• 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

The Indigenous World 2021: Ethiopia

The Indigenous Peoples of Ethiopia make up a significant proportion of the country’s estimated population of 110 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 Gambella 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 emphasized the already tenuous political and economic situation of Indigenous Peoples in Ethiopia. Indigenous Peoples’ access to healthcare provision and to primary and secondary education remains highly inadequate.

According to the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution, land is owned by the State and the peoples of Ethiopia and cannot be sold and exchanged. The Constitution guarantees the rights of pastoralists to free land for grazing and cultivation as well as the right not to be displaced from their own lands. The implementation of these constitutional provisions is to be determined by law. There is no national legislation protecting Indigenous Peoples, 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 and natural calamities in Ethiopia in recent years have compounded the problems that Indigenous Peoples face there.

Since the political transition of April 2018 that brought Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power, Ethiopia has been going through changes at breakneck speed. His ascent to power was mostly received with euphoria and optimism followed by a whirlwind of reforms that saw the release of political prisoners and journalists, the return of activists and political dissidents to the country, the amendment and/or repeal of draconian legislation, reform of notorious and dysfunctional government offices and institutions, and a rapprochement with neighboring Eritrea.

Paradoxically, the last three years have also witnessed the killing of high government and military officials and unprecedented levels of internal conflict and unrest. The year 2020 saw a dwindling of the political space in the country with the detention of political opposition figures and journalists, open disregard for the rule of law by some state agents, continued turmoil and the break-out of conflict between the Federal Government and the Tigray Regional State in early November.

In this mixed bag of progress and regress, Indigenous communities find themselves in the most uncertain political environment, which has a direct and indirect impact on their livelihoods and survival.

Indigenous Peoples in the context of the prevailing political situation

In the ongoing heated political debate and discourse on the past, present and future of the country, the issue of Indigenous Peoples is conspicuously absent. Politicians, political pundits, academics and activists, who often represent the interests of major and larger groups, and who have abrogated and monopolized responsibility for speaking for the masses, seem to have either conveniently forgotten or are unconcerned about the most marginalized and oppressed communities in the country. This is happening regardless of the fact that most of the ongoing discussions revolve around injustices, discrimination and marginalization, terminology that has become synonymous with the Indigenous Peoples’ cause. This is perhaps an indication that the elite of the country are oblivious to the deplorable situation of these communities and, as a result, diversity and co-existence continue to be debated among and within the context of the political heavy-weights.

With the political transition of April 2018 and the ensuing reforms, many had hoped that the injustices against Indigenous Peoples and their territories would be addressed and redressed. Contrary to these expectations and hopes, with the exception of a few cases where the lease agreements of investors who failed to cultivate the lands they had leased were cancelled, the status quo has been maintained, leaving many pastoralists - particularly in SNNPR (Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region) and Gambella regional states - landless and displaced.[1] Even more worrying are reports of continued harassment and intimidation of Indigenous communities by the state. At the end of 2019, there were reports of arbitrary detention and abuse of the Bodi and Mursi communities of the Lower Omo Valley by security forces,[2] and a year later the government is yet to officially address and investigate this matter.

In this regard, the Legal and Justice Affairs Advisory Council, an independent body of legal professionals under the auspices of the Office of the Attorney General, is doing laudable work in spearheading the reform of the justice and legal system. Thus far, however, the Council has shied away from discussing or even considering the issue of Indigenous Peoples as part the ongoing legal reform.[3]

Policy developments

In a laudable move, a draft policy on pastoralism developed by the Ministry of Peace was adopted by the Council of Ministers in February. A number of consultations were also reportedly held in the lead-up to the adoption, although it is not known if concerned communities were consulted. Since the policy is yet to be made public and implementation has not started, it is not possible to comment on the content or practical significance of the policy to the lives and livelihood system of pastoralists.

On the economic front, in a clear departure with the previous administration, the government has embarked on a policy of liberalization. It is therefore opening up the economy by privatizing a number of economic and financial sectors. In doing so, some consultations have taken place albeit limited to the urban elites who, needless to say, represent a significantly small proportion of the country’s population. Moreover, the new administration’s economic policies and projects seem to be urban-centered. For instance, in the past two and a half years, multi-million dollar megaprojects aimed at beautifying urban centers, mainly the capital Addis Ababa, have been underway. Substantial amounts of money are also being spent on refurbishing government offices and premises. While these contribute towards rebranding and changing the image of cities and towns, priority should be given to transforming the rural economy for two compelling reasons. First, the country’s economy is predominantly agriculture- and agro-pastoral-based. Second, over 85% percent of the population live in rural areas.

One commendable policy of the current administration that will have a positive impact on the lives and livelihoods of Indigenous communities is the Green Legacy initiative. Launched in 2019 by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the initiative is part of the government’s plan to plant 20 billion seedlings by 2024. The government is aggressively pursuing the Green Legacy policy by opening up city parks and recreational centers as well as devoting time, money and resources to planting seedlings across the country.[4] If implemented faithfully, this reforestation effort will help mitigate the adverse effects of deforestation and climate change that are disproportionately affecting pastoral and hunter-gatherer communities.

Impact of political turmoil and conflicts on Indigenous Peoples

The longstanding and intractable conflict between the Afar and Issa/Somali communities that had subsided for some time resurged in December 2018 and has continued to date.[5] Over the course of 2020, more than 150 Afars and Somalis are believed to have died, scores more been injured and properties destroyed as a result of the fighting between these two Indigenous communities. The fighting is caused by a land dispute over grazing land as well as claims to three contested kebelles/towns that were handed over to the Afar region in a 2014 Agreement.[6]

The situation in Guji and Gedeo is still uncertain although almost all of the internally-displaced persons (IDPs) who were displaced in the 2018 conflict between the two communities have now returned to their homes. The conflict could relapse at any time unless the root causes are addressed.[7]

In the north, since the outbreak of the conflict in early November between federal and regional forces in Tigray, nearly 54,000 people have been displaced to Sudan (as of 26 December), with millions more displaced internally.[8] Although information is scarce, the fighting will have a heavy toll on the Kunama Indigenous people who live in the border area between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Confluence of natural calamities

2020 has been one of the toughest and roughest years in Ethiopia. In addition to the protracted and mutating political turmoil, COVID-19, flooding and a locust outbreak have created a dire humanitarian crisis in the country. Heavy rainfall has led to flooding, resulting in the destruction of crops, loss of livestock and displacement of people. Swarms of multiplying desert locusts have also been destroying pastures and crops, leading to further food insecurity.

Impact of COVID-19

The first case of COVID-19 was reported in mid-March 2020 and, in the first few weeks, disaggregated data by region were available. As the cases started to surge, however, the health system became overwhelmed and now only total numbers of new cases, deaths and recoveries are reported. This has made it difficult to obtain reliable data from official sources on the impact that the pandemic is having on Indigenous communities living in various corners of the country.

The low population densities common to pastoral areas could reduce transmissibility but the movement inherent to pastoralism increases mixing and contact, thereby increasing transmissibility.[9] Besides, pastoralists generally have poor health compared to the national average, with pre-existing acute and chronic health conditions and widespread malnutrition that puts them at a higher risk. Due to limited access to care, for example, pastoralists in Ethiopia receive inadequate treatment for tuberculosis thus increasing their susceptibility to COVID-19.[10]

Moreover, movement restrictions due to COVID-19 affect desert locust control, human and livestock disease prevention and control, and disaster relief. Many pastoral areas in Ethiopia have also been flooded due to heavy rainfalls and the overflow of dams and rivers. Emergency support personnel coming from population centers to pastoral areas act as a source of infection, and movement restrictions limit emergency support.[11]

The closure of livestock markets in the early days of the pandemic adversely impacted food security and livelihoods as pastoralists need to sell animals to purchase food and other basic items. Fears of contracting the virus have also prevented many pastoralist women from accessing essential reproductive and other health services, which has again had a serious impact on their well-being. The problem is further compounded by the relatively low density of healthcare facilities and health professionals in areas inhabited by Indigenous communities.[12]

Desert locust invasion

Heavy rainfall in many parts of Ethiopia encouraged vegetation growth, providing favorable ecological conditions for desert locust breeding. This has resulted in the worst locust invasion in 25 years. The locust swarm has damaged an estimated 200,000 hectares of land since January.[13] Over one million Ethiopians have suffered crop losses due to the locust outbreaks and the loss of crops and animal pasture has contributed to 11 million Ethiopians being forecast to go hungry in the first half of 2021.[14]

Agro-pastoral and pastoral communities in Somali, Oromia and Afar regions have been hit the hardest due to their pre-existing food insecurities. Desert locust damage has also diminished browsing and pasture availability for livestock, which reduces the productivity of their animals.[15] Reports indicate that up to 1.3 million hectares of pasture and browsing were affected. Communities estimated a 61% reduction in the pasture in the Somali region, 59% in Afar, 35% in SNNPR and 31% in Oromia. The sale of livestock has likely eroded the resilience of livestock keepers, particularly in Afar, Somali and Oromia regions where the trend was observed.[16]

Furthermore, the conflict in the country’s Tigray region made it more difficult to proceed with efforts to control the locust invasion, while also restricting access to humanitarian support.[17]


Heavy rainfall between June and September 2020 and the discharge of filled dams in some areas caused flooding and landslides, displacing people in several parts of the country.[18] Reports indicate that close to 1,017,854 people were affected and 292,863 people displaced by floods across the country. Displacements occurred mainly in Somali, Oromia, Afar, SNNP and Gambella regions,[19] where most of the country’s Indigenous Peoples are found.

In Gambella region, in addition to the 12,096 people affected by the July 2020 floods, there were at least 7,136 people affected by flooding in 2019 who are still dependent on relief food assistance for survival. In addition, 1,000 hectares of maize and sorghum cropland was damaged by flooding. Affected communities are also reportedly suffering from diseases, including pneumonia and malaria. Twenty-two water schemes have further been damaged across the affected area, adding an additional burden on women who must travel longer distances to fetch water.

Meanwhile in Somali region, flooding on 4 August affected 34,974 people. Earlier flooding in the region (April 2020) had affected 404,172 people. More than 34,006 hectares of cropland was completely destroyed, and 10,739 livestock killed.

In northern Ethiopia, river and flash floods in July and August 2020 affected 67,885 people, including 40,731 people displaced in Afar region. Some 3,714 livestock also died, further affecting the food security of pastoralist communities in the area.[20]

Due to little or no attention being given to numerically-smaller Indigenous groups in the Lower Omo Valley and western Ethiopia areas, coupled with their inaccessibility, it has been impossible to obtain information on their situation and the impact that the confluence of natural and man-made disasters has had on their well-being and livelihoods. This is yet another bitter reminder of how these communities are forgotten and marginalized, and how they continue to live on the periphery of the state.



Samuel Tilahun Tessema is a Senior Legal Advisor to the IGAD Special Envoy for South Sudan. Before joining IGAD, he worked with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in different capacities for over nine years.


This article is part of the 35th edition of 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 2021 in full here



Notes and references

[1] Cochrane, Logan and Danielle D. Legault, “The Rush for Land and Agricultural Investment in Ethiopia: What We Know and What We Are Missing.” MDPI, 22 May 2020.

[2] Maisel, Naomi and Anuradha Mittal. “As Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed collect the Nobel Peace Prize, abuses in the Lower Omo Valley must be addressed.” Lifegate, 10 December 2019.

[3] Reports and Work Plans of the Legal and Justice Affairs Advisory Council available at http://ljaac.gov.et/ResourceCenter/index/2

[4] Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Office of the Prime Minister. “Green Legacy.” https://pmo.gov.et/greenlegacy/

[5] Yasin, Abubeker. “Between Hope and Despair: Reflections on the Current Political Developments in Afar.”, in Ethiopia in the Wake of Political Reforms, edited by Melaku Geboye Desta et al, 453. 2020.

[6] The Somali Regional State withdrew from the Agreement in 2019 citing a lack of constitutional basis for the agreement, a failure to consult the affected populations, coercion and bad faith. (Addis Standard. “News: at least 27 killed in the clashes in the border between Afar, Somali Regions.” 29 October 2020. https://addisstandard.com/news-at-least-27-killed-in-clashes-in-the-border-between-afar-somali-regions/) The Afar people. on the other hand. blame the Federal Government for siding with the Somali Regional State and the current Afar Regional leadership for being complicit (See endnote 5).

[7] Several factors have contributed to the conflict and the resulting causalities and displacements. However, identity politics, claims of marginalization and domination and the quest for self-governance have played a key role in brewing tension and fueling conflict between these two communities.

[8] World Food Programme (WFP) and Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS Net). “Ethiopia Food Security Outlook Update.” December 2020. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/ETHIOPIA_FSOU_December%202020_Final.pdf

[9] Griffith, Evan F., et al. “COVID-19 in pastoral contexts in the greater Horn of Africa: Implications and Recommendations.” Pastoralism 10, 22 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13570-020-00178-x

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Aljazeera. “Ethiopia struggles to suppress desert locust infestation.” 21 October 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/gallery/2020/10/21/in-picture-ethiopia-struggles-to-suppress-desert-locust-infestat

[14] New Business Ethiopia News. “Food insecurity, conflict deteriorate Ethiopia’s humanitarian situation.” New Business Ethiopia, 21 December 2020. https://newbusinessethiopia.com/tragedy/food-insecurity-conflict-deteriorate-ethiopias-humanitarian-situation/?utm_source=ICPAC_NEWSLETTER&utm_campaign=86e60cf7da-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_02_25_06_47_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0ea0a0abaf-86e60cf7da-

[15] ACAPS. “ACAPS Briefing Note: Locusts in Ethiopia.” 15 November 2019. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/20191115_acaps_briefing_note_locusts_in_ethiopia.pdf

[16] OCHA Humanitarian Response. “Impact of Desert Locust Infestation on Household Livelihoods and Food Security in Ethiopia.” Joint Assessment Findings, April 2020. https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/sites/www.humanitarianresponse.info/files/assessments/desert_locust_impact_assessment_report_for_ethiopia.pdf

[17] New Business Ethiopia News. “Food insecurity, conflict deteriorate Ethiopia’s humanitarian situation.” New Business Ethiopia, 21 December 2020. https://newbusinessethiopia.com/tragedy/food-insecurity-conflict-deteriorate-ethiopias-humanitarian-situation/?utm_source=ICPAC_NEWSLETTER&utm_campaign=86e60cf7da-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_02_25_06_47_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0ea0a0abaf-86e60cf7da-

[18] OCHA Relief Web. “Ethiopia: Floods - Flash Update No. 3, as of 18 August 2020.” Situation Report, 18 August 2020. https://reliefweb.int/report/ethiopia/ethiopia-floods-flash-update-no-3-18-august-2020

[19] OCHA Humanitarian Response. “Flood Response Plan, Ethiopia.” 2020 Kiremt Season Floods, September 2020. https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/sites/www.humanitarianresponse.info/files/documents/files/ethiopia_-_flood_emergency_response_plan_for_2020_kiremt_season_16_sep_2020.pdf

[20] OCHA Humanitarian Response. “Joint Government – Humanitarian Partners

National Flood Contingency Plan.” 2020 Kiremt Season, June 2020. https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/sites/www.humanitarianresponse.info/files/documents/files/flood_contigency_plan_june_2020.pdf               




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

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