10 largest tribes in Africa
Africa has within it more than a billion people in 54 countries. It also has around 3,000 tribes, from diverse regions with varying numbers of people. 30% of the African population come from ten people groups or if you would prefer “tribes”. In almost every case, these tribes were precolonial states, with their own language and their own independent institutions. Here are the 10 largest tribes by population in Africa.
10. The Hutu
The Hutu Tribe has a population of around 20-25 million people, settled primarily in two countries. The Hutu are the smallest of the top 10 tribes of Africa. In Rwanda and Burundi, around 85% of the people are Hutu and a combined 21 million Hutu live in these two countries.
The origins of the Hutu lie in the great Bantu expansion which was when they emigrated to the Great Lakes Region in Africa around the first century. The Hutus speak Rwanda-Rundi which is a Bantu language they also share with the Tutsi and the Twa. A small portion of the Hutus also speak French. The Hutu and the Tutsi tribes lived together in relative peace until the colonial invasion by Europeans which then soured the relations between the two tribes, leading eventually to the Rwandan genocide. There are many famous Hutus, many of whom were President of Rwanda, along with a few Prime Ministers of Burundi.
The Hutus were famous for their pottery and craftsmanship, while music and dancing remain a key cultural component of the Hutu tribe.
9. The Somali
The Somali Tribe have a population of around 20 million people and can be found in the country of Somalia (where they make up the majority of the population), Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya.
The origin of the Somali tribe can be traced back to about 7,000 years ago. New archaeological and linguistic studies have confirmed the Somali tribe to be the indigenous people of the Horn of Africa. They have lived there for over 7,000 years. The majority of the people speak the Somali language which is a Cushitic language. There are around 12.5 million Somali speakers worldwide. Other than Somali, another language which is spoken by a lot of the Somali tribes is Arabic.
The Somali culture is famous for its cuisine, its hospitality and also for being a “nation of poets,” as termed by Margaret Lawrence, a Canadian scholar. There are many famous people from the Somali tribes such as renowned economist Abdusalam, Ilhan Omar (a politician in the USA), along with many Prime Ministers and Presidents of Somalia.
Ilhan Omar, the U.S. Representative for Minnesota’s 5th congressional district elected in 2019
The Akan tribe number around 20 million people and can be found in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, notably along the southern region of both countries. They also speak their own language, the Akan language which is part of the Central Tano branch of languages.
The origins of the Akan lie in Ghana, according to their oral traditions. They settled in their current region in around the 11th century, after passing through Egypt in the 5th century, eventually settling at Nubia. However, after Nubia was invaded, they went to Ghana.
The Akans have an interesting history and formed the Ashanti Empire, which was the most dominant Akan state and lasted for nearly 200 years. The Akans had many subgroups who also formed their own Kingdoms.
Kwame Nkrumah, the founder of the Pan-African movement was of Akan origin. So was Kofi Annan, who was the head of the United Nations and was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Kofi Annan (1938 – 2018), former Secretary General of the United Nations
The Amhara Tribe number around 20 million and are mostly concentrated in Ethiopia where they make up 26.9% of the total population. The Amharas are the indigenous people of Ethiopia having historically lived in the Northern, Central and Western parts of the country. The first mention in history of the Amhara dates back to the 12th century when they were in conflict with the Werjih. This proved that they had been in this area for far longer than the previous accepted date of the thirteenth century. In fact, analysis showed that they have been living in Ethiopia since over two thousand years, having lived in the Central highland plateau in Ethiopia since that period.
The Amhara speak the Amharic language which is spoken by 23.9% of the total population of Ethiopia. There have been many famous Amhari who have been either Emperors or Prime Ministers in Ethiopia.
The Fulani tribe are one of the largest ethnic groups and tribes in Africa, with over 40 million people. They live mainly in Western African nations such as Nigeria, Mali, Guinea, Cameroon, Senegal and Chad. They have their own language known as Fula. Their origins are unclear but there are many theories as to where they originated. The oral traditions of the Fulani states that they started from what is now present day Jordan. What we do know for sure is that by the 5th century, they were in West Africa. The earliest evidence we have from archaeological digs points to them starting around 6th century BC at the latest.
They are one of the few Africa tribes to adopt Islam, with 98% of the Fulani being Muslim. Prominent Fulani include the first President of Cameroon, Ahmadou Ahidjo, and Major General Mohammadu Buhari, the current President of Nigeria.
Fifth in the list of the 10 largest tribes of Africa are the Oromo. The Oromo number around 40 million. They are mostly settled in Ethiopia and represent 34.5% of the Ethiopian population. They have their own language known as the Oromo language. They even have their own religion, which some follow to this day, known as Waaqeffanna.
The origins of the Oromo can be traced back to the 16th century when it was noted by scholars that the Oromo people migrated to find more grazing lands. They were a pastoral people, and they had no Kings, instead electing Lubas. The Oromo still govern themselves via the Gadaa system, and are one of the older examples of African democracy in action.
Some prominent Oromo figures include the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed Ali and the current President as well.
Sahle-Work Zewde, the President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
The Amazigh consist of around 40 million people. They are mostly found in Morocco and Algeria, but are also found in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Mauritiana and Niger. Most Amazigh speak the Amazigh language, though they also speak Arabic.
They have inhabited the Maghreb region in North Western Africa for over 12,000 years now. There are cave paintings from around 10,000 BC which can be attributed to the Amazigh. Numidia was an ancient Amazigh Kingdom which was very prosperous at the height of its success.
Prominent Amazigh figures include Juba II (King of Mauretania Caesariensis), Jugurtha (a King of Numidia) and Ahmed Ouyahia, four time prime minister of Algeria. Prominent sportsmen such as Zidane and Benzema are also from the Amazigh people.
Royal Mausoleum of King Juba II
Zinedine Zidane, one of the greatest footballers of all time
Third in the list of the 10 largest tribes of Africa are the Yoruba. The Yoruba are a tribe that consist of around 47 million people. They are mostly found in West Africa especially in Nigeria (43.4 million) and Benin (1.4 million). Most Yoruba speak the Yoruba language, which is part of the Niger-Congo family of languages.
The history of the Yoruba is very interesting. The Yoruba people have inhabited Southwest Nigeria since as early as 9,000 BC (11,000 years ago). This is based on skeletal remains found in Iwo-Eleru in present-day Ondo State, Southwest Nigeria.
LEFT: Reconstructed Iwo-Eleru Skull, CENTRE: Location Of Iwo-Eleru On The Nigerian Map, RIGHT: Multi Dimensional Images Of the Iwo-Eleru Skull (SOURCE: Public Domain)
The Yoruba who lived in Yorubaland were not known as the Yoruba until the 1st century BCE, despite having lived there for millenia prior to that. They are a dominant cultural force in Nigeria, and their cities were always amongst the most populous, not only in Africa, but also the world.
The capital of the Yoruba empire of Oyo was said to hold nearly 100,000 people at one point. They had their own calendar, and their own culture. They also have their very own unique cloth known as the Aṣo-Oke. Prominent Yoruba include many actresses in Nollywood, politicians and formers heads of state such as Olusegun Obasanjo.
President Olusegun Obasanjo (1976 – 1979, and later from 1999 to 2007) wearing Aṣo-Oke with U.S. President Jimmy Carter in the White House in 1977
The Igbo are another numerous tribe consisting of about 45 million people. They are based primarily in modern day Nigeria where they make up over 18% of the population though they are also found in Guinea. They have their own language known as the Igbo language which they primarily speak.
The Igbo’s origins are a mystery, with the best guesses tracing them back to about 3000 BCE, based on some pottery that was found which showed similarity to what the Igbo people did later. In the Nsukka region of Igboland, evidence was found of early iron smelting through excavations. Traditionally, they have had a democratic republican system of government. They have their own calendar and banking system. The Igbo had huge trade routes prior to the arrival of the European colonials.
The Hausa are a huge tribe and the largest of the 10 largest tribes of Africa with an estimated population of 74 million, mostly based in Nigeria with 64 million of them living there. However, they are also found in sizable numbers in Niger, Benin, Ivory Coast, Sudan, Ghana, Chad, Togo, Burkina Faso and Algeria. They are a diverse people that speak their own Hausa language.
The origins of the Hausa can be traced back to at least the 7th century and the Hausa Kingdoms. The Hausa people were divided into many kingdoms united by a shared ancestor and each of the Hausa kingdoms became specialist centers of trade in Africa. Their primary exports were leather, gold and clothes. The Hausa were renowned for their cloth weaving. Their architecture is also beautiful and intricate, while their cuisine is popular all over Africa.
Notable Hausa include many Sultans of Sokoto and also current footballer Ahmed Musa who plays for Nigeria.
Africa has a diverse number of tribes each with their own culture and their own languages. They are the torchbearers of some of the oldest historically surviving tribes. The 10 largest tribes of Africa account of 30% of the continent’s population and this article introduces you to the 3,000 tribes of Africa. To find out more about these civilizations, explore our articles on Africa’s civilizations.