Development of Gadaa

Many of the treatments of religion in Ethiopia focus on the Abrahamic systems of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. These have all had a major impact on Ethiopian identity, yet their expression in Ethiopia is distinct. This overview of some of the basic concepts of non-Abrahamic religion in Ethiopia will provide important background for better understanding the concepts discussed in this chapter. In addressing non-Abrahamic religious systems in Africa(Ethiopia) the choice of terms used is of significant interest. The struggle to find a term that would appropriately identify the non-Abrahamic religions and not lend a “primitive” quality to the discussion of “traditional” African religions has been frustrating. The term “traditional” gives the impression of being old, out of date, not ‘modern’ or well informed, archaic. The term “traditional” also provides a sense of being ahistorical and is a widely used term to describe local religions. Considering another term like “other African religions” tends to give the Abrahamic religions pre-eminence. The best option is to use specific terms such as Oromo religion. There are roughly three thousand religious identities in Africa and each has distinct characteristics. This section, however, will summarize some of the characteristics common to most non-Abrahamic religion such as the Oromo religion.  

Religion in Africa is not limited to superficial ritual or performance, but rather is an integral part of society. John S. Mbiti, an expert in non-Abrahamic African religions, points out that “Religion is the strongest element in the traditional background, and exerts probably the greatest influence upon the thinking and living of the people concerned. Due to its integral nature, it is very difficult to isolate religious beliefs from societal structures. For example, there is no formal distinction between the sacred and secular, the material and spiritual; community life is characterized by the religious. Equally important, non-Abrahamic Ethiopian religion is not an individual affair; it is about the individual in relationship to the community. This aspect is also present in Oromo religion and is one reason that Oromo religion played such a significant role in identity maintenance among the Oromo. The Gadaa system, which will be discussed in the next chapter, is one aspect of Oromo religion that is woven into the social experience of the Oromo. The ceremonies and rituals are religious in nature, but the system itself is a system of social organization and political leadership.

In non-Abrahamic Ethiopian religions, community membership involves ceremonies, rituals, festivals, and the beliefs of the community. To distance oneself from the religion of the community would mean giving up kinship connections, the context for security, and connection to the group from which the individual frames their identity. In essence, being without religion in an African community means to be excommunicated from life and society. Since non-Abrahamic Ethiopian religions are so strongly associated with community life, there is no element of conversion or proselytization. Each community has a distinct religious system and, as pointed out by Mbiti, “the propagation of such a complete system would involve propagating the entire life of the people concerned. Therefore a person has to be born in a particular society in order to assimilate the religious system of the society to which he [sic] belongs. An outsider cannot enter or appreciate fully the religion of another society.” When an individual is born into a community they inherit a religious identity along with their cultural identity. Even when an Oromo becomes a Christian they continue to associate with their Oromo religious identity. This concept of religious membership starts before the birth of the individual and continues after death.

The participants in Oromo religion learn the religious traditions that were handed down by their forefathers through the lives of their community and family. Religion is a single whole that is exemplified in the actions of the individual in relation to the community. There are no actual founders, but there are people who hold places of honor. Among the Oromo, the Qallu holds this position. The office of Qallu is much like that of a high priest. The first Qallu is believed to have been of divine origin. There are several myths concerning his origin, but one holds that he was the “eldest son of Ilma Orma.” This would have made him the “eldest son” of the Oromo and as such the source of their traditions. There is also another office that is of importance in Oromo cosmology the Abba Muda. The person who held this position was their spiritual leader. This personage would be the equivalent of the Christian Moses or Muhammad to the Muslims. He lived in the land that was the birthplace of the Oromo and delegates from both the Borana and Barentu went to him to receive his blessing. This pilgrimage was of great importance to the Oromo.

Origin of Gadaa

It is valid to question when and how the Gadaa system started. However, there is no clear time when and a certain place where the Gadaa started functioning. Gadaa is possible that the Boran borrowed the system (maybe) from some other people such as the Burji or the Konso (neighboring ethnic groups to the Boran) probably in the 17th century. However, neither the historical development of the Gadaa System did support this line argument. When it comes to the nature and function of the Gadaa System, first and foremost, it is an administration system where powers are distributed among the members of Oromo people based on age and experience. Second, it is also used as a chronological dating of historical events. Thus, it renders the system of dating history chronologically.

The standard measure of dates or an era is a period of one Gadaa rule, which is generally regarded as eight years and one full Gadaa cycle is forty years (five Gadaas). Accordingly, dating historic events or certain phenomenon is explained in terms of the total number of past Gadaas. For example, according to oral tradition, Gadaa was functional during the leadership of about Abba Gadaa. That means one could simply multiply two hundred and twenty-five by eight years and get 1800. Simply, by subtracting 1800 years from the present year of 2018, you will get. That is, the Gadaa system was functioning in the 3rd AD at Oda Nabe.

The Status of Oda Bultum and Oda Roba 

In the 13th Century, Oda Bultum31 was the settlement area and politico-religious center for the Oromo people in the medieval period. In Oromo oral tradition, Oda Bultum has a special place. The reason is due to the fact that it was the place where a revival was made to Gadaa System and new laws were enacted. It is also said that a Muslim missionary known as Awusaid took part in the process of the renaissance of the Gadaa System and proclamation of new rules at Oda Bultum. In the oral tradition of Itu Oromo, Ausaid has special honor and respect which can be referred from the alternative name given to the Oda Bultum as “Awusaid”. Nevertheless, perhaps, Awusaid’s main objective might be to expand Islam in the region and his cooperation could be secondary as well as a means to influence the Oromo people to make them embrace the Islam religion. According to oral tradition about the history of Oda Bultum, six Aba Gadaas successively ruled from 1193 to 1241. It was two years before the entry of Sheik Abadir into Harar in 1234 A.D. that Harhar Hargeya rises to the Position of Abba Gadaa. The names of the six Abba Gadaas according to the oral tradition were: Jara Mardia (1193-1200); Roba Dungata (1201-1208); Roba Gamo (1209-1216); Roba Gobole (1217-1224); Doyo Darimu (1225-1232); and Harahar Hargeya (1233-1241).

Though the accounts of oral tradition as to the rise of the six Aba Gadaas were undeniable, the question remains as to the reliability of the periods. For instance, the written sources do not back the oral tradition as Oda Bultum began to serve as a politico-religious center in the late 12th century. One relevant written source is the chronicle (the “Fath”) referring to Harar puts that a group of missionaries under the leadership of Umar al-Rida (Shiek Abadir) reached the town in 1216. That is, during the administration of Abba Gadaa Roba Gamo than during Abba Gadaa Harhar Hargeya. This contradiction requires further inquiries and researches and it is also beyond the scope of this project to deal with further.

In the 14th century, Oda Roba was also the politico-religious center of the Borana Oromo when they had been settling in central Ethiopia. Some argue that Oda Roba had been the center from 1316 to 1378 until the center shifted to Mada Walabu. The proponents of this position based their prediction on oral traditions and Gadaa chronology rather than written sources. Similar to the case of Oda Bultum discussed above, here again, the issue of the accuracy of the dating remains unresolved, though the event did actually take place. Therefore, it is not clear for how long Oda Roba served as a center of Gadaa System and the exact time when the transfer was made to Mada.

The Two Historic Events of Gada System

The Dismemberment 

According to Gadaa chronology, there are two major historical events. These are the decentralization or dismemberment of Gadaa (Chinna Gadaa) and the renaissance of Gadaa (Haromsa Gadaa). The former designates the condition when the centralized system of Gadaa under Oda Nabe was decentralized to the extent that each Oromo clan was left to be administered by clan assemblies traditionally known as Chaffe (general assembly).

It would be appropriate to question the factor(s) for the dismemberment of Gadaa. In this regard, the argument is that the Gadaa System was under threat from external forces from the pre-medieval period. The first potential threat, which the oral tradition maintains up to date, was the case of the expansion of Islam and Christian kingdom in Ethiopia. Though it is not crystal clear as to the effect of this threat, some argue that the long conflict between the Christian kingdom and Muslim sultanates (from 14th century) on the land of the Oromo people had created instability in the region and necessitated for the dismemberment of the Gadaa system that ultimately resulted in dismemberment (Chinna) Gadaa. Moreover, the oral tradition maintains that the assassination of the religious leader (Qallu) known as Oditu Qallu had also accelerated the problem.

Alemayehu in his work “History of the Oromo to the sixteenth century” contends that the dismemberment of Gadaa took place from 756 A.D. to 116 A.D. He came to this conclusion based on three elements gathered from oral traditions; first, the functionality of Gadaa system at Oda Nabe in 3rd AD. Second, an oral tradition among the Tulama-Oromo states that Gadaa under dismembered or decentralized system has endured for forty-five Gadaa leadership. Third, according to this oral tradition, since the renaissance 111 Gadaa leadership has passed. (116 A.D., that is,). Thus, the calculation goes simply by deducting 360 (i.e. Gadaa leadership) from 1116 (i.e. 111 X 8 – 2004, taking the year of the writing of their work as a benchmark) he got 756A.D. Perhaps this assertion is plausible. However, for more reliability, additional researches inclusive of other Oromo clans’ oral traditions need to be considered widely.

The Renaissance

Another fundamental event according to Gadaa chronology was the renaissance (haromsa) of Gadaa. The phrase haromsa Gadaa denotes the efforts made to reorganize and revive the Gadaa System. In the mid of 15th century, Mada Walabu becomes the last center where Gadaa system could flourish again. It was there where fundamental changes to the organization and functionality of the Gadaa system did take place. The change was driven by two factors: first, it was aimed to defend or protect the Gadaa system from the influence of Islam, an alien religion to the Oromo (functionality). In order to maintain this objective, new rules were made to strengthen muda religious pilgrimage to the seat of the Qallu (religious leader) once every eight years. The pilgrimages require each clan leaders under Gadaa leadership to be part of the Muda ceremony so the Gada System could remain strong despite the growing influence of external factors. Second, it was necessary to reorganize strong military power in order to regain territories lost to the Christian Highland Kingdom.

To achieve this objective, a new law was made. That was the law that required launching once every eight years Butta (military campaign after a feast) in all directions of the Oromo land in order to recover lost territories to external forces. When it comes to Gadaa Renaissance among the Oromo, the Oromo elders who confirm that the Gadaa today in practice was restored in the mid of 15th century. They state Gadayo Galgalo was their first Abba Gadaa during the renaissance of the Gadaa System. According to Borana Oromo’s oral tradition, upon completion of his eight-year term office, the power was handed over peacefully to Abba Gadaa Yaya Fulule. Hence, it is plausible to argue that, the Gada System was already in place even before the 15th century but Abba Gadaa Gadayo Galgalo was the main actor and reformist who contributed for the reorganization of Gada structure, enactment of new laws and strengthened Gadaa leadership that endured for centuries adapting itself to changing circumstances.

Meaning of Gadaa

The term Gadaa has no single and unanimously accepted the definition. It seems Gadaa is more conceivable lexically than analytically. The etymology of Gadaa as ka’aada, which is the combination of two archaic terms: ka and aada. Ka means God (Uumaa or creator), and aada, in this sense, refers to norms together it would mean “Norms of God.” However, the term aada in common parlance refers to the culture that encompasses religion, customary laws, and social norms. From a chronological perspective, Gadaa refers to a period of eight years during which a Gadaa class stays in power. In this respect, it refers to the sixth Gadaa grade through which every Gadaa classes has to pass once every forty years. If this assertion is taken, it then indicates the sixth Gadaa grade that is also used to refer to the Gadaa institution.

The traditional Gadaa government developed by the Oromos organizes and orders society around political, economic, social, cultural, and religious institutions. We do not know when and how this system emerged. However, we know that it existed as a full-fledged system at the beginning of the sixteenth century. During this century, Oromos were under one Gadaa administration. Bonnie Holcomb notes that the Gadaa system “organized the Oromo people in an all-encompassing democratic republic even before the few European pilgrims arrived from England on the shores of North America and only later built a democracy.” This system has the principles of checks and balances (through periodic succession of every eight years), and division of power (among executive, legislative, and judicial branches), balanced opposition (among five parties), and power-sharing between higher and lower administrative organs to prevent power from falling into the hands of despots. Other principles of the system included a balanced representation of all clans, lineages, regions and confederacies, accountability of leaders, the settlement of disputes through reconciliation, and respect for basic rights and liberties. The Gadaa government, though based on democratic principles, excluded caste groups (such as smiths and tanners) and women.

The Structure of Gadaa

Structurally speaking, the term Gadaa has been defined in different disciplines in several ways. For instance, Gadaa is considered by social-anthropologists as an age grade that divides the stage of lives of individuals from childhood to old age into a series of formal stages. The Gadaa System among the Guji-Oromo states that there are thirteen stages and transition ceremonies to mark the passage from one stage to the next. However, the formal Gadaa stages among the Borana Oromo do not exceed eleven Gadaa grades. Moreover, Gadaa divides powers and functions, accords rights and responsibilities along the age-sets. when their class comes to power in the middle of the life cycle—a stage of life called Gadaa among the Boran or Luba among the central Oromo. The class in power is headed by Abba Gadaa in Borana, Abba Bokku elsewhere. In this respect, Gadaa is a holistic (social, economic, political and religious) system in essence and perhaps this fact made it difficult to define unanimously the Gadaa system by simple and clear terms.

Gadaa government comprised a hierarchy of triple levels of government: the national, the regional and the local. At the pan-Oromo level, the national government was led by an elected Luba council [leaders] formed from representatives of the major Oromo moieties, clan families and clans, under the presidency of the Abaa Gadaa and his two deputies. The national leadership was responsible for such important matters as legislation and enforcement of general laws, handling issues of war and peace and coordinating the nation’s defense, management of intra-Oromo clan conflicts and dealing with non-Oromo people.

Gadaa’s three interrelated meanings

Gadaa is the grade during which a class of people assumes politico-ritual leadership, a period of eight years during which elected officials take power from the previous ones, and the institution of Oromo society. What is astonishing about this cultural tradition is how far Oromo have gone to ensure that power does not fall in the hand of war chiefs and despots. They achieve this goal by creating a system of checks and balances that is at least as complex as the systems we find in Western democracies.

The Gadaa system organized the Oromo people in an all-encompassing democratic republic even before the few European pilgrims arrived from England on the shores of North America and only later built a democracy. The principles of checks and balances (through the periodic succession of every eight years), and division of power (among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches), balanced opposition (among five parties), and power-sharing between higher and lower administrative organs to prevent power from falling into the hands of despots. Other principles of the system have included a balanced representation of all clans, lineages, regions and confederacies, accountability of leaders, the settlement of disputes through reconciliation, and the respect for basic rights and liberties. There have been five Miseensas (parties) in Gadaa; these parties have different names in different parts of Oromia as the result of Oromo expansion and the establishment of different autonomous administrative systems.

The Gadaa system is a time-honored age and generation-set system practiced among the Oromo people who regarded the system as their common heritage and as one of their major identity makers. The Gadaa is crucial organizing structure among the Oromo people and its social, political, ritual and legal aspects provide the framework for order and meaning of life. Gadaa organizes society via councils (yaa’aa), laws and injunctions, outlining rights and duties of its members. The Oromo recognized the Gadaa System as part of their cultural heritage and as a contemporary system of governance that functions in concert with the modern state system. The system has long been practiced by the Borena, Guji, Karayu, Tulama, Arsi, Ittu, Humbana, Afran Qallo, Akichu, Macha, and Gabra clans of the Oromo Nation.



When the Gadaa Democracy Rules in a Federal State


The Origins of the Oromo and Somali

The Gada system