Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Afar are a cross-border community of pastoralists who live in and herd livestock in adjacent parts of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. An estimated 1.3 million (2007 national census) Afar live in Ethiopia, with smaller populations residing in adjacent countries. These Hamitic people are primarily Sunni Muslim. They speak Afar and Arabic. Afar society is governed by a clan system and a traditional ruler, the Sultan of Afar. The home region of the Afar people, spanning international borders, is one of the most remote and harsh in the Horn of Africa with extreme temperatures and minimal access to water. The region also has traditionally been marginalized by government, with the people having minimal access to even the most basic of services.
The Afar region has a long history of inter-clan conflict, and was significantly affected by the creation of an independent Eritrea. The border between Ethiopia and Eritrea has regularly been a cause of conflict in the region.
Several rebel groups operate in the region, including the Afar Liberation Front (ALF). At the time of its inception, the ALF leader, Ali Mirah Anfere, declared that the ALF’s goal would be to establish an independent Islamic state for Afar. Its boundaries were to be decided on the basis of Afar ethnic habitation, including the Awash river basin and neighbouring territories, and the southern part of Eritrea. Mengistu’s creation of an autonomous province of Assab did nothing to settle the Afar issue, since the most fertile land in the Awash valley remained in Amhara control. The ALF has an uneasy relationship with the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The latter organized a seminar of the Afar Democratic Union in 1990, suggesting it was trying to build an alternative to the ALF. Under the 1994 Constitution, Afar became one of Ethiopia’s nine regional states.
A substantial part of Afar reluctance to accept an independent Eritrea is a result of their unwillingness to see their people divided by state boundaries. During the border war with Eritrea, Afar people on both sides of the border were caught in the middle. The two states encouraged Afar rebel movements in the other: Ethiopia supporting the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Union in Eritrea, and Eritrea supporting the ALF and the Afar People’s Democratic Organization in Ethiopia.
The Afar region is primarily arid or desert and is extremely susceptible to severe drought. Regular cycles of drought lead to humanitarian emergencies and increased conflict in the region. However, government response is often slow, and assistance from international organizations is limited because of the extreme conditions and security concerns in the region.
The El Nino weather pattern caused major disruption in rainfall in Ethiopia, and across East Africa and the Horn in 2016. The resultant drought in Ethiopia, reminiscent of drought cycles in 2002 and 2005, forced thousands of pastoralists to migrate with their livestock, and undermined crop production in the scarce fertile areas of the Afar region. With poor infrastructure, few schools and little access to health care, the Afar remain one of the most marginalized peoples of Ethiopia.
Updated January 2018