Ismael Ali Sirro is the re-elected President of Afar, one of the most neglected and marginalised regions of Ethiopia, with a population estimated at 1.2 million. Each year the region is allocated around 250 million Ethiopian birr (some US $29.5 million) from the federal budget. The region occupies one-fifth of Ethiopia's territory and divided into five zones and 29 different woredas (districts).
Here, speaking through an interpreter, Sirro tells IRIN of the real needs of the Afar, what the regional government is trying to do to assist and where the international community can assist them.
QUESTION: Why is the Afar such a neglected region?
ANSWER: We share this problem with other Ethiopian nationalities. The past regimes neglected Afars, particularly those in the lowland areas. They were building big towns in the highland areas, and so they neglected the lowland areas. This was in both the king’s [Haile Sellassie] reign and during the regime of the Dergue [a Marxist regime overthrown in 1991].
There was no democratic society or constitutional or legal body which could provide alternatives. There was no self-administration. First of all you must achieve your democratic rights before you can start building schools.
For the last century the Afar people were divided into five regions. Some were living in Tigray, some in Oromiya, in Shewa, and some in Welo. Now all the people have come together and formed the Afar National Regional State. It was formed in 1994, it was then that they become united in one region. We faced many social, political and economic problems, but now we are struggling with our brothers in Ethiopia - together with them - and now we have achieved our local independence.
In our region there were five political parties. Now we have integrated these five parties into the Afar National Democratic Party. This party, together with the regional council, focuses on education, because there is a lack of skilled manpower in Afar. Now we are trying to develop our regional state, which is one of the backward regional states of Ethiopia. We are trying to arrange mobile health units and education, as well as the provision of water.
Q: What is the regional state government doing to improve the situation in Afar?
A: The Afar people look after their cattle, and in doing so move from place to place. Since that is the case, we are trying to settle them to have a stable life in one area, so we constructing houses for them, with water and education and other social and economic facilities. To settle these people in on area – this is the idea we are working on. Under the Dergue regime, people in the region were being forced to settle. Now we are not doing that.
First of all, we convince them it is better to stay in one area rather than moving from place to place. Having convinced them, we try to settle them by constructing houses and infrastructure for them. Now that we are teaching them this, they will decide what is best for them. Afar is fortunate enough to have natural resources like rivers that flow throughout the year, starting from the Awash River in the south to the Ragali river in the north. We also have savannah grasslands.
Now we are thinking about what danger exists in a particular area, what is needed for people who live on river banks, in the desert, or in the savannah grasslands. After convincing these people it is better for them to live a stable life, we will put our plans into effect.
Also we have potentials from salt, potassium and other minerals. Around the salt areas we will form cooperatives, and people will be able to settle there. We are also inviting investors to come to invest in our region. We will allow investors here free of taxes or other imposts. We will give them land free of charge. Then, after they have worked the land, they can pay us.
Our region is unexploited in terms of minerals, agriculture and even animal products. We have resources, but our problem is the proper utilisation of those resources. To implement all this and properly utilise them, we need skilled manpower. To carry out such a programme, we are inviting intellectuals from other regions and at the federal level to come and work in our region.
This whole process could never be achieved through the regional budget alone. We will ask for government subsidies, and we will ask NGOs to get involved, and we will ask investors get involved in the development process. For the next year we are planning for the health department to construct five or six health posts, three health centres and a hospital. Alone we cannot achieve our development schemes.
Q: What is the single most pressing issue facing Afar region?
A: The most serious problem which compounds all the problems into one is lack of skilled manpower. There are almost no schools. A few were constructed during the Dergue era, along the Addis Ababa highway and around the state farms for the sake of the highlanders who came there. But there were no schools for the Afar population. So, the serious problem is the lack of skilled manpower.
Coupled with that is the lack of accessibility - roads. If you have very good road facilities you can do more, receive investors or NGOs. Roads are very important for the region's development. We have many rivers, running from year to year. If you have agriculture or animal husbandry you must take their products to nearby markets, and so you need a road. Roads play a very important role in our development scheme. If you have both skilled manpower and accessibility, you can do a lot more.
Q: What specifically in terms of education is the regional government doing?
A: First we are teaching the Afar language, the mother tongue, from grades one to four. Then we teach Amharic and English, then, after instruction is totally in English. Once children have completed the 10th grade, and if they have good grades we will send them to the civil service college or to university. We are also building boarding schools, because these people are nomadic.
Every Afar wants to teach his son or daughter, but it is beyond his capacity as he is living with his cattle in the bush. He cannot stay in the same place, so we are trying to construct boarding schools, and for this we will pay.
Because of their lifestyle, these people are unfamiliar with schools, don’t even know what they are for. We are trying to gather them in one area around boarding schools. The boarding schools will be for boys. When the school closes we will take them to their homes and when it opens again we will take them back. We also have a boarding school in Addis Ababa for adults who could not finish their schooling. We pay for that.
Now we are giving very serious attention to education. If we can implement our education budget, people will be able to learn throughout the regional state. But to succeed in this there will have to be a behavioural change. From the total annual budget, 25 percent is allocated to education. There are three functional boarding schools in the region. Next year we will open another two. Our plan is to construct one boarding school in the centre of each zone. After we finish this plan we will go down to the woreda level and then the kabele.
We will also give priority to some zones which are lagging behind. We are also giving capacity building and training for workers. We do this in the Afar language, because not everyone speaks Amharic or English. Now we are like a baby, but after some years we will be able to stand up.
Q: What difficulties do nomadic pastoralists present in terms of development?
A: Traditionally, Afar people, as is the case other pastoralists, produce their animals for prestige. They don’t produce with the purpose of using their skins, their milk or their butter. Thus everyone accummulates more and more cattle and sheep, and because they graze communally, this causes over-grazing. This causes shortages of water and pasture. When that happens, the young people take their cattle to some remote areas.
They don’t know how to cultivate. Now we are teaching them to plough, to become agro-pastoralists. If you tell them to farm and leave the pastoralist way of life they will not agree. But if you teach them, they will apply what they learn. They must be taught that producing to many animals is counterproductive. They must develop to get to the stage of selling their animals. They never sell their animals unless there is a very serious drought or other problems, so we are trying to teach them.
We are trying to create a package in some areas to attract the people to an area. We construct a school, a health post and water all in one place. We are also trying to develop a mobile system for education and health. A primary school teacher will have all the necessary materials in a suitcase - a blackboard, chalk, some teaching materials - and he will move with the people. When they stop in one area he will stop and teach them. We are also using the younger, modern generation to try and teach them.
Q: What more could the UN and local and international NGOs do to help?
A: First of all, we want them to come to Afar to see the general conditions in the region, the shortages of health and educational facilities, the problems that we face. They can talk with the community and regional council. Many NGOs like to have facilities and don’t like to go deep into the population. But we want to invite them and the international community. They can do more in our community.
Also, some Afar people who live abroad are helping us. We don’t just say come and give money, we say come and teach us. Give us the capacity to improve our developmental skills, to know more. Not just building health posts or schools, but to give us training, because if you don’t have any skilled manpower, and you try to build a hospital or a clinic or a primary school, it just ends up a heap of stones. Also they can help to facilitate people to learn, to help them go to school. We need them not only to come and build but also to teach and give us capacity building.
On the other hand, we encourage local NGOs to help the local people. They go deep into the community. They know the language, the culture and the needs of the community, so they can do good work.
Q: What are you doing to encourage NGOs?
A: We are encouraging local NGOs. We now have the Afar Pastoralist Development Association. The regional council is helping them, encouraging them, giving them licences and help from the [regional government] offices. Also the NGOs are very good not only for capacity building but also employ local people, who can then help their families.
If an NGO comes to Afar it could be operational within a week, even a few days. In Afar we don’t have a bureaucratic system - we have not learnt it. If you come to ask for something, and I have it, I can give it to you immediately. If they finish everything at the federal level and then come to our region, we will facilitate everything quickly. We are like children so we don’t know the bureaucratic system.
Q: Has the security problem in Afar put NGOs off?
A: There is no security problem, but people have mistaken ideas about Afar. People say they are killers and warlike. There is no security problem in Afar. But since the people are nomads the region is backward, so maybe there is a misunderstanding. Some NGOs who come to the region do not come the way NGOs should come. Afar traditionally like strangers. If you come to their country, you are their guest. They never give you any trouble. They are illiterate, they are backward, and they don’t harm anyone without reason. But if anyone gives them trouble, then they might.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.