Ethiopia’s legacy and future in regional peacebuilding
By Sara Swetzoff
Over the past year, Ethiopia’s conflict between national forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attracted international headlines. This ongoing tragedy should be a matter of grave concern to American Muslims and everyone of conscience around the world.
Last November, Washington pulled out all non-essential embassy staff and revoked trade privileges, sparking protests in Ethiopia and the diaspora. Meanwhile, human rights advocates continually warn of urgent famine conditions in the Tigray region.
Geopolitical factors have become increasingly intense, from Egypt’s opposition to Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam to the latter’s new weapons contracts with Iran, Turkey and the UAE. Social media swirls with sweeping “hot takes” posts implying that Ethiopia is next on the regime-change list, despite Washington’s having worked closely with – and generously bankrolled – every post-communist government coalition. Ethiopia is also the West’s primary partner in its decades-long campaign against Al-Shabab and other non-state actors in the Horn of Africa.
The support only increased in 2018, when newly elected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came into office with bold plans to privatize state assets and open up the economy. It took nearly a year of war before Washington officially sanctioned the Ethiopian government, straining diplomatic relations between the two countries and spurring allegations of American interventionism.
The war in Tigray, initially a power struggle between political elites, has now become an all-out inter-ethnic conflict and existential battle to define Ethiopia. Addis Ababa classifies the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as a seditious terrorist organization, while the TPLF refers to the national government as illegitimate and genocidal. At the end of the day, civilians of all ethnic groups and religions – especially women, children, and elders – have paid the biggest price in the sustained conflict.
Seeking the Future in Our Knowledge of the Past
Yet hope remains. From the exciting day in 2018 when Mr. Abiy assumed office, Ethiopian civil society organizers have advocated national reconciliation. In many ways they predicted this war, which has exposed the state’s fragility. They also know how to fix it: implement the age-old cultural matrixes of tolerance, unity and justice that have sustained this ancient land throughout the eras.
Pan-Africanists might mention the 1896 anti-colonial victory against Italy at Adwa, or Emperor Haile Selassie’s role in preserving the fragile Organization of African States in 1964. But Muslims are more likely familiar with a much earlier example of Ethiopian peacebuilding: the Migration to Abyssinia, or the “First Hijra.”
In 7 ah (613 ce), some of the Sahaba sought asylum in the Christian Kingdom of Axum at the invitation of the Negus (king), called Al-Najashi in Arabic. A hadith relates, “If you have to migrate, migrate towards Habash” (Ibn Ishaq, “Sirat Rasulillah,” 2004).
According to “Tafsir ibn Kathir,” a second larger group joined them two years later. Numbering 117 in all, Axum now had almost three times more Muslims than Makka. Within a decade, most of them relocated to Madina, whereas others remained in the region or set sail for Southeast Asia.
One might argue that Axum’s generosity and tolerance enabled the early Muslim community to survive and grow. In Muslim traditions, Al-Najashi was not just a passive host: he wept at the Quran’s recitation, provided feasts for special events (e.g., Umm Habiba’s long-distance marriage to the Prophet [salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam]) and facilitated the migrants’ return to Arabia.
In gratitude, the Prophet declared Axum a “favored land.” Upon learning of Al-Najashi’s passing, he honored him with a Muslim funeral prayer despite his Christian faith. Today, Ethiopia is about 35% Muslim. The eastern city of Harar (“City of Saints” in Arabic) is often referred to as Islam’s fourth holiest city due to its many mosques and shrines dating to the 10th century.
CAPTION: A fourteenth century manuscript illustration by Persian painter Rashi ad-Din.The scene depicts Al-Najashi refusing the demands of a hostile Meccan delegation that traveled to Axum to apprehend the refugees.
Ethiopia and the Red Sea Region Today
Ethiopia’s current status as a host country for millions of regional refugees echoes this event. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as of June 2021 it was hosting nearly a million registered refugees and asylum-seekers, making it the third-largest host in Africa and tenth worldwide. As a reference of comparison: the US accepted zero Yemeni refugees in 2021 and only 50 during the Trump years; Ethiopia has hosted more than 3,000 Yemenis since 2016 and continually welcomes more.
Furthermore, in January 2019 Ethiopia’s Parliament passed one of the world’s most integrative refugee laws. While it has yet to be comprehensively implemented – in part due to challenges at the institutional level in the run-up to the current war – it grants refugees property rights, recognition of their degrees and certifications from their home country or previous country of residence, the right to attend school and work, freedom of movement and more expansive eligibility for asylum.
The First Hijra represents the region’s legacy of interreligious and inter-ethnic respect. This precedent, which can help resolve the current internal conflict, also speaks to how and why Ethiopia could be an anchor of sociopolitical justice for all of Africa and the Middle East: overcoming divisions to forge genuine solidarity is the only way to build grassroots power strong enough to bring about global justice. Divisions based on religion, ethnicity, or any other grouping pit people against each other and keep a region or country vulnerable to elite agendas, warmongers, and extractive foreign interests.
The Yemen War and the Ethio-Yemeni Migrant Community
Unfortunately, Yemenis are all too familiar with this equation. Over the past three years, I interviewed 50+ Yemeni refugees and Ethiopian returnees residing in Addis Ababa. The approximately 3,000 registered Yemeni refugees are part of a larger blended migrant community that includes Ethiopian nationals who repatriated with their Yemeni-citizen children, spouses, friends and relatives. Since the beginning of the war in Yemen, the International Organization for Migration has evacuated tens of thousands of Ethiopians, both recently arrived migrants heading overland for Saudi Arabia, as well as thousands of Ethiopian nationals who were longtime residents of Yemen.
CAPTION: A photo from the early Ethiopian evacuation missions during the Yemen War shows piles of suitcases, a testament to the settled lives that so many had to leave behind.
While my interviews usually started by addressing migration pathways, economic challenges and bureaucratic hurdles to accessing services, they always wandered toward opportunities for intercultural understanding and unity. Yemeni refugees mentioned Ethiopia’s hospitality and acceptance, and Ethiopian returnees spoke nostalgically about pre-war Yemen’s quiet safety and general quality of life.
Many interviewees then turned to regional and deep historical analyses: If the precarity and opportunism of war deepens fanaticism and intolerance, how can Yemen heal itself? What’s the vision for a liberated and unified Yemen, and what role might religion and culture play in it? How did the many faiths and peoples live together when Arabia was home to equal numbers of indigenous Christians, Jews and Muslims?
The two countries’ ancient special relationship extends back to the time of Prophet Sulayman and the Queen of Sheba. In fact, at the height of Axumite power, Yemen was most likely a province of the African kingdom. All of this was common knowledge to my interviewees. In one conversation with a North Yemeni refugee elder and his Ethiopian returnee wife, we might cover Najran, the Himyarites, Surat al-Fil, the First Hijra, Oromo Sufism and the 1977 Red Sea “quadripartite summit” in Taiz. Based on this rich shared history, one interviewee even recommended that Yemen seek membership in the African Union!
Nearly all interviewees who had been in Ethiopia for over a year concurred that its multifaith national identity provides a compelling model for coexistence in Yemen. Religion is already a complex and intimate vehicle for solidarity and belonging, for among the refugees and returnees are converts to both Islam and Christianity. A small group of Yemenis hosts an Arabic-language Bible study every week; some participants identify as converts, whereas others attend to better appreciate the religious beliefs of their neighbors and colleagues in Addis Ababa.
The Larger Vision for Peace
In response to the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban, organizations such as San Francisco’s Arab Resource & Organizing Center rallied around the migration justice call: “Freedom to Stay, Freedom to Move, Freedom to Return, Freedom to Resist.” For Ethiopian lawyer Abadir Ibrahim, the First Hijra exemplifies this call. He refers to Ethiopia as “the birthplace of the Hijri Model of migrant rights,” which has “deep symbolic significance” to both peoples, as evidenced by its “positive impacts on the lives of migrants on both sides of the Red Sea.”
He elaborated, “[P]acked in that history one finds discourses and values connected with justice, liberty and non-discrimination; the freedom of thought, religion, expression and association; due process rights; and the rights of refugees to a hearing and to social services. Due to their historic and symbolic significance, these were values that easily found a home in Dimtsachin Yisema, a Muslim-based grassroots human rights movement in Ethiopia that was widely supported by the North American Ethiopian Muslim community.” [Note: Islamic Horizons covered this movement in its Sept./Oct. 2018 issue.]
This interrelationship between international migrant justice and domestic civil liberties gets at the core of how the First Hijra can open our political imagination to global prospects for peace. Although “democracy” has now become a hollow word, the imperative transcends terminology: to establish universal assurances that the core interests of diverse groups are secure, regardless of electoral turnover at the national level. As one of the world’s most diverse and multilingual democratic federations, the only never-colonized African country and a leading host of refugees and asylees, Ethiopia must find a pathway to sustainable peace — for the sake of the Ethiopians, the larger Red Sea region and the world.
Sara Swetzoff is a PhD candidate in African Studies at Howard University and a Fulbright Ethiopia 2020 awardee.