significantly deviate from the road pioneered by Menelik. Since his job was not to build an empire but rather to consolidate it, he simply improvised on Menelik’s methods by imbuing it with his characteristic tactical mastery.  The Dergue (1974-1991) were outwardly anti-religious. Although it executed the heads of the Orthodox and Lutheran churches, the hostility was short-lived. It reserved its contempt for Islam while keeping this sentiment disguised. The disguise and official decorum went by the wayside when confronted by pressing security threats.  

By his own admission, the biggest and most immediate security challenge to Meles Zenawi upon assuming power was the revival of Amhara chauvinism. However, having subdued the latter through various means, including dethroning the Amhara patriarch, he quickly turned his sight to suppressing Oromo nationalism, which he came to believe represented the most lethal threat to Tigrean domination.

Since one of the major means used by Oromo nationalists to rally the population was a dream to resuscitate indigenous Oromo culture long suppressed by the state and eclipsed by new religious ethos, he reasoned that the state needed to wage war against any public and an actively political demonstration of authentic Oromo culture.  For over a decade, state functionaries looked the other way while some highly driven Christian and Muslim missionaries canvassed the Oromo country in pursuit of new converts, trashing Oromo cultural artifacts, shrines and practices.

Moreover, the EPRDF pursued a two-pronged scheme, not only to further box in the Oromo but also isolate the Amhara—a revision on Menelik’s stratagem.  On the one hand, he consolidated, largely against popular will, into a single state, the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples, all the non-Oromo populations of the South who had developed a common narrative with the Oromo, thanks to the common experience of Northern domination, marginalization, and exploitation.

By so doing, Meles erected an impregnable political wall separating the Oromo from its natural ally, the South.  On the other hand, he gave a free hand to protestant missionaries to convert the South into Protestantism. The 2008 Ethiopian census shows that in a span of a decade the latter rose from being the faith of a mere 30 percent to a whopping 60 percent among the population. Meles Zenawi once again raised another barrier, this time alienating the South from the Amhara. Zenawi’s choice of a Southerner as his likely successor, whether a genuine decision or a ploy to keep the loyalty of the South by dangling the tantalizing prospect of one of their own ascending to the throne of a state that once denied their very humanity, is part of this grand strategy.

EPRDF’s decision to brand recent efforts by Muslim activists to prevent the state from meddling in the internal affairs of their faith as part of the global Islamist movement is not only an outcome of a desire to stay on the “anti-terror” bandwagon of the West but also a result of domestic power calculations. As a short-term political operation, this may sound as a masterful tactical innovation. However, the actions have devastating long-term consequences for the country, the population, and the region.  By denying the elites a place to air their secular, democratic and patriotic voices, the regime forced them to retreat into the sanctuary of religion. Cornered, they are fighting back when the regime comes after them.

The excessive politicization of religious and other differences in a plural society is an ill-advised political move. The politicization is not necessarily a byproduct of the religious revivalism that has been underway since the fall of the Dergue. The root cause of tension in Ethiopia is the lack of freedom of expression, the subversion of the rule of law and the emasculation of democracy.  The internationalization of a purely domestic political issue has horrendous consequences.  

What Ethiopia needs desperately is a new social contract that would not only resolve the many political, social, and economic crises confronting the state today but also reconfigure the genetic map that was implanted into the body politic at its birth. Otherwise the paralyzing impasse would continue unabated, preventing a march forward into a better future.  Sadly, neither the state, nor the opposition has the vision or the will to break the deadlock.



About the author

Hassen Hussein

Hassen Hussein, a writer, teaches Leadership and Management courses at the Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and can be reached at

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