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A profile on Ethiopia’s Afar ethnic group

  Nithyashree RB

Afar people are Cushitic-nomadic people primarily living in the Horn of Africa. They inhabit the Afar triangle. Afar means the best or first in the Afar language. They constitute 2.2 per cent of Ethiopia’s population. The majority of the Afar people live in the Afar region of Northeastern Ethiopia. They speak the Afar language and practise Islam. They are mainly pastoralists.

The Afar group comprises two classes namely, the Asayahamara or the Asaimara, the Red Ones and the Adoyahamara or the Adoimara, the White Ones. The former descended from the group that invaded the Ethiopian highlands and subjugated the latter. The former are dominant nobles who own lands and live in the Assayita region. The latter are herders who inhabit the Afar plain or the Danakil desert.

In 1995, Ethiopia’s region of Afar was formed comprising the Afar people living in the Awash Valley, Afar Depression and some parts of Ethiopia. The Afar living in the periphery and the Afar lowlanders in the Awash Valley were represented and governed by one of their own.

In the 21st century, the EPRDF undertook several measures to ensure Economic development in Afar and aimed at integrating pastoralism into the national economy. In 2008, the Ministry of Water and Energy along with the EPRDF introduced two projects of sugar and ethanol production in Tendaho and Kessam. In 2010, the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation was established and the Corporation along with the government engaged in villagization, induced conversion to agro-pastoralism and resettlement of 1.5 million lowlanders. Despite this, there was a lack of local autonomy and agency.

Since 1991, in the southern region of Afar, clashes over land between the Afar, Amhara and Oromo are prevalent. Internal clashes were predominantly over land between the highlanders who cultivated in the escarpment flank and the lowlanders who moved towards the highlands looking for pasture.

The animosity between the Issa Somali and the Afar has persisted for a long time. The Afar and Issa fought a series of deadly battles over land resources in the 20th century resulting in Afar ceding some land to the Issa Somalis. The Issa and Afar clans share the territory of Djibouti, where the Issa Somalis have monopolized state power. In 1995, during the formation of the federal government and the provinces, Garba-Issa, Undufo and Adayati towns inhabited by the Issa Somalis were administered to the Somali region. In 2014, an agreement was signed by the regional administrations of Afar and Somali, under which the three towns of Adayati, Undufo and Garba which the Afar claimed as theirs were given to them. This led to intense clashes in the three towns, resulting in the death and displacement of several Issa Somali, leading to the withdrawal of the Somali administration from the 2014 agreement. In April 2021, the Afar police along with militias and rebel groups burnt Adayati and stopped the access of water to Undufo. Clashes in the Somali-inhabited lands of Danlahaley, Madane and Adalaye are present.

In November 2020, conflict erupted between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Eventually, the conflict spilled over into Afar in 2021. The Afar troops sided with the Ethiopian government which resulted in intense clashes in Afar. In December 2021, according to the Afar Regional Administration, the TPLF invaded the region. According to USAID, the Tigray Conflict has displaced 300,000 living in Afar which is the fifth of the population.

About the author

Nithyashree RB is a Postgraduate Scholar from Stella Maris College, Chennai.

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