Lessons from the 2007 Ethiopian Census

Lessons from the 2007 Ethiopian Census1 
By Asefa Belachew (asefa.belachew@gmail.com)

A. Introduction

Individuals and their political, civic, and religious Diaspora organizations provide different numbers on the size and composition of the population of Ethiopia with respect to their religion and ethnic background. Their discourses are often made on the basis of their impressions without reference to any data. At times they distort the numbers to fit their conclusion. At least one organization does not want to use the existing numbers and dissuades others from making any reference to the numbers.

The primary purpose of this essay is therefore to share some descriptive data based primarily on the 2007 census of Ethiopia to foster a common understanding and knowledge on these issues. There have been previous attempts to provide Census data and analysis. For instance, Abate reviews the Census of 1984 with a view to providing numeric foundations for our discussions (Mammo, 1992). In a like manner, Berhanu provides a profile of the population based on the Census of 1994 (Abegaz, 2005). However, the popular discussion fails to make references to these analysis and data.

This essay aims to up-date those studies and provides a description of the characteristic of the population based on the Census of 2007. Census data are often contentious and the essay will point out the contentions regarding the 2007 Census.

The Census of 1984 was obviously carried out during the Derg regime, while the latter two were conducted during the EPRDF period. Several changes have occurred during this time that impacted Census-taking. First, Ethiopia moved from the Derg-era provincial administrative structure to the Ethnic-based regional structure during the EPRDF regime. As a result, geographic boundaries have been re-configured and the land and population reshuffled. The former provinces have been discarded, and only one remains by name, i.e. Tigray. Second, small towns have become full-fledged region or Special Region (Harar and Dire Dawa, respectively), while several population groups with over a million population each are lumped under one region (e.g. Sidama, Hadiya, Wolaita, etc). Third, population groups that were reported separately (e.g. Borena and Guji) under the 1984 Census are rightfully reported under Oromia in 1994 and 2007 Censuses. These and similar factors make comparison across the three censuses a difficult task, while it is relatively easier to compare the 1994 and 2007 Census results. With these and similar caveat some important lessons could be gleaned by examining the output of the 2007 census.

B. Distribution by Region and Ethnic Affiliation

The Census2 of 2007 puts the population of Ethiopia during the year at 73.8 million. Of these, almost 27 million or 36.6 percent lived in Oromia Region. The second largest was Amhara Region. The Region provided residence to 17.2 million people and accounted for 23.4 percent. The third was Southern Nations, Nationalities and peoples (SNNP) Region with a population of 14.9 million or a share of 20.2 percent. Somali Region, with a population of 4.4 million or 6.0 percent of the population, is a distant fourth. Tigray stands fifth and occupies 4.3 million people or 4.9 percent of the population.

The Regions are multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-lingual entities. In the above Table, the row referred to as Regional Resident, refers to the total number of people residing in the particular Region. Due to a lack of a better term, I use residents from other regions (Inmigrants) and residents of the region living outside the region (Out-migrants) to refer to those people in a region who report ethnicity other than the one attached to the region. For instance, in the Amhara Region, there were about 1.5 million non-Amharas residents in the region (about 8.5 percent of the Regional population). At the same time however about 4.1 million Amharas resided in the non-Amhara Regions (equivalent to 25 percent of the regional population). The former, I called In-Migrants although the people may have been born and lived in that particular Region for generations. The latter, I called Out-Migrants although they may have lived in the other regions for many years. This adjustment shows that the total number of Amharas (close to 20 million) exceeds the number of Amhras resident in Amhara Region (17.2 million). A similar computation for ethnic Oromos shows that a total of close to 27 million Oromos lived in Oromo Region. An additional close to 1.7 million Oromos lived outside of the Oromo Region (equivalent to 6.3 percent of the Regional population). At the same time, Oromo Region housed close to 3.3 million non-Oromos (equivalent to 12.2 percent of the Regional Population). This puts the total national Oromo population at close to 25.4 million people, lower than the residents of the Oromo Region.

It is clear that Oromos still stand as the largest ethnic group with a share of 34.4 percent of the total population. With a share of 27 percent, Amharas are the second largest. The share of Oromo ethnic group falls a little short (by 2.2 percent) of the share of residents in the Oromo Region, while the share of Amhara rises by 3.6 percent compared to the residents of the Amhara Region. The share of Somalis makes a little gain, while share of Tigray has a net outmigration of about 70,000 people – about 1.6 percent of the regional population.

Addis Ababa is a special case. In 2007, its residents (population) numbered 2.74 million. Of
these 1.29 million or (47 percent) were Amhara. Oromos numbered 0.53 million and
accounted for 19.5 percent. The number of Tigrie is the city was 0.17 million (or 6.2 percent).

C. Distribution by Mother Tongue

The Census identifies 84 distinct Ethiopian languages. “Mother Tongue” of respondents was identified by asking the question “What is (NAME’S) mother tongue?” Mother tongue is the language used by the respondent for communication with his/her family members or guardians during his/her childhood… A detailed list of the names & codes of the country’s languages were provided to the enumerators.”

The most widely spoken mother language is Oromigna as 33.8 percent of the population of Ethiopia (or 24.9 million people) report Oromigna as their mother tongue. Since there are only 25.4 million Ethnic Oromos and 24.9 million people whose mother tongue is Oromo, it appears that about half a million Ethnic Oromos have a mother tongue other than Oromigna. The second place is held by people with Amarigna as their mother tongue. Amarigna speakers number 21.6 million and accounted for 29.3 percent of the population. Since there are only 20 million Amharas and 21.6 million people who report Amarigna as their mother tongue, it shows that about 1.6 million non-Amharas start life speaking in Amharigna. With 6.2 percent of the population (or 4.6 million people) Somali speaking people stand third in mother tongue classification. There are 300,000 more people whose mother tongue is Somali than there are Somali people. The number of Tigrigna speaking people is at par with the number of Tigrie ethnic group. There are 16 languages spoken by at least half a million people each.

It is important to mention that these numbers relate to the mother tongue (home language or 1st language). But people could speak a second language in addition to the mother tongue. The numbers above therefore tends to understate the total number of people who speak a particular language.

D. Distribution by Religious Group

In 2007 43.5 percent of the Ethiopian population reported Orthodox Christian as their religious affiliation. Together with followers of the Protestant and Catholic churches, the share of Christians in the total population stands at 62.7 percent. Islam is practiced by 33.9 percent of the population. Of the rest, 2.7 percent are adherents of traditional religions.

In terms of the intra-regional distribution, 44.3 percent of Orthodox Christian are located in Amhara Region; another 25.6 percent are in Oromia. A very large majority of Protestants 60.6 percent of all Protestants in the country live in SNNP and another 35 percent live in Oromia Region. The two regions, taken together, account for 95.6 percent of Protestants.

Looking at each region separately from a different angle, Tigray is 96.1 percent Christian – primarily Orthodox Christian. The share of Moslems in the regional population is 4 percent. In Amhara Region, 82.5 percent are Orthodox Christians, while 17.2 are Moslem. There is hardly any non-Orthodox Christian denomination in Amhara and Tigray regions. In Oromia, 47.5 percent of the regional population is Moslem. There are 30.4 percent Orthodox Christians. Including the people that practice Protestant and Catholic faiths, the share of Christians of all denominations rises to 48.6 percent – slightly higher than Moslems. In SNNP Region, with 55.5 percent, the share of Protestants is by far the highest. Afar, Somali, Harari, and Dire Dawa are predominantly Moslem.

E. Contentions on Census of 2007

As I mentioned above, census-taking processes and data obtained through them are often contentious. Since the United States started taking census in 1790, the numbers and the approaches have always received partisan reception (Sullivan, 2009). Nigeria is another example. Nigeria, just like Ethiopia, is a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual country. Since the first census of the 1950s, Nigeria’s follow-up censuses or attempted censuses (four or five of them) have been marred by controversies. In both the US and Nigeria, the census data are used for re-defining the size of electoral districts (thereby Congressional or Parliamentary seats) and federal allocation of funds to the States and Districts, among other uses (Metz, 1991; Yin, 2007). As a result, censuses very much politicized.

 In Ethiopia, the size of the regional population has both political and economic ramifications. Politically, at least theoretically, population size is an important variable on the bases of which the number of electoral districts as well as representation in the House of Federation is determined. Economically, census data carries a big weight in resource allocation. For instance, over 60 percent of the weight of the index on which the unconditional block grant destined to regions is computed is based on population size (Moges, 2003).

Because of these reasons the census of 2007 had been shrouded with serous controversy. At least three contentious areas had emerged. Two of them had been recognized and admitted by the Population Census Commission of Ethiopia, the Agencies that oversaw the administration of the census. First, the Commission reporting to the Ethiopian Parliament admitted that errors were noted in the count of the Affar and Somali Regions that prompted immediate actions. As a result, the population of the two Regions were recounted and the errors corrected. The second was the issue of the missing 2-3 million Amharas. The Commission admits the errors, but no corrective action was taken. It states that the undercount was across the board and that the Commission saw no inconsistencies in the key ratios. Likewise, the undercount of the population of the City of Addis Ababa was recognized but no action was taken (Secretary, Population Census Commission).

How do 2-3 million people miss? Since conducting a census is a very involved and expensive feat and population trends do not change over a short time, it is usually undertaken every 10 years. Once the numbers for the Census year are ascertained, a projection is undertaken to determine the likely evolution of the population into the future – usually for each of the next 10 years until the next census is undertaken. As a normal practice, upon the completion of the Census of 1994, the Population Census Commission projected the population of Ethiopia to reach 77.1 million in 2007. For example, the population of Amhara Region, Oromia Region and the City of Addis Ababa were estimated to reach 19.6 million, 27.3 million, and 3.1 million in 2007, respectively. Compared to the actual population of 2007 based on the Census, it appears that the projection figures were invariably higher for all regions. However, the difference is 13.9 percent for Amhara Region (or 2.4 million people), 1.1 percent (0.3 million) for Oromo Region, and 11.7 percent (0.3 million) for City of Addis Ababa. The large margins of error of the Amhara Region and the City of Addis Ababa are the causes for the controversy (refer to Abegaz , 2015 for a critical review).

Considering the large differences, no correction was done; neither was a recount undertaken. Indeed, as a recount of the entire population in Amhara Region would have been expensive, the short cut and less expensive corrective measure would have been possible. One proper approach to correct the error would have been to take 10 or 20 percent randomly selected Woredas and perform a recount of their population. This approach would have helped to determine the average size of the under-count and compute a correction factor on the bases of which the population of the other Woderas would have been inflated.

The third contention is regarding the population of Oromia Region. Feyisa writing about the Census of 1984 states that “the 1984 census was undertaken with a deliberate objective to 'prove' the Oromos are less numerous than Amharas. Enumerators were instructed to register any person who spoke Amharic in Oromia as Amhara.” (Demie , 1996 and 1997). This assertion is however questionable considering that the Regional leadership was represented in the Regional Census Commission and that local people, including teachers, were deployed as enumerators. Regardless, these assertions make the Census of 2007 equally debatable.

F. Summary and Conclusion

A closer examination of the census of 2007 reinforces the finding of the previous two censuses. Additionally, a closer look reveals some important information. It becomes clear that the regions are not homogenous. For instance, about 9 percent of the population of the Amhara region are not Amharas. Likewise, about 12 percent of the population of Oromo region are non-Oromos. On the other side, about 20 percent of Amharas live outside of the Amhara region. Taking the net-migration, there are more Amharas and Tigres living outside of the respective regions. In terms of the languages, there are about half a million Oromos whose mother tongue is other than Oromigna (Oromiffa), whereas about 1.6 million nonAmharas start life with Amharigna as their mother tongue. In terms of religion, Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion in Tigre and Amhara regions. Most Protestants live in SNNP and Oromia. The number of Christians and Moslems in Oromia is about equal.

Census data are potentially a strong tool to allocate resource in a just and fair manner. Fairness and justice suggests that important resources such as senior Government positions, employment, scholarships and like be distributed in a manner that is proportional to the population. That means about a third of all such resources should go to Oromos, another quarter to Amharas, and down the row in a like manner. Indeed, some would be saved for the very small ethnic groups in terms of number. This kind of principle based allocation will avoid conflict and promote harmony.

Both for political and economic reasons, the technical accuracy of the processes and the credibility of the outcome of census data are important. The Central Statistical Agency is planning to undertake the next census in 2017 (CSA Plan). Therefore, the preparatory work should start in advance to avert potential sources of challenge in due course.


1 A longer version of the essay covering censuses of 1984, 1994 and 2007, including tables, could be found at http://www.forethiopia.org/lessons-from-recent-ethiopian-censuses/

2 In each region the Census questionnaire asked ethnic group, mother tongue, religious affiliation and marital status of the household members. It says, “In the 2007 Census, “Ethnic identity” of respondents was obtained through the question “What is (NAME’S) ethnic group?” Ethnic group (nation/nationality) of a person is traced through his/her national or tribal origin. A detailed list of ethnic groups in the country was obtained from the House of Federation.” (CSA, 2007).

3 Amy Sullivan, Why the 2010 Census Stirs Up Partisan Politics, February. 15, 2009 http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1879667,00.html 

4 Feyisa provides an interesting review of the growth of the Oromo people since 1850. He also reconstructs the census of 1984 and puts the Oromo population at 20.9 million as against 12.4 million in the Census. Part of his reconstruction is legitimate as Borena and Guji, who are essentially; Oromo are classified separately in the Census. According to Feyisa about 50 percent of the population in 1984 and 1994 were of Oromo decent. Feyisa Demie, Population Growth and Sustainable Development: The Case Of Oromia in the Horn of Africa, The Journal of Oromo Studies, Vol. 4, Number 1 & 2, July 1997. And also Feyisa Demie, The Oromo Population and the Politics of Numbers in Ethiopia, The Oromo Commentary, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1996.