Since President Obama decided to go to Ethiopia despite the existence of extreme human rights abuses, he might be able to persuade the regime to change its ways. In Ethiopia, theocracy, dictatorship, and thuggery are a reality of life. Even though most of the leaders came from a Marxist Leninist background, but from the outset they acted like a theocrat, a dictator, a black Afrikaners, and thuggerish creating a necessary conditions for the rise of extremist elements, for revolt or revolution.
What are the conditions that make it possible for a revolt, a revolution or extremist group like Boko Haram and ISIS to rise? If a regime keeps pushing Muslims or Christians to the corner with arbitrary imprisonment, murder, and basic denial from sharing the fruits of the economy and freedom to worship without government intrusion, there is a chance some of these people can go crazy and even become fanatics like Boko Haram and ISIS. Some in the West will start wondering why there are such terrorist and extremists in Ethiopia. Unless they are mentally ill, such people have to be a product of their environment. When another Boko Haram or ISIS emerges, President Obama and other Western leaders will wonder what went wrong and will send their drones to fight them. As it appears for now they are unwilling to address problems that create such extremists. Sectarian and oppressive conditions in Iraq created ISIS. Ethiopia has a similar condition where a small sectarian or ethnic group rules with the barrel of the gun.
For President Obama it will be wise to raise the plight of detained Muslim leaders and journalists and listen to their stories before it is too late. Ethiopia may be vital to keep the lead on extremists in Somalia and other places in the Horn of Africa, but if Ethiopia with close to 100 million people explodes, it will be harder to contain it regardless of how many drones you deploy.
The demand of Muslim leaders in Ethiopia is simple, end government interference in religion; respect the constitutional which guarantees freedom of religion and separation of church and state. The same is true with journalists; they just wanted to practice their profession with some level of autonomy instead of as agent of the state.
ISIS and Boko Haram are fringe elements who have no mercy on Muslims or Christians and nobody wants such people to rise from any environment. In Ethiopia, given the extreme form of oppression because of one’s religion, tribe, or political affiliation, the country is ripe for revolt. But it is also possible that this revolt could be hijacked by extreme elements.
The ruling party, Tigrean People Liberation Front (TPLF) initially encouraged religious freedom for Muslims and Pentecostal groups, as leverage against the Orthodox Church and its followers, which it feared and loathed at the same time.
For a long time, the regime tried to court the Muslim and the Pentecostal community to counter its nemesis the Amharas and the Orthodox Church. After it totally crushing the Orthodox Church, the regime shifted gear to target the Muslim community to totally control and manage it. When the regime declared war on the Orthodox Church, the Muslims did not sing a song supporting the regime. When the regime declared war on the Oromos, Amharas, Gurages etc. the Muslim community refused to collaborate with the regime.
Unfortunately, the regime eventually decided to declare war on Muslims because the Muslims did not want political allegiance to the regime and like many Ethiopians are fed up from taking orders who should be their leaders and how they should behave and become foot soldiers to oppress others.
The Muslims in Ethiopia never had political power or political ambitions for that reason they were tolerated by past regimes. Although the DERG and TPLF initially leveled the playing field, but Muslim aspiration has not changed, it is simply live and let live in harmony and in peace as they did for the last 1400 hundreds years since the arrival of Islam in Ethiopia.
Muslims were tolerated by all previous regimes as long as they stick to their religion. Even Mengistu Haile Mariam and Haile Selassie never saw them a threat and allowed them a great degree of tolerance to practice their religion. TPLF as the most paranoid regime in the history of Ethiopia wanted more control, even though Muslims pose no threat to the regime.
The regime succeeded in creating great chasm among many groups: Oromos, Amharas, Somalis, and Christians, and the only cohesive group left were the Muslims, and the regime saw them as a threat.
Muslim and Christians lived in relative harmony for centuries in Ethiopia until the advent of the current regime. Now, the regime wants to capitalize in anti-Islam sentiment in the region and in the West and want to drive wedges between Christians and Muslims and among Muslims using its surrogates.
President Obama needs to know the biggest threat to stability and peace in the region are not journalists or Muslims, but the current regime in power in Ethiopia. The majority of Muslims, like Christians want to put food on the table, and live in harmony.
The Ethiopian regime arrested a number of Muslim leaders in order bring them into its wings, otherwise to silence them. Their protest stems from the late Meles Zenaw’s attempt to arbitrarily appoint their leaders and to force them to follow a brand of Islam that his team prefers.
Meles has exacted the same demand on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He fired the previous patriarch and replaced him with a more compliant and political one. Meles’ goal was also to make the Muslim community compliant, as well as anoint their leaders like he did with the Orthodox Church.
This was not the first time the regime wanted to take control of the Muslim community. In 1996, my own uncle was the Imam of the Anwar Mosque in Addis Ababa when Meles demanded a compliant relationship and support against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. When he refused, Meles organized his own Muslim team armed with guns and stormed the mosque. During the ensuing battle, many people were killed, a number of people wounded and arrested including my uncle. He was later released without charge and Meles backed off.
The primary reason to take control of the Muslim leadership was not because the Muslims were a threat to the regime, it was a paranoid Meles desire to put everyone under his command and to align the Muslim community against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Most Muslims have no problem with the Orthodox Church except putting up a healthy competition to save souls. Since most of Meles’ opposition came from the Orthodox Church and the Amhara community, Meles thought he can rely on Muslims as a buffer. Recently, the regime has been emboldened because it is becoming much easier to brand Muslims as terrorists or jihadist. It is easy to exact any punishment even for any peaceful resistance as is the case with the Muslim leadership in jail. The regime can impose its will on the Muslim community without any fear from anywhere. Any opposition against the regime is maligned by the West and regarded out of line.
The regime is disdained by the majority of Ethiopians. Its very existence depends on Western Moral, political and economic support. President Obama can use his goodwill and power to pave Ethiopia to a more sustainable and lasting democracy or pamper things under the table and set Ethiopia for another Boko Haram, ISIS or violent revolution.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org