News Analysis

What Catholics can learn from Ethiopia’s Pentecostal PM

Abiy Ahmed with the Pope last month

At the end of last month, Pope Francis welcomed Africa’s most-watched young leader to the Vatican. Abiy Ahmed, prime minister of Ethiopia, aged only 42, took office just under a year ago. He has already initiated a dramatic programme of economic and political reforms. Most European politicians could only dream of his current popularity. How many of them have their faces printed on their cheering fans’ Technicoloured T-shirts? “Abiymania” has been sweeping Ethiopia.

The most notable achievement of Abiy’s first few months in office was something Francis has also earnestly desired. Over the last 20 years, the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia has caused thousands of casualties. Soon after taking office, Abiy at last implemented a peace deal. So far the peace is holding.

About half of Ethiopia’s 100 million inhabitants belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. By contrast, Catholics number less than one per cent of the population. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church here receives much respect, partly because of the way it serves the poor. It runs hundreds of schools, admitting pupils from all walks of life and religions. Its health centres operate even in remote areas. As the Catholic Church sits at one remove from some of the main religious fault-lines that run through the country, it sometimes finds itself called upon to help make the peace. It set an example in the most difficult years of the Eritrean conflict: the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ethiopia and Eritrea continued to meet and to talk, a small token that another way of co-existing might be possible.

Abiy’s reforms in the country have kept up a dizzying pace. He has started to loosen controls on the state-run economy, pledged free and fair elections, and wooed disaffected members of the large diaspora. He has even healed a 27-year-old dispute between rival patriarchs in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Abiy himself, like many leading government figures, is a Pentecostal or “Pentay” as they are called. Pentays are on a roll in Ethiopia. In 1960, this brand of Christianity represented just one per cent of the Ethiopian population. Today they make up more than a fifth of all Ethiopians.

What explains this surge? “The beguiling feature of Pentecostalism,” says Andrew DeCort of the Institute for Christianity and the Common Good, “is the idea that nothing is impossible.” For many Africans, desperate for progress, Pentecostalism represents modernity and the possibility of making change happen.

It is hard not to see a connection between this and the words and actions of the dynamic new prime minister. His faith animates his politics. Even when he speaks he sounds just a little like a preacher.

The new generation of “Pentays” give the impression of facing the modern world head-on and being up for the challenge. You may disagree with their theology, but there’s something here that Catholics can learn from.