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NIAS Africa Weekly
IN FOCUS | Communal Tensions in Ethiopia

  NIAS Africa Team

Africa Weekly #12, Vol. 1, No. 12
17 May 2022

Communal Tensions in Ethiopia: Five drivers 
Adding to the existing humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, the resurfacing of communal tensions signals deep rooted geopolitical and ethno-religious factors behind the issue.
Poulomi Mondal

On 26 April, Ethiopia’s northwestern Amhara region witnessed deadly attacks at the funeral of an Islamic scholar in Gondor leaving 150 people injured within a week; the death toll remains unclear. The incident sparked inter-faith tensions between the Muslim and Christian communities in Ethiopia and led to a spillover effect in other regions and capital Addis Ababa.

Gondar’s Mayor, in response,suggested forming an investigation team to address the situation, reportedly sparked by a land dispute. He added: “In my evidence, both Muslims and Christians lost their lives in the attacks”. 

On 7 May, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet voiced her concerns regarding the recent clashes and called on authorities to investigate and bring perpetrators to justice. She said that she was “deeply distressed” by the violence that erupted in Ethiopia killing at least 30 people and injuring more than 100.

Following are the five drivers of Ethiopia’s ethno-religious conflicts
1. Extension of political leverage
Since the victory of prime minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018 and dethroning 27 years of Tigray People’s Liberation Front stronghold in national politics, there has been prolonging conflict between Tigrayan leadership and the federal government. Apart from competing for political interest, the contrast in the religious aspects widens the polarization. While President Abiy is Pentecostal and a propagator of religious plurality, rebel groups from Ethiopia and Amhara are mostly followers of Christianity and are therefore carrying out attacks on the minority Muslims alleging rising Islamic extremism, to gain political leverage.

2. Exploitation of religious space
The infiltration of different actors dominant in Christianity and Islam from Ethiopia’s Amhara region, Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) along with TPLF, against the national army and Eritrean military adds an important religious dimension to the conflict. Reports say Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers looted and destroyed Christian and Muslim cultural heritage sites. The most recent example is the November 2020 massacre at Aksum killing an estimated 800 civilians at the church of St Mary of Zion. Likewise, the historic Al-Nejashi Mosque was gunned down during an Ethiopian-Eritrean offensive followed by repeated lootings of religious artefacts from the mosque as well as several manuscripts and Bible from Christian churches and monasteries in Tigray.

3. The ethnic factor
The already diversified identities get complicated with the juxtaposition of separate ethnic identities like (Amhara, or Gondor) to existing religious connotations pushing back collectivism. This can be seen manifested in the recent clash after decades of land dispute between Amharans and Tigrayans. Amhara officials says the disputed lands equalling to about a quarter of Tigray, were taken by the TPLF, three decades ago.  This maps a resource-based conflict circling ethnic loyalties.

4.  Islamic extremism in Ethiopia
Islamic extremism is a growing reality in Sub-Saharan Africa and has a major impact on Ethiopia. One of the biggest threats to Ethiopia is the rise of extremist tendencies centering on Wahhabism, funded by Saudi Arabia and its neighbours over the years. All Muslim states view Ethiopia as a strategic state in the Horn of Africa. The battle between Riyadh and Tehran’s primacy also played a role in the region. Eritrea’s previous support for Houthis in Yemen and siding with Iran against Saudi Arabia made the country vulnerable to infiltration of radical Islam. Simultaneously, groups like ISIS and Al-Shabab have been active in Ethiopia’s eastern borders over the last couple of years adding to the internal tensions in Ethiopia.  

5. The geopolitical influencers
Several external forces in Ethiopia’s neighbourhood seek to cement the claim of Ethiopia as Dar al Islam (Land of Islam) for their own interest and influence the religious landscape of the country. Turkey’s covert support of the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood harbours deep antagonism; other instances include president Erdogan’s decision to turn Hagia Sofia from a cathedral to a museum and finally, a mosque. On the other hand, Egypt’s hostility against Ethiopia dates back to the 4th century AD after the introduction of Christianity and is reflected in the ongoing conflict on the GERD project. Sudan which was the Sharia law till recently, and Egypt having strong radical Islamic movements like Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad, are often blamed for backing the Islamic faction of rebels in Ethiopia as well as promoting extremist religious vision. Despite the 2000 Algiers Agreement and the 2018 Agreement that bestowed a Nobel Peace Prize on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia remains a bloody wound due to ramping militarization and the increasing number of refugees causing ethnogenesis between the countries.

The road ahead
Ethiopia currently faces grave humanitarian crisis with acute food shortages in addition to extremism by religious and political rebels raising serious concerns about the country. With both Orthodox Christians and Muslims having an equal role in polarizing the communities and playing the “us vs them” game against each other, and against the government, it can be seen as a compilation of various ethno-religious and security offshoots further aggravating the dire condition of Ethiopia. While Abiy Ahmed’s positive diplomacy and religious tolerance can be seen as commendable, there is larger role to be played by dominant religious groups. There is a domestic need to take corrective measures to prevent Ethiopia from sliding into hate-filled chaos, by inter-religious peace efforts and practice of peaceful cohabitation. At the same time, it is essential for the federal administration to have open lines of communication and dialogue with the rebel and dominant religious groups to have an inclusive peace-building mechanism in the country.

11 May-17 May
By Anu Maria Joseph and Apoorva Sudhakar

Tunisians protest against president's political measures
On 15 May, capital Tunis witnessed protests as Tunisians denounced rising food prices and President Kais Saeid’s political steps. BBC quoted a coordinator of the Citizens against the Coup group who said the people were protesting against Saeid’s new constitution and termed it “unilaterally drawn up.” Similarly, an official from the Ennahda Movement said the protests are likely to transform into hunger strikes and sit-ins. (“Thousands hold protests against Tunisia president,” BBC, 16 May 2022

Former leader Hassab Sheikh Mohammed wins the presidential elections
On 15 May, Hassan Sheikh Mohammed, who served as the country's president between 2012 and 2017, was elected as the new president after long-overdue elections. The 54-member Upper House and 274-member Lower House of the Parliament cast votes for the 36 candidates. By securing 165 votes, Mohammed, the leader of the Union for Peace and Development Party acquired a majority in both legislative chambers. The newly elected president is popular for his work as a civic leader and education promoter and his position as one of the founders of Mogadishu's SIMAD University. The elections were held amid a 33-hours security lockdown imposed by the authorities to prevent rebel attacks.  In the capital city, Somalis defied curfews and held celebrations welcoming the election results. ("Somalia elects Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as new president," Al Jazeera, 15 May 2022; Mohamud Ali, “Celebrations in Mogadishu as Somalia gets new leader,” BBC, 16 May 2022) 

14 people including children killed in a rebel attack
On 10 May, BBC reported that 14 people including children were killed in an attack in the Ituri province in DRC’s east. The attack took place on 9 May at a camp for displaced people near Fataki town. The president of a civil society groups’ association blamed the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo (CODECO) militia for the attack. The group is also blamed for the attack on 8 May in a gold mine in Djugu in the same province, killing over 30 people. ("At least 14 die, including children, in DR Congo attack," BBC, 10 May 2022; “DR Congo: Rebels carry out deadly attack on refugee camp in Ituri,” Al Jazeera, 10 May 2022) 

Military kills 50 jihadists in Boucle du Mouhoun region
On 10 May, the military reported that it killed about 50 jihadists in two operations. According to a non-verified statement, a rapid reaction force was responding to an attack that happened on 9 May in the North West Boucle du Mouhoun region. The military said a commando unit assisted by volunteers held another attack near Djigoue region. Since 2015, more than 2,000 people have been killed and two million displaced in the country following the jihadists attacks. (Will Ross, "At least 50 jihadists killed in Burkina Faso - army," BBC, 10 May 2022) 

Eight soldiers killed in a terrorist attack, says government
On 11 May, the government said eight soldiers were killed and 13 wounded in a terrorist attack at Kpinkankand in the northern Savanes region. A senior security personnel told AFP that a group of 60 gunmen attacked the soldiers on motorbikes. It is the first reported deadly attack by Islamist militants in the country. Togolese troops are deployed in the northern borders to contain the jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State spreading south from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. (Will Ross, "'Motorbike jihadists' launch attack in northern Togo," BBC, 11 May 2022) 

Nigerian commander missing; seven security officials die in a gunmen attack
On 12 May, the military initiated a search and rescue operation for a battalion commander, who went missing after an attack by gunmen on a convoy he was leading in Taraba. Six soldiers, one anti-riot police officer and six gunmen were killed in the ambush. The convoy came under a gunfire attack while traveling to Takum to contain a communal conflict between farmers and herders. Though it is not clear who carried out the attack, random kidnappings by armed groups are common in the region. (Ishaq Khalid, "Nigerian commander missing after deadly ambush," BBC, 12 May 2022) 

Nigerian college shut after mob kills student over alleged blasphemy
On 12 May, a college in the northwestern state of Sokoto was shut after a female student was killed over alleged blasphemy. According to local media reports, the body was burned afterwards within the school premises. On 14 May, the Sokoto state governor declared a 24-hour curfew following the protest demanding the release of suspects of the killing. The governor also directed the Ministry of Higher Education and security agencies to investigate on the incident. Following the outrage on social media over the incident, the state commissioner of information said: "The governor has called on the people of the state to remain calm and maintain peace as the government would take appropriate actions on the investigation findings." The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom says that the cases of mob attacks against blasphemy happens intermittently in Nigeria as "many Shariah laws in northern Nigeria continue to criminalise blasphemy and result in harsh punishments for blasphemers." ("Mob kills student over ‘blasphemy’ in northern Nigerian college," Al Jazeera, 12 May 2022) 

10 ministers resign office to run in 2023 elections
On 12 May, all the ministers, ambassadors, agency heads and other political officials were asked by president Muhammadu Buhari to resign by May 16 to contest the upcoming presidential elections. On 13 May, the information minister Lai Mohammed said 10 cabinet ministers, including the petroleum minister has resigned. He added that the ministers of justice, transport, labour, Niger Delta region, and women's affairs and junior ministers for mines and education has resigned as of 13 May. Buhari will be stepping down after his two four-year terms in office following the February 2023 elections. ("Ten Nigerian cabinet ministers resign to run in 2023 polls," Al Jazeera, 13 May 2022) 

48 people still missing after the deadly flood
On 12 May, the government authorities confirmed that 48 people are still missing following the severe floods last month in KwaZulu-Natal. The death toll has now risen to 445. The flood is considered to be the worst natural disaster in South Africa in years that caused damage at an estimated cost of USD 1.5 billion. On 13 May, the World Weather Attribution (WWA), an international group of climate scientists, released a report which says climate change led to the increased rainfall causing the deadly flood in South Africa in April. Meanwhile, president Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster allowing the authorities to accelerate the relief and recovery efforts. (Lebo Diseko, "Forty-eight still missing after South Africa floods," BBC, 12 May 2022; Pumza Fihlani, "Climate change behind South Africa's devastating floods," BBC, 13 May 2022) 

Human-elephant conflict claims 60 lives in Zimbabwe
On 10 May, a government spokesperson tweeted that the human-elephant conflict had claimed 60 lives and injured 50 people, until May 2022. In 2021, 72 people had lost their lives. The news report quoted wildlife expert Tinashe Farawo who maintained that the conflict is likely to increase as the herds will begin to move searching for food and water in the dry season. ("Elephants killed 60 Zimbabweans this year - official," BBC, 10 May 2022)

Germany to increase its UN peacekeeping troops in Mali
On 11 May, Germany's government announced its decision to increase the number of German troops serving in the UN peacekeeping mission by 300 soldiers to 1,400. AFP news agency quoted the government spokesperson Christiane Hoffmann: "This is intended to compensate for capacities previously undertaken by French forces." The decision came a week after Germany announced it would not take part in an EU military training mission in Mali citing concerns over fighting alongside the Russian mercenaries, suspected of human rights violations. Associated Press reported that Germany’s support and training further will be offered to Niger, in its fight against Islamist militancy. ("Germany to boost its UN peacekeepers in Mali," BBC, 11 May 2022) 

Boris Johnson says 50 migrants listed to be sent to Rwanda
On 14 May, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the Daily Mail that 50 people had been listed to be sent to Rwanda and said despite the legal opposition the government would "dig in for the fight." Johnson said: "There's going to be a lot of legal opposition from the types of firms that for a long time have been taking taxpayers' money to mount these sort of cases, and to thwart the will of the people, the will of Parliament. We're ready for that." In April, the UK government announced the EUR 12 million scheme for the resettlement of people who have entered the UK illegally to Rwanda. However, the scheme is facing widespread criticism from human right charities, Archbishop of Canterbury, opposition parties and senior Conservative Party backbenchers, including former prime minister Theresa May. (Marie Jackson, "Boris Johnson: Fifty migrants told they will be sent to Rwanda," BBC, 11 May 2022) 

Click here to read "Sudan, Three years after Omar al Bashir"

About the authors
Poulomi Mondal is a postgraduate scholar at the South Asian Studies Centre at the Pondicherry University. Anu Maria Joseph is a postgraduate scholar at the Department of Political Science in Madras Christian College, Chennai. Apoorva Sudhakar is a Project Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. 

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