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Ethiopia’s Humanitarian Crisis—and How the Church Can Pray

The conflict in Ethiopia’s northernmost region of Tigray, now spilling into neighboring Afar and Amhara regions, can only be described as a profound and profoundly complex tragedy. Reports from international media outlets and humanitarian organizations suggest that atrocities have been committed by several parties to the conflict. These include summary executions, ethnic-based massacres and sexual violence.

These reports have also raised concerns that famine may be imminent, putting as many as 100,000 children at risk of starvation. An estimated 400,000 face famine-like conditions in the Tigray region, and 90 percent of the region’s population of 6 million needs emergency food aid.

Despite the urgency of these reports, they are discounted or minimized by many Ethiopians, who believe Western media fail to place what has happened in proper historical context and, in doing so, shifts moral responsibility away from Tigray political leadership. An understanding of that context is also crucial for understanding the multifaceted risk that the conflict poses both to human lives and to the gospel.

30 Years of Ethnic Federalism

At a political level, many understand the conflict as the outcome of a three-decade experiment with a form of governance known as “ethnic federalism.” The closest and perhaps only parallel to this form of government is the former Yugoslavia, which broke apart after the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992–1995. Many fear Ethiopia may similarly fragment with an incalculable cost to be paid for generations to come.

Ethnic federalism was at the core of the constitution adopted after forces led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) toppled the communist government in 1991. The constitution gave maximum salience to ethnic identity and divided the country into regions based primarily on the identities of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups. Although the populations of Ethiopia’s regions remained ethnically mixed and many Ethiopians identify as having mixed ancestry, all Ethiopians were required to indicate the ethnicity of their father on their ID cards.

In contrast to the imperial and communist governments that preceded it, the new constitutional order placed little emphasis on the need for a common national identity. The constitution gave every ethnic group unlimited right of secession. As a result, many hold the TPLF responsible for sowing the seeds of an ethno-nationalism that has taken a central place in Ethiopian politics.

The new constitutional order placed little emphasis on the need for a common national identity.

Despite the focus on ethnic-based control of Ethiopia’s regions, the TPLF retained tight control of the central government and the allocation of resources. Resentment of this control led to growing unrest, especially among the two largest ethnic groups, the Amhara and the Oromo. It also led to the appointment of the current prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, in 2018. Because Abiy was a member of the ruling party controlled by the TPLF, it was widely expected he would act at its behest. Instead, Abiy quickly and successfully moved to reduce the influence of the TPLF and gained control of the ruling party, renaming it the Prosperity Party.

After being forced from power, the TPLF retained control over the province of Tigray, but the relationship between the new prime minister and the TPLF soured further. When the prime minister moved to delay elections, citing the pandemic, the TPLF rejected the proposal. Efforts by the Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia and others to mediate proved unsuccessful.

Alleging that the Ethiopian government was massing troops at its border, TPLF forces attacked a federal military base inside of Tigray region in early November 2020. The prime minister responded by sending federal forces into Tigray and quickly gained control over much of the region. Despite early claims of victory by the government, international observers worried that the conflict would become protracted. The TPLF had heavy weaponry, experienced military leadership, knowledge of the region’s forbidding terrain, and strong support among the people of Tigray. That support grew still stronger with the incursion of forces from neighboring Eritrea into Tigray in the early days of the conflict.

Spiritual Dimension

Unlike the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the warring sides in Ethiopia are not primarily divided by religion. To this point, the ethnic groups who have been primarily involved in the conflict—the Tigray and the Amhara—are mostly Ethiopian Orthodox. However, there is a clear religious dimension to the conflict. Prime Minister Abiy, son of an Oromo Muslim father and an Amhara Orthodox mother, is a Pentecostal. It is widely believed the name of Abiy’s Prosperity Party reflects the influence of the prosperity gospel now ascendant in many Ethiopian independent churches. A number of his public statements reflect the influence of this teaching and of pronouncements made by Ethiopian prophets.

It is widely believed the name of Abiy’s Prosperity Party reflects the influence of the prosperity gospel.

When Abiy rose to power in 2018, he was widely hailed as a transformational leader, capable of unifying the ethnic and religious divides of the country. Early in his tenure, Abiy initiated a peace agreement with President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea. Eritrea and Ethiopia had fought a bloody two-year war in 1998–2000, and the governments of the two countries had remained alienated.

The move won Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize, but many believed it impulsive and unwise, especially the TPLF. Though a former ally of the TPLF, President Isaias leads a regime widely regarded as one of the most repressive in the world. Eritrean evangelicals, including Pentecostals, have been routinely imprisoned and their churches shut. At the same time, Isaias was also a sworn enemy of the TPLF. Abiy’s unilateral offer of peace in the absence of any clear commitments on the part of the Eritrean government left many to wonder whether the move was an attempt to pressure the TPLF.

At the outset of the conflict, the Ethiopian government repeatedly denied that Eritrea had entered the war but eventually admitted this was the case. The presence of Eritrea in Tigray and the widespread reports of atrocities committed both by Eritrean soldiers and Amhara militia groups allied to the Ethiopian government helped rally the Tigray population. In a dramatic turn of events in late June, Ethiopian government forces were forced into a hasty withdrawal from Tigray. Citing the need to allow farmers in Tigray to plant crops, the government declared a unilateral cease-fire. However, the TPLF-led advance did not stop at the borders of Tigray region. Tigray forces now occupy portions of neighboring Afar and Amhara regions.

Growing International Concern

The TPLF-led incursion into and occupation of neighboring regions has drawn international criticism. The incursion, together with accusations of war crimes committed by TPLF-led forces, has strengthened the government’s call for the country to unify in resistance. In August, Abiy called for military mobilization of all able-bodied Ethiopians to reverse the TPLF-led advance.

The call to arms has also been coupled with actions taken against ethnic Tigrayans living outside of Tigray, who have reportedly been subject to detention and confiscation of businesses and property. The government maintains it is targeting only supporters of the TPLF, but many inside the country worry about the mounting evidence that ethnicity alone has been regarded as sufficient grounds for arrest. Meanwhile, the TPLF announced it had formed an alliance with a breakaway Oromo rebel group—a move that threatened to broaden the conflict further.

As the war expands and escalates, so too does suffering, especially of the women and children inside Tigray.

As the war expands and escalates, so too does suffering, especially of the women and children inside Tigray.

Basic goods and services are in short supply. Both sides accuse the other of impeding the flow of humanitarian aid to those in need, with the government asserting that security must be established in order for the necessary quantities of food to enter the region. Meanwhile, large numbers of Tigrayan refugees now live in poorly supplied camps inside of neighboring Sudan. The TPLF-led advance into neighboring Amhara and Afar regions has resulted in an estimated 250,000 internally displaced people.

For evangelicals both in Ethiopia and around the world, the conflict has provided abundant evidence that whatever opportunities political power may create for them, there are many perils as well, not least for the gospel. Those perils multiply when the gospel confessed by those who hold power has been subtly distorted by the prophets of prosperity.

This, too, should serve as a call to prayer:

  • Pray for an end to the war and a resolution to the conflict that will secure lasting peace and national unity, while valuing the cultural riches of Ethiopia’s ethnically diverse population.
  • Pray for the purity of the gospel and of the witness of Ethiopian churches in the face of the rising influence of prophets and preachers of prosperity, not least on those who hold high office within the country.
  • Pray for unity among evangelicals. Though the number of evangelicals in the Tigray region is relatively small, they are unlikely to understand why some evangelicals in other parts of the country have supported the war. Some Tigrayan evangelicals living outside of Tigray region have been detained or forced to flee the country.
  • Pray for the unimpeded flow of humanitarian aid to those most in need in both Tigray region as well as for the hundreds of thousands now living in camps for refugees and internally displaced people.