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Borana Democratic System of Governance: Gadaa Council

Gadaa is an indigenous socio-political democratic system of the Oromo people that regulated Political stability, economic development, social activities, cultural obligations, moral responsibility, and the philosophy of religious order of the society. 


The political philosophy of Gadaa is based on three main values: terms of eight yearsbalanced opposition between parties, and power-sharing between higher and lower levels. Hence, Gadaa consisted of the five-fixed party system. Every male Oromo passed through eleven series of grades acquiring various talents and skills. The former six grades were fixed learning grades while the latter five grades were educators. Each Grade was associated with various privileges and responsibilities. 


The system made members of the society to accomplish their obligation and enjoy privileges at the right time. In other words, the Oromo were able to govern social, economic, military, political and other aspects of their life by this egalitarian system. Since Gadaa was highly endowed with moral and legal values, among the Oromo it created a peaceful setting and kept social order by prohibiting injustice, social evils, and political chaos. Above all, it discouraged early marriage, banned social evils like corruption and rape and encourages good governance, work and to be self-reliance, that in turn promote development. Indigenous socio-cultural values of Gadaa such as endeavor for self-reliance, tolerance, respect, equality etc could be viable in modern politics if they are promoted.


It is obvious among the Boran that the participation into numerous social ceremonies is an obligation of its leaders. Thus as leaders, they had to involve in ceremonies like marriage, circumcision, the rite of passage to different Gadaa grades (e.g. in the incorporation of their sons’ Gadaa class), and the final entry into a sacred grade (gadamojjii). Besides, there is no norm among the Borana that demands everybody to attend all ceremonies and no uniform obligations in this regard. Therefore, in principle it is optional and exceptionally, however, it is an obligation for leaders based on their positions and “morally” demanding (e.g. Daballe rite of passage). For example: where the Gadaa Council in power has to directly involve in the rite of transition to gadamoojjii (the ceremony of their fathers); however, the Raba have no such serious ritual functions (Dirribi 2011; Asmarom 1973, 2006)


The three Gadaa Organs of Governance: Gadaa Council, Gadaa General Assembly, and the Qallu Assembly Gadaa System embrace four basic leadership institutions, namely: Age-sets (hariyya) Gadaa Council (adula); Gadaa General Assembly (gumi gayo); and the religious institution (Qallu). Since Age-sets is discussed in detail in the above section, it will not be repeated here. Accordingly, the following subsections mainly deal with the three remaining institutions.


The Gadaa Council (Adula)


The Gadaa Council (adula) is a body of executive Gadaa leadership and it consists of six members. They are:


– A President (Abba Gadaa fixe).  It is also known also as Abba Gadaa arbora);
– Two vice-presidents (Abba Gadaa kontoma);
– Three senior councilors (hayyuu adula).


The president and the two vice presidents form the Gadaa triumvirate or it may be considered as government by committee. The three presidents are the most senior officers of the Gadaa Council. And additional three senior advisors are available to both offices of the presidents (Abba Gadaa arbora and kontoma). Furthermore, all members of the Gadaa Council are regarded as equals despite the fact that they exercise different functions and play different roles.


Gadaa Council is an entity. As an entity, the concept of a legal person and natural person applies to the Gadaa Council. That is where a member of Gadaa Council acts in an official capacity it is regarded as if it was conducted by the Gadaa Council. Hence while the members of Gadaa Council are mere agents, Gadaa Council is a separate body of Gadaa government. Accordingly, if a member commits a crime he shall personally be responsible, however, for any activities carried out within the scope of their authority will be regarded as if is conducted by the Gadaa Council and therefore, the responsibility goes to the Gadaa Council, not to the counselor(s). An indication of the prevalence of this concept is clear from the Boran views. For example, the Boran perceive that attacking (physically or verbally) a member of the Gadaa Council (Adula) tantamount to an offense against the Boran society as a whole; and the Gadaa class will say “we have been attacked”. 


In the same way, any positive accomplishment by the Gadaa Council is also considered as it is the collective achievements the members of the Gadaa class.


The Gadaa system has a very logical structure, but because of the interlinking of the two concepts of belonging and responsibility that are at its core, it is not easily accessible at first glance. This system divides the stages of life, from childhood to old age, into a series of formal steps, each marked by a transition ceremony defined in terms of both what is permitted and what is forbidden. The aspect of Gadaa which throws the concept of age grading into confusion is that of recruitment. A strict age-grade system assumes that an individual’s social passage through life is in tune with his biological development. An individual enters the system at a specific age and passes through transition rites at intervals appropriate to the passage from childhood through full adulthood to senility. However, recruitment into the Gadaa system is not based upon biological age, but upon the recruitment that an individual remains exactly five stages below his father’s level. Recruitment is thus based on the maintenance of one socially defined generation between father and son.

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According to the Boran customary law, all the members of the Gadaa Council are required to live together from the moment of their election up to coming to power. In addition, after taking power the three Abbaa Gadaa shall be constituted into two bands: Olla Arbora (neighbor of arbora) and Olla Kontoma (neighbor of kontoma). Where the former refers to Abba Gada fixe, the latter refers to the office of vice-presidents. Accordingly, the Gadaa Council perform as “indivisible community” for one term office. In total, however, all members of Gadaa Council live together, as the ‘mobile capital of the entire Gada class’, for not less than twenty-four years (i.e. from the time of their election up to the end of their term office).
As discussed elsewhere, the Gadaa Council has assistants commonly known as Jaldhaba (executive officers). The executive officers (not less than six) are appointed by joint decision of clan elders and the Gadaa Council. Their appointment procedure is as follows: each clan presents candidates. Then the clan leaders will have a discussion with clan elders on the capacity and diligence of the candidate. Finally, based on clan elders vote or decision the Gadaa Council – recruits executive officers. The powers and functions of the executive officers include to: accompany the Gadaa councilors in their movement from place to place (for public services) across Boran; guarantee the smooth running of the Gadaa Council’s daily businesses; serve as agents of the Gadaa councillors especially in dealing with clan leaders and moiety representatives; and they look after the personal properties of the Gadaa councilors.


In addition to the executive officers, the Gadaa executive body also embraces junior Gadaa councilors (hayyuu garba). Junior councilors are different from senior councilors in the following ways: while junior councilors are selected just before the power transfer ceremony, the senior councilors are elected at the kusa Gada grade along with the Abba Gadaa. Second, selected junior councilors are representatives of the five Gadaa classes (i.e. including the Abba Gadaa fixe junior councilors consists of six members). Moreover, unlike the senior councilors, they are recruited by the outgoing Gadaa Council, but they serve with the incoming Gadaa class. Fourth, where the total number of senior councilors is constant (three), the total number of junior councilors shall not be less than six. 


However, over the courses of certain Gadaa chronology, the total number of junior councilors has increased from six to ten (i.e. from 1936-1960). That is, following the Italian invasion the number became seven i.e. during Aga Adi (1936-1944), it increased to eight during Guyyo Boru (1944-1952), it became nine during Madha Galma (1952-1960), and Ten during Jaldesa Liban (1960-1968) (Asmarom 1973). In the search for the reason why the number of junior councilors kept increasing in the mid of 20th century, Asmarom suggest that the change is associated with the invasion of Ethiopia by fascist Italy in 1935. However, currently, the outgoing Gadaa Council will only select six junior councilors.


In electing leaders there is a general understanding among the electors and among the men competing for offices that personal qualities, achievements, mystical attributes, and public service are the most important factors. it should be stressed that it is not the candidate himself who is being judged but rather his whole lineage and in particular, his lineal ancestors. Despite kinship being such an important factor in Oromo society, those who are elected to office are expected to serve without regard to kinship ties. Nobody is above the rule of law in Oromo democracy. The Gadaa system as a whole provided the machinery for democratic rule and enjoyment of maximum liberty for the people.
The concept Gadaa has three related meanings: it is a period of eight years during which elected officials take power from the previous ones; it is the grade during which a class of people is in power by having politico-ritual leadership; it is the institution of Oromo society. Society is organized into two distinct but cross-cutting systems of peer group structures. One is a system in which the members of each class are recruited strictly on the basis of chronological age. The other is a system in which the members are recruited equally strictly on the basis of genealogical generations. The first has nothing to do with genealogical ties. The second has little to do with age. Both types of social groups are formed every eight years. Both sets of groups pass from one stage of development to the next every eight years. Despite the emergence of various autonomous Gadaa systems, the central principles of the system remained intact. And the possession of the defining institutions of qaallu (the spiritual leader) and the common Gadaa government seems to have been the special mark of the Oromo nation.


Oromo males are involuntarily recruited to both age-sets and generation-sets. Male children join age-sets as newly born infants. Males born in the same eight-year period belong to an age-set. But they enter into the system of Gadaa grades forty years after their fathers, and since one grade is eight years, fathers and sons are five grades apart. Male children can join advanced grades at birth and may join men or old men who are considered to be members of their genealogical generations. Older men mentor young males in teaching rules and rituals, but the former treat the later as equals since there is no status difference between the two groups in a Gadaa class. Members of a Gadaa class share the same status and roles and perform their rights of passage from one grade to another collectively.

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Gadaa General Assembly (gumi gayo)


Gadaa General Assembly (gumi gayo) is the legislative body of the Gadaa government. The Boran themselves perceive the function of the gumigayo and describes it as dubbii aadaa (“custom-talk”) and dubbii seeraa (“law-talk”). That is, the Gadaa General Assembly is committed to discuss and deliberate on customary laws and norms of the Borana as a whole. Therefore, it is not for the sake of analogy that one has to consider the Gadaa General Assembly as a legislative organ of Gadaa government; rather it is functioning legislative organ of the Gadaa government.


In principle, every Boran is allowed to convene to the Gadaa General Assembly. Differences in terms of age or status may not bar a person from attending it. However, convening individuals should have the capacity to deliberate on issues and/or they shall have vested interest in it. Most scholars consider it as the most inclusive political discussion and decision-making scene. It is considered so as it gives structural subsistence to the notion that in a democracy powers rests ultimately with the people—a right they exercise by direct participation or by delegating power to some leaders of their choosing. However, others argue that we cannot say it is representative since women do not participate directly (but through their husbands) in the Gadaa General Assembly and in any other political activities alongside of the men. Obviously, this is one of the drawbacks of the Gadaa System. (This matter is discussed in detail under chapter seven—the challenges and prospects of embracing Gadaa System into modern democracy).


The Gadaa General Assembly meeting takes place once every four years, i.e. in the middle of the term office of the Gadaa leadership. It is mandatory for all living Abba Gadaas, Gadaa Council (inclusive of junior and senior councils), age-set councilors, clan elders and Qallus to convene to the assembly. It is often led by a speaker of the Gadaa General Assembly (Abba Cora). Moreover, speeches in the general assembly are delivered with much seriousness. The tone, the gesture, the accent, the pause, and other oratorical finesses are sufficient among several clans to strongly nuance the word. Alternatively, the incumbent and/or ex-Abba Gadaa may also serve as speaker of the Gadaa General Assembly. On average, from eight hundred to one thousand citizens do take part daily in the meeting that lasts for eight successive days.


The opening ceremony of the Gadaa General Assembly consists of formal greetings and blessings. Traditionally, the power to bless and open the assembly is reserved to Abba Gadaa on power. The traditional blessing goes as follows: Praise to be God, who has brought us to gayo, may we fulfil His laws in peace; peace to the land, peace to the multitudes, peace to the Multitudes of gayo; let there be peace in our deliberation, let there be nothing but rain and peace.

Furthermore, Gunnar Kjaerland notes that to see the Abba Gadaa lead the gathering of Boran every morning before daybreak to a place where they sit down with everyone facing the east as the sun rises and together pray to Waaqa (God) for help to do what is right, is very moving at gumi gayo assembly.


When it comes to the powers and functions of the Gadaa General Assembly, it is discernible that it exercises supreme legislative authority in Borana land. The Boran strongly believe that the Gadaa General Assembly has the highest political authority as compared to the powers and functions of Gadaa Council and other Gadaa institutions. Furthermore, the Boran impress this idea upon strangers by saying, “what the gumi decides cannot be reversed by any other assembly”. Hence, what makes it more interesting is not only the fact that the Gadaa General Assembly exercises ultimate authority but also the fact that its supremacy is a deeply rooted principle.


Other peculiar features of the Gadaa General Assembly are its impartiality and transparency. For example, where the discussion and deliberation are to be taken on issues that concern Abba Gada in power, he has to withdraw from the assembly and will be replaced by Another Abba Gada. Furthermore, all presidents (i.e. presiding or semi-retired Abba Gadaas) have to be removed from leading deliberations that is concerned with the amendment of the Gadaa constitution. The reason for removal of Abba Gadaas when it comes to an amendment of the constitution (i.e. laws dealing with powers and functions of Gadaa councilors, powers, and privileges of Abba Gadaas and his assistants, and others) is obviously to avoid conflict of interests and to amend it impartially. Except on legislation that may raise conflict of interests, all presidents are not required to abstain from influencing the members of Gadaa General Assembly’s decisions and they can even propose new laws for its adoption.

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Moreover, the making of new laws that governs Borana as a whole; adoption of foreign or external policies— particularly concerning the relationship with neighboring ethnic groups (for example, the Somali with whom the Boran are at recurrent wars until now) — falls under the jurisdiction of the Gadaa General Assembly. Individuals who have knowledge of the neighboring ethnic groups’ positions and their capacity (tendency) to threaten the peace of Boran are required to make a concise report to the gumi. Based on the report, the gumi devices policies that make the Boran deal with the challenges. The Rendille are brothers of Boran; they should henceforth be called “Borana” and be accorded all the privileges a Boran enjoys. All Boran and all brothers of Boran must henceforth refrain from wearing the loincloth. Any man who is found wearing such clothing shall be treated like a Somali.


On the one hand, friendly neighboring societies (e.g. the Rendille) are likened to Boran and peace prevails. On the other hand, unfriendly neighboring societies (e.g. the Somali) are categorically regarded as anti-peace. The procedure of the adoption of any laws by the Gadaa General Assembly is as follows: The speakers or proposers elaborate on their proposed laws. Then, discussion on the proposed laws takes place in a traditional and orderly manner; especially based on seniority. Following this, the speaker of the Gadaa General Assembly (Abba Cora) reiterates on the proposed laws. And finally, upon completion of the deliberations he asks: “would there be anything but peace if we said ‘these are our laws’?” and the gumi gayo responds if unanimously agreed, “peace!”
Unlike the modern legislative bodies, the Gadaa General Assembly may preside over cases of conflicts involving two or more clans. For example, conflict over the use of water wells and natural resources is the most common cases that arise among clans of Boran. When such a case arises, in principle, it has to be settled at the lowest possible stage; through mediation by clan elders and clan councilors. Upon the exhaustion of all local remedies, the case can be put before the Gadaa General Assembly. If the case was not exhausted through available remedies and/or not sufficiently important to be discussed by the Gadaa General Assembly it may be dismissed. A relevant case was the deteriorating relationship between the Digalu and Mattarri sub-moieties which was settled in 1966. In this case, the Gadaa General Assembly and the Gadaa Council were devoted to the exhortation of deteriorating relations of the two and urged them to resume their normal relations.


The Qallu (“religious”)


Institution Qallu is non-secular institution interconnected with other Gadaa institutions and its role in the Gadaa system cannot be undermined. Qallu is at the moral side of public administration. For example, Abbaa Qallu (religious leaders) are empowered to oversee as observers the election process (lallaba) of Gadaa leaders, they and their kin are banned from holding secular office, and they may not bear arms or shed blood. Furthermore, it is undeniable fact that the moral and psychological influence of the Qallu on the Boran in general and the Gadaa legal actors remain intact. Qallu and the Gadaa institutions are like requiring a “‘warrior-king to kiss his feet of the high priest,” to remind the nation that ritual authority is in its place, as a supernatural symbol of order, in case secular authority fails. Therefore, one may conclude that the Gadaa institutions and Qallu institution are in a way interdependent and allies.


In terms of its organization the Boran devises the Qallu institution into two religiously representative institutions: one representing the Sabbo and the other representing Gona. As religious leaders, their power is hereditary, their term of office is for life, and they may not be removed from office like in the case of Abba Gadaa and other Gadaa councilors. However, exceptionally Abba Qallu (religious leader) may be removed from the office where the “sun dies.” That is to mean when an eclipse is sighted, a religious leader may be removed as a result. This rule came from the belief that was entrenched into the society that when the “sun died” the Qallu shall be removed. This event happened in June 1973 and Chief Jilo Toukena of Marsabit, Borana of Kenya, was removed a week after citing the total solar eclipse.


Lastly, the powers and functions of the Abba Gadaa and Abba Qallu (religious leader) are quite different. Where the Abbaa Gadaa actively participates in the political activities and passive in rituals; the Abba Qallu are active in ritual activities and passive (just observers) in politics. The only exception where Abba Qallu may participate actively in political affairs is where he had to bless the incoming Gadaa class during the transfer of power. Accordingly, Abba Gadaa pays homage to the senior Qallu and receives his blessings. In short, this is the Boran version of separation of religion and politics where the political seniority belongs to Abba Gadaa and religious seniority belongs to the Qallu.

About Whispers from the North

Whispers from the North is an online platform that appreciates the ecological, cultural and socio-economic diversities of Northern Kenya. We also acknowledge that the lives of the communities of northern Kenya has been shaped by a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors which have led to complex challenge that calls for a multifaceted approach.

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