Oromo society like any society has been conscious of its cultural identity, its relation to nature, and the existence of a powerful force that regulates the connection between nature and society. The Oromo knowledge of society and the world can be classified into two:
a) cultural and customary knowledge, known as bekumssa aada, and
b) knowledge of laws, known as bekumssa seera.
The ‘knowledge of laws’ is further subdivided into seera Waaqa (the laws of God), and seera nama (the laws of human beings). The laws of God are immutable, and the laws of human beings can be changed through consensus and democratic means.
Oromo customary knowledge is a public and common knowledge that guides and regulates the activities of members of society; some elements of this customary knowledge can develop into rules or laws depending on the interest of society. Every person is expected to learn and recognize seera Waaqa and seera aada; however, should someone does not know the laws of society or the laws of God, there are Oromo experts who can be referred to. These experts study and know the organizing principles of the Oromo worldview that reflect Oromo cultural memory and identity both temporally and religiously.
Oromo institutions can be better understood by studying the Oromo concept of social development (finna). As in any society, social changes occur in Oromo society by combining the cumulative historical experiences with the contemporary condition. Hence finna represents the legacy of the past which each generation inherits from its forefathers and which it transforms; it is the fertile patrimony held in trust by the present generation which it will enrich and bequeath to future generations a developing of the inner potential of society based on the cultural roots it has already laid down. The Oromo concept of social development is constructed in seven interconnected phases: Guudina, gabbina, ballina, badhaadha, hoormata, dagaaga, and dagaa-hoora. When guddina indicates an improvement in cultural life due to the introduction of new experiences to Oromo society, gabbina involves the process of integrating cumulative cultural experiences with contemporary social conditions through broadening and deepening the system of knowledge and worldview.
This can only be achieved through the full knowledge, consent and active participation of all members of the community. This implies the existence of a political organization, the forum for debate and the democratic means of reaching a consensus on all decisions affecting the common good. This should be obtained without force or coercion, without excluding the interests of any group, within the Oromo society and outside it, in the broader context of the national or international arena. To this end, the Oromo evolved a political process of power-sharing reputed for its highly egalitarian nature: Gadaa.
Without Gadaa or Oromo democracy there cannot be finna (development), peace, social justice, Kao (freedom, peace, prosperity, success, and happiness), and saffu. Gabbina emerges through democracy, peace, cooperation and consensus of all members of Oromo society of different levels to improve economic, cultural, and political conditions. Next to gabbina, there is a ballina phase. Ballina involves the expansion of enriched cultural and political experiences from Oromo society to another society through reciprocity of cultural borrowing and resources sharing and interdependence, based on the principles of democracy. This is the phase that focuses on foreign relations. It allows Oromo society to involve in cultural exchange and cooperation with neighboring peoples. The cumulative experiences of guudina, gabbina, and ballina lead to the phase of badhaadha (richness). Theoretically, badhaadha is a phase at which Oromos and their neighbors who accept their philosophy of social development obtain peace, prosperity, and wholeness since there are no incidences of conflict, poverty, disease, and natural calamities.
This phase of development can only be achieved when there is peace between Waaqa (God), uuma (nature), and society. Human beings must keep right with each other in order to keep right with God, and they must keep right with God to keep right with each other. Good social relationships and proper ritual relationships are reflexes of each other. Violence between men is both a cause and effect of God’s displeasure. The development of this stage facilitates the emergence of the hoormaata phase. During this phase, animals and people reproduce and multiply because of the availability of abundant resources and peace.
Following this phase there is a development phase known as dagaaga; this is the stage at which development cycles are assessed and integrated to maintain even and sustainable development. At the final stage of development called daga-hoora, Oromo society expands its cumulative cultural experiences of development to neighboring peoples through different mechanisms depending on a given condition. Sometimes, at this stage Oromos had a conflict with their neighbors because of the competition over resources, such as land and water. Until the last decades of the nineteenth century, when European imperialist intervention changed the balance of power in favor of the Abyssinians, the Oromo easily defeated their competitors due to their Gadaa organizational capacity and military capability.
Oromo religious and philosophical worldviews consider the organization of spiritual, physical and human worlds as interconnected phenomena, and Waaqa, the creator, regulates their existence and functions in balanced ways. Explaining how Oromos believe that Waaqa directs the world from above and controls everything from within the image of creation has important consequences for the Oromo vision of the universe as a whole. It has influenced among other aspects of its traditional culture, its political and economic thought, and determined its traditional system of government and modes of production.
Ayaana, Uuma, and Saffu.
Oromos use three concepts to explain the organization and interconnection of human, spiritual and physical worlds. These three concepts are ayaana (spirit), uuma (nature), and saffu (moral and ethical order). Oromos believe that through ayaana. Waaqa (God) creates and regulates human and physical worlds in balanced ways. This ayaana also maintains the connection between the creator and the created. Oromo society has organizing principles for its known and unknown universe like any society, and ayaana is a major organizing principle of Oromo cosmology through which the concepts of time and creation are ordered.
Ayaana as a system of classification and an organizing principle of Oromo cosmology establishes the connection between Waaqa (the Creator/God) and the created (nature and society) by differentiating and at the same time uniting the created things and the Creator. Oromos believe that Waaqa, the Supreme Being, created ayaana and uses it to organize scattered things into order. Ayaana is the mechanism by which the creator propels itself into becoming its own opposite, and dwells in that which it creates. This is then transposed to explain the basic principles that embed themselves in the diverse Oromo institutions since there is no distinction between the laws of thought, the laws of nature, history, and society.
The concept known as uuma includes everything created by Waaqa including ayaana. Saffu is an ethical and moral “code that Oromos use to differentiate bad from good and wrong from right . . . [S]affu `constitutes the ethical basis upon which all human action should be founded; it is that which directs one on the right path; it shows the way in which life can be best lived.’”96 Oromos claim that the understanding of laws of Waaqa, nature, and society both morally and ethically and living accordingly is necessary.
Saffu is an ethical and moral code that Oromos use to differentiate bad from good and wrong from right. Saffu `constitutes the ethical basis upon which all human action should be founded; it is that which directs one on the right path; it shows the way in which life can be best lived. Oromos claim that the understanding of laws of Waaqa, nature, and society both morally and ethically and living accordingly is necessary. Oromos believe in God’s law and the law of society that they establish through the Gadaa system of democracy to maintain nagaa (peace) and saffu among Waaqa, society, and nature to achieve their full human destiny known as kao or kayyo. Respect for the laws of Waaqa and Gadaa have been essential to maintaining naga Oromo (Oromo peace) and saffu (moral balance) in society. Most Oromos believe that they had full Kao before their colonization since they had the freedom to develop their independent political, economic, and cultural institutions.
Original Oromo religious leaders, qaallus, have had a moral authority and social obligation to oppose tyrants and support popular Oromo democracy and Gadaa leaders, and to encourage harmonious and democratic relations based on the principles of saffu, kao, Waaqa, and uuma. The qaallu is thought to possess sacred characteristics that enable him to act as intermediary between the people and God, and he had no administrative power, but could bless or withhold blessings from Gadaa leadership, and had an extraordinary power to curse anyone who threatened the well-being of the entire community by deviating from God’s order.
The qaallu and his institution were committed to social justice, the laws of God and the rule of law, and fair deliberation; his residence was considered politically neutral ground, suitable for debating controversial issues and for adjudicating highly charged disputes, although he himself might not take a prominent role in proceedings. The qaallu institution has played an important role in protecting original Oromo culture, religion, worldview, and identity. When those Oromos who were influenced by this institution kept their Oromo names, most Oromos who were converted to Islam or Christianity willingly or by force abandoned their Oromo names and adopted Muslim or Christian names depending on their borrowed religion.
The qaallu can be credited with having played an indirect role in the preservation of the Oromo identity and the Oromo political system. When those most Oromos who were converted to Islam or Christianity willingly or by force abandoned their Oromo names and adopted Muslim or Christian names depending on their borrowed religion, Oromos who were influenced by this institution kept their Oromo names. This leader is thought to possess sacred characteristics that enable him to act as the intermediary between the people and Waq [Waaqa]. The qallu had no administrative powers, but could bless or withhold blessings from Gadaa leadership, and had an extraordinary power to curse anyone who threatened the well-being of the entire community by deviating from Waq’s order.
The criteria to be a qallu included seniority in lineages, respectability in the community, expertise in ritual practices, moral qualification, respect for cultural taboos, sound social status, and other leadership qualities. The leader of all qallus was known as Abba Muuda (father of the anointment) who was considered to be the prophet and spiritual leader of Oromo society. Oromo pilgrims traveled to the residence of Abba Muuda to receive his blessing and anointing to be ritual experts in their respective regions.
Abba Muuda served as the spiritual center and symbol of Oromo unity and assisted all Oromo branches to keep in touch for several centuries; as the Jews believe in Moses and the Muslims in Muhammad, the Oromo believe in their Abba Muda [sic]. Abba Muuda like other qaallu leaders encouraged harmonious and democratic relations in Oromo society. According to the qaallu mythology, Abba Muuda, the original Oromo religious leader was descended from heaven. Oromo representatives traveled to the highlands of the mid-south Oromia to honor Abba Muuda and to receive his blessing and anointing that qualified them as pilgrims known as jilas to be ritual experts in their respective areas. When Oromo representatives went to him from far and near to receive his blessings, Abba Muuda commanded them “not to cut their hair and to be righteous, not to recognize any leader who tries to get absolute power, and not to fight among themselves.
In its modified form, the qaallu institution exists in some parts of Oromia, such as in the Guji and Borana areas; it still protects an Oromo way of life, such as dispensing of local justice based on Oromo customs and providing solutions to problems created by a changing social condition. The qaallus of Guji and Borana are ritual leaders, advisors, and ritual experts in the Gadaa system. The qaallus possess the exclusive prerogative of legitimizing the different Gadaa officials when a new Gadaa group is initiated into the politically active class. Oromos still practice some elements of Oromo democratic values in the areas where the Gadaa system was suppressed a century ago. The Gadaa system is still practiced in the Borana and Guji regions under the control of the Ethiopian colonial system in its modified form; it helps maintain peace, exchange knowledge and practice rituals between some clans and regional groups. The current Gadaa of Borana and Guji cannot fully reflect its original political culture under Ethiopian colonialism; probably that is why scholars such as Hinnant, Baxter, Bassi, and others emphasize the ritual function of the system and ignore its political culture.
The Gadaa system was attacked in eastern Oromia by the Turko-Egyptian and Adare alliance. The interethnic alliance and interdependence between the Adare and the eastern Oromo were shattered when the faction of the former invited the Turko-Egyptian power to colonize the Hararghe region in 1875. Under the Turko-Egyptian rule, between 1875 and 1885, the Adare consolidated their power and accumulated wealth and capital at the cost of the majority Oromo. However, the Adare Amirs (kings) had a certain influence on a few Oromo groups before this period and bestowed the ranks of malaq, garad, and damin on their elected officials. The Amir dealt with these officials through the Adare dogign. The leaders of the Oromo who settled around the city of Harar were gradually forced to accept the administration of the Amirs, abandoned the Oromo political system, received these titles and became hereditary chiefs. The remaining eastern Oromo had the Gadaa government until it was destroyed by the alliance between the Turko-Egyptians and the Adares.
The influence of Islam also expanded among Oromos in Hararghe through the Adares. When the Ethiopians effectively occupied the city of Harar in 1887, the Adare alliance shifted from the Turko-Egyptians to the Ethiopians. Without fundamentally changing their traditional religious perceptions, northern Oromos began to accept Islam during the eighteenth century, albeit mainly for political reasons. To protect themselves from incorporation into Christian Abyssinia and maintain their identity, a few Oromo groups – the Raya, Azabo, Yejju and Wallo – in addition to armed resistance, embraced Islam during the 18th century. Through Muslim merchants, Islam came to be accepted by the heads of the Gibe states in about the mid-19th century and only then was spread to the Oromo masses. Later, in opposition to Ethiopian colonialism, the Oromo turned en masse to Islam. In the Arssi and Bale regions, the Oromos accepted Islam over Ethiopian colonialism and Orthodox Christianity. For the same reason, some Oromo in Wallaga, Illubabor, and other regions preferred Islam to Christianity.
Generally speaking, both Islam and Christianity have been gradually grafted on Oromo religion in many Oromo regions. Although Christian and Islamic religious philosophies did not provide superior explanations to that of the Oromo for the functioning of the complex world, they were mainly imposed on Oromos by the gun and sword. Some Oromo nationalists are engaged in rediscovering the original Oromo cultural traditions and are trying to reconcile them with the borrowed cultural elements that penetrated Oromo minds and society through these religions.
In the first half of the 19th century, the emergence of the Abba lafa (a hereditary landlord), the Moti (king), Abba qorro (governor), trade chiefs, and market administrators reduced the egalitarian aspects of the Gadaa to religious rituals. The Moti continuously accumulated wealth in his treasuries with incomes he extracted from tribute on the land and its products, his estates and commerce. This produce extraction enabled the Moti to create and maintain regulatory institutions like military, bodyguards, and courts. Generally speaking, in the Gibe region, through the process of social class differentiation, the egalitarian and democratic Gadaa office was replaced by the autocratic and hereditary office of the Moti. The hierarchy of the social pyramid can be depicted as follows: The Moti was at the top, followed by his council. Next, to the council of the state, there were Abba qorros, followed by Abba gandas (district administrators). Abba Gandas were district officials who collected tribute, recruited soldiers, guarded the borders of the kingdom, and administered justice. Below Abba gandas there were Abba fuunyos who imposed tribute on the population, arrested offenders, directed corvee labor, collected taxes, and served as messengers between higher officials and the Moti.
All officials were directly or indirectly appointed by the Moti from the landowning warriors. Finally, there were, at the bottom, free farmers, qubsissa (tenants), ogeesa (artisans), and slaves. In this region, there was also the newly emerging Oromo merchant class known as Afkala. One member of the council of the state known as Abba mizan (the father of balance) was selected from this merchant class. Herbert Lewis specifically studied the Jimma moti system and explained how its powerful organization with its monopoly of power and economic forces destroyed the gada system. The Jimma monarchy had direct power over the political economy of Jimma. The Moti recruited his officers from among members of his family, the sorressa (wealthy men), those slaves who proved loyal, intelligent, and effective, and from foreign mercenaries. He directly controlled the armed forces and extracted produce. Jimma was the center of trade for extensive local and long-distance trade. Merchants came to this region from Arabia, the Sudan, India, Europe. Jimma and other Gibe regions evolved as one of the richest regions in Africa.
There were also other parts of Oromia where social class differentiation and kingdoms developed. According to records, the Wallo Oromo exercised military power in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the eighteenth century, the Wallo Oromo had replaced the Gadaa administration with that of the dynasty. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the democratic Gadaa system was also disintegrated in the Afre confederation of the Macha Oromo (Wallaga) because of social class differentiation. During the earliest expansion, particularly in Wallaga, all members of the lineage had equal usufructuary rights to the land and there was no scarcity; therefore, every male Oromo had his own dhoqe or masii (a tract of land) on which he could raise animals and cultivate crops. With the emergence of a relative scarcity of land in the community, pioneers’ descendants began to monopolize land rights and impose a special settling permission called qubisissa (tenancy) on newcomers who were forcibly subordinated and who annually performed labor service for a specific number of days.
The emergence of Leqa-Naqamte and Leqa-Qellem Moti systems was actually based on the initiation of appropriation of rights to land and labor, warfare, control of trade and marketplaces. The rights to land, coupled with the development of agriculture and trade, facilitated the emergence and consolidation of the Moti system in Wallaga. The most successful pioneers’ descendants, such as the leaders of Leqa-Qellem and Leqa-Naqamte, gradually transformed the Gadaa fighting forces, Qondala, into their own personal army. These leaders also created effective administration and better military organizations to control trade routes and marketplaces in order to collect tribute; they also accumulated wealth by collecting regular tributes in heads of cattle, ivory, gold, cotton and other commodities.