This article was first published in Ethiopia Insight.
You have prioritised your own power over our country’s peace. It is time to step down.
Dear Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali (PhD),
I would like to commence my letter with a salutation in the name of Jesus Christ.
I am Naol Befkadu, a lecturer at one of the oldest Baptist theological colleges in Ethiopia and a PhD candidate in evangelical leadership. I am moved to write this letter to you based on my Christian moral convictions and the heavy burden on my heart after following your leadership style over the years. Thus, I have written this open letter to you as a fellow evangelical brother and a theologian.
As you are well aware, theology is the study of the doctrine of God. Christian theology holds the Holy Bible up as the supreme authority on the study of the attributes of God.
A theologian’s job is not only to explore doctrines but also to make theology palatable and applicable in daily life by contextualising academic theology in relation to the contemporary matters of society. This is also sometimes called public theology. For the most part, this is what I have been trying to do since 2016 as a minister of the gospel, world mission student, and theology lecturer.
Today, I present my letter to you with a heavy heart regarding the fate of this country and the destructive role played by your leadership.
Dear PM Abiy, all Ethiopians have a vivid memory of what took place on 2 April 2018. We witnessed a miracle unfolding before our eyes when a charismatic evangelical politician was appointed to the prime minister position. Churches and mosques alike were filled with psalms of joy. From north to south and from east to west, your ascension to power brought glory to God almighty, who visited the people.
Prior to that day, and during the protests across the country, I wrote a piece in Amharic titled What Would Jesus Not Do? (Regarding the current state of the country) – where I encouraged all Christians to be vigilant about their country and avoid violent means to settle disagreements.
While you were implementing much-needed reforms, I wrote a piece that praised your administration titled Does PM Abiy’s Religion Matter? in response to Tom Gardner’s article in The Economist that characterised your administration as a Pentecostal-charismatic one. I presented the values your administration brought to the political table as a result of your Christian convictions. Your rise was a proud moment for all of us Protestants, who for most of our history have been persecuted in this country.
A year after you came to power, I penned another article, titled PM Abiy’s 365 Days in Office: A Christian Perspective. I celebrated the achievements during your first year as PM and tried to explain them through the lens of an evangelical Christian. I admired your decisions to release prisoners, reconcile with Eritrea, and bring the two synods of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church together.
As the job of a public theologian is to emphasise the moral principles that are relevant to society, I celebrated your activities based on the moral framework that you used to bring the country together. That truly was amazing and cannot be forgotten.
The flip side
Even though I admired your moral leadership, there were certain elements of your approach that made me anticipate wrongful actions on your part. In a paper for my Master’s degree in 2018, I wrote about the dangerous side of charismatic leadership, inspired in part by your leadership. Your populist actions made me pause and think again before offering so many superlatives.
These suspicious actions became even more evident after you started surrounding yourself with only those who accept your ideologies. Competing political figures such as Dr Lemma Megersa were sidelined. Even during these times, my faith convinced me to stay in favour of your administration because your sermons of love and unity never contradicted your actions. You walked what you talked for the most part, even though there were shortcomings.
As time progressed, you gave Ethiopian evangelicals a great present by pressuring them to be united in order to get recognition as a legally constituted body. I endorsed this move as a way to combat the virus of factionalism that divides protestant theologians and denominations. Beyond supporting this proposal, I even suggested that ecumenical unity could potentially save the fate of this nation. I argued in my article Can Ecumenism Save Ethiopia? for the grand unity of churches by following your philosophy of medemer.
However, my theologian friends criticised me, saying, “Abiy is playing politics.” I did not listen to them.
Twist and a plea
I never thought things would get so twisted within such a short period of time. In the second year of your administration, the values I saw that initially convinced me to defend you as a theologian began to fade away and another character, this time a villain, started to emerge. Love was still on your lips, but your actions were increasingly driven by egomania.
When everything you had been saying was replaced by the opposite actions, I began to doubt the authenticity of everything that you were preaching about. Politically speaking, you came to embody the prototypical Machiavellian leader. For a year and a half, I stayed silent in disbelief.
After following all of your speeches and actions, as well as reflecting through prayer, I have changed my mind and must denounce your administration. I have found you to be morally unfit and unqualified to be a leader of 110 million people. Hence, it is my moral and theological duty to call you out. Dear PM Abiy Ahmed, I am now asking for you to resign from your post. Below, I enumerate six factors that led me to reach this conclusion.
1.The political infiltration of the Ethiopian Gospel Believers Churches’ Council
Dear PM Abiy, of all your actions, the one I supported most was the establishment of the Ethiopian Gospel Believers Churches’ Council. Even though many wise people voiced reservations, I supported this initiative because I believed in the role that the council plays not only in theological consensus and dialogue among evangelicals but also in national unity. I continue to believe in the old maxim that ‘a divided church cannot unify a divided country.’
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Over time, however, the function of the council became something that I failed to anticipate. The leader of the council, Prof. Iyasu Elias, emerged from behind the curtain to dress himself as a Prosperity Party (PP) member and candidate. To this day, a political person leads the highest evangelical body in Ethiopia.
While it is not antithetical to our belief system for a Christian to be involved in political matters, a church leader should refrain from taking sides in politics. Although some Muslim and Orthodox leaders participated in the national election, most of them – including your own advisor, Daniel Kibret – remained independent from any political party.
However, the leader of the evangelical council sided with you by joining your newly formed PP. The ramifications of this decision were so great that the moment this news came I was among many church leaders who called for the council president to resign. There was, ultimately, no response.
Dear PM Abiy, you very much understand the necessity of the separation of church and state in order to avoid both the creation of a state religion and the unwanted intervention of the state in religious matters. While the former has been displaced by secularism since 1974, the latter still occurred under the EPRDF government.
Church leaders are silenced by the government and forbidden from using their prophetic voices to point out the misbehaviour of officials. I have witnessed this with my own eyes during your administration. The council has been so heavily infiltrated and controlled by your political beliefs and party ideology that criticising you has come to be seen to be an anti-protestant stance.
In a country where people like Rev. Gudina Tumsa sacrificed their lives because of their prophetic voice against the dictatorial Derg regime, now the church has become a slave to the ideology of a politician. You can order the execution of anyone you want and no religious leader is going to speak against you.
You have thus triumphed in silencing and controlling God’s mouth on earth that is the church of Jesus Christ. You have transformed the church from being the voice to the voiceless and the oppressed into a megaphone for your personality-driven administration.
‘Prophets’ of the day warn their members from speaking against the ‘anointed of God’, in reference to you. Pastors who claim to be your colleagues openly declare on their platforms that you are the God-sent messiah to help Ethiopia prosper.
Church leaders will not criticise any of your actions. They will not call out your lack of moral leadership. They are silenced by your populism and the infiltration of the council. At best, they are waiting and campaigning for an earthly Protestant-led messianic kingdom led by you. The church, having set aside its traditional and scriptural tasks, is busy echoing your rhetoric.
Dear PM Abiy, while your followers may ascribe to your dictatorial ideals and power-driven activities, the church of Jesus Christ cannot be silenced for any Protestant-imperialist ambition. Evangelicals are not cannon fodder for your imperial agenda. We will not be agents of your political ambitions.
Your time in power has not favoured the church and has instead silenced it into supporting your war. You have forced the church of Jesus Christ to align with you in your politically motivated war. The church has been used to defend the war and church leaders have been prevented from speaking out against the humanitarian disaster that has been going on for eleven months now.
If Rev. Gudina Tumsa were still alive today, he would say that you have abused the church of Jesus Christ for your political gain and, like me, would ask that you step down from power.
2.The Tigray war and the humanitarian disaster
Dear PM Abiy, the very philosophy of yours that captured the heart of Ethiopians, evangelicals, and non-evangelicals alike is medemer. You have explained medemer to mean a synergy that appreciates togetherness, brotherhood, and unity while also respecting individual as well as group differences. Your medemer philosophy was in congruence with the biblical model of love, particularly as described in Johannine theology.
In dedication to this biblically-based principle, you went on to encourage an informal alliance known as Oro-mara. It is now clear that, in doing so, your intention was not to unite Ethiopia’s two largest nations, but rather to oust and antagonise the Tigray minority. This informal alliance deviated from the principle of togetherness and represented a strategic alliance against Tigrayans, leading them to suspect and anticipate inevitable conflict in the country.
While it is very much true that Tigray leaders have also been power-hungry and antagonistic towards your rule, your treatment of the difference between you and the TPLF was not in line with the principles you claimed to follow. Rather than promoting love, you chose to side with a vengeful foreign force.
After months of rising tensions, Tigray’s leaders started the war by attacking the Northern Command on 3 November 2020, which they claimed was anticipatory and thus in self-defence. Your government launched a full-scale military intervention that is still costing countless lives every day. While the federal military response to the attack on the Northern Command was arguably justified according to the just war theory of St. Augustine of Hippo, inviting a vengeful force, Eritrea – whose soldiers have committed unspeakable human rights violations against Tigrayan women and girls – was a grave mistake.
Dear PM Abiy, under your watch we have been witnessing unspeakable horrors committed by the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies, along with Amhara militias, against Tigrayans. The evils committed by the TPLF when in power from 1991 to 2018 and by the Tigray forces since this war began in November 2020 do not in any way justify the rape of Tigrayan mothers by the soldiers of your government.
No matter how you compare yourself with the TPLF in order to look good by comparison, the evil that was committed by forces under your command and your allies cannot be justified. You have spoken of love but contributed – together with the TPLF and other political forces – in planting seeds of hatred between the people of Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia, and also between Tigrayans and Eritreans.
This lack of moral leadership needs to be called out by fellow evangelicals. That is why I am asking you to step down from your post.
3.The shrinking political space and cycle of violence
Dear PM Abiy, of all the positive things you did in 2018, the most cherished was the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. It was Jesus Christ who taught us to liberate those imprisoned unjustly (Luke 4:18).
Taking this messianic job, you acted with complete obedience in setting the prisoners of conscience free. Tens of thousands of prisoners were released partly because of your initiative. High-profile political prisoners such as Andargachew Tsege were among those set free mainly because of you.
However, this freedom was not lasting. As your authoritarian side started to dominate over the values of medemer, prisons started to fill with people who were accused of crimes based on weak evidence and who may only have been guilty of opposing you.
This became even more evident after the assassination of the beloved Hachalu Hundeessa, an Oromo musician. Many of the prisons in Oromia overflowed with young men and women who were arrested en masse by police from the streets. Some evangelicals and church leaders were also taken to prison because they happened to be by the roadside in the aftermath of Hachalu’s assassination.
The declarations you made after Hachalu’s death in a high-ranking meeting that aired on state television conflicted with your supposed moral leadership.
You openly declared that no one is going to shake your position “no matter how many people die.” You then made a highly questionable speech in which you said: “If you want to fight, we will show you in cities or in jungle!”
Your incendiary statements and actions caused many Oromo youth to return to the bush. There are now more insurgents in Oromia than there was a year or two ago. This is a heartbreaking reality!
Dear PM Abiy, you have gone so far as to say that you would rather sacrifice many people than give up your position. You have openly suggested that the youth go to the jungle and conduct an armed struggle rather than protest in the city. These reckless suggestions have cost the country thousands of souls. Armed struggle has become rampant in every corner of the country. There is, for instance, a full-blown war in Western and Southern Oromia.
Dear PM Abiy, you have failed to live by the principles you once espoused. You have failed to convince the youth to come back from the bush. You have failed to stop the cycle of violence that has taken many lives. For this reason and others, the best thing you can do for the people of Ethiopia is to resign.
4.Refusal for a peaceful resolution of conflicts
The character of the children of God is to be peacemakers. As Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
Dear PM Abiy, we saw this peace-making obedience of yours when you offered a hand of reconciliation to our neighbour, Eritrea. You blew down the wall of hatred and built up a bridge of love between the two countries.
In recognition of your peacemaking efforts, the Nobel Committee awarded you with their Peace Prize in 2019. When you won and made your speech in Oslo, I cannot describe the smile that you put on the face of children of God who identify with a peacemaker like you.
Even though this award came with a heavy responsibility for you, many Ethiopians believed that it represented a monumental achievement similar to the city of refugees in the Old Testament where people were sheltered and vengeance was neutralised. As a theologian, however, I believed that your supreme allegiance was not to the Nobel Peace Prize, but rather to the word of Jesus.
Contrary to my assumptions, the words peace and reconciliation are rarely spoken or applied by you and your government. Under your rule, peacemaking has been redefined as siding with the opposition. Advocating for national consensus has become synonymous with challenging for your position. Your avoidance of peace-making does not align with the moral leadership you once claimed to follow.
When the same Western countries that awarded you the Nobel Peace Prize asked for a ceasefire and political solutions to the ongoing Tigray war, you played the sovereignty card and avoided discussing with any ‘enemy’, going so far as to label the TPLF and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) as terrorist groups. For this reason, the country is in a protracted (and perhaps proxy) war that is unlikely to end soon.
Dear PM Abiy, you have avoided the peace-making role of the children of God. Based on the moral principles you expressed, you should have sacrificed your political ambitions and position for the sake of the millions of lives at stake. No peace comes without altruistic sacrifice. Rather than teaming up with Eritrean forces to attack Tigray and Oromia, you should have humbled yourself and tried to bring peace through dialogue and reconciliation. Such a sacrifice is comparable to what you did in 2018 when you broke the 20-year standoff with Eritrea by offering an outstretched hand to Isaias Afewerki.
Your refusal to play a role as peace-maker and inability to reconcile Ethiopia’s many divisions is another reason why the best thing that you can do for the country at this moment is to step down.
5. Romance with the Eritrean regime and growing dictatorial tendencies
Dear PM Abiy, even though my support for you and your administration was unwavering during your first year and a half in power, I have always kept an eye on the Eritrean president and your relationship with him. Many Ethiopians celebrated the reconciliation between the two countries. The reconciliation also brought light to many of our Eritrean brothers and sisters. Eritreans have become our neighbours and they have found it easy to settle in cities across Ethiopia. There are now nearly equal numbers of Tigrigna and Afaan Oromoo speakers within evangelical congregations in Addis Ababa.
Our Eritrean neighbours and friends did not come to Ethiopia only because they liked Ethiopia. Ethiopia became a haven for Eritrean migrants who otherwise would have travelled to Europe through Libya. It is common to hear on the news of our Eritrean brothers and sisters drowning in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to cross to Italy. They make this sacrifice and choose Ethiopia as a safe haven because the government of Eritrea is violating their human and democratic rights.
When Isaias Afworki arrived in Addis Ababa for the first time in 20 years, I went to welcome him with a banner that read – ‘Free Evangelical Prisoners in Eritrea.’
The Isaias administration has imprisoned and tortured many pastors and outlawed Pentecostalism from their land. Dear PM Abiy, if you were an Eritrean with Pentecostal background, you would have been jailed long ago. Not only Pentecostals but also many Muslim and Orthodox clerics are behind bars in Eritrea for speaking up against the tyrant.
Nevertheless, you have given the warmest welcome to this dictator with unnecessary public displays that diminished the value of justice. It soon became clear that what was going on between you two was not really love, but rather a shared desire for vengeance that was directed against the Tigrayan people. While we expected you to change the behaviour of Isaias, who has openly declared that Eritrea does not need democracy, you instead started imitating his dictatorial actions.
Unlike Isaias, you did not shut down the churches. Rather, your allies infiltrated the church administration and controlled their institutions.
Unlike Isaias, you do not openly say that “Ethiopia does not need democracy” but you ran in the election virtually uncontested by imprisoning politicians and sidelining opposition parties.
As a result, your party claimed to have won 96% of the seats in parliament. Like Isaias, you have surrounded yourself with those who will not, or cannot, criticise you.
I have always stood against Eritrea’s dictatorial regime. I had anticipated that in due time I might stand against yours, PM Abiy. Now, as a theologian with a prophetic voice, I refuse to be silenced or intimidated by your dictatorial actions. I hereby request your removal from the power.
6.Fading accountability and compromising truth
Of the many deeds that have made me give up on your administration and ask for your resignation, the most compelling one is your (mis)treatment of truth. It is often said that truth is a cheap commodity in politics. However, it is not treated as such in Ethiopian religious circles. Truth is an absolute entity that is defined by God’s universal and supreme moral laws.
Many religious leaders in Ethiopia believed that your administration would maintain a high standard of truth based on strict moral principles, rather than treating it as a cheap commodity to be bought and sold.
This was our expectation when you repeatedly said: “Truth is by our side.” Contrary to those expectations, under your administration truth has been treated like a prostitute, to use the words of Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation.
It is impossible to count all of the lies that you and your administration have told to the media. Some of the game-changing lies, particularly those told by you, are damaging and contradictory to the moral leadership that you professed to be following. Most notably, you maintained for months that Eritrean soldiers were not involved in Tigray, you initially said that no civilian in Tigray had been injured in the war, you recently argued that there is no hunger in Tigray and you claimed to have begged opposition parties to participate in the national election, but that they refused.
Dear PM Abiy, those statements alone proved to me how much your leadership fails in operating based on truth. Such statements have led me to believe that you do not care if your statements are true, so long as your lies manage to keep the public quiet.
This treatment of truth undermines the definition of truth as a liberator (John 8:32) and as the embodiment of Christ himself (John 14:6). While truth liberates, lies cripple a society. The Devil is the father of lies and Christ is the embodiment of truth. Although the pressures of your profession often understandably force you to lie, you should not make truth a cheap commodity to be treated as you like.
Lies never liberate anyone. Lies will not bring lasting peace and stability to Ethiopia. If you think they will, and keep on lying, you will make your ending worse than it could be. The best thing to do, then, is to be truthful and follow your religious convictions. Because of the failure of your moral leadership, many have lost their lives and many are paying a huge price. That is why I am asking you to resign.
In conclusion, this is a letter from your brother in Christ, who found his moral imperatives to be stronger than what the media is saying. Churches and mosques or your cabinet will not tell you about your failings of moral leadership. While the job of a theologian is to be a prophetic voice, as I am doing here, it is up to politicians to find paths out of this conflict. Thus, the best thing you can do at this time is to step down gracefully and, in doing so, leave space for a ceasefire and national dialogue.