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Countering Violent Extremism through Social Capital: Anecdote from Jimma, Ethiopia


The idea underpinning Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) is that violence should not be dealt exclusively with reactive means. Instead, structural causes of extremism such as intolerance, social marginalisation, and economic inequality must all be tackled to prevent transnational violence, regional instability and community tensions.[1] The CVE framework discussed in this paper focuses on the role of social capital in augmenting community resilience derived from people’s interactions in Jimma[2], Southwestern Ethiopia. It explains the nexus between social capital and conflict, and examines the roles of social capital and grassroots community dialogue in Jimma during the inter-religious conflicts that erupted since 2006 and continued through 2011.[3] In addition to the damage to property, the violence led to a marked erosion of the social capital fabric of the society as manifested in the erosion of cultural practices such as common greetings, exchanging of household commodities and observing each other’s religious holidays. There was a deterioration of social capital that intensified until respected Muslim and Christian religious figures got involved to rebuild a peaceful co-existence between these communities. The establishment of the Religious Forum for Peace in 2011, as an outcome of longtime friendship between these religious figures was the epitome of the survival of the inter-religious social capital in Jimma. This Forum is now making unreserved efforts in promoting cultural practices and other social activities to promote positive interactions between followers of Islam and Christianity and thereby promoting peace and security in Jimma and Ethiopia at large.

Alternative CVE mechanisms: Social capital in perspective

Customarily, the state has the obligation and primary responsibility to prevent and combat terrorism, and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. However, countering violent extremism (CVE) is likely to be most effective when characterized by a partnership approach involving law enforcement, intelligence agencies, other statutory organizations, and community-based non-governmental organizations with grassroots credibility.[4]

In recent years the traditional constituents of capital namely, natural, physical, and human have been conceptually broadened to include social capital.[5] This is a result of the realization that any country’s development trajectory depends on social capital although other forms of capital remain crucial ingredients of economic growth.[6] Even though the concept of social capital varies, it refers to the networks (real-world links between groups or individuals) together with shared norms (society’s unspoken and largely unquestioned rules), values (such as respect for people’s safety and security) and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups.[7] The origin of organised violence rooted in religious differences is traceable to the coming of Christianity to Ethiopia in the 4th century when state-backed Orthodox Christianity was pitted against traditional beliefs, and later on against the Jewish and Muslim faiths.[8] In most cases however Muslims and Christians lived in harmony for centuries.

CVE from the bottom up – the experience of Jimma

The relations between Muslims and Christians in Jimma have traditionally been amicable, a situation reflected in the joint social undertakings of the communities including Iddir (traditional burial association), Iqub (traditional saving association) and wedding ceremonies. Members of both communities also have traditions of helping one another in various farming activities which extend from plowing to harvesting. This practice is locally known as “debo“. A local conflict resolution practice known as “jarsummaa” also involved elderly Muslim and Christian personalities working together. Moreover, members of both communities used to have mutual celebrations of religious holidays. For instance, during the annual Christian holiday of “buhe” in August, Christian and Muslim teenagers and youths used to go around villages chanting songs of “hoya hoye” and receiving gifts in the form of home-made, special bread and money. A striking feature of the inter-religious harmony between the two communities was reflected in the fact that during the Buhe holidays, the participation of Muslim youth in the festivities outnumbered/eclipsed that of the Christian youth. During the Ramadan fast period Muslims who serve meals to others as part of a religious observance (i.e., Sedoqa) included Christians in the preparation of food. Neighbouring Christians were also invited to the feasts by Muslims. All in all, these were the expressions of rich social capital in and around Jimma.

Religious conflicts in Jimma area in recent times have been the results of changes in the politico-religious landscape of the post 1991 Ethiopia and Islamic reform movements after the end of the Cold War in different corners of the world including the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. In this regard, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a major actor in the game, began promoting the doctrines of Islam Wahhabism and Salafism. The change in the role of Islam in the Horn of Africa is also associated with regime change in Sudan in 1989. In a nutshell, these regional and national developments over time all played a role in the shift in Muslim-Christian relations in Ethiopia.

The incident that triggered large-scale violence and destruction in Jimma occurred on the 26th of September, 2006. On the eve of Meskel celebration, (an Orthodox Christian holiday commemorating the finding of the true cross), disagreements arose between Muslims and Christians. The disagreement originated over a dispute concerning the site of the Demera bonfire (a core part of the Mesqel holidays) which Muslims wanted to change as it was situated too close to a Mosque. Yet the demands of the Muslims were not met refused by the Christians. In an attempt to resolve the simmering tension through a traditional way, elders of the area began deliberating on the possible ways out of the potential for a deadlier confrontation. Unfortunately, a stone thrown in the direction of the seated Christian elders hit a Christian elder on the head. His son returning from fieldwork looked at his father’s wound and picked his gun and went to the mosque before beginning to shoot indiscriminately at Muslims coming out of the mosque after completing their Ramadan prayers. Four people were killed and five wounded. This incident escalated and the Muslims retaliated by burning churches and indiscriminately killed Christians. Several attempts had been made to contain the violence and enable people get back to normal life. The first of the attempts was the deployment of security forces to halt the violence but not permanently. Escalations continued on and off until 2011 and the animosity intensified until it was high time to devise a sustainable resolution.

The need for someone to step in and assume the responsibility of spearheading the way forward was dire. It was at this time that Kesis Tagay[9] (an Orthodox Christian priest) and Sheikh Abdulhamid (a Muslim) decided to use their long-time friendship to help restore harmony in the area. They exerted influence to establish a traditional conflict resolution institution, i.e. the Religious Forum for Peace (The Forum) which successfully addressed several incidents that otherwise might have led to wider conflicts. Firstly, the fact that the conflict was a religious one in itself provided the individuals, who were religious leaders themselves, with the prerogative to frame their initiatives in religious terms. Secondly, their luck in assuming the leading role in the resolution attempts was coupled with their ability to draw in prominent figures in the process. This is actually the use of what scholars such as Nahapiet and Ghoshal  refer to as “the structural dimension of social capital”.[10] Coleman, underlines that the merit of this dimension is its ability to empower individuals and this is a quintessential description of the nature of the Forum as an outcome of social capital.[11]

Once the founders saw the initial successes of the forum, their hope to see it grow into a more organised entity was immense. The founders of the Forum desired not only the blessing of the administration which they felt was necessary for the continuation of the operation of the Forum, but also an acknowledgement of the efforts and objectives from the political authorities. In this context, it is critical to point out that the emergence of the Forum occurred in a context defined by the Ethiopian government’s wider engagement in countering violent extremism. A case in point being the Oromia regional administration which itself had carried out various interventions. Among other initiatives, the celebration of ‘coffee day’ at a regional level is exemplary.

Once the social and religious value of coffee making/drinking celebration was acclaimed on the occasion of the public reconciliation, the Gomma woreda administration had decided to observe the day annually in the area. The decision also maintained that the one-day celebration would be held at the time of the year when coffee is harvested. The practice was then adopted by neighbouring Woreda administrations. Finally, the regional administration of Oromia took the initiative to make it a region-wide occasion on the ground that it would serve not only as a conflict resolution mechanism but also as a socio-cultural tool for promoting communication among members of the communities.

As the Forum becomes popular it has extended its mandate gradually evolving onto an institution of dispute settlement. In so doing, it cooperates with the local government justice institutions. Most of the cases that the Forum dealt with were brought to it by parties in disagreement even before they were dealt with by the formal legal institutions. Many individuals prefer to bring their cases to the Forum rather than to the formal legal institutions. This is because religious leaders working under the umbrella of the Forum have been able to provide agreeable solutions to disputants in over six hundred cases out of the total seven hundred cases brought to them. According to an informant, the cases ranged from petty thefts to disagreements over farmland demarcations, to inheritance and marriage disputes.

The single most important area of focus has been the work on the attitude of community members. Members of the Forum particularly seemed convinced that working on the attitudes of the youth would be beneficial. One of the platforms is the provision of training schemes around inter-religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence. The training sessions are largely interactive where the participants exchanged opinions, and elders and religious leaders shared their religious and cultural wisdom with the youth in various sessions of the training. Undoubtedly, the significance of promoting close cooperation between followers of both religions is enormous. A member of the forum, for instance, mentioned that Christians are now exercising their worship rights more freely than ever. This is attributed to the fact that in the post-conflict period the Forum has been successful in ensuring Orthodox Christians acquired religious sites for their annual epiphany/baptism celebrations in a different area; and Protestant Christians have also been able to get access to land for graveyards. These were privileges hard to come by for both groups in the past as Jimma is a Muslim majority area.

Generally, the Forum evidences its benefits to members of the communities in two ways. Firstly, it tries to address the concerns of each community from the religious conflict point of view. Secondly, it is an actualization of a collective dream, i.e., the dream of creating a peaceful society with the engagement of all actors. The involvement of individuals, governmental and non-governmental entities attests to the recognition the Forum has earned in the society. Above all, it is in its ability to address the concern of the communities and resilience to employ its resources that it substantiates its vitality.


Ethiopia has been the earliest home to the Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. For centuries, the royal class has embraced Christianity as the official religion and set the ground for inter-religious rivalry. The inter-religious violence in Jimma since 2006 has born witness to that fact. It was only in the post 1991 period and the 1995 constitution that formally granted freedom of religion and formally enshrined the equality between all religious faiths. When the first large-scale violence erupted in Jimma, the result was a tumultuous breakdown of social capital that had been built over centuries. While the damage the conflict caused to inter-religious social capital was immense, there were some remnants of it that survived and led to the birth of the most instrumental conflict resolution entity: The Religious Forum for Peace which was established in 2011 with the purpose of promoting inter-religious interactions. The Forum pursues a strategy of enhancing community resilience through social capital through improved social connections and social networks. The scope of CVE should acknowledge and include such bottom-up CVE interventions beyond interventions by governments and development organizations. To maintain their credibility in the eyes of local communities grassroots CVE interventions should carve out an autonomous space. Support to these interventions should be construed with the spirit of partnership, not co-option.


Lieutenant Colonel Abiy Ahmed, Ph.D. is the Vice President of Oromia National Regional State and previously served as the Minister of Science and Technology of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. He completed his Ph. D in Peace and Security Studies from Addis Ababa University in 2017. The author can be reached at


[1] Frazer, Owen and Christian Nünlist. The Concept of Countering Violent Extremism. CSS Analyses in Security Policy, 2015.

[2] Jimma is one of the Zones in Oromia National Regional State, Ethiopia

[3] This article is based on the Ph.D dissertation by the author titled Social Capital and its Role in Traditional Conflict Resolution: The Case of Inter-religious Conflict in Jimma Zone of the Oromia Regional State in Ethiopia” completed in 2017 at Addis Ababa University. The data is derived from field research using Key Informant Interviews and Focus Group Discussions.

[4] White, Stephen & Kieran Mcevoy. “Countering Violent Extremism: Community Engagement Programs In Europe”. Phase Ii: Volume I.  Qatar International Academy for Security Studies, 2012.

[5] Colletta, N. J. and Cullen, M. L. Violent Conflict and the Transformation of Social Capital: Lessons from Cambodia, Rwanda, Guatemala, and Somalia. Washington D.C.: IBRD/World Bank, 2000.

[6] Popova, Z.I. “The Role of Social Capital for Post-Ethnic-Conflict Reconstruction.” PhD diss. Submitted to University of Bath, 2009.

[7] Adler, P. S. and Kwon, S. Social Capital: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Modified Version of a Paper Presented at the 1999 Academy of Management Meeting, Chicago, IL. 1999. See also, Keeley, B. Human Capital: How What You Know Shapes Your Life. Paris: Organisations for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2007.

[8] Tamrat, T. Church and State in Ethiopia, 1270-1527. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1972.

[9] Kesis Tagay, who played a leading role in the foundation of the Religious Forum for Peace had an extraordinary role at the crucial moment during the conflict. He threw himself under the truck that was carrying the corpses of the Christians victims of the conflict. The truck was driving through the town as a planned event, which would have surely provoked retaliatory Christian violence.

[10] Nahapiet, M., and Ghoshal, S. ‘Social Capital, Intellectual Capital, and the Organizational Advantage’, Academy of Management Review, 23/2:242–66. (1998). See also,

[11] Coleman, James S. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990.

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