The Tigray War – An Evangelical President Fights for Ethiopian Unity, Evangelical Focus

There is no end to massacres in Ethiopia. Tens of thousands of civilians have died in the year-long violent inter-ethnic unrest around northern Ethiopia’s Tigray province.

In mid-June, Amharic rebels attacked Oroma villages near the town of Gimbi and massacred over 100 civilians. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was born in Oroma, visited the region on June 18 and declared “no tolerance” for terrorists who commit such crimes. [1]

His government is keen to end the unrest in Tigray and preserve the unity of multi-ethnic Ethiopia.

The a violent conflict in Ethiopia began in 2020 after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed postponed national elections due to the corona pandemic. This was not accepted by the old political elite concentrated in the regional party, the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF).

The TPLF led the liberation against Ethiopia’s former communist regime in the 1980s and, following the 1991 victory, was for 27 years the main political force shaping the country.

In 1995, Ethiopia became an ethnic union, structured as a federation of ethnic groups, promising each ethnic group maximum political influence and independence. In reality, however, small ethnic minorities were largely excluded from political power.

And the natural overlaps of ethnic territories have fostered tensions around land and water issues. The one-party government, built by a coalition of former ethnically formed liberation movements, ruled the country undemocratically.

This added to the constant tensions between the regions and the central government in Addis Ababa. The The TPLF, a predominantly Amharic and Coptic Christian movement, dominated the coalition and therefore the government.

Since 2015, millions of Ethiopians have protested against the TPLF-led central government. At the beginning of 2018, Prime Minister Hailemariam resigns and Abiy Ahmed, the first Oromo and convert from Islam and Evangelical Pentecostal Christian, became prime minister.

Ahmed favored structural change for Ethiopia, the dismantling of ethnic federalism and the introduction of a federation of regions. He integrated different regional and ethnic political movements into the newly founded Prosperity Party, minimizing the role of the old coalition of liberation movements such as the TPLF.

The TPLF refused to integrate, left the old coalition and formed an opposition, focusing on a regional government in Tigray and clearly opposing the political course of Ahmed and his Prosperity Party.

The old elite lost his power in Addis Ababa but was form a new force to retaliate from Tigray.

Months of political tension followed and on November 4, 2020, the Ethiopian army launched a military operation against the TPLF, responding to some Liberation Front attacks on the National Forces. Soon, a full-scale civil war began.

Last year, TPLF fighters approached 400 km from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, but the army, together with Eritrean forces, managed to push them back towards Tigray.

According to Amnesty International and the Evangelical Alliance of Ethiopia both sides have committed numerous crimes among civilians.

The political crisis and civil war in Tigray are by far not the only evil facing the Ethiopian people today. The Corona pandemic has weakened the economy and one drought crisis, followed by devastating rainy seasons and floods, has reduced national food production to a minimum.

Millions of men, women and children face hunger and malnutrition in Ethiopia and other parts of the Horn of Africa. It is estimated that about 14 million people and among them 5.5 million children suffer from hunger and face starvation.

Moreover, the the war in Ukraine has a major impact on Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa as a whole, due to heavy reliance on grain imports from Ukraine and Russia.

Russian sanctions on grain import disrupted supply shortly after the start of the war in eastern Ukraine in February 2022. Not only the national import is affected, but also the food aid program United Nations.

The humanitarian situation is very critical. The latest estimates indicate that 23 million Ethiopians will soon need humanitarian assistance and food aid across the country. However, some areas are already in a critical situation.

Residents of the south are still facing the negative effects of the 2017 drought, which caused a massive displacement of the rural population in search of water and grasslands.

And because of the war, the government blocks humanitarian aid to Tigray which leads to hunger.

What happens if the conflict escalates? Will we see a collapse of Ethiopia’s multi-ethnic state of 100 million people? Will the national dilemma trigger other national and ethnic conflicts in a highly explosive context?

Ethiopia is both economically and politically the most important state in the Horn of Africa region. The African Union has its headquarters in Ethiopia. And Ethiopia is a spiritual giant.

No other country in Africa, if not all over the world, has we have seen in recent years as is the case with Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world, dating from 330 AD. The CThe Optical Orthodox Church is still the largest religious association from the country.

But there is also many Protestant denominations, evangelicals in Ethiopia, such as the “Mekane Jesus” Lutheran Church with around 5 million members or the Mesere Kristos Mennonite Church, the largest Mennonite church in the world.

Baptist and Pentecostal churches complete the picture of some 14 million Protestants in the country. These churches are growing at 6.5% per year and are intensely involved in mission.

The economic and political crisis in Ethiopia affects the witness of evangelicals in several ways.

First, evangelicals are found in all conflict regions of Ethiopia and they generally tend to support Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, himself a Pentecostal Christian. But not all.

The Tigray Evangelicalsfor example, largely support the TPLF and even participate in rebel military actions against the Addis Ababa government. [2]

The war divides evangelicals, creating strong feelings against each other. And where there is no unity, the testimony will be greatly weakened.

Second, both the The old Coptic Orthodox elite and Muslim tribes view evangelicals with a critical eye. The 400,000 evangelical converts from Islam in recent years have led to a number of waves of persecution in the south of the country.

The changing political situation could lead to more obstacles to evangelism in the country as well as mission outside of Ethiopia.

Third, the unrest in Ethiopia would severely limit the witness to peace and reconciliation of Ethiopian churches. The Horn of Africa is, politically speaking, a very explosive region of the world.

Disputes of a different nature can arise at any time. Ethiopian Evangelical Christians have been an agent of reconciliation in the region. The inability to resolve multi-ethnic conflicts in their own country would set them back in similar situations in the region.

This and more should motivate evangelicals around the world to pray for Ethiopia and wisdom for both, the government of Prime Minister Ahmad and the management of the different Christian churches.

It’s time to intercede for Ethiopia and pray for a functional peace platform that brings conflicting parties and tribes, religious groups and churches together around the table. Jesus is our peace.

Millions of Ethiopians know him. Now is the time to exorcise peace throughout the country. Our prayer is necessary.

Johannes Reimer is Professor of Mission Studies and Cross-Cultural Theology and Director of the Public Engagement Department of the World Evangelical Alliance (AEM).

1. NZZ Redaktion: Kämpfe in Äthiopien: Offenbar mehr als hundert Zivilisten bei Angriff von Rebellengruppe getötet. In: NZZ 20.06.2022, https://www.nzz.ch/international/gewalteskalation-in-aethiopien-die-neusten-entwicklungen-ld.1586148 (24.06.2022).

2. See more in Dorcas Cheng-Tozun: Ethiopian Christians Take Sides Over Tigray Crisis, in: Christianity Today, June 6, 2022, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/july/ethiopia-tigray-evangelical-conflict-abiy-tplf-orthodox.html (29.06.2022).

Posted in: Evangelical Focus – Features
– The Tigray war – An evangelical president fights for the unity of Ethiopia

Barry F. Howard