Gadaa Classes

The Gadaa System is a system of generation segments or Gadaa classes that succeeded each other every eight years in assuming political, military, judicial, legislative and ritual responsibilities. Each Gadaa class remains in power during a specific term (Gadaa ) which begins and ends with a formal transfer ceremony. Each active Gadaa class—beyond the first three grades—has its own internal leadership (Adula) and its own assembly (yaa’aa), but the leaders of the class become the leaders of the nation 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.

The Oromo 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 people.

Major Oromo clans have established the centers of their Gadaa at several places based on their territorial settlement. The Borana are known by a generation set Organization, which is believed to guide every aspect of their life, called off the Gadaa system and Borana people are notable for their historic Gadda political system. Political Participation is open to all Borana, decisions are taken under the guidance of the ritual leaders, the Abba Gadaa and the councilors. Attending power transfer ceremonies, rites of passages from one grade to another and other gatherings are meant to be as transparent as possible. The Gadaa System distributes power across generations and down to community members and creates a strong link between successive generations. Oromo philosophy, art, and calendar are based on Gadaa as an expression of Oromo civilization.

This begins when sons join the system as members of Gadaa class (generation class or set) forty years after their fathers and continue passing from one Gadaa grade to the next every eight years. The class forms its own internal officials (adula hayyus) and its own assembly (yaa’aa). Regarding persons with special responsibilities, the Abba Gadaa, the elected chairman of the class leadership presides over the assembly. The Gadaa men and Yuba’s duties also include transferring knowledge and skills associated with the functions of the democratic Gadaa System to the members of succeeding grades. The laws, norms, values, and ideals of the Gadaa System are compatible with existing international human rights instruments. The Gadaa councilors must pass through rigorous training for years about the laws and the customs of Borana, and the wisdom of leading a society before they take the position of authority in Gadaa.

There are 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. All Gadaa officials were elected for eight years by universal adult male suffrage. The system organized male Oromos according to age-sets (hirya) based on chronological age, and according to generation-sets (luba) based on genealogical generation, for social and political and economic purposes. These two concepts – Gadaa-sets and Gadaa-grades – are important to a clear understanding of Gadaa. All newly born males enter a Gadaa -set at birth, which they will belong to along with other boys of the same age, and for the next forty years they will go through five eight-year initiation periods; the Gadaa-grade is entered on the basis of generation, and boys enter their luba forty years after their fathers. In incorporating the age-classification system, Gadaa is similar to age-sets practiced by the Masai, Kikuyu, and the Nuer. However, its use of genealogical generations as its organizing elements makes it different and unique.

In the interpretation (conception) of the Gadaa system, there are several concepts that are understood differently by different scholars. Among such concepts the following are notorious: age-sets, generation, generation-sets (also known as Gadaa classes or cohorts) and others. Before proceeding to the discussion of Gadaa institutions it is necessary to clarify these conceptual understandings.

Gadaa was developed over five centuries with the purpose to foster social, political, economic and military matters collectively. Structurally speaking, it is age and genealogical based grouping of male generation and division of labor among the classes. The more the elements decrease (e.g. age and initiation only) the more it gets easier and the more recruitment elements increase (e.g. age, initiation, interval, and size) the more it gets complicated. Any age-sets to be an institution and be functional shall have two, at least, invariants; that is, age plus the interval of initiation or any other elements. The Gadaa system embodies five elements and that is why it is regarded as a complex system as compared to other age-sets among other ethnic groups of East Africa.

  1. Age (A),
  2. The numerical size of the group (N),
  3. The interval between initiations (I),
  4. The interval between the entry of father and the son in the system (I‘) and
  5. The distribution of genealogical generations (G).


Age is one of the basic elements for age-group formation. It is a brick that most indigenous peoples of East Africa use to organize and structure their society (based on age relatedness). In his comparative analysis of East African age-sets system. However, what initiation, interval, and genealogical generations constitute is not clear. These elements pop up due to the fact that recruitment to an age-set requires, in systems like Gadaa, generational relationship and in connection with that issues like the time when a son may be initiated to the system and the interval between the father and son are inevitable.


Defining the term generation is not an easy task especially in a relation to its socio-political relevance for people’s responsibilities and rights characterization. Besides, the term generation has been used in different literature in connection with kinship descent, cohort, life stage and historical periods, which further complicate it. However, for the purpose of this study, it refers to the intergenerational relationship but quite different from its common understandings. First and foremost, the term generation does not mean age-peers as understood in the West. Rather it is more related to genealogy; for example, two grandsons of two brothers are in the same generation set. Second, generational relationship and generation-set are mutually interdependent, due to ‘likened lives’ and ‘interlocking trajectories’ across the generations. Since Gadaa is found not only on age-groups but also on generation-sets, hence, understanding the generational relationship and its role is vital.

Initiation and Interval between the father and the son(I)

Age grouping is combined with a generational mode of recruitment, in that a son gets introduced to a specific set correlated to the set of his father, and subsequently changes his status every eight years a member of his generation-set. Put it differently, the generational aspect comes in with the moment of initiation, whereby a male, along with his brothers (who belong to the same class as he himself), gets introduced to the system in chronological accord with the life-course timing and set belonging to his father. A son to be initiated (along with his peers and to form a generation-set), he has to be five Gadaa grades away from his father’s set. That is, in principle, a son always enters the system exactly forty years (i.e. five Gadaa grades) behind the father. Hence the rightful son (ilma kormaa), “elite children” that are born during “fatherhood” stage, is the one born when his father is at fifth Gadaa grade, the Raba grade.

The interval between the entry of father and the son in the system (I‘)

There is an intergenerational correspondence between the hemicycles that: the first Gadaa grade is linked to the fifth, the second is linked to the sixth, the third is linked to the eighth, the fourth is likened to the ninth, the fifth is likened to the tenth, and the sixth is likened to the liminal/final (Gadamojjii) stage. That is, the father and the son cannot be in the same (first or second hemicycle) at the same time. Obviously, this principle is ideal in a sense that most but not all Boran people do observe the rule. As a result problem in a relation to incorporation of late or early born children often arises. Since the principle of five intervals stated hereinabove, in most cases, are not observed among the Boran people, children continue to be born (before the father reaches fifth Gadaa grade or after the father passed this stage). As a result, we will have early born and late-born sons. In this regard, due to the rigidity of the Gadaa principle, the moment a member of the family fails to stick to the rules of timing for legitimate procreation, the whole generational chain is brought “out of step”.

The distribution of genealogical generations(G)

However, the Boran did adopt a practical solution to the gap created due to late born sons, commonly known as sons of elders (ilmaan jaarsaa); It refers to sons born to a man that has passed the stage of “fatherhood”, the Raba grade). Hence, among the Borana, late-born sons of a man should be introduced to the same Gadaa grade as his brothers despite the difference in their age. Where a rightly born son perfectly fits into the principle, the late-born sons cannot, and the option they have is to run behind their elder brothers. Therefore, the Boran did arrange a pragmatic system for the sons of elders by allowing them to be treated as “equals” despite differences in their ages. Whereas, early born sons cannot be assigned to a legitimate “social father” and thus cannot be correlated to any set in terms of generational affiliation. Most Borana men do stick to the principle of not raising children before the permitting stage.

The Boran did manage this problem due to two reasons: the adoption of a pragmatic solution for late-born sons; and early born sons are small in number as compared to the late-born sons which enabled Gadaa to sustain among them. Had it been so, some argue that Gadaa would have been extinct long ago. The Borana age-set (hariyya) is an institution or organized on age and generational relationships. That is a son gets introduced to a specific Gadaa grade, which correlates to the Gadaa class of his father, and subsequently changes his grade every eight years as a member of his cohort. the former is horizontal and refers to the collective, the latter is vertical and defines the responsibilities assumed successively throughout their careers.

The constitution of Gadaa Classes

So far different scholars have used different terms to express the generational relationship social stratification among the Boran. For example, phrases such as Gadaa-sets Cohorts, Cadre, or Gadaa class. Gadaa class refers to a segment of genealogical generations constituted by two cross-cutting elements: age-sets and moieties. For example, if a father belongs to the Gona moiety and he is at the fifth Gadaa grade and if he got a son at that stage, his son will be initiated to the same Gadaa class as a dabballe) like his father. However, to be initiated to the Gadaa system, in principle, they have to be always five Gadaa grades apart from their father. In this example, we have an age requirement, genealogical relationship, and moiety. Hence Gadaa class is the cross-cutting three organizations: age-sets, generation-set, and moieties, (luba) and the age-sets (hariyya).

First and foremost, one has to be clear that Gadaa class refers to the group of people who share the same status and who perform their rites of passage together. Whereas Gadaa grades are the phases of development through which the members pass. Second, in Boran Gadaa System there are five Gadaa classes that are basically cyclic (i.e. cyclic but neither in a sense of reincarnation nor is it a closed cycle. Though the nomenclature of each five cyclic Gadaa classes varies across the Oromo land, in essence, all are the same. For instance, the archaic nomenclatures to these Gadaa class orders are Birmaji, Horota, Bichile, Dulo, and Robale. However, among the Boran, it is commonly known as gogessa (Gadaa-cycles) and they are named as the first , the second , the third , the fourth and the fifth Gadaa cycles (gogeessa tokkoffa , gogeessa lammaffa, gogeessa sadaffa , gogeessa afraffa and gogeessa shanaffa). Each one of the Gadaa class has diversity and unity.

According to the Oromo worldview, all are established by divine will. In particular, the Boran oral tradition holds that the five cyclic Gadaa classes are derived from five natural governments:

  • That of men or of reason (1);
  • That of running water or progress (2);
  • That of sheep or quietude (3);
  • That of a lion which represents strength and domination (4); and
  • That of vulture which presides over the spoil and quest (5).

The Oromo believe that each Gadaa class in ascending to political power bring into all affairs the inclination which is appropriate to it, that is, each Gadaa class leads the people according to its natural tendency. For example, according to Boran diction, the term Dulo dule signifies that the Gadaa class of Dulo (waging war and it was one of the five Gadaa classes) had conducted military expedition. That is why the Dulo Gadaa class was likened to the vulture. Put it differently, where Dulo Gadaa class is known for military leadership and defending the territory; Birmaji was, perhaps, notorious for rendering justice to the people. Hence the coming to power of each Gadaa class once within forty years (i.e. 5 X 8) ensures not only power transfer but also the maintenance of quality leadership thereof.

Gadaa Grades and Age-sets (hariyya)

Broadly speaking, the age-set system of social organization is common to east African indigenous peoples. In this line, one may regard that age-sets are something common among different ethnic groups of the region to the extent that there is no distinction among them. However, such perception, if any, is simply not right. Hence based on the variants they are established on Age-sets may be divided into two: elementary age-sets and complex or advanced age-sets. Elementary age-sets are the basic sets not tied to other variables such as initiations, the interval between father and son and other elements discussed hereinabove. Hence elementary age-sets are organized in such a way that male generations who are approximately the same age share similar collective military, economic, political or ritual responsibilities. In this respect, Asmarom draws that the Gadaa System was originally an age organization. It is a simpler institution, called age-sets (hariyya) that was then introduced to serve as a subsidiary institution that supplements the social, maturational and military functions.

Among the Boran, however, similar (age wise) male generations will undergo a variety of rites of passage together as they approach each new phase every eight years. Moreover, Gada is transformed along radically different lines, what Asmarom calls a system of temporal differentiation of society having little to do with age. The Borana’s age-sets are organized in two ways: through a system where the member of each class are recruited strictly based on

  • The chronological age (1).  and
  • The members are recruited based on genealogical generations (2).

These requirements are similar in three aspects: both are formed every eight years; both pass from one stage to another; and in both active members pave position in both systems. Moreover, as discussed elsewhere, age-sets cross-cut Gadaa classes and moieties and eventually put the Gadaa system into motion. Thus one can regard age-sets as one of the auxiliary institutions.

It is reasonable to question the reason why do most indigenous peoples of East Africa including the Oromo did organize social structure based on continuous age-groupings and periodic rituals? Perhaps, the Age-set system might have imitated the natural course of human physical development to the structure the society. Moreover, the passage of time has no subjective meaning unless it is punctuated with a transitional phenomenon, whether it is the climbing of the dock, periodic saturnalias, rites of passage, or graduation ceremonies. In Western thought, the life cycle (which is bracketed by birth and death) time (which is well demarcated with mechanical devices and history (which is also mechanically recorded by chroniclers) are reasonably discrete phenomena. However, Gadaa is one as well as three: life, time and history. Therefore, Gadaa is a lifetime lesson and a carrier for the members where the three pillars (life—time—history) are unified.



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