• Indigenous peoples in Ethiopia

    Indigenous peoples in Ethiopia

    Ethiopia is home to a great diversity of peoples speaking more than 80 languages. Still, Ethiopia has no legislation that protects or address the rights of indigenous peoples.
  • Diversity

    80 languages are spoken in Ethiopia
  • Rights

    No national laws protect indigenous peoples
  • Climate

    500,000 indigenous people in the Omo valley threatened by water insecurity

Indigenous World 2019: Ethiopia 2019

The indigenous peoples of Ethiopia make up a significant proportion of the country’s estimated population of 95 million. Around 15% are pastoralists and sedentary farmers who live across the country, particularly in the Ethiopian lowlands, which constitute some 61% of the country’s total landmass.

There are also a number of hunter-gathering communities, including the forest-dwelling Majang (Majengir) and Anuak people, who live in the Gambela region. Ethiopia is believed to have the largest livestock population in Africa, a significant number of which are in the hands of pastoralist communities living on land which, in recent years, has become the subject of high demand from foreign investors. Such “land grabbing” has only emphasised the already tenuous political and economic situation of indigenous peoples in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government’s policy of villagization has seen many pastoralist communities and small-scale farmers moved off their traditional grazing lands, and indigenous peoples’ access to healthcare provision and to primary and secondary education remains highly inadequate. There is no national legislation protecting them, and Ethiopia has neither ratified ILO Convention 169 nor was present during the voting on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples (UNDRIP). Political uncertainty in Ethiopia in recent years has compounded the problems that indigenous peoples face there.

Ethiopia, a long-time trusted ally of the West because of its strategic location and key role in combating terrorism, continues to maintain a culture of brutality against human rights and civil society. Recently, however, the arrest of senior security officials and military personnel involved in the mismanagement of the Metal and Engineering Corporation (METEC) was applauded by human rights groups, activists and journalists. In November 2018, a total of 66 Ethiopian intelligence officials and military personnel accused of human rights abuses and fund mismanagement were arrested and charged.1 The arrest of these officials is perhaps an effort that has arisen as a result of insecurity fatigue. Such fatigue is widely blamed on poor development policies and a lack of a democratic culture and political infrastructure.

In 2015, protestors took to the streets to oppose the continuing expansion of the capital city into surrounding areas, fearing that this could displace small-scale farmers and destroy livelihoods. The country plunged into chaos as a result, forcing the country’s Prime Minister to resign in February 2018 to make way for political reform, to end endemic corruption and widespread human rights abuses, and to avoid the path of state disintegration.

In early 2018, Ethiopia experienced a significant political transformation towards democracy and better governance, while also maintaining its course to become a middle-income country by 2025. Most importantly, for the first time, in Ethiopia’s history, the Prime Minister stepped down and handed political power over to his successor peacefully. The new Prime Minister, who is Oromo, and thus belongs to the largest, yet marginalised, ethnic group in the country, assumed power in April 2018. As part of his reform, the new Prime Minister extended an olive branch to exiled political parties, activists and journalists to participate in nation-state building and reconstruction.2

In September 2018, Addis Ababa was alight with jubilation over the return of opposition political parties and the prospect of the country embarking on a path towards peaceful political transformation. The last months of 2018 saw new waves of political instability in the country, however, in the form of ethnic conflicts and border disputes.

Despite significant changes, including efforts to ensure gender parity in the organs of the Executive branch, with a woman as Head of State, and women appointed to the positions of Supreme Court President and President of the Electoral Board Commission, the situation for other groups across the country, including indigenous peoples, remains precarious.

Violence and insecurity

As part of the Ethiopian nation-state building process, development policies such as land investment and villagization programmes have had a considerable impact on indigenous peoples and have caused violent conflicts which, in turn, have negatively affected livelihoods and food security. In many instances, military and security agents are accused of using excessive force against innocent civilians.3 In September 2018, Anuak youths in Gambella protested against widespread unemployment, nepotism and corruption, despite the political reforms in Addis Ababa. As a result, military soldiers in uniform murdered eight and wounded 22 more Anuak teenagers, echoing the violent landscape that surrounded the Anuak Genocide of 13 December 2003, when the Ethiopian military and Habesha settlers killed hundreds of Anuak boys and men across Gambella town.

The adjacent northern regional state of Benishangul-Gumuz also saw the negative effects of the country’s political reforms in the latter half of 2018 when, after the federal transition of power, a deadly attack on indigenous peoples was carried out along the south Sudan border by the Oromo Liberation Front, a separatist organisation established to champion the ideals of an exclusive independent Oromo state in an attempt to extend Oromia’s borders. The violent conflict was triggered by the killing of four Benishangul-Gumuz officials.

In this long-running regional conflict between Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia, an estimated 1.7 million indigenous peoples have been displaced, while tens of thousands more have sought refuge and protection across the border in Kenya, Sudan and South Sudan.

Large-scale development projects

Ethiopia has a long history of development projects with devastating effects on local communities. In the 1950s, the last Ethiopian monarch established a sugar and cotton project along Awash River, forcing the Afar to relocate away from their grazing areas and water points.4 Today, an Oakland Institute report suggests that sugar and cotton plantations have been factors contributing to food insecurity, competition over scarce resources, and soil erosion.5 Large-scale development interventions are a part of the nation-state building strategies aimed at ending poverty and making Ethiopia a middle-income country by 2025. So far, however, such development policies, along with large-scale interventions such as land investments, villagization programmes and irrigation dams, have displaced a large number of indigenous peoples, and are widely seen as major causes of the high rate of rural-urban migration, unemployment and increased crime rates.

Land investment

The Horn of Africa is one of the most environmentally-vulnerable and most food insecure regions in the world. Ethiopia in particular is among the most food insecure countries on the African continent. Some 18 million people are affected by food insecurity annually and rely on financial and food aid from international donors. In addition, Ethiopia has recently seen food insecurity exacerbated by climate change, which has badly affected the economic performance of the country’s steadily growing economy.6 Efforts to alleviate poverty and to uplift small-scale farmers have not materialised, and neither have efforts at rapid industrialisation based on agricultural inputs. Critics point to the country’s poor human rights record and development policies, which the government has been aggressively defending.7 A report that Karuturi Global, an Indian Conglomerate accused of land grabbing, planned to return to Gambela surfaced in April 2018.8 This new deal suggests that Karuturi Global is expected to develop 25,000 ha of land.9 Karuturi lost its license in 2017 after only utilising 7,000 of the 100,000 ha of land initially allocated to it through concessions.10

Outlook for 2019

The journey to transform Ethiopia’s broken political spirit and lack of democratic governance, via the rule of law and electoral reform, promises to provide political parties a level playing field and give stakeholders optimism and hope, a feeling compounded by the peace pact between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The indigenous peoples of the country hope to gain opportunities and push for the government to sign and comply with the international legal frameworks that aim to protect indigenous peoples in terms of their rights to lands and territories, culture, language and economic autonomy.

Notes and references

  1. See DW News at http://bit.ly/2IyAVf4
  2. See The Guardian at http://bit.ly/2IyQEL1
  3. See Human Rights Watch at http://bit.ly/2IQI3nt
  4. Ibidem
  5. Ibidem
  6. See The Oakland Institute’s “Miracle or Mirage: Manufacturing Hunger and Poverty In Ethiopia” at http://bit.ly/2IDDRqL
  7. Ibidem
  8. See Farmlandgrab.org at http://bit.ly/2IDE1hR
  9. Ibidem
  10. Ibidem

Nyikaw Ochalla is the Director of the Anywaa Survival Organisation – working on indigenous peoples’ land rights and protection of their fundamental human rights and dignity.



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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