Reliving Gadaa Democracy

(Yaada hojii seeraa fi hoodaa masakuuf hayyootaan gabbifamuu dandahu)



Oromo had Gadaa constitution for protection of civil rights and liberties when other civilizations were still fighting for them. Oromo Gadaa political history, culture and language started to wane after occupation and lost hope of continuity when they started to send their offspring to alien schools. Children returned immersed in alien concept in all aspect of life but did not fully evolve into alien culture because theirs was democratically on higher level. Gadaa is resilient and the people are characteristically tenacious that it did not completely burnout; its umbers lived glowing under the ashes to flare up when the time came. However there are even today, those that became servants and abandoned their people’s and swear and brag by their masters. The aim of this article is to expose this umber so that the youth get fired to regain lost Oromo personality or Oromummaa and start to live accordingly. Though an ancient democratic system, Gadaa never gets out of date and was never a dogma. It had inbuilt system of rejuvenating itself periodically. Society is divided into five political parties of peers with each party taking power in sequence. Father and son belonged to same Gadaa; he has to wait from 32-40 years to assume power. Dabballee (children up to 8 years of age) stage is that of sons of current Gadaa. Each group of sons of previous Gadaas, stay at a grade for 8 years playing roles, which are part of leadership training necessary for their senior stages. Gadaa system gives much attention for protection of the child.

Since each Gadaa group is initiated into the next stage those in front have to move up. Therefore, there is no way that an incumbent can pass a day over the legal eight years term. Here we are not going to dwell on social aspects of age set system but leave it for more probes by anthropologists and sociologists. Generational hiriyaa that develop into political leadership is what interests us here. Hiriyaa means peer. So here, for convenience, let us say Gadaa is rule of hiriyaa. A hiriyaa group includes all members of a Gadaa born with in the eight years. A ruling Gadaa stays in power only for eight years without possibility of reelection. Incoming group can change or amend previously existing laws if it desired. The rule of law is accepted and no one can claim to be above it. This equally applies to Abbaa Gadaa and a common farmer.

The system has come down until foreign interference disrupted it. It is democratic because it has a constitution that allows a form of election in which every male Oromo equally participate. Oromo society was male dominated. Women’s participation in politics is insignificant. But culture and law demands women are respected and honored by the power of Siiqqee (Ceremonial staff) they hold from the day they were married. Gadaa has come down making amends to the constitution to change abusive practices in the past and there could have been possibility of recognizing equal rights for woman had it not been disrupted. Oromo had also a unique way of computing time. Each day of the month had a name different from the seven day cycle of most systems. That has a significant impact on Oromo world outlook. All aspect of society and the environs are governed by democratically proclaimed laws. The Oromo believe in one Supreme Being called Waaq. Thus Oromo religion is among the early monotheisms like Judaism after which Christianity and Islam came.

Religious life of Oromo society was guided by a Grand Qaalluu (High Priest) called Abbaa Muudaa, to whose shrine every able bodied Oromo used to make pilgrimages. There were several lesser qaalluu throughout Oromiyaa. Oromo religion is known as Waaqeffannaa and the believer is Waaqeffataa. In Oromo religion the soul does not travel to unknown place but remains on earth. Because Waaq is mercy there is no punishment after death. Religion had great role in social activities but does not interfere in governance except in blessing rituals and overseeing the election process of Gadaa officials. That made Oromo political system secular. The role played by Qaalluu is as important today as it was then. The Qaalluu may be allowed to continue its role or may be replaced by elected “Election Commission”. May be some sort of Religious Counsel could participate in it in memory of past wisdom. Oromo political life is led by elected national assembly known as Caffee or Gumii and Luba counsel.

Roots of Oromo social, political or religious systems are all indigenous not copy of other civilizations. Ancient Greek democracy which evolved into modern Western democracies was class based and not all Greeks including woman participated in it but only men in the top echelon. It was also direct democracy. Gadaa democracy is society based and was basically representative democracy though higher assemblies were open to all nationals that wish to attend. It was not as simplistic as those of the Greek but highly complicated. Direct democracy was mostly practiced on Ollaa (neighborhood) level. Presentation here is much simplified model to help modern generation understands it has a heritage to fallback to. They can start applying it to every form of association they might initiate.

The Oromo belonged to Kushitic language group to which ancient Nubian civilization which the Greek called “Ethiopia” also belonged. There are many symbols and cultural articles in Oromiyaa that have similarities with those of Egyptian Pharaohs; therefore some missing links within that civilization may be found in Oromo culture. Oromo civilization, with honest research could be pushed back to more than 4000 years. Its deep roots are ones that kept it alive in Oromo memory despite all the colonial campaigns to destroy it.

Basic elements of Gadaa democracy are continuous search for peace and araaraa (conciliation) with Waaqaa and mother earth, justice, equality, participation in societal activities at all levels, protection of rights for all vulnerable persons, respect for human and environmental rights, government by peers, limited period of power, freedom of worship, decision by consensus, observation of safuu (ethical code), laguu and rule of law. The Oromo took respect for laws as the key to realization of all others. Therefore every action and every moving body had laws. Safuu is a universal ethical code of prohibited acts and behaviors, which no body has to transgress. Laguu is abstention from eating, drinking and practicing certain things.

Structure and function

The active generation that takes responsibility to rule the country for the next eight years was referred to as Gadaa. Its major institutions were Caffee (Gumii), Luba and Bokkuu. Caffee is General Assembly of the people or Parliament. Luba are generational leaders. Bokkuu is the chief Luba that carry the symbol of authority (Scepter) known as Bokkuu. He is mostly referred to as Abbaa Bokkuu or Abbaa Gadaa. Out of the Luba nine Executive members or Salgee (in some areas 6) are selected as the Supreme ruling counsel. One among them is the President or Abbaa Gadaa. Two others are elected as deputies and together are called Sadan Gadaa. The three keep and implement what Salgee entrust to them.

Different functions like, treasury, war, justice are distributed among remaining Luba. All Luba are considered as equals except for difference in functions. All state functions are done by committees from top executive down to ganda level. Because members of the committee are considered as equals and their chairpersons are one among equals there is no chance for rise of dictatorial leaders. It is this democratic practice within institutions that distinguishes Oromoo system different from Habashaa aristocracy and autocracy. Qaalluu institution serves not only as religious head of society but also as supervisor of Gadaa elections. But now in a multi-faith society it requires reconsideration on how to modify its role assignment.

Caffee is the highest legislative body. Its members come from different segments of society through elections. Moieties and tribes were important constituencies to contribute to its membership. Oromo communities enjoyed autonomy starting from the smallest segment of the land, Ganda or Ollaa (hamlet or neighborhood). Each segment had its own assemblies to handle local or regional matters and national relations. Therefore Gadaa system was not a fully centralized system. When a new Gadaa comes after 8 years, it reviews existing laws, adopt as they are, amend or totally change and proclaim as national law. It regularly sits in midterm, every four years to review implementation of the laws; performance of the Luba Counsel and to legislate new laws if necessary. It can reprimand, uproot or punish the counsellors for wrong doings. The Caffee is chaired by current Abbaa Gadaa for all deliberations except when performance of his office is evaluated. Then a senior past Abbaa Gadaa presides to avoid conflict of interest.

The Salgee (Salgan Hayyootaa) is responsible for executive function. It appoints leaders of the different functions of state, like Abbaa Duulaa, Abbaa Sa’aa, Abbaa Seeraa, Abbaa Biyyaa, Abbaa Alangaa, etc (Warlord for each engagement, Finance, Justice, Interior, Attorney General). It can declare wars and make peace. It builds fighting force from among able bodied age groups, which are placed under Raabaa Doorii, the warrior generation that is going to assume power after the current Luba, for command and training. All decisions are passed in counsel. No individual makes decisions except in cases of clearly given prerogatives. Abbaa Gadaa is the head of the Salgee as well as that of the nation and Commander in Chief of the army.

Yuba are the outgoing Gadaa members. They are highly respected member of society with the role of counseling the Luba, reviewing laws and attend Caffee meetings. Such activities give them the power of checking over the Luba. In combination with Raabaa Doorii the Yuba could serve as check and balance of power. This writer had experienced two moieties, Hobo and Coora. He and his grandparents were Coora and considered allies, while his father was hobo. His father cannot hit him in presence of his grandparents. This is also applied to Yuba and Raabaa Doorii relations. Both as allies can check of Luba.

Lessons to be learned

Oromo civilization is Oromo’s own unique contribution to world civilizations not a copy. From linguistic relations it has with them, there is possibility of it being a part of ancient Egyptian and Nubian (Meroe and Napata) civilizations. Similarities of the Bokkuu, Caaccuu, Kallacha and the time reckoning system are indicators of relations with those civilizations. Therefore going back to our roots could help in development of that unique Oromo personality and great service to humanity for resurrecting its lost heritage.

All members of society participate in activities that their age allows not by intuition but by design. Members are grouped according to their ages or hiriyaa with eight years apart. Here we are interested in the development of political process rather than the social aspect. Therefore we are not going into the initiation ceremonies and social roles a child undergoes in life. For our purpose training and education for leadership for peer groups or hiriyaa starts in the first eight years of life. Each eight years until the child reached the Luba stage has duties and rights assigned to it. At all stages Gadaa democracy is practiced. All members of hiriyaa treat each other as equals. No member is considered as more equal than the others because of positions within the group.

One can be in power only once in life time. The term of office in one Gadaa tier is only 8 years. Peers elect and can depose leaders before their terms end if there is good cause. But they are duty bound to respect and cooperate with the leaders as long as they perform their duty properly. The leader is also obliged to respect his followers and treat them as his equals. That was the way Oromo viewed power before they fell under foreign influence. Their past is where they should look for their redemption for renaissance of Oromo personality and civilization. They have to get rid of autocratic leader worshiping culture. Oromo respect and love their leaders not fear and worship.

All Oromo Gadaa is formed by combination of segments of the society such as moieties, tribes and regions. Those had local ethos and practices that are recognized by the whole nation. It was those differences that were strength of the nation not stereotype unity learned from aliens. It is saddening to see people pointing to this differences, regionalism and tribalism as defects in formation of nationalism. Those are ingredient parts of Oromummaa, which cannot be washed away. Every Oromo has to recognize those and consider them as uniting factors rather than dividing them. For a true Oromo regionalism or “gosa” is not in contradiction with Oromummaa, it is part of it. When we attack each other with gosa (clan?) we are only reflecting our rulers’ concept of the word they borrowed from Oromo. We are becoming them when we hit back our person with our own revered tools. In afaan Oromoo “ethnic” or lammii is different from “gosa” which means tribe or clan. Habashaa have no word but use distortion of Oromo “gosa” since they came to Africa.

There is no time in Oromoo history that the Oromo accused each other for loving ones “gosa” or ones “biyyaa” (region). Colonialism has made Oromo prisoners of alien political socialization. Because of the negative impact it developed some individuals consider it demeaning to tell from which region or tribe they are when asked. They jump to say they are from Oromiyaa. That is obvious, but the person who asked wants to know ones place of birth or region one came from. That was what our people used to ask when they meet a child or stranger. We all should love our country Oromiyaa and hold her above all the sub divisions and separate from personal believes. All have their own place in Oromiyaa building blocks. It is for not understanding this truth that some attack others for being less nationalistic, hiding one’s own deep sited feelings. There is no uniformity in Oromo social development. In some clan cohesions are stronger than the others. That must be understood to take each other for what we are rather than engaging in unproductive bickering. Sovereignty of the nation starts from grass roots levels. They are the ones that retain a part for themselves and give up the rest for upper echelons. Gadaa democracy has to start being practiced from there, on Ganda (village) level.

In Oromiyaa most works are done and decisions are taken by committees rather than bureaucratic structures of other civilizations. Here, there is no one man show at all levels. Therefore each man is as important as all others and so must personally be present on activities. Decisions are taken by consensus and no concern is left untouched even if that takes days. The Oromo say, “Haa bultu dubbiin” (Let us sleep over it) instead of rushing for decisions.

To conclude, there are certain salient features of Gadaa political system that shaped political, social and psychological makeup of the nation. Among them are, rule of law; government by election; limited term of office; absence of one man show; participation of all citizens in the system; respect for human rights and the environment; freedom of speech and expression; right of worship and secular public administration. Oromo civilization is part of the great Kushitic civilization and developed in parallel with other civilizations, and so original. The two parts of government are Caffee/Gumii and Luba Counsel (Salgee). Caffee is the legislature and Supreme Judiciary. Qaalluu’s role in politics were overseeing election of Gadaa officials and blessing their coming to power. Nowadays there are qaalluu with different faith. With Qaalluu declining that is an important role needing much pondering on how to compose institution for running elections. Public administration of Gadaa is secular. Oromiyaa was a male dominated polity. Therefore there is much to be done about women’s rights in the modern setting. Releasing women power can increase societal ability by double. Oromo woman are equally capable as their men counterparts in every field of societal activities they participated in. Political and social organizations should be vanguard in making sure that women have equal participation in their ranks. Oromo are known better for their adherence to the rule of law. Every Oromo national is equal before the law and is expected to abide by it and also defend it. No one is above the law. Gadaa system is Africa’s contribution that the world has much to learn from. As important as it is for being human heritage efforts to achieve it should not be left to Oromo alone. However for the Oromo to relive Gadaa life, it is incumbent upon their struggle to speed up its shortcut journey so that it catches up with the time. To repeat its never ageing principles that are core to any genuine Oromiyaan institution and persons are, respect for rule of law; love for children; government by election; limited leadership term of office; respect for human, individual and environmental rights; equality of all hiriyaa officials; participation of all citizens in the system irrespective of gender and creed; absence of one man show; love for neighbors and humanity and observance of safuu. Modernized renaissance of Gadaa Democracy shall not be far off! Oromiyaa shall be free!

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
December 2016

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