Oromo politico-social system, Gadaa is one of the inventions Oromo are proud of. It was a system that upheld liberty equality and human dignity. One of the means for realization of these was a democratic process of interpersonal communications or dialogue. In all verbal interactions between two, three or a multitude, every participant has the right and the duty to speak and to listen in turns in an atmosphere of deference and equality. That process was what they called ilaa fi ilaamee, a democratic element of Oromoness the lack of which is drawing out Oromo difficulties. Literally, ilaa means “look” or “lend me your ears” usually to begin a discussion or dialogue. Ilaamee means “look please” or “give me attention” usually in the course of discussion. In short it was an art of communication, speaking and listening in turns under normal circumstances. Philosophically there is much to it.
A break down in ilaa fi ilaamee used to happen when society is in transformation as a result of man made calamities or natural disaster. At such a time a common purpose to listen to each other is lost. It is a period of total chaos and anarchy. Under normal circumstances it is only the deviants that defy the rule of ilaa fi ilaamee. Otherwise all decisions or agreements were reached after thorough deliberation to which all participants contribute. There was no body that can impose his opinion or will on others. When elders discuss children listen and learn and were not barred from attending. They had also peer gatherings where they practice the rule. Therefore ilaa fi ilaamee is an Oromo method of dialogue that a child learns to abide by from childhood. Its basis is consultation not dictation.
Oromo knew no dictation from above. Even, Abbaa Gadaa, the most respected and trusted head of state of the Oromo had no right to impose his will on others. If he tried to mess up with established rules he could face impeachment. Therefore even he must abide by the rule of ilaa fi ilaamee. Oromo civil liberties were protected not by curbing but by guarding them. Oromo had detailed rules of procedure and laws that encompass all activities of society. Incompatible behaviors and unethical standards were laid down in a tenet known as safuu.
It was safuu to break proclamations legislated by the Assembly. It was safuu to break traditions and ethos. In simple terms, it is safuu means it is illegal, incompatible and unethical. Therefore it was only the deviant that breaks safuu. To speak and listen in turns was a rule. To break it was safuu. That is why it is said “rule of law” is not strange for the Oromo. Every public performance or action had to be backed by legislation. To make peace or war it must first be discussed and common stand taken. The decision reached in that way is called seera or law. This word (seera) has gone into the rulers’ language (Amharic) to mean “conspiracy”. Citizens of the colonizing country had never participated in making laws. Citizens hold public gatherings only to listen to Awaj (proclamation) and orders when called or to conspire for rebellion.
Most members of the generation that initiated liberation movement were brought up under colonial oppressive system. Since many of them had gone to school they had come in contact with other cultures as well. The forms of communication they came around were different from those of the Oromo. Some knew no turns in speaking. Some yell at each other or talk simultaneously. Authorities, be them teachers, directors or public officials, ask for no opinions but impose their will. They knew only command language in their communications. That could have been safuu for the Oromo.
To these was added the system of “democratic centralism”; the communist model, where in practice communication was only one way, downwards from a center. All the alien ways have their part in crippling the Oromo noble tradition. Oromo cadres who tried to follow the alien ways had lost confidence of the rank and file. It will be hard for an Oromo to compromise the right to ilaa fi ilaamee in an Oromo setting. It would be easier for an Oromo to tolerate dictation from an alien rather than from another Oromo. Continuation of dependence may even be preferable to tinted alien autocratic practices. The handling of its internal contradiction is a symptom for what it has in store for the future. It will be unOromo not to treat nationals as equals at all times and spaces.
The occupation has very much affected Oromo psyche. Even some of those who rebelled to reinstitute national values and pride are seen suffering from dependency syndrome. For that they are neither themselves nor fully others. The general membership in the liberation movement was socialized with the aspired values. And they expect the leadership to practice what it lectures. In theory colonial command languages were discarded. The borrowed system of democratic centralism has also failed to work. Not understanding the metamorphosis comrades failed to address each others’ concerns with ilaa fi ilaamee, prompting dissentions.
The feeling of being denied the right to be heard and of being marginalized was among the causes for dissentions. Those mostly emanated from general ignorance and arrogance on part of the leadership. But dissenters gave different reasons as not to be blamed for trifles. Individual grudges and the feeling of “my way or the highway” has taken their toll. They could have saved the present confusion and stagnation had they staid back and fought for observation of ilaa fi ilaamee rather than cut and run.
Lately fundamental differences in outlook started to pop up in the liberation camp. A situation was created with third party influence creating obstacle for Oromo way of solving contradictions. Ilaa fi ilaamee was not tried. Aliens were given leeway to influence the struggle. Had it been used even if consensus seemed far fetched majority voice could have kept the organization in one piece. And they could not have so easily given up on each other before trying hammering out differences what ever time and effort it might have taken. Instead they went to each others neck. Followers of each group started to behave like cattle herds rather than like responsible freedom fighters.
Use of foul language in public was safuu in Oromo tradition. Disrespect for elders was likewise. These days the breaking of safuu is becoming common place in broadcasts, in cyber space communications and postings by Diaspora Oromo. Some individuals do not feel responsibility for their acts. Traditionally such behaviors were common among hooligans and herders that were away from societal scrutiny and were responsible to no one. To be of use for the struggle the Diaspora has to reexamine the way they relate to each other. Freedom of expression and assembly are among elements of Gadaa democracy. Any intention or action to disrupt that is safuu.
One way to improve interrelations is to practice ilaa fi ilaamee. To reconnect the severed relations among national groups would not be that difficult for those who are Oromo at heart. The Oromo have great potentials. Numerically they are in the majority. Their resources are immense. But like it was said “yoke is cut from the threshold of the fool”, these are utilized by the enemy that is highly organized. It controls state apparatus in addition to an effective national organization. On the other hand Oromo could not coordinate the forces that were out to defend the fatherland let alone mobilizing the whole Oromo resources. Without strong organization, common understanding and commitment to the national kaayyoo by nationalists, it is difficult to put up or negotiate with the enemy. As it stands the liberation movement is at its ebb that the enemy has no reason to give up an inch. Relation with it under this condition will only amount to surrender.
Ilaa fi ilaamee is one among the major traditional values that could have advanced the spirit of camaraderie among nationalists. But their past is pulling them away from the correct path, the path of freedom and independence. The past must be employed to smoothen the road ahead not to be an obstacle to it. No external relations can substitute Oromo consensus in guarantying victory. Nationalist have to go the Oromo way to achieve it. They have the population, resources and untapped potentials which they should be ashamed of for not utilizing so far. Deliberations, building consensus and trust are at the center of Oromo philosophy which every modern Oromo has to realize. If every ones concerns are addressed it will be easy to move even a mountain. That was how their forebears attained their acme.
It is said, “mari’atanii sanyii nyaatu” (you can eat seed set aside for cultivation if you discuss). It was safuu to eat such seed but if done with consensus there is no taboo that cannot be broken. Allow ilaa fi ilaamee to be part of your life, you will have solutions at your finger tips. Each voice of a national is of great value, for without it there can be no national harmony. There should be no limit to topics to be discussed, politics, region, religion, tribe etc. with safuu in mind. Patience and wisdom to listen and air ones concern in turns is all the struggle demands. That is the essence of ilaa fi ilaamee.
Honor and glory for the fallen heroines and heroes; liberty, equality and freedom for the living and nagaa and araaraa for the Ayyaanaa of our forefathers!
Ibsaa Guutama is a member of the generation that drew the first Political program of the OLF.