lunedì 9 ottobre 2017

Oromo's Gada system

Oromia is one of the nine Regional States forming the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, and it is home to about 27 millions of people.
According to Amnesty International, «prolonged protests – which began in November 2015 – over political, economic, social and cultural grievances were met with excessive and lethal force by police. The crackdown on the political opposition saw mass arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment, unfair trials and violations of the rights to freedom of expression and association. On 9 October 2016, the government announced a state of emergency, which led to further human rights violations».
That is all I knew about the Oromo people when I went to visit the Oromo Cultural Center in Addis Ababa, a huge modern building in Ras Mekonen Street.

The guided visit to the museum, situated on the second and third floors of the building, reached the point of maximum interest when I was introduced to the core of the Oromo culture: its democratic socio-political system called Gada.
The Gada system has been inscribed on the list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity in December 2016, when Ethiopia hosted the 11th session of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
After the inscription, the UNESCO wrote this description of the Gada system on its website:
«Gada is a traditional system of governance used by the Oromo people in Ethiopia developed from knowledge gained by community experience over generations. The system regulates political, economic, social and religious activities of the community dealing with issues such as conflict resolution, reparation and protecting women’s rights. It serves as a mechanism for enforcing moral conduct, building social cohesion, and expressing forms of community culture. Gada is organized into five classes with one of these functioning as the ruling class consisting of a chairperson, officials and an assembly. Each class progresses through a series of grades before it can function in authority with the leadership changing on a rotational basis every eight years. Class membership is open to men, whose fathers are already members, while women are consulted for decision-making on protecting women’s rights. The classes are taught by oral historians covering history, laws, rituals, time reckoning, cosmology, myths, rules of conduct, and the function of the Gada system. Meetings and ceremonies take place under a sycamore tree (considered the Gada symbol) while major clans have established Gada centres and ceremonial spaces according to territory. Knowledge about the Gada system is transmitted to children in the home and at school.
Various sources indicated that the Gada 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 include 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.
Sources indicate that the Gada system possesses some prominent unique features when compared to western democracies. Reserches identified the distribution of power across age groups as one of these distinctive features. In explaining this identifying characteristic, the researches remarked that western democracies are very deficient in the distribution of power across generations and age groups. They went on to argue that those who assume the position control most of the authority and wealth of the country. Further the young, poor and the elders are politically and economically marginalized in western democracies.
Another one of the distinctive features pointed out is the testing period of elected leaders. The researches explain that the Gada system greatly believes in rigorous practical or actual testing of the candidates before they assume office unlike western democracy which in most cases exclusively relies on election. The Gada grade not only defines the rights and obligations of each classes but also initiations of and period of work and performances. The roles and rules attached to the age grade system are the most important elements that regulate the Gada system. When one passes from one grade to the other, his roles and responsibilities in the community also changes, in such a way, an individual or group of individuals whom are assuming the office will be critically tested in the system».
On December the 6th, 2016, UNPO (Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization) hailed the news with words of hope: «Amid the Oromo people’s peaceful struggle for self-determination and for a federal and democratic Ethiopia, the declaration of their traditional, socio-political governance system (‘Gada’) as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage could attract much-needed international attention and help raise awareness of the Oromo’s plight. The Gada system comprises regulatory measures pertaining to issues such as conflict resolution, questions of religion and to women’s rights. In contrast to the modus operandi employed by the current, authoritarian government, the Gada form of governance contains provisions guaranteeing an effective system of ‘checks and balances’, the separation of powers and an institutionalised opposition – all of which provides safeguards against totalitarianism and a governmental abuse of power».

More information about the Gada system can be found in the “Nomination file no. 01164 for inscription in 2016 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”, presented at the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding Of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Eleventh session, Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia, November 28 to December 2, 2016:
«Under the Gada System, Oromo society is organized into five Gada generation classes or sets which rotate every eight years to assume political, economic and ritual responsibilities. The recruitment to the membership of the five Gada classes is based not on age but rather on genealogical generation ‘descent’. The entire class progresses through eleven series grades. The system rotates every eight years to allow each class assume power in the middle of the life course (the sixth grade) called Gada (Luba)1.
The class in power is headed by a political leader known as Abba-Gada literally “father of the period”. The transition is marked by a formal power transfer ceremony. [...] The Gada System is an all-inclusive social system in which every member of the society has specified roles and duties during one’s life course. This begins when sons join the first grade as members of Gada class (generation class or set) forty years after their fathers and are initiated into the next higher grade every eight years. In the fourth grade, known as Kusa, the class forms its own internal officials (adula hayyus) and its own assembly (ya’a). […] Together with the Gada class in power, the Abba Gada is responsible for the day-to-day administration of the community’s local affairs including dispute arbitration and maintenance of social order. His duties also include transferring knowledge and skills associated with the functions of the democratic Gada System to the members of succeeding grades. The retired Abba Gada and his council called Yuba serve as counsellors for the ruling Gada Class and are in charge of administration of justice. [...] Women are consulted in making national decisions and ensuring that women’s rights are protected.
The knowledge and practices of the Gada System have been transmitted from generation to generation in various ways. At a household level, parents transmit orally knowledge about the ethics, practices and rituals of the system and socialize their children into Gada culture. Then, after sons join the Gada System and collectively as a class pass through the five grades (daballe, junior game, senior game, kussa, raba dori), the abbaa raagaa (oral historians) teach the sons argaa- dhageettii (eyewitness accounts and oral traditions) about history, laws, rituals, time reckoning, cosmology, myth, rules of conduct as well as the function and importance of the Gada System.
[...] In the meetings that take place every eight years to re-examine the existing laws, the seniors reiterate them in public and legislate new laws, demonstrate and share knowledge about the operation of the Gada System. The school curriculum in Oromiya is designed to ensure that the knowledge and skills associated with the element are transmitted to children in their tongue.
Currently, the Oromiya Radio and Television broadcast programs in the Oromo language about various aspect of the Gada System to increase awareness. As a result, when the group enters the Gada Grade (Luba), they will have acquired all the necessary knowledge to handle the responsibility of administering the country and arranging and presiding at the celebration of rituals.
[…] The Gada System distributes power across generations and down to community members, creates strong link between successive generations, and gives to the members of the community a sense of identity and continuity. Oromo philosophy, art and calendar are based on Gada as an expression of Oromo civilization. The public conduct of Individuals is governed by safuu (Oromo moral system). Gada functions as a system of cooperation, social integration, enforcement of moral conduct and principle of peaceful co-existence with other ethnic groups.
Gada is an indigenous system of human development on the basis of which the Oromo welfare system is institutionalized, communal wealth distributed, rules of resource protection and environmental conservation enforced and through which all their aspirations are fulfilled. An Oromo cannot imagine functioning as a human being or living in a community apart from rules of behaviour preserved and protected in the Gada System. […] The Gada System does not contain any element that is incompatible with existing international human rights instruments. It is a democratic and egalitarian political system based on equal access to office in which only merit counts.
In the Gada System, the supremacy of the law is paramount and the equality of all before the law is sacrosanct. Even the Abba Gada, head of the Gada executive branch, if accused of violating laws and regulations, could be impeached, tried and uprooted (buqisu) from office before official tenure and replaced by one of the members of his class.
Supreme legislative authority belongs to the people’s Chaffee or Gumi (people’s assembly). Every citizen has the right to speak and be heard in the Assembly of multitudes. Decisions over the use of common resources and the settlement of disputes are reached after thorough discussions and deliberation. Gada System of checks and balances such as respecting eight years rule, power sharing and balanced opposition of parties helps avoid subordination, exploitation, corruption and misuse of power.
The women’s siinqee institution within the System enables Oromo women to have control over resources and to form mechanisms of solidarity and sisterhood to deter men from infringing upon their rights and promote gender equality. Moreover, the Gada system contributes to sustainable development of the community as it engages every member in social and economic development duties and regulates conservation of the environment. Thus, an understanding of the System by different communities helps for inter-cultural dialogue and encourage mutual respect».

1A thorough analysis of Gada system and its history can be read in ROBELE TADESSE, Gada system and United States of Africa, 2013. More information can be found in and in Professor Marco Bassi's publications.

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