Politics “Genna” Version!
This must be one good occasion to discuss the role of Religion in our politics. As far as the last 20 years are concerned, against a very strong religious background culture, politicians in Ethiopia pretend to “ignore” religion as a mobilizing or even a social factor. Not only the background culture, but also an exploding missionary revivalism characterizes the period. The truth about the dynamics between religion and politics, however, is much different than the official version. Whatever version one may single out to analyze – a statement by the government, a party or a religious institution – the official conviction hardly reflects the reality on the ground.
The ideological footing of all major political groups appears “neutral/disinterested” towards religious views in terms of their ideological disposition. All politicians invoke the name of the Creator whenever it is mandatory, mostly in a manner that appears to be lacking conviction for committed believers. The majority of respondents for a research I conducted in 2009 agreed with the notion of separation of State and Religion. A third of the interviewees, however, were concerned about the lack of “religious conviction” among politicians. But what they really mean by “religious conviction” is another enquiry, which is not the focus of this article. I would rather like to appreciate the place of religion in our politics.
More and more people have become attentive to religious messages, identity and background in the last 20 years. In the early days of the EPRDF, most religious leaders of all major religions used to discourage- directly or indirectly- political activism within the then-political context of Ethiopia, my interviewees asserted. Religious leaders found it wiser to focus on two other areas: evangelism and social cohesion in the aftermath of a long war and under ethnically tense politics. Yet this “disinterest” did not last long, especially when government officials of different religious conviction began to abuse their office in favor of their side. At some point, one of my interviewees concluded, benefiting one’s own religion through public office became a rule rather than an exception. It was during this period, the late 1980s and early 1990s, that the public office became a battleground for religious favoritism. In this case, each side – and particularly proponents of Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Protestantism – will tell us how the followers of the “Other” abuse public office. Suffice to say that one side can convincingly expose the other on this charge.
However, this abuse of office had never taken a form of party politics or competition for “political power” until the eve of the 2005 Election. I assume that the two years preceding the Election may need special attention to establish what led to the new beginning of “religious-politics.” In the run up to the election, most religious leaders and teachers were encouraging their followers to run for office, contrary to their traditional position of withdrawal. This must be seen as a positive development. However, we should ask how the “innocent disinterested” days ended so abruptly and politics became an active variable both in the intra and inter religious life of the country. Did the religious competition lead them to compete for power so that they could access public resources? Religious competition is basically natural and, in most cases, considered healthy as far as abided by law and norm. Then, were there any external factors to change the chemistry at any particular time? Did religious leaders and followers move towards politics in search of power to win their “spiritual” competition; or did their participation in politics as citizens invite politics into congregation halls? With or without the interest of religious leaders/followers, what if politicians find religion readymade ammunition to attack political opponents? The line between religion and politics is tricky to demarcate in all societies. Where do we find ours?
I must remind my readers here of the fact that the EPRDF had been more interested in controlling the leadership of religious groups and institutions prior to 2005. Only in a few instances did the EPRDF consciously factor politics into the public sphere of religion. Otherwise, its leaders were convinced that controlling the high echelons of all religious institutions, which they successfully did, could keep any possible threat at bay.
It is public knowledge that political parties in the 1960s manipulate religion as a mobilizing factor at different places and times exactly as ancient rulers did. Parties in Eritrea and some parts of Oromiya are famous for consciously giving their political cause a religious dimension. This tradition has not subsided even today.
Fast forward to 2005
Religious institutions and congregations attracted the attention of political groups long before the campaign period. The debates, however, accelerated the speed towards a “scramble for religious groups.” Fortunately, neither the opposition nor the ruling party had a comprehensive strategy to use religion for political mobilization. Initially, the EPRDF was caught by surprise for two reasons. On the one hand, its leaders remained in their delusional comfort zone; on the other hand, they failed to get it right when it comes to the power relations between religious leaders and their followers’ political differences.
The opposition camp found itself defending its “integrity” and respect for religious differences. This does not mean, however, that within the opposition camp there were not any attempts to use religious connections to convince voters. A reliable informant told me that one opposition leader had requested that members of his congregation vote for his party or, and if not, they don’t not vote for one specifically mentioned party. The EPRDF was more bold and malicious in its underground campaign, which was mainly targeted to discredit the CUD. The message, as usual, changed depending on the audience. In the north, the CUD was depicted as a Protestant infested party; in Southern and Western Ethiopia and with Muslim audiences, CUD was colored as a party of “Orthodox extremists.” Such provocative underground campaign messages were very dangerous had it not been for the public rejection. I hope that the EPRDF never dares to repeat this tactic for which it has already paid a price.
The story of religion vs politics did not end there. The EPRDF launched an internal Gimgema of its own to determine the causes of the election debacle. Surprisingly, the role of religious leaders, preachers and some religious groups was identified as a “decisive factor” in some parts of the country. An internal report compiled by the security branch of the Amhara region singled out a religious association belonging to the EOC as the main factor that led opposition candidates to win over their rivals in many rural constituencies. A similar report compiled in Oromia criticized the role of some Islamic clerics and another association and few preachers affiliated with the EOC. The story was not any different in the SNNPS.
Part of the lesson that the EPRDF took from the 2005 election was how to deal with religiously- affiliated individuals and groups. Its increasing control over the leadership of religious institutions is one aspect of the measures taken. The most obtrusive tactic employed in the last five years is infiltrating every inch of seemingly independent space within religious institutions and groups – recruiting all religiously active individuals or convincing them to stay away from politics altogether.
There are a number of incidents that compelled us to think about the place of religion in our politics. The EPRDF remains loyal to its policy of controlling religious leaders outside of their theological controversies. What is the long-term impact of such policies? At a micro level, we have heard that malicious rumors alleging conversion to another religion were spread about Lidetu Ayalew during the recent “election” as part of underground campaign message. Without arguing why Lidetu lost the “election,” the very allegation is indicative of some importance of religion in politics.
Religion remains an important factor in our politics, whether politicians recognize it or not. We should not ignore or avoid religion all together for political, social and national interests. Religious institutions and affiliated groups can play a positive role in supporting democracy and development. They can provide a grassroots level platform for deliberation and exercise of democracy. By the same token, they can be used to suppress people, as Marxists rightly argued. Genna, the birth of Jesus Christ, is about hope. Can our religions give us any hope about our politics?