The mortar of reconciliation in Ethiopia

by Brian Dyck

One of the most iconic images of Ethiopia is Bete Giyorgis (Church of St. George) in Lalibela. This church is one of 11 churches carved out of stone in Lalibela. Bete Giyorgis was the last to be carved, probably about 800 years ago. Many say it is the most remarkable of the churches. From ground level it appears to have no entry, but there is a narrow path carved into the rock ending in a tunnel which opens into a square court with the cross-shaped church rising in the middle.

Bete Giyorgis or Church of St. George in Lalibela, Ethiopia. (MCC Photo/Brian Dyck)

Lately, I have thought of this church as something of a metaphor for Ethiopia: complex, beautiful, ancient and highly religious. Until recently, I also would have believed that like the churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia is monolithic. It is not, and like some of the older churches there are cracks that are appearing.  

Ethiopia is a country with many different ethnic groups and languages. In all, there are about 80 different ethnic groups and a diversity of different language groups. The four largest ethnic groups are Oromo (34%), Amhara (27%), Somali (6%) and Tigray (6%).

A window of another church in Lalibela, Bet Medhane Alem. (MCC Photo/Brian Dyck)

From 1991 till last year, the ruling party in Ethiopia was the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF is an alliance of political parties for the Oromo, Amhara, Tigray and a multi-ethnic party based in the South of the country. In 1974, this alliance first formed as a union of convenience with the goal to oust their common enemy, the Derg, a government that was Soviet backed and known for its brutality.

Upon ascending to power, the EPRDF drafted a constitution which included a new policy called ethnic federalism. The goal of this policy was to allow a level of regional autonomy to ethnic groups, particularly the larger groups, while maintaining a centralized state to govern. Since the implementation of the new constitution, there has been a lot of conflict over control of the central government. Some ethnic groups, for example, have struggled to maintain their language and are demanding more control over regional aspects. Over the years, repressive state policies have banned groups, jailed opposition leaders, limited press freedom and cracked down violently on various movements to thwart these regional ethnic aspirations.

Things took a turn in 2018. Ethnic tensions had been rising since about 2015, leading to a change in leadership in the EPRDF. Abiy Ahmed who became party leader and thus Prime Minister spans many of the divides in Ethiopia. His father was an Oromo Muslim, his mother was an Amhara Christian. He himself is a member of a Pentecostal Church in Addis Ababa, the capital city. He speaks four of Ethiopia’s languages, as well as English.

On becoming Prime Minister, he immediately introduced drastic reforms, signalling a strong break from the past. He released political prisoners, granted more freedom to the press, and has worked at regional peace deals. In a further break from the past, late last year, he dissolved the EPRDF and formed a new party called the Prosperity Party (PP) which has no official ethnic component. These changes come despite him never having faced the electorate as Prime Minister. An election is scheduled for August of this year, although some are concerned that if ethnic tensions were to rise the election may be postponed.

The entrance of Bete Giyorgis. (MCC Photo/Brian Dyck)

Prime Minister Abiy has certainly made impressive strides in allowing freedom and promoting peace in the region. However, to some it feels like he has attempted to dismantle the ethnic federalism that had allowed for uneasy truce among different groups. Others argue, that it was the previous strong authoritarian centre that kept the lid on the tensions. Now that the lid has been loosened, tensions are boiling over. Change is needed.

These tensions have resulted in violence and conflicts mostly on regional boundaries. In 2018, Ethiopia had the highest number of new Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in the world, peaking at about 3.2 million in March of that year. The government moved to return many of these IDPs, but with mixed results. Many who were returned to their home region were not able to go back to their actual homes, with the result that many were displaced a second time. Currently, there are still about 2 million IPDs in the country due to a mix of ethnic conflict (1.4 million), food insecurity because of an inability to return to their livelihoods (200,000), and pastoralists in increasingly desperate situations because of diminished rains (403,000).

Many are watching and praying for peace in this context, including MCC and MCC partner, the Meserete Kristos Church (MKC). MKC was started by Mennonite missionaries in the 1950s. Today, it is the largest Mennonite denomination in the world with more than 500,000 members throughout the country. MCC has worked with the MKC in several peace training programs over the years and is hoping to expand this work, particularly in areas where there is heightened tensions among ethnic groups.

It seems that the efforts of Prime Minister Abiy are moving Ethiopia in the right direction. He is focused on peacebuilding and has spent a lot of time on conflict mediation, which was in fact the focus of his doctoral work. To reinforce his positive contributions, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for his peace overtures to Eretria. In his lecture at the award ceremony he spoke eloquently about peace as being like a tree:

Just like trees need water and good soil to grow, peace requires unwavering commitment, infinite patience, and goodwill to cultivate and harvest its dividends. Peace requires good faith to blossom into prosperity, security, and opportunity.

In the same manner that trees absorb carbon dioxide to give us life and oxygen, peace has the capacity to absorb the suspicion and doubt that may cloud our relationships.

In return, it gives back hope for the future, confidence in ourselves, and faith in humanity. This humanity I speak of, is within all of us. We can cultivate and share it with others if we choose to remove our masks of pride and arrogance.

A tree near Debre Zeyit, Ethiopia. (Photo courtesy Marcus Dyck)

Peace in Ethiopia is perhaps also like a building. Not a monolithic building but one with many stones that need to be pieced together carefully. For decades in Ethiopia the various parts of the society have been forced together by a strong central government and that has done a lot of damage. MCC hopes that our work together with our partners can provide the mortar of reconciliation in a time when tensions are on the rise.

Brian Dyck is National Migration and Resettlement Program Coordinator for MCC Canada.

Get involved and send a letter to your MP, asking them to work to increase Canada’s international assistance and support local peacebuilding initiatives around the world.

Banner image: Bete Giyorgis from above. (MCC Photo/Brian Dyck)

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