By Zelalem Tesfaye Sirna
The Gadaa system is an indigenous egalitarian democratic system practiced among the Oromo nation of East Africa for the last six hundred years. Among other structural elements of Gadaa system is its legislative body commonly known as Gadaa General Assembly. The assembly takes place under a sycamore tree – a symbolic representation of dialogue and consensus.
Gadaa is a holistic system of governance encompassing: political, social, cultural, economic and religious affairs of the Oromo people. As a system of governance, the Gadaa operates in stages (often ten stages with eight years separation). Unlike other, Western democratic systems, the Gadaa system has five permanent political parties whose members assume leadership once every eight years. Within forty years, all five parties serve their nation constituting ‘One Gadaa’.
Problems and Purpose
Discourses around the origin of democracy contain a clear binary separation between “us” and “them” which over-simplifies the complex historical evolution of political systems. In the majority of cases, “us”/”we” refer to the Occident/the West whose academics hold the ‘standard history of democracy’ to be a ‘modernist’, ‘universalistic’, epistemologically orthodox, single-trajectory event. The other category is “them”: the Orient/the Rest who provide a convenient counter-narrative, a ‘sub-standard story’ of relativistic, epistemologically unorthodox multiple-trajectories. Benjamin Isakhan warns that considering the Western democracy as the only way for the rest of the world “miss[es] the broader human story of the struggle for and achievement of democracy” (Benjamin n.d.: 5). Citing Roxanne (1997) Williams and Warren also suggest that, it is vital for political theorists to “problematize the dominance of Western intellectual traditions, conceptual frameworks, and institutional forms and devote our energies to fostering a ‘trans-cultural conversation’ or ‘dialogue among civilizations” (Williams and Warren 2014: 30).
The place of Africa in the “standard history” of democracy is often overlooked. The conceptualisation of the postcolonial state in Africa is also highly influenced by the present predicaments (see: civil wars, famine, corruption and others) of the continent. Hence, regard for African indigenous egalitarian institutions and its continuous development has little or no space in academic discussion. One of such is the Gadaa system of the Oromo People. Some scholars underline that the Gadaa system of governance is genuinely African and provides a potential solution for some of the democratic crises we face today, be it in the global South or global North (To name a few, Abdulahi 1994; Asmarom 1973; 2006; Holcomb 1997; Marco 2005; Jalata 2012; Baxter 1978; Baissa 2004; Dirribi 2011; Hallpike 1976; and Alemayehu 2009).
It is difficult to tell when exactly Gadaa system began since is seens as an intrinsic element of the indigenous Oromo’s everyday lives and not an ‘institution’. However, counting back the Gadaa leaders in power, now at 71st Gadaa leader and multiplying it by eight years, one can reasonably conclude it has been practised since at least the early 1400s. Moreover, gathering under a sycamore tree known as Odaa is part of traditional Oromo culture. Today, the sycamore tree is a symbolic representation of dialogue and consensus, where the local community comes together to make new rules and resolve disputes (Sirna 2015). Given the vastness of the Oromia (363,136 square kilometres) and its population (50 million), assemblies take place in several places and assemblies are named after the place of gatherings. For instance, among the Borana-Oromo it is known as Gumi-gayo (Gumi means assembly and Gayo refers to a place of water well); among the central Oromo it is called as Chaffe (meaning, assembly at the edge of prairie grass); among the Guji-Oromo it is known as Yaa’ii Me’ee-Bokuu (Yaa´ii means multitude and Me’ee-Boku refers to the place).
Participant Recruitment and Selection
In principle, every person can attend the Gadaa general assembly. Differences in terms of age, status or political affiliation may not bar a person from taking part in the assembly. However, it is mandatory for all living former Abba Gadaas (presidents), former and incumbent Gadaa Councilors (not less than thirty in number), and clan elders to convene to the assembly. The assembly was led by a speaker – ex-Abba Gadaa. In a new development, women were allowed to attend the general meeting – something previously not expected of them. Sirna hopes that it is inevitable that women continue to participate and deliberate in Gadaa general assembly.
Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
The power of the Gadaa general assembly is to exercise supreme legislative authority. Its functions include (but are not limited to) reviewing laws at work, proclaiming new laws, impeaching the men in power, and settling major disputes that could not have been resolved at the lower levels of its judicial organ(s). Any decision passed by the general assembly is final and cannot be reversed by any other assembly (Asmerom 1973: 93). The legislative and adjudicatory supremacy of the general assembly is historically conditioned and culturally deep-rooted.
Historically, the process of enacting laws by the general assembly across central Oromo was quite different, especially before the mid-19th century. The process is dramatic, beginning with the Gadaa leader climbing to the top of a large stone from which he jumps down solemnly, shouting “serri bu’e” meaning “the law has fallen!” (De Salviac 2008 (1901): 213). De Salviac explains this dramatization as “an expedient of infantile simplicity but by its nature it is basically to make deep impression of the open imagination of the crowd” (ibid: 213). Hence it creates the sense of imagining people without law, order and closure of government where an offender goes unpunished and all other laws will be null and void. Following the dramatic expression the assembly reclaims the law by shouting “the law! The law! We want the law!” Eventually, the president climbs up on the rock again and responds to the swelling assembly stating “serri ba’e” meaning the law is raised! Following this event all participants burst into joy (ibid: 214).
Nowadays, among the Guji-Oromo, the adoption of any laws by the Gadaa general assembly follows a strict procedure starting with the speaker (ex-Abba Gadaa) opening the agenda for deliberation by all. Then, discussion on the proposed agenda takes place in a traditional and orderly manner which privileges those with seniority. Following this, the speaker of recounts the proposed agenda and the main points of discussion. Finally, upon completion of the series of deliberations he asks: “would there be anything but peace if we said `these are our laws’?” and the assembly responds unanimously.
The speaker requires every assemblyman to take part in the Gadaa general assembly calmly and actively engage in the deliberation. In the middle of the deliberations he intervenes to make sure that a topic is meant to be in the meeting for discussion rather than debate. Above all, he holds that the assembly is not the place of showing one’s talent of speech or a place to judge a speaker’s mind but it is the place for seeking solutions to societal problems. Hence, he seeks to balance the individual freedom of expression on the one hand, and the orderly environment of deliberation on the other.
Following this, the speaker opens the space for all participants, in particular for the Gadaa councillors, to deliberate on agendas encompassing environmental, social, political, and cultural matters. Then, the next speaker says kophise! (meaning, the chance is mine!). The person who says “kophise!” ahead of others is accorded the first chance to speak. Each speaker is required to repeat the fundamental moral values before proceeding to the discussion. They then voice their opinion on the right course of action the Oromo should take on social, political, economic and environmental issues. When finished, the speaker says toggise! (meaning, I am done!) and the next person who wants to deliberate says qophise! and continues to speak. Each speaker may support or oppose the view of their predecessor and, in doing so, the views of the minority are eventually swallowed by the majority consensually.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
In its current political context, the Gadaa system is relegated to local-level practices. The past regimes as well as the current government are responsible for the demotion and underdevelopment of the Gadaa system. Even though UNESCO recently recognized Gadaa system as intangible cultural heritage, it is not given any official recognition by national or regional constitutions. Instead, Gadaa functions parallel to the state political institutions.
It is perhaps ironic that although the Gadaa system has functioned as an effective method of participatory democracy for the past six centuries, the Ethiopian national government is mired in tyranny and corruption. This is a possible indication that democracy is sustainable where it is socially and culturally grounded, and not simply self-proclaimed democratic republicanism. For instance, Ethiopia had a constitution since 1931 and has never become a democratic state in practice. Nevertheless, every politician and citizen of Ethiopia recognizes that Gadaa is democratic, and often the federal and Oromia Regional State presidents attend the Gadaa power transfer ceremonies. They read their ´written confessions´ and appreciate how Gadaa system is uniquely an African egalitarian and democratic system. They do not have a vision to accommodate it or even to learn from Gadaa participatory democracy. On the bright side, however, the enthusiasm and participation of the Oromo youth has been increasing tremendously.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Time – among the Guji-Oromo the general assembly takes place once in every eight years and mostly for a week, just a week before power transfer. Whereas, among the Borana-Oromo, the general assembly takes place once in eight in the middle of the term of office of a leader. In the case of the former, it is very crucial, to attract the attention of the participants since it also marks power transfer and in the case of the latter it is important since it checks the responsibility of the leaders in power. Since, power transfer takes place elsewhere following elections, it would be interesting to see people gather and deliberate on the future of their country, not just before election but just before power transfer.
Structure – Gadaa has five parties of at least six Councillors each – four from past administrations and one from the incumbent. In total there are 30 Councillors with very rich experiences who together shape the success of the deliberation. The other most important thing is that the Past – Present – Future – are in the assembly. In our contemporary political system elections are conducted every five or four years in between which citizens often pay little attention to matters of government. Citizen apathy is at the root of our modern political system’s crisis. A lesson from Gadaa shows us that you live in the past as well as the future. Hence, the future possible leaders are included in the assembly to learn from their superiors. Each Gadaa represents a kind of ‘grading’ of the candidates who take part in the assembly – representing the “future”. Women also take part in the assembly but do not deliberate – they arrive at the assembly last and leave first – last in first out!
Consensus through dialogue – as discussed above, whoever asks for the chance to speak first is granted the ability and the deliberation does not come to a close until all ideas and voices have been heard. In other words, until a “consensus” is reached the deliberation continues. No one interrupts while some one is speaking, a speaker need not stand to speak, and once they have spoken they may speak again. Dialogue is thus based on respect – in recognition of one another´s views – proceding from the iteration of ´the general moral values´ and continuing on to agree with the previous speaker’s words or respectfully deviating and voicing one’s own opinion. The only thing that gains automatic consensus are ideas that are close to the commonly accepted moral values.
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Sirna, Zelalem T., (2015) “Old Wine in New Bottles: Bridging the Peripheral Gadaa Rule to the Mainstream Constitutional Order of the 21st C Ethiopia.” Oromia Law Journal. P. See also: http://www.ajol.info/index.php/olj/article/view/120606