Gadaa (Oromo democracy): an example of classical African Civilization.

AuthorJalata, Asafa


Prior to their colonization during the European Scramble for Africa by the alliance of European imperialism and Ethiopian colonialism (Holcomb and Ibssa, 1990; Jalata, 2005), the Oromo people were independent and organized both culturally and politically using the gadaa system (Oromo democracy) to promote their wellbeing and to maintain their security and sovereignty. But, today, the Oromo do not have any autonomous or democratic political representation; they have been ruled by the successive regimes of the Amhara-Tigray ethno-national groups that have been supported by global powers (Jalata, 2005; Holcomb and Ibssa, 1990). The Ethiopian colonial terrorism and genocide that started during the last decades of the 19th century still continue in the 21st century. Ethiopia, former Abyssinia, has terrorized and committed genocide on the Oromo people during the Scramble for Africa with the help of European imperial powers such as England, France, and Italy.

Without the expertise and the modern weapons they received from these European powers, the Amhara-Tigray warlords could not colonize Oromia (the Oromo country). The Oromo and Abyssinian peoples fought each other over territories, religions, and power between the 16th and mid-19th centuries without defeating and colonizing each other. This balance of power was changed by the intervention of the European colonial powers on the side of the Amhara-Tigray warlords in the second half of the 19th century.

During Ethiopian colonial expansion, Oromia, "the charming Oromo land, [would] be ploughed by the iron and the fire; flooded with blood and the orgy of pillage" (de Salviac, 2005 [1901]: 349). Calling this event as "the theatre of a great massacre," Martial De Salviac (2005 [1901]: 349) states, "The conduct of Abyssinian armies invading a land is simply barbaric. They contrive a sudden irruption, more often at night. At daybreak, the fire begins; surprised men in the huts or in the fields are three quarter massacred and horribly mutilated; the women and the children and many men are reduced to captivity; the soldiers lead the frightened herds toward the camp, take away the grain and the flour which they load on the shoulders of their prisoners spurred on by blows of the whip, destroy the harvest, then, glutted with booty and intoxicated with blood, go to walk a bit further from the devastation. That is what they call 'civilizing a land.'" The Oromo oral history also testifies that Ethiopians/Abyssinians destroyed and looted the resources of Oromia, and committed genocide on the Oromo people through massacre, slavery, depopulation, cutting hands, famine, and diseases during and after the colonization of Oromia.

According to Martial de Salviac (2005 [1901]: 350), "With equal arms, the Abyssinia [would] never [conquer] an inch of land. With the power of firearms imported from Europe, Menelik [Abyssinian warlord] began a murderous revenge." The colonization of Oromia involved human tragedy and destruction: "The Abyssinian, in bloody raids, operated by surprise, mowed down without pity, in the country of the Oromo population, a mournful harvest of slaves for which the Muslims were thirsty and whom they bought at very high price. An Oromo child [boy] would cost up to 800 francs in Cairo; an Oromo girl would well be worth two thousand francs in Constantinople" (de Salviac, 2005 [1901]: 28). The Ethiopian/Abyssinian government massacred half of the Oromo population (five million out of ten million) and their leadership during its colonial expansion (de Salviac, 2005 [1901]: 608, 278; Bulatovich, 2000: 66-68). According to Alexander Bulatovich (2000: 68-69), "The dreadful annihilation of more than half of the population during the conquest took away from the [Oromo] all possibilities of thinking about any sort of uprising . . . Without a doubt, the [Oromo], with their least five million population, occupying the best land, all speaking one language, could represent a tremendous force if united." The destruction of Oromo lives and institutions were aspects of Ethiopian colonial terrorism.

The surviving Oromo who used to enjoy an egalitarian democracy known as the gadaa system were forced to face state terrorism, political repression, and an impoverished life. Bulatovich (2000: 68) explains about the gadaa and notes, "the peaceful free way of life, which could have become the ideal for philosophers and writers of the eighteenth century, if they had known it, was completely changed. Their peaceful way of life is broken; freedom is lost; and the independent, freedom loving [Oromos] find themselves under the severe authority of the Abyssinian conquerors." Ethiopian colonialists also destroyed Oromo natural resources and the beauty of Oromia (the Oromo country): Oromia was "an oasis luxuriant with large trees" and known for its "opulent and dark greenery used to shoot up from the soil" (de Salviac, 2005 [1901]: 21-22).

As de Salviac (2005 [1901]: 21) also notes, "the greenery and the shade delight the eyes all over and give the landscape a richness and a variety which make it like a garden without boundary. Healthful climate, uniform and temperate, fertility of the soil, beauty of the inhabitants, the security in which their houses seem to be situated, makes one dream of remaining in such a beautiful country." As the Oromo people were killed, terrorized, and repressed, the Oromo natural resources were depleted and their environment and natural beauty were destroyed.

Human beings have basic attributes that Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan (1985: 262) characterizes as "essential human needs and essential human powers" in order to survive and develop fully. The people who were colonized and dominated cannot adequately satisfy their basic needs and self-actualizing powers: "(a) biological needs, (b) sociability and rootedness, (c) clarity and integrity of self, (d) longevity and symbolic immortality, (e) self-reproduction in praxis, and (f) maximum self-determination." Human beings must satisfy their basic biological needs such as food, sex, clothing, and shelter to survive; these biological needs can only be satisfied in a culture that provides sociability and rootedness. Those people whose culture has been attacked and disfigured by colonialism are underdeveloped; their basic needs and selfactualizing powers are stagnated. According to Bulhan (185: 263), "For to acquire culture presupposes not only a remarkable power of learning and teaching, but also an enduring capacity for interdependence and inter-subjectivity. Not only the development of our higher power of cognition and affect, but also the development of our basic senses rest on the fact that we are social beings."

Colonialism can be maintained by committing genocide or ethnocide and/or by organized cultural destruction and the assimilation of a sector of the colonized population. Ethiopian colonialists expropriated Oromo economic resources, such as land, and destroyed Oromo institutions and cultural experts and leaders. They have also denied the Oromo opportunities for developing the Oromo system of knowledge by preventing the transmission of Oromo cultural experiences from generation to generation. All these were intended to uproot the Oromo cultural identity and to produce individuals who lack self-respect and become submissive and ready to serve the colonialists. Under these conditions, the Oromo basic needs and self-actualizing powers have not been fulfilled.

In other words, the Oromo biological and social needs have been frustrated. "If failure to satisfy biological needs leads to disease and physical death," Bulhan (1985: 263) notes, "then denial of human contact, communication, and affirmation . . . leads to a social and psychological 'starvation' or 'death' no less devastating than, and conditioning, physical death."

Furthermore, the Ethiopian colonialists have attempted to introduce social and cultural deaths to the Oromo people in addition to millions of physical deaths for more than a century. That is why the Amharas and Tigrayans are mad at the current revival of Oromo culture, history, and the Oromo language, and the latter presently use the state machinery to control these developments in order to promote their political agendas at the cost of the Oromo. Both the Amhara and Tigrayan elites have also attempted to destroy Oromo selfhood in order to deny the Oromo both individual and national self-determination. From all angels, they have tried their best to prevent the Oromo from having clarity and integrity of Oromo self; they have prevented the Oromo from establishing their cultural and historical immortality through reproducing and recreating their history, culture and worldview, and from achieving maximum selfdetermination. "The pursuit of self-clarity is . . . intimately bound with the clarity developed first about one's body, the body's boundary and attributes, and later one's larger world. This pursuit of clarity has survival, developmental, and organizing value. It entails both a differentiation from as well as integration with others and with one's past. Without some clarity of the self, however tentative and tenuous, there can be no meaningful relating with others, no expression of inherent human potentials, no gratification of essential needs" (Bulhan, 1985: 264)

The founding fathers and mothers of Oromo nationalism purposely engaged in political praxis to save the Oromo individual and collective selves from psychological, social, and physical deaths. Without a measure of self-determination a person cannot fully satisfy his/her biological and social needs, self-actualize, and engage in praxis as an active agent to transform society and oneself. "Self-determination refers to the process and capacity to choose among alternatives, to determine one's behavior, and to affect one's destiny. As such, self-determination assumes a consciousness of human possibilities, an awareness of...

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