The Religious Zealot Presiding Over Ethiopia’s Five Conflicts

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sees himself as divinely ordained to lead his nation to greatness, even as he plunges it into violence

The Religious Zealot Presiding Over Ethiopia’s Five Conflicts
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses the public during the farewell ceremony of the late Abune Merkorios, fourth patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 12, 2022. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)

He’s the Nobel Peace Prize winner who launched a genocidal war in his own country; the micromanagerial bureaucrat who believes in the transformative power of entrepreneurship; the consummate global leader who promotes “African solutions for African problems”; and the son of a Muslim father and Orthodox Christian mother who converted to Pentecostalism.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, the 46-year-old leader of the world’s 12th-largest nation, is equally at home in military fatigues as he is addressing the United Nations in designer suits. With a wink and a nudge, he projects himself as the embodiment of the modern Ethiopian man — the person who can fulfill the national prophecy to restore Ethiopia to a glorious and prosperous future.

Yet one man’s destiny for greatness is another’s messiah complex — a phrase increasingly used to describe the premier who, as many people put it to me, sees himself as the rightful ruler of a country and can barely contain his ambitions.

In his inaugural address as prime minister in 2018, Abiy explained that it wasn’t simply the nation’s destiny he was interested in but also his own. When he was 7 years old, his religious mother prophesied, in a “deep and elaborately sophisticated vision,” that her son would become the divinely anointed “seventh king” to unite and rule over Ethiopia. This spoke to both national folklore and biblical authority, as the number seven, from the books of Genesis through to Revelation, represents completeness.

Abiy was invoking the national mythology of “Ethiopian exceptionalism.” Believed to be the origin of the first humans, Ethiopia also has a rich religious history that dates back to the biblical King Solomon. Its geography and culture mean it is neither Arab nor Middle Eastern, but nor is it exactly African either: evidenced, as any Ethiopian will tell you, by the fact it’s one of few countries on the continent never to be colonized by the Europeans. This double helix of history and faith means that Ethiopians are God’s chosen people, uniquely destined for greatness following a period of considerable hardship.

Ethiopians have spent the previous five decades navigating absolute monarchy, hard-line communist rule, ethno-nationalist divisions, messy democracy, civil wars, famines and economic crises. God is, quite understandably, the one thing in which most people have faith: Some 98% of the population say religion is “very important” to them. Yet Abiy’s faith is a radical departure from tradition.

I have spent the past few years observing the rise of Pentecostal Christianity around the world and, particularly, the relationship between this relatively new brand of faith and politics. Abiy’s Pentecostalism is a fascinating case in harnessing the political power of the Holy Spirit. This is especially so, given that, unlike former presidents Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Donald Trump of the U.S. and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, all of whom relied on Pentecostal support as key elements for their power bases, Abiy is a true believer.

In that 2018 address, Abiy told the nation, “It is incumbent upon us to work hard, to be diligent and to wage a relentless struggle.” This seemingly innocuous line was an introduction to his faith-based prosperity economics, which has come to mark his leadership and foreshadowed the bloody civil war that was to come.

From the outset, while Abiy inspired optimism, his background caused some disquiet. Not only is he a Pentecostal, but his ethnicity — hailing from the Oromo majority, who have never held power — meant he was always going to struggle for legitimacy, especially in a place that has long prized regional autonomy. His best shot would be to lean on mystical authority as he consolidated power.

A man characterized as “obsessed with legacy,” as one senior foreign diplomat told the Financial Times, Abiy’s premiership has been defined by sharing the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Barely a year later, it became clear the two had negotiated peace in order to wage war against Tigray, the fiercely independent region sandwiched between the two countries.

“War is the epitome of hell,” Abiy said in his Oslo acceptance speech. Less than a year later, he had Tigrayans wondering if his aim was to send them there. Described by the Tigrayan anthropologist Mitiku Gabrehiwot as breaking “every law of man and God,” it is estimated that 10% of the Tigray population, or 600,000 people, have died during the two-year conflict. A peace agreement reached last November might offer hope, though many fear the deal is more about Abiy’s international standing than ending the suffering of millions.

Tigrayans make up only 6% of Ethiopia’s population, yet a coalition led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) ruled the country after toppling the communist Derg regime in 1991. Until Abiy came to power in 2018 following a wave of Oromo protests, the people from the central region surrounding the capital of Addis Ababa, who account for over one third of the population, had never held power.

Abiy set about reshaping the country in his own image, beginning with the formation of a new political movement, the Prosperity Party. The TPLF saw the writing on the wall and, after three decades in power, decided that, if they couldn’t rule the country, they would at least ensure the country didn’t rule them. Tigray held its own elections, which Addis Ababa refused to recognize as legitimate. Then, in November 2020, after mounting tensions culminated in a TPLF attack on a national military base, Abiy launched a military offensive in the region — with significant military assistance from Eritrea, his so-called partner in peace.

According to Habil Jörg Haustein, a scholar of Ethiopian Christianity, the Pentecostal interpretation of the northern conflict is important. “There’s a sense that God is the author of history. We’ve been through very tough times, and the war in Tigray may be another hardship that we need to endure before Jesus comes back,” he said.

Abiy isn’t careering toward the End Times but indulging in Pentecostal narratives about cosmic battles of good and evil that are neatly cast in the context of the country’s ethnic and regional divisions. At the height of the war, as TPLF forces threatened to advance on the capital, Abiy gave an incendiary speech, stating, “We will bury this enemy with our blood and bones and make the glory of Ethiopia high again.” This was, he said, the “final fight to save Ethiopia” from internal and external enemies, whom he claimed sought to “build their strength on the weakness of Ethiopia.”

The author of two philosophical tracts on the concept of “medemer,” which translates as “synergy,” Abiy described “the need for someone to step in” to sort out religious conflict (and left no doubt that he was the man to do it.) Alex de Waal, a researcher who covers the Horn of Africa, calls these works “a mix of development jargon and self-help business manual speak.”

The origins of the Tigrayan war may be ethnic, political and territorial, but the recent conflict was justified by Abiy’s personal adviser, the Orthodox preacher Daniel Kibret, in an inflammatory speech, in which he alluded to Tigrayans as “weeds” and “demons.” Later clarifying that he was referring to the TPLF, Kibret said in the speech that “Satan was the last of his kind. And they must also remain the last of their kind.” He went on to call for the organization to be “removed from their structural places, from people’s conscience and human mind … erased and disappeared from historical records.”

With such firebrand rhetoric, it’s little wonder that people from across ethnic and religious divides are openly discussing Abiy as having a messiah complex. Destiny continues to be pushed a little further down the road, as more enemies must be overcome. The “relentless struggle” he invoked in his first address is indeed coming to fruition.

The Tigrayan war rightly attracts all the headlines, but it is only one of five ongoing conflicts involving Ethiopia. In the south, the Oromo Liberation Army is fighting the government (which is receiving help from the Amhara militias), with the rebels taking towns not far from the capital as last year’s Tigrayan peace negotiations were taking place. The southwestern Somali state is dealing with an al-Shabab militant insurgency. The Sudanese military has also made incursions into the contested al-Fashaga region, a fertile area of farmland historically disputed by both Sudan and Egypt. If that weren’t enough, rebels from the Issa tribe are fighting the government in Afar state, with reported unofficial assistance from Djibouti. It is a fractious and violent mess, in other words, presided over by a would-be king who talks up peace but never hesitates to send in the troops.

Allowing any of these insurgencies to succeed — which would, in effect, allow one of Ethiopia’s states to secede — risks a bloody series of further conflicts that bring to mind comparisons, even if cliched, with the fall of the former Yugoslavia. The Oromo, along with some 80 or so ethnic groups, have traditionally been ruled by the highland Amharans and Tigrayans, who are custodians of many important sites for both Muslims and Orthodox Christians, including claims to hold the Ark of the Covenant and a portion of the cross on which Jesus was crucified.

One of the world’s oldest Christian nations, Ethiopia boasts a substantial Islamic heritage too. This is not the kind of place, then, that you’d expect Pentecostalism — a faith that preaches following gut instinct over biblical doctrine — to thrive. Yet, outside the Orthodox strongholds in the north, this transformative religion is taking hold.

Arriving in the country in the 1950s with Scandinavian missionaries, Pentecostalism has made significant inroads in a country with a rich religious history. Ethiopia is now split almost evenly between Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Pentecostals. The latter have grown remarkably in number since the arrival of the first missionaries, rising to over 27% of the population by 2019.

With this new Christian movement comes a set of political, as well as spiritual, beliefs. A branch of evangelical Christianity, Pentecostalism is known for its focus on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Among the Derg regime’s first moves after coming to power was to assassinate the Orthodox Patriarch Abune Theophilos in 1979 and replace him with a more compliant leader. Christianity was another tool of the state and young people seeking an outlet found that Pentecostalism was a means of spiritual and political rebellion. Meeting in underground churches based out of people’s homes, they forged strong communities. After all, believers who risk their lives to congregate in secret tend to bond in ways more powerful than what domesticated religious orders can offer.

In time, they didn’t simply practice in private but also publicly offered a few points of meaningful resistance to the regime. When Pentecostal youths were called on to chant socialist slogans like “the revolution above all!” they refused, maintaining that nothing could be placed above God.

Following the overthrow of the Derg regime in 1991, Pentecostals found their number had grown significantly. True believers not only felt rewarded but also truly blessed; this was a sign that there was indeed a power higher than any dictator or military rule.

The Tigrayan leader Meles Zenawi then took charge of the country until his death in 2012. Tumultuous times have a habit of stoking ethno-nationalism, but this didn’t necessarily come easily to Ethiopians. Many hail from mixed heritage and faiths, like Abiy himself, who claims to be entirely Oromo but has long faced rumors that his devout Orthodox mother was in fact Amharan.

The country’s first Pentecostal prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, took over from Zenawi in 2012. An unlikely leader whose Oneness sect rejects the concept of the Holy Trinity, his faith was seen as something of an anomaly. It was his proposed land reforms that sparked mass protests from Ethiopia’s Oromo majority, which escalated into broader issues of human rights and economic justice. This in turn sparked Amharan protests against the disproportionate economic and political power of the TPLF, the dominant party in the ruling coalition that Zenawi had elevated.

Political leaders realized that putting an Oromo in charge was the best bet to quell the unrest, and Abiy swiftly ousted rivals to become prime minister. Among his first acts in charge were freeing dissidents, promising reforms and cracking down on corruption, quashing unpopular police-state laws and making peace overtures to Eritrea. He made sure to meet with leaders of all faiths and, pointedly, entertained Pentecostals last. Ethiopians, by and large, accepted his message that anything was possible and the best was yet to come. God was on his side and, therefore, the country’s — everyone just needed to roll up their sleeves and maintain the good vibes.

Israel Dansa, who bears the title of Apostle of the Church of the Miracle of Jesus, proclaimed that Abiy was a prophet ordained by God Himself. Abiy’s predecessor Desalegn stated that Abiy had been chosen by God to transition Ethiopia to a democracy, which had not only been demanded by the people but also planned from on high. The late Gen. Asaminew Tsige, accused of doing the dirty work in an attempted coup against the Amhara regional government, likened Abiy to Moses liberating Israel.

Emboldened by approval from political and religious leaders alike, Abiy established the Ethiopian Gospel Believers Churches’ Council, which sought to bring Evangelicals under one umbrella, and appointed political allies to preside over it. Far from the first world leader to claim God was in his corner, Abiy’s attempt to bring his religion into his increasingly large portfolio of political interests was a step too far. In 2021, the Pentecostal theologian Naol Befkadu wrote an open letter to the prime minister decrying the “creation of a state religion” and labeling Abiy “morally unfit” to lead a nation of 110 million people. Taking the prime minister to task for the lies and brutality in the Tigrayan war, he criticized Abiy’s frequent refrain that “truth is by our side.”

Abiy, however, appears undeterred, calling on the imported Pentecostal doctrine of the “Seven Mountains Mandate,” which says that believers must rule over the seven mountains of society, which include family, religion, media, government, education, military and business. Dominion theology, in other words, is a radical departure from the Orthodox Christianity of most of its converts.

Yet, in spite of Abiy’s political posturing, it’s in the cultural sphere where Pentecostals are making their greatest inroads. Viewed suspiciously for being teetotal but noted for their work ethic and extreme optimism, one could be forgiven for thinking Pentecostals were all about peace and love. But, as we’ve seen in other countries with rapid conversion to Pentecostalism, such as Nigeria and Brazil, under the doctrines of health and wealth and the promise of power in the here and now, there is an expectation that people either get on board or get out of the way.

Above all, Abiy is banking his spiritual leadership of Ethiopia on the promise of the almighty dollar. In a 2019 speech at a Pentecostal youth conference, he noted that scientists had been wrong about a coming rainy season, asking the audience to “not be a people that listens to the noise of Satan but that thinks of God’s mercy.” Placing ancient prophecy in a modern context, he said, “I tell you one thing with certainty — Ethiopia will prosper.” By 2020, he declared, “Ethiopia will be one of the top five economies in Africa. There is nothing that can stop this.”

Critics accuse him of promoting the prosperity gospel, the controversial idea that God’s favor is bestowed upon the faithful with material rewards. Another Pentecostal idea imported from the United States and related to the prosperity gospel is that preachers presume the Lord wants them to have gold watches and fancy cars. Ethiopian Pentecostals mirror their counterparts around the world and believe conversion will improve their lot in life. Accepting Jesus as their Lord and savior usually results in believers giving up vices and gaining an accountability structure. In turn, they see a clear difference in their lives after embracing the faith and become a living testimony to others.

For all Abiy’s invocations of destiny and greatness, his ultimate political program is to create an entrepreneurial culture in which Ethiopians shun international aid and go about improving themselves and their circumstances. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, he declared that “​​we are reaping our peace dividends.” If it sounds like something straight from Silicon Valley, it’s no accident. Globally, Pentecostals tend to see themselves as “disruptors” of faith, much like the tech gods see themselves as upending the old ways of doing business. Their values are about the new style of doing things: Hustle, and ye shall receive. In rural areas, converts are departing from traditional customs of sharing wealth with their community and moving to a winner-takes-all approach.

This is what really sets Pentecostals apart. They have transformed their faith from a narrative of liberation from the ills of the world to conquering all before them. And while the origins of the country’s many conflicts have deep ethnic and regional roots, Abiy’s faith, shared with tens of millions of other recent converts, is leaving its mark.

For many in the Amhara and Tigrayan regions who historically held power in the capital, this Oromo and Pentecostal leader isn’t the embodiment of the national prophecy that he wants to be but their fears of southern supremacy brought to life. The man who proclaims himself the seventh king of Ethiopia could be more like the Biblical King Ahab, the despotic seventh king of Israel.

Moving the needle as he tries to thread it, in attempting to merge his destiny with the nation’s, Abiy is reaching for the one thing his considerable power lacks: legitimacy. But, as Befkadu put it to me, “when you build charismatic leadership around a messianic understanding of religion, it is very dangerous.”

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