The centrality of notions of all-encompassing humanity and religiosity in the African context is efficiently exemplified through the following anecdote. An anthropologist proposed a game to local children[i]. The anthropologist showed them a basket of sweets and told them that whoever reaches first to the basket would get all the sweets in the basket. After starting them off with a ‘ready steady go’, the children held each other’s hands, ran together towards the basket, divided the sweets equally, and enjoyed it. The anthropologist was amazed and asked them why they did so, and the children replied to him ‘Ubuntu’ which means ‘How can one be happy when the others are sad?’ In their language it meant “I am here because we are!”[ii] This fascinating story sheds light on a specific humanistic worldview regarding the cosmos that encompasses the political, economic, social, and environmental dimension strongly refracted with a spiritual underpinning. The anecdote also points to the profound importance of the spiritual aspect and religiosity in African societies. Religious institutions historically have played a role in articulating the demands of communities, assumed a key role in containing and resolving conflicts. It is visibly clear that religious actors and religious organizations have been increasingly involved in and participated in attempts to make political transitions smooth and keep make peace among the people. Hence, I believe that now more than ever, it is incumbent on us all to explore how the Ubuntu ethos could be actualized, both through citizenship and also as a member of a religious community.
The New Ethiopian Democratic Space offers a Unique Opportunity
The pace of change in Ethiopia has been lightning fast since HE Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali became the youngest prime minister in Africa.[iii] Ethiopians have now been introduced to immediate change and a new dawn bringing about a new form of Ubuntu which is Medemer[iv]. It is a metaphor for a journey together in spite of potential differences for the sake of love, peace, forgiveness, and prosperity. The process of change in Ethiopia has led to momentous developments such as the normalization of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the peace deal between Eritrea and Djibouti, the mass release of imprisoned opposition leaders, the invitations extended to previously political parties in exile to return to their country, and the lifting of terrorism charges and the terrorism classification of several political organizations and individuals.
The transition also has economic, infrastructure, and social aspects. These aspects are expressed in the recent inter-state agreements regarding the joint operation and development of ports in the Horn of Africa[v], the announcement of on arrival visa services for citizens of all Africancountries, discussions on the privatization of lucrative state enterprises, the establishment of a new cabinet comprising 50 percent female ministers, the appointment of the first ever female President[vi] and Chief Justice in modern day Ethiopia. All these changes are rapid and suggest an exciting future in the Ethiopian political arena. These decisions and developments are encouraging and send a significant message not only for the Horn but to the continent too.
However, the country continues to face sporadic instability in the form of ethnic conflict, mob justice, internal displacement and chaos coupled with a high rate of undocumented migrants from neighbouring Eritrea. In order to ensure a sustainable peaceful political environment and movement towards a more open political space, every citizen and institution including religious institutions must support the fragile transition through active and peaceful involvement. Therefore, it is high time to ensure the sustainability of this new political environment in Ethiopia as well as the region through the efforts of both the state on one hand and religious institutions on the other.
Religious Institutions in the New Political Space
In many cultures, religion was and still is the organizing principle of life. Ethiopians are an overwhelmingly religious people and survey data suggests that almost 99 percent of the population believes that “religion is most important in the lives of Ethiopian’s.[vii]” Religious values play a significant role in shaping the moral values, public opinion, and building bridges between communities. They have rich resources to bridge divides and achieve a culture of forgiveness and peace. Most faith institutions address key issues such as love, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, and prosperity. Religious leaders also often enjoin their followers about their contributions towards a sustainable, peaceful and reconciled country and nurturing a culture of peace.
The faith-based institutions operate from the premise that the starting point for peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation is the people, not political organizations. In the Ethiopian context, religious institutions have often engaged in peace-building at the level of the grassroots, but recently faith-based organizations have been less effective solving tensions in Ethiopian especially during the past few years . Now religious organizations have a new energy and a fresh commitment from their followers, and it seems are determined once again, to take a leading role in bringing peace to Ethiopia and also the rest of Africa. Recent events such as the reconciliation process between the two synods of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church[viii] as well as the reconciliation of differences between the religious leaders in the Islamic community, have placed these institutions in a stronger position to work on assuring peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia. This shows us, how the religious organizations and the stability of the new political space intertwined in the context of Ethiopia. The reconciliation was a signal of bringing of opposition for forgiveness and reconciliation and this implies a strong and solid religious organization can be easily mobilized for peace in a fragmented society. The growing space for and strengthening of faith-based communities provides the opportunity and the space for collaboration and support for the new administration in Ethiopia and its reform agenda. Therefore, the new dawn bringing, Medemer, invites religious organizations to the journey together in spite of potential fractious differences for the sake of forgiveness and reconciliation among Ethiopians.
Religious organizations have been an instrument of peace and played a major role in bringing peace between different oppositions to resolve their problems. Ethiopian religious institutions have played a crucial role in the mediating and facilitating dialogues in the Horn of Africa such as in South Sudan conflict since 2015[ix] and they were also involved in efforts to bridge the divide between Ethiopia and Eritrea through the support of World Council of Churches and other international organizations at large. The complimentary strategy is to minimize the suffering of human beings and to resolve conflicts among political actors through working with local communities.
The role that religious institutions have played in resolving conflicts has also been amply show cased during the current wave of instability. A case in point is the conflict that emerged on the border between the Gedeo and West Guji communities and which led to the displacement of more than half a million people. The religious organizations played a significant role to de-escalate the violence between the two groups through discussion and reconciliation by encouraging local leaders to restore peace and assure peaceful coexistence.[x] Religious leaders worked with local leaders through workshops, integrating conflict resolution into weekly services and programmers, advocating, inter-religious cooperation, by equipping members of the congregation. Religious organization’s duty is to promote discussions and dialogues to bring peace by setting aside differences in the political realm. These activities were achieved through an advocacy which elevated the voices of the voiceless into the public space with local and international organizations.
A Call to Commitment for Sustainable Political Environment by the Religious Organizations
- This is a defining moment for religious organizations and Ethiopia. Religious institutions are expected to adopt a position of neutrality and impartiality during war and conflict, but this is not equivalent to inaction when injustice and killings take They have to be the voice of the voiceless during these challenging times.
- Religious institutions should also utilize their unique grassroots networks to concentrate on longer-term issues of forgiveness and reconciliation.
- Religious institutions should adopt a more proactive role in the daily situations of the community and start to resolve problems ahead of government. This includes bringing to the table reasonable and comprehensive solutions to commit for a sustainable political environment in Ethiopia.
- Across the Horn, communities place immense trust in faith-based organizations, which are viewed as institutions which can work on peace and reconciliation in an impartial and neutral manner. Religious institutions should leverage this implicit trust to take on a more pro-active role in working on and achieving reconciliation on the local, national and regional levels.
Moti Daba Fufa is the head of the Urban Mission and Youth Development in the Addis Ababa Synod of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EEMCY). His research focuses on the role of religious institutions in the public sphere. He can be reached through, firstname.lastname@example.org.
[iv]Medemer is coming along evenwith our differences for love, peace and forgiveness.