• 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 2020: Ethiopia

The Indigenous Peoples of Ethiopia make up a significant proportion of the country’s estimated population of 105 million.

Around 15% are pastoralists and sedentary farmers who live across the country but particularly in the Ethiopian lowlands, which constitute some 61% of the country’s total landmass. There are also several hunter-gatherer communities, including the forest-dwelling Majang (Majengir) and Anuak peoples, 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 that, in recent years, has been under 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 villagisation has seen many pastoralist communities and smallscale farmers moved off their traditional farming and 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 it 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. Negative impact of development policies and projects

In recent years, the Indigenous Peoples of Ethiopia have come under intense pressure from the government’s large-scale commercial agricultural investment policy, the construction of irrigation dams, and the ongoing villagisation programme. All of these have led to widespread land dispossession and land grabbing. Another Ethiopian government policy that targets Indigenous Peoples in the Lower Omo Valley is the government’s disarmament policy, which has substantial adverse effects on the culture, identity and autonomy of Indigenous Peoples in this area.

The negative impact of these policies and “development” projects is now well-established and, for the last few decades, rights groups, academics, researchers and the media have been documenting1 the scale of these policies’ impact on pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities their livelihoods, food security and sovereignty, the environment and human security in the remote regions of Gambela, Omo Valley and Benishangul-Gumuz. The affected Indigenous groups who inhabit these regions, situated near Ethiopia’s international borders with South Sudan, Kenya and Sudan, are largely dependent on forests, land and water for their survival and, as Claudia J. Carr puts it, the encroachment onto their territories amounts to a death knell.2 For instance, in the Lower Omo Valley, the government “development” projects involving irrigation dams have resulted in a diverted water flow and reduced water volume due to the irrigation-based cultivation of crops that consume large amounts of water. This has affected Indigenous Peoples’ livelihoods and resulted in a reduction in fish stocks and grazing land.

Political developments

The sudden resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn, the former Ethiopian Prime Minister, in 2018, cleared the way for political and legal reforms3 led by Abiy Ahmed, a former Oromia regional state deputy governor, member of the Ethiopian National Intelligent Agency (ENSA) and elected member of parliament and EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) coalition member. The new Prime Minister pledged to build trust amongst Ethiopia’s diverse communities, transform what was seen as Ethiopia’s broken political spirit and end widespread human rights abuses, some of which have been said to amount to genocide and ethnic cleansing.4 This transformation was seen to be an important step in building the institutions necessary to create a political culture based upon tolerance, democracy and rule of law – and it was hoped to minimise the suffering of marginalised and deprived Indigenous Peoples. In reality, however, this vaunted political reform, which started in 2018 and continues to date, has suffered some setbacks and challenges. Ethnic tensions continued in 2019 and there have been violent ethnic conflicts plus an attempted coup in Amhara regional state that killed the chief of staff and at least three senior officials, dominating national and international news headlines.

Human rights violations

Ethnic tensions and violent conflicts have taken place nationwide, involving major or minor groups across the country, and this has also had a significant impact on Indigenous Peoples. In April 2019, Amhara national extremists were involved in the rape and torture of members of the Gumuz Indigenous community,5 resulting in at least 250 fatalities. Homes were burnt to the ground, and many people were displaced. In addition, around the border areas between Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia regional states, deadly conflicts erupted involving the Oromo and Gumuz communities that resulted in loss of life, displacement and the re-awakening of the racial divide between highlander and lowlanders.6

Similarly, the Bodi, Mursi and Suri7 Indigenous communities in the Lower Omo Valley were victims of a campaign of murder, torture, rape and displacement, orchestrated by Ethiopian state security agents including the army, federal and local police.8 The Bodi, for instance, claim that in October 2019, at least 40 community members lost their lives due to the government disarmament policy.9

There has not been an independent body set up to investigate the atrocities committed in relation to the violent ethnic conflicts involving Indigenous Peoples in Ethiopia. Neither the Ethiopian national media nor international news outlets have reported in any consistent manner on the unprecedented targeting of Indigenous communities by national extremists and state security agents, in particular in the Lower Omo Valley and Benishangul-Gumuz regions. And neither the government nor international donors have paid attention to the pleas of Ethiopia’s Indigenous Peoples.

Disarmament and human rights abuses in the Lower Omo Valley

In 2019, Ethiopian security agents the army, federal police and militias embarked on a policy of disarmament targeting the Bodi, Mursi and Suri Indigenous pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities. Their homelands in the Lower Omo Valley have been targeted by Ethiopia’s numerous projects, including sugarcane plantation projects over hundreds of thousands of hectares of land and irrigation dam projects, and it is claimed that land has been grabbed from Indigenous communities without appropriate legal redress, including without their Free, Prior and Informed Consent.10

According to the state authorities, the disarmament policy and actions were initiated for reasons of state security and in order to protect “development” institutions such as the sugarcane plantations and irrigation dams in these remote areas.11

However, the use of security agents to force pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities into handing over light machine guns by way of indiscriminate arrests and detentions, harassment, murder and torture marks a vivid return to the culture of impunity that existed in the past, despite the political reform that many have hailed as the correct path to democratic governance.

In November 2019, Concerned Scholars for Ethiopia (CSE) published a memo calling on the government to investigate the atrocities committed by state security agents.12 Similarly, the Oakland Institute issued a statement on the human rights abuses committed by state security agents against Bodi, Mursi and Suri Indigenous communities in the Lower Omo Valley.13 The latest Oakland Institute statement echoes the conclusions of that report.14 Despite these calls and damning evidence of human rights violations committed during the disarmament process, however, the government has continued to pursue the violent disarmament policy that authorities argue serves Ethiopian security interests.15 The Ethiopian Prime Minister seems to be ignoring his duty to protect those pastoralist and agro-pastoralist Indigenous communities, who are often left to their own devices as the pace of insecurity increases.

Land grabs

The political reforms that started in 2018, which ended 27 years of state brutality and tyranny, provided much needed political space for those Indigenous communities that were the victims of land grabbing caused by the Ethiopian state’s various development policies, including the villagisation programme, land investment policies, the above-described irrigation policies, etc. These policies were responsible for displacement and the denial of communities’ access to land and water resources, as well as for threatening local communities’ livelihoods and the natural environment. Yet the new regime remains silent and lacks policy direction on rural land administration and land investment policy.

The only sitting woman president on the African continent, President Shale Work Zewde of Ethiopia alluded to the government’s land investment policy direction in her statement in October 2019 to the Ethiopian parliament. According to President Sahle-Work Zewde, the Ethiopian lowland is endowed with vast tracts of land vital for irrigation purposes that would improve the food security needs of a country that is chronically food insecure and the victim of drought and famine. Such political remarks by powerful and senior political leaders indicate the uncertainties awaiting Indigenous Peoples in the lowland regions. These areas have in the past paid a high prize in terms of social and economic cost due to failed government land investment policies and the associated villagisation programmes. For these territories, genuine political reform is crucial in order to reverse the negative impacts of such social engineering projects.

Proclamation on integration of refugees – a durable solution?

Ethiopia has a long history of hosting/accommodating refugees, mainly from South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea. The refugee population in Ethiopia currently stands at the staggering figure of around 1,000,000, of which 53% are South Sudanese and located in the remote Gambela region.16 In February 2019, the Ethiopian parliament adopted a controversial Refugee Integration Proclamation17 aimed at solving the refugee crisis in a country with a high youth unemployment rate, international financial and food aid dependency18 and ethnic tensions. This Proclamation was objected to by a Gambela member of parliament who argued that the host communities had not been consulted and that it thus contravened the international principle of obtaining the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of those affected.

With a long history of violent conflicts involving the Anuak Indigenous people and Nuer refugees, the Gambela region is far from an ideal location to implement the Ethiopian refugee Proclamation. This region, which has for more than six decades seen the impact of a large-scale influx of refugees (impacts in terms of threats to human security, displacement and environmental degradation), provides little in the way of “durable” solutions. However, the Ethiopian authorities are pushing very hard to implement the Proclamation despite insufficient support from Indigenous communities either in Ethiopia or abroad. In December 2019, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, hosted a high-level global conference on refugees19 attended by 20 Ethiopian delegates and led by Deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonnen Hassen and Minister of Peace, Muferihat Kamil Ahmed. At this conference, the Ethiopian “progressive” refugee policy was presented.

The above reality and context led to the Anuak organisation, Anywaa Survival,20 expressing concerns about the Ethiopian Refugee Integration Proclamation’s implementation in the Gambela region at the 65th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights held in Banjul, The Gambia. This session, which had the theme of the “Year of Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Towards Durable Solutions to Forced Displacement in Africa”, marked the 50th anniversary of the OAU Convention on Refugees and the 10th anniversary of the African Union’s Convention for the Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons (Kampala Convention on IDPs).21

Outlook for 2020

Although the Ethiopian government continues to remain silent in terms of substantive legal, policy and political issues pertinent to Indigenous societies, the recent political reform offers room for political dialogue and for the participation of Indigenous people in decision-making. Of particular importance is the new legal system governing civil society, which opens up space for civil society organisations to be established and operate freely. Since the opening up of this space, there have been initiatives from civil society organisations, including Anywaa Surviv al Organisation, to establish a strong Indigenous Peoples’ movement through which to continue engaging with the authorities and urging them to develop the necessary legal mechanisms to protect the fundamental rights of Indigenous Peoples in Ethiopia and to ratify and implement regional and international human rights instruments. More specifically, the Ethiopian authorities must engage in ratifying and adopting key international legal documents, including ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is also important to work towards a national legal instrument on Indigenous Peoples’ rights, in collaboration with key stakeholders: Indigenous community leaders, organisations and relevant government authorities. Such partnerships are not only important for promoting and protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples but are also a building block for sustainable and inclusive development in Ethiopia.


Notes and references

1.         Report from Anywaa Survival Organisation. “It’s time to end land grabs and establish food sovereignty in Gambela”. May 2018: https://www.anywaasurvival. org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/aso_report_may_2018.pdf

2.         Carr, Claudia. Human Rights Violations and the Policy Crossroads. Chapter from River Basin Development and Human Rights in Eastern Africa A Policy Crossroads (p.191-216). 2017: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312429171_Human_Rights_Violations_and_the_Policy_Crossroads

3.         The release of political prisoners and journalists, dropping of alleged terrorism charges, repeal of controversial counter-terrorism, and civil society and charity laws, and the arrest of high level officials suspected of human rights abuses and corruption.

4.         The McGill Report, “On a Bloody Saturday, Ethiopia Chose Genocide”. 2004: http://www.mcgillreport.org/genocide.htm

5.         They are Indigenous community belonging to the Benishangul-Gumuz region.

6.         Members of lowland communities that have no part in the conflicts were targeted just because they resemble the Gumuz communities.

7.         Pastoralist and agro-pastoralist Indigenous communities of the Lower Omo Valley.

8.         Concerned Scholars Ethiopia (CSE). “Memo on violence in South Omo areas, SNNPRS, Ethiopia (October 2019): a call for preventive action and rule of law”. 25 October 2019: https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/concerned- scholars-for-ethiopia-issue-urgent-call-for-action-to-end-violence-in- south-omo-zone?fbclid=IwAR1k9ExJuroDdVPDsKszT6vUQAqglhtCcrFaswj 3NpHpQSiWYmpRt3ufpME

9.         The disarmament policy was targeting pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities in the Lower Omo Valley. The government claims it was protecting investment interests in the area. However, because of the cattle raiding and constant insecurity from neighbouring tribes, the Indigenous communities in the lowland region of the Lower Omo Valley are protecting their resources using light weapons that the government is removing from them

10.       “State projects leave tens of thousands of lives in the balance in Ethiopia – study”. The Guardian, 14 June 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/global- development/2019/jun/13/state-projects-leave-tens-of-thousands-of-lives-in- the-balance-in-ethiopia-study

11.       Corey Boulet, Robbie “‘Killing without any reason’: Deaths in rural Ethiopia spark outcry”. Mail & Guardian Online, 17 October 2019: https://mg.co.za/article/2019- 10-17-00-killing-without-any-reason-deaths-in-rural-ethiopia-spark-outcry/

12.       Op. Cit. (8)

13.       “Massacres in Lower Omo, Ethiopia, Call for Urgent Action by the Nobel Laureate PM Abiy Ahmed”. Oakland Institute, 30 October 2019: https://www. oaklandinstitute.org/massacres-atrocities-lower-omo-region-ethiopia-call- urgent-action-nobel-laureate-abiy-ahmed

14.       Ibid.

15. Op. Cit. (11)

16.      United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) “Ethiopia 2019-2020 Country Refugee Response Plan”. Accessed 17 February 2020: http://reporting. unhcr.org/node/21971

17.      National Legislative Bodies/National Authorities, Ethiopia: Proclamation No. 1110/2019, 27 February 2019: https://www.refworld.org/docid/44e04ed14.html

18.      Food insecure country with at least 3 million people in need of food aid and financial support from donors.

19.      For more information, see: https://www.unhcr.org/uk/global-refugee-forum. html

20.      For more information, see: https://www.anywaasurvival.org/

21. African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). Statement on the occasion of African Human Rights Day 2019. 22 October 2019: https://www. achpr.org/news/viewdetail?id=204


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.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



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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