• 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 2024: 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 Chabu community of South-West Ethiopia and the Majang (Majengir) and Anuak communities, who live in 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. Nevertheless, the Constitution states that the implementation of these constitutional provisions is to be determined by law. To date, there is no national legislation that recognizes and protects the rights of Indigenous Peoples. 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).

The old resilient country of diverse and rich cultures, languages and religions is rapidly descending into a fragile condition due to a confluence of political, security, economic, social and natural crises that are seriously eroding the viability of the state. This was succinctly summarized by a report from the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:

Ethiopia is, once again, on the verge of a major humanitarian situation due to cycles of multiple, often overlapping crises, which severely weakens communities’ ability to cope. These crises are primarily driven by the convergence of four major factors: climate crises (flood and drought), armed conflicts, diseases, and economic shocks. The convergence of these shocks are pushing more people into displacement, food insecurity, malnutrition, disease outbreaks, and increased protection concerns amid rising global prices of essential commodities, inflation, and continual devaluation of the local currency.[i]

This convergence of crises has disproportionately impacted Indigenous communities as they have been hit the hardest, particularly by recurrent droughts and flooding caused by climate variability. Moreover, the magnitude and severity of the country-wide crises has dwarfed and drowned out the plight and cause of Indigenous Peoples.

Natural disasters

As Ethiopia endured its fifth consecutive failed rainy season in 2023, the effects of climate change have translated into increased pressure on vulnerable households throughout the lowlands of Ethiopia, inhabited by pastoral communities. Rainfall variability, also a result of climate change, has resulted in increased flooding in both the highlands and lowlands.


Severe drought hit virtually all of the 12 regions of Ethiopia, including the Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Somali, South Ethiopia, South-West Ethiopia People’s Regions and Tigray, at a time when communities in the affected regions are still grappling with the lingering effects of the 2021-2023 drought and the devastating northern conflict (2020-2022), amidst poor economic conditions.[ii]

In the Afar pastoral community, livestock conditions reveal a dire situation characterized by a severe drought and depleted grazing lands. The scarcity of water and pasture is being further compounded by an invasion of thorny bushes, acutely limiting feed resources for over 3.5 million livestock. According to government sources, more than 253,000 people are in need of emergency food assistance in the Afar Region, in addition to 56,800 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and 222,900 returnees.[iii]

In the Somali Region, there has been a significant loss of animal resources as a result of the region’s repeated droughts, and this has been exacerbated by epidemics suffered by livestock. Over two million livestock are believed to have perished due to the drought. A decline in livestock productivity is also having a detrimental effect on the lives and livelihood systems of pastoralists.[iv]

Another large pastoral community in Ethiopia, the Borena people of the Oromia Region, have been hit the hardest by the recurrent drought. The Borena are a centuries-old pastoralist community that roam the lands of southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. Their political and age-grading system has been in place for over 500 years and, like in many pastoralist societies, the wealth of the Borena is measured in cattle.[v] According to the multi-agency rapid assessment report for the Borena zone, a scarcity of livestock feed and water caused by consecutive failed rainy seasons resulted in the deaths of 3.3 million head of livestock, the displacement of around 300,000 people and rendered more than half of the 1.7 million population dependent on food assistance.[vi] A proud pastoralist society, normally self-sufficient, is consequently currently dependent on aid and many have been forced to move to IDP camps in Southern Ethiopia. The situation in the IDP camps is dire, and women and girls are reported to have been subjected to rape, sexual harassment and forced marriage.[vii]

The drought in the affected pastoral areas has therefore resulted in food insecurity, severe disruption to pastoralists’ livelihoods, and the displacement of people.


The impact of flooding spans 23 zones, affecting 85 districts in seven of the country's 12 regions. In some areas, communities report this as the worst flooding witnessed in years. The south and south-eastern parts of the country recorded one of the highest cumulative rainfalls in the past 40 years caused by the impacts of El Niño.[viii]

The record-breaking rainfall led to extensive flooding in the Somali, Oromia, and South Ethiopia regions in October and November, causing considerable population displacement, pushing pastoralists to migrate their livestock to higher-ground areas and resulting in the loss of main season crops among agro-pastoralists, mainly in riverine areas along the Shebelle and Omo rivers. The Somali Region alone accounted for 80% of those affected, with Shabelle, Afder, Liban, and Dawa zones experiencing the most substantial impact.[ix]

Reports further indicate that over 616,000 people were displaced and/or lost their homes across the Somali, South Ethiopia, and South-West Ethiopia People’s regions. In the Somali Region, more than 27,000 livestock died and over 72,000 hectares of planted crops were destroyed. The heavy rains also resulted in short-term disruptions to market activity and trade flows due to destruction of roads and other essential infrastructure.[x]

In the South Ethiopia Region, Dasenech Woreda (South Omo Zone) experienced the worst floods, with a devastating impact. Unseasonal and heavy rainfall in the highland parts of the South and South-West regions in October and the first half of November resulted in the Omo River bursting its banks and flooding 27 of the 40 kebeles[xi] in the woreda. Consequently, 79,828 people have been affected and 69,256 people displaced. The flood submerged 123,000 hectares of grazing land and a large number of livestock migrated to Kenya and bordering areas in Hamer and Nyngatom woredas in South Omo. An estimated 889,454 livestock have been displaced and 2.99 million encircled by water. 1,763 hectares of farmland were also damaged by the flood. Finally, the flood affected a total of 14 schools, of which six were fully flooded and eight encircled by water.[xii]

Similarly, in early September, over 28,000 individuals were uprooted by the flooding of the Baro, Akobo, Alwero and Gilona rivers in the Gambella Region. The flooding also affected crops and livestock. According to regional officials, the five districts of the Nuer Zone, inhabited by the Nuer community, have been highly affected and their cattle and possessions washed away.[xiii]


Following the end of the devastating and costly conflict in Tigray with the signing of the Permanent Ceasefire Agreement on 2 November 2022 in Pretoria, South Africa, hopes were high that the country would return to relative peace and stability. However, these hopes were dashed when the country was once again plunged into another round of conflict as the Federal Government waged war against its former ally in the Tigray war, the Amhara Fano militia, and also renewed its operations against the Oromo Liberation Army based in Oromia Region. The impact of these protracted conflicts is far-reaching and has brought the economy to its knees.

Inter-communal conflicts, mainly among pastoral communities, over grazing land, water and borders have also continued unabated. To name but a few, deadly conflicts occurred between the Afars and Somalis, Somalis and Oromos and in the Gambella Region between the Anyuak and Nuer communities.

Afar-Somali conflict

2023 saw a resurgence in the long-running dispute between the Afars and Somalis over contested territory,[xiv] home to important resources including the Awash River, which both communities use for their livestock, and the Ethio-Djibouti highway and railway, which are vital for the national as well as the local economy. Several incidents took place in Siti zone of the Somali Region in the first half of the year.

On 22 February, ethnic Afar militia clashed with ethnic Somali militia in Asbuli (also known as Casbuli) in Erer woreda resulting in around 35 militiamen reportedly killed and several others injured on both sides.[xv]

In March, residents of Aysha town in Ayisha woreda closed the Ethio-Djibouti highway and railway to demonstrate against the displacement of ethnic Somali civilians by Afar armed groups and objecting to the perceived federal support of Afar forces in the border dispute.[xvi] Members of the Ethiopian National Defence forces (ENDF) reportedly shot and killed three civilians and wounded six others when the ENDF attempted to forcibly open the blocked highway. The conflict subsequently escalated into a multifrontal clash between Afar and Somali militants.[xvii]

Militia from the two ethnic groups also clashed on 6 April in Dabamara in Afdem woreda resulting in an unknown number of casualties.[xviii]

Oromo-Somali conflict

In the Oromia Region, violence against ethnic Oromo civilians was reported along the Oromia-Somali regional borders in the context of a disputed well. On 9 and 10 March 2023, Somali militias reportedly shot and killed four and wounded nine civilians – mostly ethnic Oromos – in Mekenisa kebele in Chinaksen woreda, East Hararge, after blocking residents from accessing drinking water. Over the next two days, militias from the two groups clashed over disputed grazing land and water wells, leaving seven people dead and an unknown number of people wounded.[xix]

In September, a dispute over Khat[xx] tax collection in bordering areas of the Oromia and Somali regions escalated and took an ethnic dimension after armed forces from Oromia in Oromia Special Forces uniforms attacked Somali IDPs killing over 10 people, including two children.[xxi]


In May, inter-communal clashes broke out between Nuer and Anyuak ethnic militias in Pignuwa and Ler kebeles of Itang special woreda, as well as in Gambela city. The clashes began after militiamen from one of the ethnic groups shot and killed a militiaman from the other ethnic group as he was rowing a boat. The clashes resulted in at least five people reportedly killed and seven others wounded. Civilians from both sides were forced to flee their homes, and several houses were burned.[xxii]

On 18 July, an armed attack on Nuer village of Gambella city killed 31 people and injured 20. In response, the Gambella regional cabinet held an emergency meeting on 19 July and issued an indefinite curfew prohibiting all movements between 1am and 12pm, which has since been lifted.[xxiii]

Indigenous communities of Lower Omo River to own and manage community conservation area

Indigenous communities in the Lower Omo River Valley in the south-west have taken ownership of and management responsibility over what is now Ethiopia’s largest community conservation area, the Tama Community Conservation Area (TCCA). In 2023, the regional government signed the conservation area into law entrusting the responsibility of ensuring the sustainable use and preservation of Tama’s ecological and cultural heritage to the Indigenous communities inhabiting the area, namely the Mursi, Bodi, Northern Kwegu and Ari communities, who are largely agriculturalists and pastoralists with a rich heritage and culture.[xxiv]

The conservation area covers 197,000 hectares of land between two national parks and will be managed by a community council comprising members from the four Indigenous communities.[xxv] The communities will be allowed to engage in agricultural and pastoral activities within the area but these activities will be managed by the communities themselves. Illegal hunting, cutting of trees and use of land for farming and grazing without approval from the community council is prohibited.[xxvi]

This is a commendable move that will allow the Indigenous communities to administer their land and manage their own affairs. However, detailed directives and guidelines aimed at preventing human-wildlife conflict are yet to be issued and may limit the rights of the communities unless the communities are meaningfully represented in the process of preparing such documents.


Ethiopia is in a downward spiral and risks disintegrating or becoming a failed state unless there is a major shift in policy and/or approaches to dealing with the country’s deep-seated and complex socio-economic, political and security problems. Only genuine, transparent and all-inclusive national dialogues/processes can transition the country out of its current crises.

The fate of the long forgotten and marginalized Indigenous communities of Ethiopia, who have lived on the margins of the State, is very much intertwined with that of the State itself. In this regard, it is imperative that Indigenous communities are well represented and their voices heard in any and every forum or process meant to chart the way forward towards a sustainable and lasting solution to the multifold challenges afflicting the country.



Samuel Tilahun Tessema has been a member of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities and Minorities (WGIPM) since November 2022 and is a Senior Legal Adviser to the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Special Envoy for South Sudan. Before joining IGAD, he worked with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in different positions for over nine years.


This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here


Notes and references

[i] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Ethiopia - Situation Report, 10 January 2024, https://reliefweb.int/report/ethiopia/ethiopia-situation-report-10-jan-2024

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Somali Regional State Disaster Risk Management Bureau, Somali Region 2023 Deyr Multi-Agency Seasonal Assessment Report (Non-Food and Food), December 2023, p.3.

[v] Franz Thiel, Helvetas, Drought, Hunger and Abuse: The Tragic Realities of Southern Ethiopia, 27 February 2023, https://www.helvetas.org/en/switzerland/how-you-can-help/follow-us/blog/climate-change/Drought-Hunger-and-Abuse-The-Tragic-Realities-of-Southern-Ethiopia

[vi] Wossen Mulatu, UNICEF Ethiopia, The drought is driving up cases of child hunger and malnutrition in Borena, 10 March 2023, https://www.unicef.org/ethiopia/stories/drought-driving-cases-child-hunger-and-malnutrition-borena

[vii] Franz Thiel, Helvetas, Drought, Hunger and Abuse: The Tragic Realities of Southern Ethiopia, 27 February 2023, https://www.helvetas.org/en/switzerland/how-you-can-help/follow-us/blog/climate-change/Drought-Hunger-and-Abuse-The-Tragic-Realities-of-Southern-Ethiopia

[viii] Joint Statement by Ambassador Shiferaw Teklemariam, Commissioner of the Ethiopian Disaster Risk Management Commission and Dr. Ramiz Alakbarov, United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Ethiopia on unprecedented floods, 29 November 2023, https://reliefweb.int/report/ethiopia/joint-statement-ambassador-shiferaw-teklemariam-commissioner-ethiopian-disaster-risk-management-commission-and-dr-ramiz-alakbarov-united-nations-resident-and-humanitarian-coordinator-ethiopia-unprecedented-floods

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Famine Early Warning system Network, Drought-induced crop failure leads to emergency in conflict affected north, December 2023, https://fews.net/east-africa/ethiopia/food-security-outlook-update/december-2023

[xi] Kebeles are the smallest administrative units in Ethiopia.

[xii] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Ethiopia - Situation Report, 1 December 2023 https://reliefweb.int/report/ethiopia/ethiopia-situation-report-1-dec-2023

[xiii] African Press Agency News, Heavy flooding displaces thousands in Ethiopia’s Gambella region, 19 September 2023, https://apanews.net/heavy-flooding-displaces-thousands-in-ethiopias-gambella-region/

[xiv] Three kebeles inhabited by ethnic Somalis from the Issa clan are at the centre of the conflict. These three kebeles are located in Afar’s zones 1 and 3 and Somali’s Siti zone. The contested areas include Adaytu kebele of Mille woreda, Undufo kebele in Gewane woreda, and Gedamaytu kebele in Amibara woreda.

[xv] Ethiopia Peace Observatory, Afar-Somali Regions border conflict, 29 September 2023, https://epo.acleddata.com/afar-somali-border-conflict/

[xvi] Abel Tesfaye, Federal action needed to end Ethiopia’s Somali-Afar conflict, Ethiopia Insight, 4 April 2023, https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2023/04/04/federal-action-needed-to-end-ethiopias-somali-afar-conflict/

[xvii] Abel Tesfaye, Federal action needed to end Ethiopia’s Somali-Afar conflict, Ethiopia Insight, 4 April 2023, https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2023/04/04/federal-action-needed-to-end-ethiopias-somali-afar-conflict/

[xviii] Ethiopia Peace Observatory, Afar-Somali Regions border conflict, 29 September 2023, https://epo.acleddata.com/afar-somali-border-conflict/

[xix] Ethiopia Peace Observatory, Conflict in East and West Hararge, 29 September 2023, https://epo.acleddata.com/east-west-hararge-conflict/

[xx] A plant native to eastern and south-eastern Africa, its leaves are chewed as a stimulant in many countries in the Horn of Africa including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. It is cultivated by farmers and its leaves sold on the market. Ethiopia is the largest producer and exporter of Khat leaves.

[xxi] After the outbreak of the conflict, the National Defence Army and the Federal Police took control of the main route and the shooting continued in the mountainous areas outside the main line. Borkena, Expert Says tension at Oromo-Somali border may turn to ethnic conflict, 22 September 2023, https://borkena.com/2023/09/22/ethiopia-oromo-somali-border-tension-may-escalate-to-ethnic-conflict/

[xxii] Ethiopia Peace Observatory, EPO Weekly: 20-26 May 2023, https://epo.acleddata.com/2023/06/01/epo-weekly-20-26-may-2023/

[xxiii] Addis Standard, Fresh armed attack leaves 31 dead, 20 injured in Gambella, regional cabinet enacts indefinite curfew, 20 July 2023, https://addisstandard.com/news-fresh-armed-attack-left-31-dead-20-injured-in-gambella-regional-cabinet-enacts-indefinite-curfew/

[xxiv] Kaleab Girma, Mongabay, Ethiopia’s largest community conservation area brings indigenous communities into the fold, 13 June 2023, https://news.mongabay.com/2023/06/ethiopias-largest-community-conservation-area-brings-indigenous-communities-into-the-fold/

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid

Tags: Land rights, Climate, Human rights, Conservation



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