Democracy literally means Rule by the people and is seen as a relatively recent Western phenomenon. However, democracy has been practiced in parts of Africa for many millenia. One such example is the Oromo Gada system practiced by the Oromo people in Ethiopia. It is an ancient system that is democratic in nature.
Oromo Nation is one of the 80 tribes that make up Ethiopia. It is the largest and most populous state in the country. Addis Ababa is the capital of both Ethiopia and the Oromo people. The Oromo are known for their sociopolitical democratic system which is known as the Gada. With a population of nearly 50 million, they are a model of success.
Oromo Gada system
The Gada system is the indigenous democratic system which has been in practice among the Oromo nation in Ethiopia for the last six hundred years, at the minimum. Linguists date the age set and age grade system to earlier than 3,500 BC.
Gada divides the stages of life into a series of formal stages that they are recruited into. When a child is born, he is recruited into the first grade, which is called Dabballe. They have a unique hairstyle, and are confined to their home, performing light work. Upon reaching their eighth year, they are progressed to a second grade known as Junior Gamme, after a naming stage. They get their hair shaped in a circular shape. They are expected to look after calves in the neighboring areas.
At the age of seventeen, they reach the third grade without any formal ceremony. They then learn herding and go long distances in search of good pastures. During the last three years of senior Gamme, they go from camp to camp, singing and collecting members of their clan.
The most important transition is the one from the third to fourth stage known as the Kuusaa. Six members of the Kuusaa are recruited and conditions are facilitated for them to acquire leadership skills. In the fifth grade, Raabaa Doorii, those of marrying age are expected to marry.
When the members reach the sixth grade, there is a transfer of power that includes an exchange of power and blessings between the incoming and outgoing Gada ruling class. Roasted coffee is served at this ceremony. An ostrich feather is handed over as a symbol of a transfer of power.
Power is not transmitted through lineage but dispassionately based on age grades and age sets. Every eight years, a new leader emerges and there is peaceful transition of power.
History of the Gada system
While it is not known exactly when the Gada system came into being, it is documented that the current leader is the 74th from the system. Considering each leader rules for eight years, it is rather easy to see that the system has been in vogue since around the 1400’s. Giving the vast area of Oromo and its population of nearly 50 million, the traditional assemblies now take place in several places, and the system has shown that it can apply to a large number of people in large populations as well as in smaller, more rural areas.
Linguists date the age set and age grade system to earlier than 3,500 BC.
The Gada system has a well-defined hierarchy. At the top sits the leader of the Gada, who is known as “Abba Gada”. He is known as the father of the class and is elected via a democratic vote. He must be a respectable man who has no history of committing crime, and must be a healthy person. He must also be known to respect the rules of the Gada system. After his election, he will be specifically marked by tying a headgear as a symbol of power. He will also take Boku, which is a scepter, as a sign of his leadership.
Other than that, there are the elected officials from different political parties who all live in one village which forms the political center of the Gada Oromo. It is from here that directions and orders are sent out to other parts of the system. They also perform other duties, such as taking part in the many rituals of the Oromo people.
In the Gada system, once every eight years, the Abba Gada calls into session a Legislative assembly, which is the highest authority in the nation, above all other institutions. They convene under the shade of the Oda tree, which is a sacred tree for the Oromo. There are five main Oda trees where the Oromo undertake their sessions. This is because of the large area that the Oromo cover, and their population. The National Assembly meet in the middle of the Gada period to evaluate laws and to resolve major conflicts.
An Oromo gathering near the Oda tree
There are five political parties in the Gada system, and they each rule in terms for eight years. In this way, each political party will have ruled at least one in the forty-year period that constitutes the Oromo Gada system. It differs from the Western democratic system as the periods are predefined, and there is no election of the party which will rule for eight years. However, what makes the Gada system a democracy is that the Abba Gada who rules the entire Oromo Gada is elected.
This makes it an example of direct democracy, continuing from ancient times, rooted in tradition.
Rights of Women
In the Gada system, there is an institution known as Sinke to protect the rights of women. It is a stick given to women at their wedding ceremony, as a sign of the beginning of married life. It represents the authority of women and abused women can carry their Sinke to defend themselves and gather others to share their grievance. This meant that the Oromo had a concept of gender equality well before such concepts had even permeated western consciousness.
Ever year, the Oromo Gada celebrate their Thanksgiving ceremony in September at lakes and mountainsides. This festival is attended by thousands of participants and also by Abba Gada himself. The Oromo extend their prayer and thanksgiving to the Oromo Supreme God for his lifegiving health and for the beginning of the spring season.
The Oromo Gada system have endured because it is a democratic system that transfers power to capable leaders. It is an example to that democracy has prospered in Africa for millenia. For other pre-colonial democratic systems that flourished in Africa, and particularly two which predated Athenian democracy and Rome, we also look at the political systems of Carthage and Meroe.