Gadaa: Classical East African Democracy

Gadaa is a historical democratic governance system practiced by the Oromo people of Ethiopia and Northern Kenya. It was developed in the 16th century during the Oromo expansion, to help govern people militarily and administratively. Over time, it evolved into a system for disseminating cultural knowledge, regulating moral responsibility and maintaining peace.

The system is unique in that it was one of the few egalitarian democratic systems globally of its time. Under Gadaa, leaders were guided by term limits, power-sharing agreements, division of power and balanced representation among different groups, e.g., clans, regions, etc.

Male members of society were categorized into two types of groups: by generation and age. To qualify for election into the council of representatives (Luba), one was required to complete five levels of initiation alongside one’s age-group. Additionally, their qualification would depend on the completion of the same by their respective fathers, who can do so later in life if they missed it earlier on. Leaders were elected based on key attributes such as military prowess, wisdom, public speaking skills, mystical attributes, and deep cultural knowledge. Any adult male member of society was eligible to vote for Gadaa representatives. 

The system had some elements of modern-day democracies such as political parties (Miseensas), change of power every eight years (Butta), and a national government headed by a Chief Executive (Abbaa Gadaa). Laws were enacted through participatory discussion during a general assembly, moderated by a Speaker.

Sociologist Donald Levine termed it as “one of the most complex systems of social organization ever devised by the human imagination”, and scholars such Asafa Jalata proposed that it be studied as a foundation for developing modern African democracies. The Gadaa system has however been criticized for excluding women from political affairs. 

Since the early 1990s, the system was not widely practiced but is still influential in present-day Oromo society.

By Edel Were

(Image: Orosoftblog)

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