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Africa Weekly #77 | Profile on Ethiopia’s ethnic groups: Composition, Representation and Issues

  NIAS Africa Team

Africa Weekly #78 Vol. 2, No. 33
29 August, 2023

Ethiopia's Oromo ethnic group
Jerry Franklin

The Oromo ethnic group, also known as the Galla, is the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, which is 35.8 per cent of the country's population. The Oromo people primarily inhabit the Ethiopian highlands, the Oromia region, which is the largest and most populous state in Ethiopia. Additionally, Oromo communities also reside in neighbouring countries including Kenya and Somalia, particularly in the northern regions of these countries. The Oromo people speak the Afaan Oromo language, which is part of the Cushitic language family. Afaan Oromo has its unique script and is used extensively in literature, media, and everyday communication within Oromo communities. The Oromo are not a homogeneous group; they can be further divided into numerous clans, each with its distinct cultural practices, dialects, and historical narratives. The significant subgroups within the Oromo include the Borana, Guji, Arsi, Bale, and others. Despite these differences, Oromo identity is generally defined by shared linguistic and cultural traits. 

The Oromo people in Ethiopia had long-standing grievances related to political and economic marginalization, cultural repression, and land dispossession. They felt that their rights and interests were not adequately represented or protected by the Ethiopian government for decades. The Abyssinian Empire colonized and uprooted the Oromo in the 19th century which resulted in the loss of their ancestral lands and the suppression of their cultural traditions. They are known for the decentralized system of governance known as the Gadaa system. However, as Ethiopia began to centralize and expand its regime in the 19th century; the Oromo faced subjugation and land dispossession. The Ethiopian government, dominated by the Amhara ethnic group, imposed its language and culture on the Oromo. Throughout the 20th century, the Oromo people actively resisted Ethiopian rule through various means including armed uprisings and political activism. This historical experience has influenced their collective memory and political aspirations. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which was established in 1973, played a crucial role in promoting the autonomy and rights of the Oromo people. However, the Ethiopian government responded to these efforts with harsh repression. The administration has used allegations of terrorism as justification to suppress political opposition.

The Oromo people have played a crucial role in shaping Ethiopia's political landscape, advocating for greater recognition of their rights, preservation of their culture, and representation in the political sphere. This has been a consistent effort throughout the 20th and into the 21st century by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). For a long time, the Oromia region has been at the centre of anti-government demonstrations, social unrest, and insurgency. The Oromo protests in 2015 and 2018 were prompted by issues related to land ownership, political representation, and human rights violations. The initial protests emerged due to the government's intention to expand the capital city, Addis Ababa, into Oromia territory. This move was perceived as a violation of the land rights and cultural identity of Oromo farmers. The “Addis Ababa Integrated Master Plan” was interpreted as a manifestation of Oromo marginalization and sparked the first demonstrations in 2014. During the demonstrations, protesters demanded greater autonomy, political reform, the release of political prisoners, and an end to systematic discrimination. The Ethiopian government, led by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn at the time, used force to suppress protests resulting in significant casualties and human rights violations. The protests continued to evolve and intensify resulting in the resignation of then Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and substantial political adjustments. In April 2018, Desalegn stepped down and Abiy Ahmed became the new Prime Minister. To address some of the demands made by the Oromo protesters, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed implemented political reforms such as releasing political prisoners and ending the state of emergency. The political reforms that the Ahmed administration aimed to implement stirred ethnic tensions and power struggles.

Since 2019, the Ethiopian government and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed group that emerged and separated from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), have been involved in an armed struggle in the western region of Oromia that led to severe abuses towards the Oromo and other minority groups in Oromia. Military command posts were established by the government in western and southern Oromia, where federal and local security forces conducted joint military operations against OLA. The situation has resulted in displacement, loss of life, and destruction of property in the region. On 18 June 2022, an armed group massacred hundreds of Amhara villagers in western Oromia while Ethiopian security forces made few efforts to keep them safe. The Ethiopian administration and OLA blamed each other for the massacre. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), more than 400 Amhara civilians have been killed, including women and children. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the fighting in western Oromia has caused more than 500,000 people to be displaced, including 4,800 from Tole, a small administrative unit in Ethiopia. The conflict has led to severe violations of human rights. Government authorities have been responsible for arbitrary detentions, summary killings, and arrests of Oromos, as well as occasional disruptions to local connections. In response, the OLA has assaulted non-military government offices and executed government employees. Additionally, armed groups and unknown perpetrators have recently increased their attacks on Amhara villages in western Oromia.

Ethiopia’s Somali ethnic group
Sneha Surendran

The Somali people in Ethiopia are a part of the larger Somali ethnic group that has lived across the Horn of Africa region for centuries. Historically, the Somalis have travelled and interacted throughout the Horn of Africa region for trade, pastoralism, and cultural connections. The movement and settling of Somali people into present-day Ethiopia took place before modern political borders were drawn. Within Ethiopia, they primarily reside in the eastern Somali regional State which is also called Ogaden. The social stratification of this group is based on a strictly hierarchical clan system. Clans are composed of kinship groups and families.  Every clan has its territory, history, and role to play within the wider community. There are four major patrilineal clan families, namely the Darod, Hawiye, Dir, and Rahanweyn. The major clans can be further traced into sub-clans which testify to the intricacy of the clan system. Clans exhibit fierce competition with each other and male elders of clans play a vital role in resolving disputes. Family is an important unit for the Somalis, with people relying on their patrilineal clan relatives during tough times. Society is highly patriarchal. Occupation-wise, the Somalis are traditionally pastoralists while minor clan members also work as leatherworkers, blacksmiths, and “ritual specialists.” The Ethiopian Somalis speak the Somali language and are largely Islamic. 

Following Italy's partial annexation of Ethiopia, the area was integrated under Italian Somaliland between 1936 and 1941. Later, the areas occupied by Ethiopian Somalis were divided into three provinces: Eastern Hararghe, Ogadeen, and Bale. Somali-populated areas in the three provinces were combined to create the Ethiopian Somali regional state in 1995 after the military rule was overthrown in 1991.

For over two decades, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has been fighting for the self-determination rights of the Somalis in the Ogaden region. In 1984, the ONLF was founded as a nationalist organization. Following the collapse of the Ethiopian military administration in 1991 and the establishment of an ethnic federal system in Ethiopia, they won the elections for the first regional legislature in 1992. However, disagreements with the federal government over the Somali people's right to self-determination and targeted attacks on their leaders led to ONLF turning to armed insurrection in 1994. The insurgency movement along with the proximity of the Ogaden region to mainland Somalia is the reason for the deployment of state security forces. Numerous human rights violations have also fuelled the separatist tendencies. 

The Somali region is one of Ethiopia’s most underdeveloped states, with low literacy rates, insufficient infrastructure, a population largely dependent on food aid and weak administration structures. Different administrative structures have been in place for the Ethiopian Somali area ever since it was incorporated into the current Ethiopian state in the late 1880s.

Conflicts and the involvement of state forces and militia factions have only worsened the socio-economic indicators. A majority of Ethiopian Somalis feel marginalized by the federal government. Moreover, since the regional government was instituted in 1992, this sense of alienation and lack of trust in institutions has also spread to the regional level. Despite efforts from the federal government to develop the Somali region, regional administrations have often struggled to effectively utilize allocated funds, facing challenges such as limited capacity and corruption. Somalis also look at the rest of the country as being one that is dominated by the “habasha” or Ethiopian “highlander,” which adds to a sense of political and cultural disunity with the rest of Ethiopia. 

The Somalis in Ethiopia are engaged in disputes with neighbouring ethnic groups. For instance, there has been a long-standing violent border conflict with the Afar ethnic group over possession of land and resources. Ethnic Somalis reside in three kebeles or small administrative units; two of which lie in the Afar-occupied region and one in Somalia. The Somalis of these regions wish to unite with the Somali regional state, raising strong protests from the Afar authorities. The disputed region has resources like the Awash River and highway and railway lines that connect Addis Ababa and Djibouti. The river waters are used by both ethnic groups for whom pastoralism is a major occupation; while the connectivity lines help sustain the local economy. The dispute has often transformed into violence involving formal security forces and informal militia groups from both sides.

Similarly, conflict also exists between the Somalis and the Oromo people. Together, they share the longest internal border in Ethiopia, a part of which traces the Ganale Doria River, delineating the Oromia grasslands, and Somali desert. Despite close cultural and linguistic connections between the two communities, the significance of the border extends beyond administration; it has symbolic value, showing political and ethnic factors between Ethiopia's two largest regions. 
Attempts to resolve these disputes have included referenda; however, full demarcation remains elusive, perpetuating ongoing tensions. The disputes have only worsened due to the involvement of other actors including federal, regional, paramilitary, and rebel groups engaged in conflicts across Ethiopia. For instance, the Liyu police, a specialized force based in the Somali region, have faced accusations of targeting Oromos, while also combating separatist factions advocating for self-rule of Somalis. 

The Somali regional state is also a restive area. Civilians here have been subjected to abuse by both the Ethiopian army and the Liyu police forces. Since 2007, civilian abuse has been exacerbated due to the worsening armed fighting between the insurgent Ogaden National Liberation Front and Ethiopia’s Defense Forces. Ethiopian authorities instituted the Liyu police forces as a counterinsurgency force, which by 2008 had become prominent. In a 2008 report, Human Rights Watch revealed that both sides had committed numerous war crimes. They also reported that Ethiopian troops had forcibly displaced entire rural communities, destroyed villages, and tortured and killed civilians in the Somali region. 

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. 

22 August-29 August
Anu Maria Joseph, Jerry Franklin, Nithyashree RB, Sneha Surendran and Prerana P

LNA’s air strikes on the FACT base
On 25 August, Al Jazeera reported on the Libyan National Army (LNA) launching air strikes on “foreign armed groups” near the Chad border. LNA, led by Khalifa Haftar, carried out the attacks against Libya-based Front for Change and Concord (FACT), a rebel group, in the outpost of Umm al-Araneb in Murzuq district. The FACT fighters had taken over more than 2,000 houses under construction in the region. LNA spokesperson Ahmad Mismari stated that LNA would “no longer allow armed groups or factions to use Libyan territory to launch attacks against neighbouring countries.” Libya has been going through civil unrest since 2011 after the death of Muhammad Gaddafi. Rival leaders, Abdulhamid Dbeibah who leads the UN-backed Tripoli-based administration and former interior minister Fathi Bashagha supported by military leader Khalifa Haftar, have been forging alliances with multiple rebel factions in the neighbouring countries including Chad and Sudan. (“Libya’s LNA launches operations against Chad rebels along the border,” Al Jazeera, 25 August 2023)

Fighting continues in Khartoum
On 23 August, BBC Africa reported on heavy fighting in the Sudanese capital Khartoum between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). SAF stated that it repelled RSF’s attack on the Armoured Corps military base in the Al-Shajara region, south of Khartoum. RSF in a statement claimed that it has taken control of parts of the army base and has captured large quantities of weaponry. (“Heavy fighting continues around Khartoum army base,” BBC, 23 August)

BRICS expansion, Egypt and Ethiopia to join the bloc
On 24 August, on the final day of the BRICS summit, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the bloc had invited six countries to join as new members. The new members include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Argentina, Ethiopia, UAE and Egypt. Ramaphosa commented that the group considers itself as a counterweight to Western powers. Chinese President Xi Jinping stated: “The expansion is also a new starting point for BRICS cooperation. It will bring new vigour to the BRICS cooperation mechanism and further strengthen the force for world peace and development.” A senior adviser to Iran’s president, Mohammad Jamshidi, stated: “Permanent membership in the group of global emerging economies is considered a historic development and a strategic success for the foreign policy of the Islamic republic.” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stated: “Ethiopia stands ready to cooperate with all for an inclusive and prosperous global order.” (“Saudi Arabia, Iran among six nations invited to join BRICS,” Al Jazeera, 24 August 2023)

Conducts general elections
On 23 August, Zimbabwe began its election for councillors, members of parliament and a president. 11 candidates are running for the presidential seat. More than six million people are expected to cast their votes. However, the contest is between two popular candidates- incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa from the governing Zanu-PF Party and opposition leader Nelson Chamisa from the Citizen's Coalition for Change (CCC). The opposition is seeking to end the 43-year rule of the Zanu-PF party. Since 1980, the Zanu-PF party has been in power and criticized for continuously clamping down on opposition to remain in power. The country struggles with rising cost of living, inflation, crippling power outages and corruption. People in the urban areas and the young population believe that it is time for a change. (“Zimbabwe election: Poll monitors arrested amid election,” BBC, 24 August 2023)

Emmerson Mnangagwa wins presidential elections
On 28 August, Al Jazeera reported that Zimbabwe's President and leader of the Zanu-PF party, Emmerson Mnangagwa, won the presidential elections securing 52.6 per cent of votes against opposition party Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) leader, Nelson Chamisa, who secured 44 per cent. This would be Mnangagwa's second and final term in office. The opposition has rejected the results and called for a re-run. The elections were hampered by delays, which fueled opposition claims of bribery and voter suppression. International election monitors have commented that the polls failed to meet regional and international standards. The European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) said that the elections curtailed "fundamental freedoms" adding that “acts of violence and intimidation” have caused a “climate of fear." More than 40 election monitors were arrested while trying to compare the official poll count. On 28 August, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, called on the "political actors to peacefully settle any disputes through established legal and institutional channels" and urged "the competent authorities to resolve any disputes in a fair, expeditious, and transparent manner." (“Zimbabwe’s President Mnangagwa wins second term, opposition rejects result,” Al Jazeera, 28 August 2023)

Jihadist leaders killed in joint operation
On 24 August, BBC reported that two jihadist leaders had been killed in a joint operation with regional forces in the province of Cabo Delgado in Mozambique. The Mozambique army stated that one of them was Abu Kital who "held the position of deputy commander of the operations of the group Ahlu-Sunnah wal Jama`a (ASWJ)." The regional force consisting of Mozambique and Rwanda forces along with the Sadc regional bloc’s forces carried out the operation. The Cabo Delgado region has been fighting Islamist insurgency since 2017. More than a million people have been displaced and 4,000 others were killed in the region over the period. (“Two jihadist commanders killed in Mozambique - army,” BBC, 24 August 2023)

French ambassador to stay, despite ultimatum
On 28 August, French President Emmanuel Macron said that its ambassador to Niger will continue to stay in the country. The development comes after Niger’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an ultimatum for France’s ambassador to Niger, Sylvain Itte, to leave the country, claiming that Itte refused to meet the new regime citing France’s actions that were “contrary to the interests of Niger.” Macron stated: “I think our policy is the right one. It’s based on the courage of President Bazoum, and on the commitments of our ambassador on the ground who is remaining despite all the pressure, despite all the declarations made by the illegitimate authorities.” Macron added that France would support any military action by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) against the coup leaders. (“Niger coup: France defies ultimatum for ambassador to leave Niamey,” BBC, 28 August 2023)

CODECO attack kills 14 civilians
On 29 August, Al Jazeera reported that the Cooperative Development of Congo (CODECO), an armed rebel group active in the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, killed 14 civilians and one Congolese soldier. The attack happened in the village of Gobu on 27 August. Four attackers were killed in the fighting. CODECO, a militia led by the ethnic Lendu community, has been fighting with the Zaire, a militia group of ethnic Hema community, since 2017.  According to the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism, nearly 1,800 people were killed in various CODECO attacks until 2022. More than 120 rebel militias are fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo for land and resources. (“Fourteen dead after militiamen attack village in northeast DR Congo,” Al Jazeera, 29 August 2023)

About the Authors
Nithyashree RB is a Postgraduate Scholar from Stella Maris College, Chennai. Anu Maria Joseph is a Research Assistant at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. Jerry Franklin is a Postgraduate Scholar from Madras Christian College, Chennai. Sneha Surendran is a Postgraduate Scholar at OP Jindal University, Haryana. Prerana P is a Postgraduate Scholar at the Christ (Deemed To Be University), Bangalore.

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