The untold stories of thousands of Ethiopians stranded without a home

BAHIR DAR, Ethiopia, June 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Early one morning, Aschal Zegeye and her young family heard a knock at the door. Her husband answered it. Shortly after he was dead.

“They took him outside and slaughtered him,” the 25 year-old mother of two told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a church shelter in the city of Bahir Dar.

With her one year-old baby son on her back, she spoke of the day last October when her husband was murdered by a mob and she and her children were chased from their home.

“They burnt our farm. A group of men beat me with sticks… I ran away into the woods to hide for three days. Then I begged on the streets to get back here.”

Aschal is one of around a million Ethiopians driven from their homes by a land and ethnicity-fuelled crisis that has gripped the Horn of Africa nation for years and escalated in recent months.

Most dramatically, tensions between ethnic Somali and Oromo ethnic groups and conflict along the border separating the two regions led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands last year, most of whom have still not returned home.


The crisis sprawls across Ethiopia, a country of 100 million people hit by anti-government protests that began in 2015 over land rights before broadening into demonstrations against authoritarian rule.

It threatens the country’s fragile system of “ethnic federalism”, a constitutional model which offers a degree of self-determination to Ethiopia’s diverse communities but which critics say encourages competition along ethnic lines.

As part of an effort to stabilise the country the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in April appointed Abiy Ahmed, a 42 year-old from the Oromo wing of the ethnically-based coalition as prime minister.

Though the move brought stability to most parts of the country the problem of ethnically-motivated evictions and displacement remains unresolved.

Since taking office Abiy has visited most regions of Ethiopia and has repeatedly called for “unity” between its ethnic groups.

“This has been a tragedy that should never have taken place,” he said of the conflict between Oromia and Somali region during an April visit to Jigjiga, capital of the Somali state.

But critics argue the government has not done enough to prevent the displacement of ethnic groups in Oromia and other parts of the country since April.


Human rights group Amnesty International said earlier this month thousands of displaced Amharas had arrived in Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara region, from Oromia since October.

Thousands more are on the verge of displacement due to violent attacks on their homes by ethnically-motivated young men, Amnesty said.

Each day brings new arrivals, according to Father Abraham, a priest and representative of Amharas displaced from Oromia.

Meanwhile, hundreds of ethnic Amharas have arrived after violent clashes in the neighbouring region of Benishangul-Gumuz where they had lived for many years.

“We have been displaced three times now,” said Minale Ayalew, a 45 year-old priest and father of six who fled from Benishangul-Gumuz.

“We came back here each time, asked the regional government for help, and the government said it wouldn’t happen again. But it does happen again.”

At least 400,000 mostly ethnic Gedeos were displaced from southern Oromia following violence in mid-April, the National Disaster Risk Management Commission said this week.

More than 4,000 houses were reportedly burnt down or damaged, and clashes beginning on June 3 displaced a further 68,000, with an unknown number dead, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Last week, 2,500 residents were displaced from the southern city of Hawassa, according to national broadcaster Fana Broadcast. At least 10 were killed during violent ethnically-motivated protests.


Violence against minorities, as well as conflicts over regional borders, have been fairly common throughout the country since ethnic federalism was introduced in 1991.

Though the arrangement provides for ethnic self-administration, all nine of Ethiopia’s semi-autonomous regions have mixed populations.

For example more than four million Amharas live outside Amhara region and the same is true for more than 1.5 million Oromo, according to the latest census carried out in 2007.

Aschal left her village in West Gojam, central Amhara, 10 years ago for the district of Bolo Didessa in Benishangul-Gumuz.

“There’s not enough land is West Gojam,” she explained. “We were told there was enough space for us to farm [in Benishangul-Gumuz], so we went there.”

Under Ethiopia’s 1994 constitution all land is state-owned and all citizens have the right to freely obtain a plot to cultivate.

Some of the more than 280,000 Amharas living in Benishangul-Gumuz had plots of land granted to them by regional authorities though most of those displaced from Bolo Didessa, such as Aschal, were tenants renting from the local Gumuz people.

According to the federal constitution all members of indigenous and non-indigenous minorities are entitled to equal protection of individual rights everywhere in Ethiopia, including of rights to land.

In practice, however, it is often more difficult for a non-indigenous group to acquire it.

In Benishangul-Gumuz, for example, there is a documented pattern of regional authorities denying farming land not only to new immigrants but also to older settlers who need land.

The region’s own constitution, revised in 2002, designates five ethnic groups as “indigenous”, excluding Amharas and Oromos who make up a large proportion of the local population.

“Legally or constitutionally, the ‘indigenous’ communities are owners of the region,” said Zemelak Ayele, an associate professor at Addis Ababa University’s Centre for Federal Studies. “Everybody else is just a guest.”

Similarly, the constitutions of Oromia and Somali regions do not mention specific ethnicities other than the titular groups, the Oromo and Somali.

This can lead to local authorities turning a blind eye to the violation of the rights of minorities in the region.

“Ethnic federalism implies a hierarchy of rights,” said Tom Lavers, an academic at Manchester University who has studied the land rights of Ethiopia’s ethnic minorities under federalism. “By implication that would extend to land as well.”


Displaced households should be safely returned to the communities from which they were evicted, and their properties restored or compensated, according to federal government policy.

The Amhara regional government has said families returning to Benishangul-Gumuz or Oromia will be provided security, and receive compensation for damaged properties.

Alternatively, displaced families can return to their original communities in Amhara.

But many of the displaced interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation said they were too afraid to go back to their old homes.

Most of those who have arrived in Bahir Dar said there was not enough land in their original Amhara communities for them to return to and cultivate.

They want to be given land to settle somewhere else in the region, something which the authorities have ruled out.

Abebaw Getenet, a 30 year-old father of four displaced from Benishangul-Gumuz, said the government of Oromia had promised to resettle within the region all those Oromos displaced from Somali state last year and who were unwilling to return.

“We are asking our government for the same,” he said.

Mekuanint Melkanu Gesits, an official coordinating the Amhara government’s response, said his government advised those displaced from Benishangul-Gumuz to return to the region.

“It’s a small minority of people that caused the problem, not the majority. Most of them are welcoming,” he said. (Reporting by Tom Gardner. Editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert.

Related Content

This is how badly COVID-19 has ravaged Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, and economic activity collapsed in the first half of this year. This is by how much...

Assessing the economic & political impact of Ethiopia’s GERD dam

Last week Sudan sent a letter to the UN Security Council asking them to discourage Ethiopia from filling their Renaissance Dam reservoir before coming to an agreement with the country and Egypt. This letter comes after the back and forth between Ethiopia and Egypt on the way forward for this almost $5 billion project. So how much are these disagreements costing? And what could the bill rack up to if it’s not sorted out soon? CNBC Africa spoke to Political Economic Analyst, Mikael Arage for more.

Coronavirus – African Union Member States (54) reporting COVID-19 cases (116,049) deaths (3,488), and recoveries (46,714)

African Union Member States (54) reporting COVID-19 cases (116,049) deaths (3,488), and recoveries (46,714) by region: Central (12,426 cases; 350 deaths; 3,281 recoveries): Burundi (42; 1; 20), Cameroon (5,044; 171; 1,917), Central African Republic (652; 1; 22), Chad (687; 61; 244), Congo (487; 16; 147), DRC (2,402; 68; 340), Equatorial Guinea (719; 7; 22), Gabon (2,135; 14; 562), Sao Tome & Principe (258; 11; 7). Eastern (12,983; 351; 3,438): Comoros (87; 1; 21), Djibouti (2,468; 14; 1,079

Coronavirus – Ethiopia: COVID-19 reported cases in Ethiopia – 26 May 2020

New cases: 46 Active cases: 526 Critical: 1 New recovered: 8 Total recovered: 167 New deaths: 1 Total deaths: 6 Total cases: 701Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Ministry of Health, Ethiopia.Media filesDownload logo

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up for free newsletters and get more CNBC AFRICA delivered to your inbox

More from CNBC Africa

Kenya announces phased re-opening of the country from coronavirus lockdown

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced on Monday a phased re-opening of the country from a lockdown imposed to curb...

Australia’s Prospect Resources picks advisor for sale of Zimbabwe lithium mine

HARARE (Reuters) - Australian-listed Prospect Resources said on Monday it had picked Renaissance Securities Capital as its exclusive financial advisor for the...

This crowdfunding initiative is helping vulnerable Lagosians during COVID-19

A new private sector-led initiative is looking to crowd source funds from Nigerians to help about two million Lagosians whose livelihoods have been severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Yomi Adedeji, CEO of Softcom and Convener of the HelpNow Initiative joins CNBC Africa for more.

How COVID-19 has impacted the progress of Dangote Refinery

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, work is still on-going at the 650 000 barrels per day Dangote Refinery, which is expected to be commissioned in January next year. The company’s Group Executive Director Devakumar Edwin joins CNBC Africa to share some insight on the progress.

Partner Content

Maktech’s Godwin Makyao: Now Is A Time of Entrepreneurial Opportunity in East Africa

As an executive decision-maker in both the telecommunications and tourism industries, Godwin Makyao could not have experienced a more diverse set of...

Sanlam launches urgent job-preservation initiative in response to COVID-19

Sanlam Investments is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic through large-scale support of the recovery of South African companies, from small enterprises to...

Trending Now

Morocco’s economy to contract 13.8% in Q2, 4.6% in Q3 – planning agency

Rabat (Reuters) - Morocco’s economy is expected to contract by 13.8% in the second quarter under the impact of the coronavirus lockdown,...

What’s Next For The U.S. Economy: Gary Shilling

Financial analyst Gary Shilling says the stock market could be set for a big pullback similar to the decline in the 1930s during the Great Depression. He explains how the coronavirus pandemic will result in long-term structural changes in the economy

Nigerian equities dip further

The NSE All Share Index was the lone laggard among the African bourses last week shedding 1.99 per cent. What can we expect from the Lagos bourse this week? Ayodeji Ebo, Managing Director of Afrinvest Securities joins CNBC Africa for more....

Naira Outlook: CBN working on gradual unification of exchange rates

No doubt Nigeria's currency has come under pressure in recent months; the Central Bank of Nigeria says it is working towards the gradual unification of exchange rates. But what does the CBN's recent move in asking lenders to bid for dollars at 5 per cent above the official rate mean for the markets going forward? Victor Aluyi, Head of Portfolio Management at Comercio Partners joins CNBC Africa for more.
- Advertisement -