• 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.

The Indigenous World 2023: Ethiopia

The Indigenous Peoples of Ethiopia make up a significant proportion of the country’s estimated population of 120 million. Around 12% are pastoralists who live across the country, particularly in the Ethiopian lowlands, which constitute some 60% 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 Regional State.

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 further exposed the 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. In recent years, a confluence of conflicts and natural calamities have further compounded the difficulties that Indigenous Peoples face in Ethiopia.

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. Although the Constitution states that the implementation of these constitutional provisions is to be determined by law, there is no national legislation protecting Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Ethiopia has not ratified ILO Convention 169 and it was absent during the voting on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).


For the past four years, Ethiopia has been on a wild rollercoaster ride that started with a whirlwind of political and legal reforms and promise of peace and reconciliation but then quickly descended into what seems like a bottomless pit of conflicts, turmoil, and political uncertainty. The country is currently afflicted by insecurity, lawlessness, rampant corruption, unprecedented levels of inflation and a spike in the cost of living. Adding insult to injury, the country is also experiencing one of the worst droughts in its recent history. In the midst of this confluence of crises, the most vulnerable and historically-marginalized Indigenous communities, among others, are being disproportionately affected. The year 2022 was therefore a time of trials and tribulations for the Indigenous Peoples of Ethiopia.


Northern Ethiopia

Ever since the war broke out in northern Ethiopia in November 2020 between the Federal Government and its allies, on the one hand, and the Tigrai Forces on the other, thousands of lives have been lost; millions more have been displaced; billions of dollars of property and infrastructure have been destroyed; and its manifold ripple effects have been felt all over the country. Conflicts and unrest in other parts of the country where Indigenous communities are found, namely Oromia, Benishangul Gumuz, Gambella and Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' Region (SNNPR), also further exacerbated the general security, humanitarian and economic situations in the country.

Although the main theatre of the conflict in the north has been the Tigrai region, in 2021 and 2022 the conflict spilled over to the neighboring Afar and Amhara regional states, and the impact on the inhabitants of these three regions, in particular, has been devastating. The Afar Regional State, home to the Afar pastoralist Indigenous communities, has seen some of the fiercest fighting as it is a strategic location through which 90% of the country’s imports and exports are transported. At the beginning of the year, the battle fronts had shifted to Afar, reportedly displacing 300,000 in the region.[1]  

The conflict has been characterized by gruesome human rights and International Humanitarian Law violations committed by both sides to the conflict. As one of the reports on Afar indicates:

a significant number of civilians have died, suffered physical and psychological injuries as well as sexual and gender-based violence as a direct result of acts of violence committed by parties to the conflict. Health facilities, schools, places of worship, public facilities and infrastructure and civilian property were pillaged and/or destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and subjected to a multitude of challenges.[2]

The conflict has not only caused heavy casualties to human lives and destruction to the scanty and dilapidated infrastructure in Afar, one of the least developed regions in Ethiopia with the harshest natural environment for human existence, but it has also ruptured the cordial relationship the Afar and Tigrai regions and their people had enjoyed for decades. It will take some time and serious concerted effort to rebuild Afar and mend the relations between the two peoples. The destruction and disruption of livelihood systems in Afar occasioned by the conflict also requires urgent attention.  


Afar-Somali border conflict

The border between the two main pastoral communities in Ethiopia, the Afars and the Somalis, who both have their own regional states, experiences frequent violent conflict due to long-running disputes over contested territory.[3] The ethnic-based federal arrangement seems to have further compounded and intensified the dispute. The disputed areas have important resources, including the Awash River and the highway and railway line between Addis Ababa and Djibouti, which both communities need for their livestock and trade-related activities and income respectively.

Deadly clashes between the two Indigenous communities continued in 2022. In August, the Afar region militia and Special Forces, who have been well-armed by the Federal Government as allies in the fight against the Tigrai Forces, reportedly attacked disputed villages in the Somali region resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths, massive destruction, theft and displacement of local residents.[4] In November, yet another conflict broke out in Dheymeed Woreda of Somali Regional State, killing at least 18 civilians, injuring several others and displacing thousands more.[5]



Towards the end of the year, while fighting stopped in northern Ethiopia as a result of a Permanent Cessation of Hostilities Agreement signed between the warring parties in November 2022, the lingering conflict in Oromia, where some Indigenous pastoral communities are found, flared up when the Federal Government waged a full-scale war against what it calls the Oromo Liberation Army – Shane (OLA-Shane) rebel group, which has been accused of attacking civilians, the execution and abduction of government officials as well as the destruction and looting of property. Due to the fighting, some areas are cut off making them inaccessible and depriving them of basic services such as electricity, telephone and internet.



In the Benishangul Gumuz region, where the Gumuz and Shinasha Indigenous communities live, the situation in the restive Metekel Zone[6] is dire. Armed Gumuz groups are accused of attacking and killing ethnic Amharas, which has led to the establishment of a military command post since September 2020 with strict curfew hours and tight security measures. The violence in the region has displaced approximately 411,014 people. Thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), mainly Gumuz, have not received any food aid, emergency health and nutrition services, shelter or non-food items.[7] At least 12,000 houses, 142 schools, 107 health posts and 183 animal health posts have been damaged. Up to 660 water schemes out of the 1,494 in the zone are non-functional.[8]



Gambella region, which is home to the Anyuak and Nuer Indigenous communities, has also witnessed violent clashes between security forces and rebel groups operating in the region. For instance, in June, OLA-Shane and the Gambella Liberation Front (GLF) launched a joint surprise attack on the regional capital killing up to 37 people.[9] Murle gunmen from neighboring South Sudan also stage frequent attacks and raid cattle and abduct children. In February, a group of Murle gunmen raided the Dima refugee camp in the Gambella region of Ethiopia, killing one person and wounding two others.[10]


Impact of climate change

Ethiopia is experiencing one of the most severe droughts in the last 40 years following four consecutive failed rainy seasons since late 2020. Drought-affected pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities in southern and eastern Ethiopia have consequently suffered from the impact of multiple and often recurring droughts. In addition, these communities have endured the impact of desert locust infestations, conflict and outbreaks of disease, including the COVID-19 pandemic. The drought is compounding a complex situation in the Somali region of Ethiopia, which was already host to millions of internally displaced people. Other drought-affected regions in the country include Afar, Oromia and the SNNP.[11] The Borena Zone in Oromia region is one of the hardest hit areas in the country.  

According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET),

pasture conditions are among the driest on record, with few to no migration options. … an estimated 3.5 million livestock have died between late 2021 and mid-May 2022, and herd sizes are likely to decline further given very limited livestock births this season and high offtake expected during the upcoming dry season. An additional 25 million weakened and emaciated livestock are also at risk of deaths, which would be devastating for a population heavily reliant on livestock for nutrition, notably for children, and income.[12]

In the Somali region alone, more than 286,000 people have been forced from their homes over the last two years and are now living in informal camps on the outskirts of towns. The majority are women and children. Displacement increases the risk of sexual violence and exploitation for women. The drought-induced closure, either fully or partially, of over 1,100 schools in the Somali region also leaves young girls more vulnerable to child labor and early marriage.[13]

In Gambella region, heavy rains from early August to October caused flooding across 12 districts, displacing an estimated 180,000 people. Displaced people have taken refuge in substandard and overcrowded shelters such as schools and health facilities, and some remain living in the open. Seventy-two per cent of cropland was damaged (mostly the staple maize) and, on average, eight per cent of livestock have reportedly died. Destruction of properties and of social infrastructure is also rampant with 250 water schemes in 10 flood-affected woredas rendered non-functional and requiring maintenance. In addition, over 70 health facilities have been affected by the floods, leaving the population in these areas without access to health services. There is also a high risk of an outbreak of water-borne diseases due to stagnant water and poor hygiene and sanitation. Meanwhile, at least 135 schools have been damaged by the floods affecting the education of over 56,000 children.[14]


Green Legacy and pastoral policy

One of the flagship programs of the Office of the Prime Minister is the Green Legacy, launched in 2019 with an ambitious plan of planting 20 billion trees by 2024. While this is a commendable initiative, the project is mainly focused on highland and urban areas, disregarding the dry lowlands inhabited by pastoralists, where it is needed the most.

No tangible steps have also been taken towards the implementation of the Pastoral Policy and Implementation Strategy that was adopted by the Council of Ministers in March 2020. This could be explained by distractions caused by ongoing conflicts as well as the Government’s misinformed and misguided urban-centered development approach that seems to be oblivious to the fact that the country has an agriculture-based economy and that the overwhelming majority of the population live in rural areas. This assertion can further be substantiated by what is dubbed as “Ten Years Development Plan: A Pathway to Prosperity 2021-2030” that was developed without any public consultation and lacks clear and meaningful rural policy. Unless and until this is corrected, the demands and interests of rural dwellers at large and indigenous communities in particular will continue to be trampled on.



The signing of the November 2022 Permanent Cessation of Hostilities Agreement has given some respite and is hoped to lead to the rehabilitation, reconstruction and recovery of affected communities and areas. Nonetheless, conflicts raging in other parts of the country will also need to be peacefully resolved. A genuine and comprehensive national dialogue is required with the full participation of all stakeholders concerned, including historically marginalized Indigenous communities, in order to lay firm foundations for a lasting peace, reconciliation, healing and sustainable development. The vicious cycle of oppression, marginalization, discrimination and impunity, which is at the heart of the country’s ills, need to be broken once and for all. Anything short of that may create a semblance of stability for a short while but will ultimately plunge the country into the abyss of endless conflicts and disintegration.   



Samuel Tilahun Tessema is a Senior Legal Advisor on South Sudan and Sudan for the IGAD Special Envoy, and an Expert Member of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities and Minorities of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.     


This article is part of the 37th 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 2023 in full here.



Notes and references

[1] Gerth-Niculescu, Maria. “´My brothers and sisters are dying’: Inside the conflict in Ethiopia’s Afar region.” The New Humanitarian, 31 March 2022, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2022/03/31/inside-the-conflict-in-Ethiopias-Afar-region

[2] Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. “Afar and Amhara Regions: Report on Violations of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law in Afar and Amhara Regions of Ethiopia, 11 March 2022, https://ehrc.org/afar-and-amhara-regions-report-on-violations-of-human-rights-and-international-humanitarian-law-in-afar-and-amhara-regions-of-ethiopia-published/

[3] The disputed areas are three Kebeles located in Afar’s Zones 1 and 3 and Somali’s Sitti Zone. The areas include Adaytu Kebele of Mille Woreda, Undufo Kebele in Gewane Woreda, and Gedamaytu Kebele in Amibara Woreda. Ethnic Somalis who inhabit the contested territory want to join the neighboring Somali Regional State in Ethiopia, an action that the Afar regional authorities strongly oppose.

[4] Hadi, Mohamed. “The mass exodus of Ethiopian Somalis to Sitti Zone.” Ethiopia Insight, 11 October 2022, https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2022/10/11/the-mass-exodus-of-ethiopian-somalis-to-sitti-zone/

[5] Ababa, Addis. “Ethiopia: More Than a Dozen Civilians Killed Following Latest Clashes Between Afar, Somali Regions Militias Near Border Areas.” allAfrica, 12 November 2022, https://allafrica.com/stories/202211120084.html

[6] Metekel Zone, located in Benishangul Gumuz Region of Ethiopia, is home to many ethnic groups, such as the Gumuz, the Amharas and the Shinashas. The region shares a border on the west with Sudan and is also the site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). In 2019, inter-communal tensions and violence broke out in the border areas with West Gondar  of Amhara region. In 2021, violence evolved into complex armed hostilities, with reports of indiscriminate attacks against civilians. Attacks by unidentified armed groups have killed thousands and displaced 150,000 people in Bullen, Dangur, Dibate, Guba, Mandura and Wombera woredas, representing over 30 per cent of the total population of Metekel Zone.

[7] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Ethiopia: Access Snapshot, Metekel Zone (Benishangul Gumuz Region).” 30 April 2022, https://reliefweb.int/report/ethiopia/ethiopia-access-snapshot-metekel-zone-benishangul-gumuz-region-30-april-2022

[8] “Ethiopia humanitarian country visits Metekel Zone of Benishangul Region to see humanitarian situation, response.” United Nations Ethiopia, 25 April 2022, https://ethiopia.un.org/en/179072-ethiopia-humanitarian-country-team-visits-metekel-zone-benishangul-region-see-humanitarian

[9] Wilkins, Henry. “What’s Behind Violence in Ethiopia’s ‘Other’ Conflict?” Voice of America – Africa, 2 September 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/what-s-behind-violence-in-ethiopia-s-other-conflict-/6729178.html

[10] Cirino, Winni., and Selam Mulugeta. “The many conflicts within the Ethiopia-South Sudan transboundary conflict.” The Niles, 16 August 2022, https://www.theniles.org/en/articles/society/20858/

[11] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarians Affairs. “Ethiopia: drought response July – December 2022 (Revised).” 8 September 2022, https://reliefweb.int/report/ethiopia/ethiopia-drought-response-july-december-2022-revised

[12] Ibid.

[13] Creta, Sara. “Ethiopia’s worsening drought sees hunger number soar.” The New Humanitarian, 17th August 2022, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2022/08/17/drought-Ethiopia-hunger-pastoralism-climate-change

[14] UNICEF. “Ethiopia: Humanitarian Situation Report No. 10” October 2022, https://reliefweb.int/report/ethiopia/unicef-ethiopia-humanitarian-situation-report-no-10-october-2022

Tags: Global governance



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