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: