Ethiopia: Out of prison, Muslim activist demands reforms

7th Jun 2018
Ethiopia: Out of prison, Muslim activist demands reforms

By Seleshi Tessema


ADDIS ABABA (AA): Moving clouds, wet winds, and the sound of the rain had darkened the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

It was 6 o’clock.

The road leading to the Betel neighborhood where Abubakr Ahmed, a high-profile Muslim rights activist preacher lives, looks like a scene of staged confusion.

Street lights go and off seemingly at random. Anxious drivers stuck in a long traffic jam honk their horns in vain.

Many shopkeepers begin closing their shops. Street vendors are also collecting their wares. Pedestrians from all walks of life rush to get home. The street is filled with loud confused noises of human beings, vehicles, and the murmuring sky.

“It’s business as usual,” said a visibly fatigued taxi driver. “It’s also Ramadan, and the day’s iftar time is approaching,” he added, referring to the meal Muslims use to break their fast at sundown.

‘Every cloud has a silver lining’

Ahmed, 44, had arrived earlier at his bright home to break the fast and perform night prayers with his family and friends.

Dates, soup, milk, fruits, and the tantalizing aroma of mouthwatering meat dishes were meticulously organized to give color and order to the iftar table.

However, the past interfered in the calm and bright Ramadan evening of Ahmed and his colleagues.

In 2012, Ahmed and 17 members of the Ethiopian Muslim Arbitration Committee, which was formed to find solutions for protests that had garnered the support of the community, were thrown into jail.

After a nearly three-year trial, they were sentenced to prison terms ranging from seven to 22 years on charges of terrorism, incitement, and an attempt to establish an Islamic state.

After serving four years of his 22-year jail term, two years ago Ahmed, a father of seven, was pardoned.

In May, the reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed pardoned 20 other Muslim activists who were serving lengthy jail terms on charges of campaigning for the release of Ahmed and his colleagues and other terrorism-related offences.

“This is my second Ramadan free, and our friends are enjoying their first holy month of fasting, prayer, and performing righteous works,” Ahmed said, adding that Ramadan in prison was tough but also reinvigorating.

“We used to organize iftar for all Muslim prisoners, but we weren’t allowed to perform other religious duties of the month,” he lamented. “We committed no crime, and we endured intimidation and harassment which emboldened our just cause.”

He added: “In Ramadan we pray for peace, justice, equality, and unity for our community and our country as a whole.”

Historically proud, unified, growing community

The predominantly Sunni Ethiopian Muslims pride themselves on living in the land known in Islamic history as the “Haven of the First Migration or Hegira/Hijra” for providing freedom and sanctuary for the persecuted companions and relatives of the Prophet Muhammad.

Ziad Sahl, who lives in the eastern town of Kobo and assists rural sheiks who teach Islam, is one of them. He said that Ethiopian Muslims are no longer marginalized but strictly adhere to the culture of respect and peaceful engagement.

“This is the lesson we draw from the First Hegira, and people are not happy with imported radical ideas,” he said. “The elders and sheiks teach tolerance during Ramadan.”

According to the World Bank, the Horn of Africa country is the continent’s second-most populous nation, with a population of 102.5 million (2016), growing 2.5 percent every year.

The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council states that the country’s Muslim population has grown to 33 percent of country’s estimated 100 million population.

Some Ethiopian Muslims hold political office in the Christian majority country. The deputy prime minister, Demeke Mekonen, and the speakers of the federal parliament and the House of Federation are Muslims and women, among others. The regional states of Harari, Afar, Ethiopian Somali, and Beni Shangul are majority Muslims, and the administration reflects the demographic realities.

‘We will continue our peaceful struggle’

But, according to Abubakr and the released activists, Ethiopian Muslims are not near enough to realizing the freedom they deserve.

“We speak in one voice that our community shall have well-organized interest free-banking. Economic and social empowerment, fixing the problems of the educational system, and exercising our right to elect leaders are still on our agenda.”

He went on: “Moreover, the government has to stop meddling in our affairs, and the Islamic council and other Islamic institutions should be restructured. And we will continue with our peaceful struggle.”

To this end, Ahmed said he would be ready to sit down for a constructive dialogue with authorities.

“Currently a wind of democratic change is blowing over Ethiopia, and we believe that our issues could be fixed with a desired total societal change.”

As the iftar culminated in a sober religious discussion, Anadolu Agency asked Ahmed if he would forgive his jailers.

“Of course, Ramadan is all about forgetting pains and forgiving,” he replied. “But this is no guarantee that we will continue to put up with unjust activities.”

[Archive Photo: Eid al-Fitr prayers in Addis Ababa on 28 July, 2014. Photographer: Minasse Wondimu/AA]

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