Christian Ethiopia Versus the African Taliban: The Role of Religion in African Conflict

In his excellent book, The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins predicts that due to the growth of Islam and Christianity on the African continent, armed conflict with religious overtones will continue to increase there. He also predicts that the United States will be drawn into such conflict due to its interests in the region and its continued Christian orientation. Hard to find headlines (at least in the US) are bearing out a portion of Prof. Jenkins predictions.

First, though, a little geographic and demographic background. North Africa, with nations such as Egypt, Algeria, and Libya, is predominantly if not overwhelmingly, Muslim. South Africa, with such nations as the Republic of South Africa, Botswania, and Namibia, is predominantly if not overwhelmingly, Christian. Central Africa is full of countries with mixed religious beliefs or predominant Christian and Muslim nations with significant religious minority groups present. With the growth of Islamic radicalism, tensions in Central Africa are increasing.

Somalia, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, has been a shambles for a long time now. Most Americans remember it for the events recounted in Black Hawk Down, where U.S. Rangers and Delta Force were drawn into a bloody battle in the streets of Mogadishu, the capital city. Although a Transitional Government was formed and recognized by many of Somalia's neighbors, the nation was coming more and more under the control of the Islamic Courts, an African version of the Taliban. In the past few months, the Islamic Courts pushed the Transitional Government out of Mogadishu and back to its last bases along the Ethiopian border.

Rather than see Somalia come under the rule of the Islamic Courts, Ethiopia decided to intervene. Although most Americans remember Ethiopia as a famine plagued land, it actually is a regional power with a relatively well-trained and funded military. Ethiopia is also predominantly a Christian nation, with a long-Christian history. In fact, Ethiopia was the second nation -- following Armenia -- to officially adopt the Christian faith (in the mid-300s). However, Ethiopia is home to a significant minority Islamic population and is concerned about how the Islamic Courts might interfere in its affairs.

In late December, Ethopia -- working with the Transitional Government there -- invaded Somlia, pushing the Islamic Courts back from the border and recently driving them out of Mogadishu. (Some good background to the conflict can be found, here). Rather than take the city itself, Ethopia cleared the way for the Transitional Government to reenter the city and assert control. Recently, the Prime Minister of Somalia returned to Mogadishu, receiving a warm reception by the population. While some Somalis welcome the stability the Islamic Courts appeared to impose, most did not appreciate the imposition of strict Islamic law.

As for the role of the United States, in addition to the training and probable funding for Ethiopia's military, the U.S. has provided satellite and aircraft intelligence. There are U.S. special forces in the region, but I have seen nothing to indicate they are actively involved in the operation.

This kind of intervention in Africa is likely to increase. As discussed above, some of the more stable regional powers, such as Ethiopia and South Africa, are predominantly Christian. Other significant African countries, like Nigeria, are almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims. Also, many predominantly Muslim nations have significant Christian minority groups. With the growth of radical Islam, as exemplified by the Islamic Courts attempt to impose strict Islamic law, these Christian minority groups are likely to face increased persecution and, in some cases, genocide. The growth of radical Islam may also lead to increased intervention by Muslim nations in predominantly Christian nations that have Muslim populations. Due to all of these factors, the Christian nations of Africa may increasingly be faced with the kind of military intervention Ethiopia has undertaken. In most cases, given the U.S. War on Terror, the U.S. is going to find itself backing Christian nations against Muslim ones, or at least Muslim insurgencies.

Update: Two weeks from Ethopian intervention, Ethiopian and Somali government forces have cleared out the last Islamic Courts stronghold. Some Islamic Courts forces claim they will wage a guerilla conflict.


All the power stuggles we have seen in East Africa since the 1990's got underway have been the result of the power vacuum created by the end of the cold war and collapse of the Soviet Union. Islam is the logical force to fill the vacuum in that part of the world as it spread across the face of Africa since the 1980s.

The only way to slow or hault the spread of Islam in Arica is to raise the level of socio economic conditions, and thus the education level.Islam in the 1980's tended to harbor a benevolent face, seeking to replace the empowerment fo the masses promised by communism, with charity instincts offered in the Koran. In the 1990's the Wahaba influnce began to change the tone of this Islamictidal wave with a sense of strict force, control, we will make you be good; reminicient of some types of American Christianity, but with more guns.

The spread of this force is too storng and it has too much appeal to starving people to stop with guns. We can only take a long term appraoch and try to change the fortunes of the people of Africa.

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