Ethiopia: President Girma’s Letter: Slip of the Mind or the Tongue?

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Dec 9th, 2012
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By Teklu Abate

Since his coronation in October 2001, the President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Girma WoldeGiorgis, has been ‘playing’ at the background of the political scene. He is occasionally seen on ETV, receiving ambassadors and inaugurating the start and finish of projects. Luck has him that he was given a second term in office in October 2007. His term will technically end in October 2013.

Having this as a background, I want to focus on the president’s take of the reconciliation efforts underway between the two EOTC synods. In his letter addressed to the patriarch abroad, he clearly highlighted the need to merge the two synods through reinstating Abune Merkorios to his position in Addis. In a separate letter addressed to the acting Patriarch in Ethiopia, Abune Natanael, the president requested the synod there to make a decision to reinstate Abune Merkorios as patriarch.

But then came a big surprise; that the president forsook his letters and made it clear via VOA that he wrote the letters out of sheer pressure, emotion, and hastiness. Dubbing the letters unconstitutional, the president’s office indicated the need to write another letter. Accordingly, the letter would clarify important points, among which one that Abune Merkorios would be allowed to compete for the position.

For sure, these developments have great national ramifications which warrant further reflection. I believe the issues are too big to be forgotten easily. First, I briefly discuss how the president’s letters are unconstitutional. Second, I try to identify the motives behind writing the letters. Third, attempt is made to explain potential rationales behind renouncing the letters. Finally, I explain how the letter yet to come from the president’s office is again plainly unconstitutional.

Legal Stance

The Ethiopian constitution clearly maintains that religion and government are entirely different entities and hence one should not intervene in another’s affairs. Although he is not technically affiliated to EPRDF, the president holds the government’s highest position. His office should and could not interfere with EOTC’s internal affairs, such as the choice of patriarch. His letters addressed to the leaders of the two synods brutally breached the constitution. Although not a direct order, the letters powerfully requested the two leaders to create unity via making Abune Merkorios the next EOTC patriarch.

In fact, there will not come any stronger letter from a government official than these ones. Several EOTC believers and some media however appeared to cheer the president for his courage and positive thinking. They argued that his letters were nothing less and more than reflecting the holy wishes and beliefs of a believer to see a united synod. I also believe that the church does not need and cannot afford two synods. There was no problem if an ordinary person or a minor government official publicly expressed this sort of personal wish. Politically catastrophic was when the same wish came from the highest government office. So the president’s letters, no matter how well intentioned they were, were precisely speaking unconstitutional. If so, why the president dared to write the letters in the first place?

The Motives

According to the president’s VOA interviews, he believed that Abune Merkorios was forced to leave his office by the former PM Tamirat Layne. And he thought that bringing Abune Merkorios back to the now open position was the surest way to unite the church. This cause seems plausible and noble though purely unconstitutional. This sort of behavior of politicians must be condemned by the strongest possible terms as it invites nepotism, corruption, and inequality, and compromises national interest and well-being.

But then came the ugly justification; president Girma argued that his letters were writen out of sheer pressure (from a committee who works for reconciliation), hastiness, and emotion. To me, this is totally unconvincing, immature, emotional, and belittles the office he assumes. How could a president make as grand a decision as this one based on such grounds? The real motive of writing the two letters must be explained by the president’s personal will and belief to see EOTC united. By doing so, he wanted to erect a monument for himself on the landscape of Ethiopian history. Quest for personal belief and/or fame versus external pressure, hastiness and emotion might probably explain the president’s real motive. If this is so, why did he renounce his own letters in just no more than 24 hours?

Why Renounce?

The president indicated that his letters brought unwanted effects and complications. He did not explain the specific complications but he indicated that Abune Natanael vehemently opposed the intention, citing the independence of the church from the government. I must accept that the Abune might complain about the rude intervention and I highly appreciate that. This must be emulated by all the bishops of both synods.

One thing should be made clear though. That Abune Natanael’s criticism of Girma did not imply that he was not accepting Abune Merkorios as patriarch. In fact, the Abune has been relentlessly working toward bringing reconciliation between the synods. He even made a phone call to Abune Merkorios and invited him to enter the country and church he left behind. He opposed the president’s letter because it could leave the door open for possible future government interference. He rightly thought that an interference which appeared positive or holly for now could bring unabated and unwanted interferences in the times ahead. To me, Abune Natanael’s opposition was logical, constitutional, spiritual, and educative.

The president failed to acknowledge the other part of the equation though. Was it Abune Natanael only who opposed his move? I do not think so. As the letters were copied to key government offices, it might be that top officials were surprised and shocked by the letter for two reasons. One, the letters clearly acknowledged the fact that Abune Merkorios was forced to leave his position. The government could in no terms publicly accept this fact. Two, the letters breached the part of the constitution that preaches the independence of religion and state. To me, what forced Girma to renounce his letters was primarily the pressure he received from the top politicians. In his Friday VOA interview, Abune Natanael made it clear that the government was also against the president’s intentions. The sort of complications the president lamented actually emanated from the top echelon of the political apparatus.

Another Letter

The hilarious thing is that the president’s spokesperson indicated to VOA that the office will write another letter which among other things would indicate the fact that Abune Merkorios has the right and the possibility to run for the patriarchate office. That means, the office is to remind Abune Merkorios that he could nominate himself as one of the candidates who bid for the patriarchate office. The original letters were renounced mainly by resorting to the constitution. Is it constitutional for a government office to tell an Abune the possibility to run for the church’s highest post? If inviting Abune Merkorios to take the office is unconstitutional, how about nominating him for the competition? To me, this is as bad as, or even much worse, than inviting Abune Merkorios to re-assume the position without competition.

Concluding Remarks

EOTC is a big institution having its own rules and rigors when it comes to the choice and management of patriarchs. It has competent workforce and the moral and spiritual strength to deal with its own affairs. The division of the synod is a result of political maneuvering. It seriously challenged the church for the last twenty years. Although unconstitutional, president Girma advised for unity via reinstating Abune Merkorios to his abandoned position. To me, the president talked his mind through his letters. Deep inside his head subsists the truth- to allow Abune Merkorios to take the position once and for all. But for political reasons, he finally retreated from the truth and decided to talk emotional and immature. That effectively kills his already troubled image as head of state. Had this happened elsewhere, it would have instantly called for public apology and then resignation. For EOTC, nothing is more edifying and fulfilling than creating genuine unity between the synods at any cost.
The writer can be reached for comments at teklu.abate@gmail.com.

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