Problems and Purpose
The political life of the Oromo nation in the horn of Africa was founded on an egalitarian political system commonly known as the Gadaa. The Gadaa system has five parties that orderly succeeded each other every eight years in assuming political responsibilities (Asmarom 2006). The party in power is headed by Abba Gadaa (the president). The Abba Gadaa and his council changes with the party. The Gadaa General Assembly takes place once every eight years and it has been practiced since since 1424. The main purpose of this piece is neither to detail structure of the Gadaa system nor to describe the Gadaa General Assembly process that took place in the last six hundred years, rather it is to briefly note a participatory democratic process that took place as the 74th General Assembly in 2016 and the decision passed on environmental protection.
Once every eight years Gadaa General Assembly (hereinafter the assembly) takes place under a sycamore tree know as Odaa is part of traditional Oromo culture. The sycamore tree, a symbolic representation of dialogue and consensus, is where the local community comes together to make new laws and adjudicate cases. For the last six centuries, therefore, 73 (seventy-three) general assemblies were carried out. (This article's creator - Zelalem Tesfaye Sirna - attended the 74th assembly since its practice began in 1424 G.C.) The assembly lasted for seven consecutive days, from February 15-21, 2016. It was an exciting moment of direct democracy being practiced in 21st century.
Originating Entities and Funding
The assembly is an indigenous entity being practiced for more than half a century. It is rooted in the governance system of the Oromo people. However, when ever the assembly takes place, the regional government in general and the local adminstration in particular financially and technically supports the assembly. In particular, the Culture and Tourism Office of the Guji Zone organizes the event, technically support the seven consecutive days of deliberation process. Temporary shelters are built by the local community and will be removed once the assembly is over. Moreover, out of respect and affection, individuals offer gifts such as: food, honey, soft drinks, and others to the assemblymen.
Sirna had a chance to observe the general assembly at Me’ee Boku, where deliberation on “constitutional laws” took place for seven consecutive days. Walking to the place of assembly has its own procedure and formality. They move in four sets: ex-Gadaa leaders, the incumbent leaders, the future leaders and the women. Traveling in an orderly queue was very fascinating.
Fig. 1. A Walk to Me ́ee-Boku General Assembly – in four sets (Source: Gadaa.com).
Fig. 2. The 74th Gadaa General Assembly at Me ́ee Bokku, February 2016 (Photo by the Author)
Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
The Gadaa general assembly uses a “communicative” form of deliberation. The speaker (ex-Abba Gadaa) opens the gathering by blessing and then states the fundamental moral values (the wayyuu) as follows:
The discussant/speaker The audience/assembly
Lafti wayuu – Earth is respected!...........................................Wayyuu – respected!
Waaqi wayyuu – God is respected!........................................Wayyuu – respected!
Haati wayyuu – Mother is respected!.....................................Wayyuu – respected!
Abbaa woyyuu – Father is respected!....................................Wayyuu – respected!
Soddaa woyuu – Mother and father-in- law are respected!...Wayyuu – respected!
(Source: Personal observation at Me ́e Boku in Guji Zone, Ethiopia. February 19, 2016)
A distinctive element of this form of deliberation is that every time a person wants to speak, he must first reiterate this fundamental moral values before proceeding to the discussion. The assembly is led by a chair-person (an ex-Gadaa leader), the Speaker. The Speaker requires every attendant to take part in the deliberation calmly and actively. In the middle of the deliberations he interferes and make sure that the deliberation is meant to be a gathering for deliberation than debate. Above all, he accords that the assembly is not the place of showing one’s talent of speech or a place to judge a speaker's mind, but that it is the place to take a collective decision to their problems. Hence, he balances the freedom of expression and the order of deliberation. Any attendant who want to take a chance says kophise! (meaning, the chance is mine!). Then he speaks what is right for his people ́s social, political, economic and environmental issues. When he finishes, he says toggise! (meaning, I am done!).
Sirna's observation of the 74th assembly found the procedings to be peaceful and the flow of deliberation exceptional. That the nature of the Gadaa general assembly is based on consensus is evident from the procedings of the 74th Me’ee Boku. The participatory democratic process lasted for seven days which some may consider overly time-consuming. However, building consensus requires convincing every deviating members of the assemblymen (Zelalem 2015). Despite its limitations, consensual forms of deliberative democracy can outrank their majoritarian counterparts in certain contexts, for example, to the protection of minority rights (Wheatly 2003; Noel 2006).
In an interview with Gadaa leaders, Sirna learned that past deliberation processes took two weeks, but has now been cut to seven days (interview with ex-Abba Gadaa Wako Dube). Consider also that it takes place only once in eight years. The final day of the deliberation is a power transfer day, where the Abba Gadaa, having served for the last eight years, blesses and hands over power to the incoming Abba Gadaa for the next eight years. The 73rd president, Wako Dube (the outgoing Abba Gadaa), peacefully transferred the power to the 74th president, Jilo Mandho at Me’ee Boku on February 21, 2016.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The subject matter of deliberation includes: environmental protection, social relations, peace and development. However, for this article the deliberation on environmental protection is discussed as follows:
- Hafaa mukaa hin muranuu, santi aadaa! (Do not cut age-old trees, that is the custom!)
- Bayaa mukaa hin murani, santi aadaa! (Do not cut growing plants, that is the custom!)
- Muka mul ́isaa hin muranuu, santi aadaa! (Do not cut magnificent trees, that is the custom!)
- Muka maqaa hin muranuu, santi aadaa! (Do not cut functionally-titled trees, that is the custom!)
- Muka Jilaa hin murani, santi aadaa! (Do not cut holly trees, that is the custom!)
- Mootii mukaa hin muranuu, santi aadaa! (Do not cut king of trees, that is the custom!)
- Sootii mukaa hin murani, santi aadaa! (Do not cut tallest trees, that is the custom!)
- Mukeen hin qululuchanuu, santi aadaa! (Do not clear branches of a tree, that is the custom!)
- Raadaa fi jibichaan simuree naa hafiin gondooranii, santi aadaa! (While cutting a tree saying “I cut 'you' with heifer and steer, remain!”, that is the custom!)
- Namni ibidda qabatee bosona seenu bishaan qabatee deemaa, santi aadaa! (Anyone who enters a forest with fire, he shall have also take water with himself, that is the custom!)
(Source: Adopted from Magazine of Guji Zone Culture and Tourism Office, 2016).
In each statement a discussant declares will be affirmatively repeated by a response from the audience saying: “santi aadaa dha!” – “that is the custom!”. Hence, the way the deliberation takes place is not authoritative – a setting where one speaks and others listen to it. Rather, it is a setting where every remark and points one makes will be responded immediately in reference of the existing customary law. In case they do not agree to the statement, they would oppose at spot saying, “aadaa malee!”, meaning, “that is not the custom!”. Decisions passed at this place will bind the whole community and it will serve for the next eight years. Participatory democratic practice under Gadaa system is a social capital. Although the original masterpiece of this old age participatory democracy being observed among a limited Oromo peoples, it is widely believed that it stands for all Oromo people in East Africa and abroad. Sirna learned from the participants that people had travelled to the assembly from all over the country. Both national and international journalists have reported it through multichannel outlets.
When a deliberation comes to an end at the Mi’e Bokko there is one statement that indicates that resolution at a Me’ee Boku is not conclusive. That is:
Seera gooroo sii tume seera gooree ittiin Galadhu!
We have proclaimed general laws and the specific rules are left for you!
Thus, general laws are declared at Me’ee Bokko and entailing specific provisions are left for particular community to detail and adopt it to their particular socio-economic activities.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Established on "principled deliberation" - in a sense that, the assemblymen deliberates on general affairs of the people and any specific issues will be left for subordinate assemblies. Moreover, the center of deliberation is neither, what Habermasian call it as “reason” nor what Rawlsian consider it as “justice”, but mainly established on the “truth.” Reason, as in most cases, is a ground for evasion of the truth – a way to answer to the truth appealing to a conscience for wrongs being done. However, under Gadaa in general and this assembly denial and taking hostage to reason is impossible: the only option is to speak the facts on environmental protection with the reference to values the community are abide by.
Environmental Protection - the 74th general assembly, among other issues, focused on environmental protection. The decisions passed by the assembly binds all peoples living in Guji Zone and hence it produces legal effect at the local level. What is important is that the local adminstration also welcomes the decision and inculcates the decision into its environmental protection policy.
Power transfer - another fascinating aspect is that, from what I observed, the final day of the deliberation will be marked by a power transferring ceremony – where the Abba Gadaa who have served for the last eight years hand over the power to the incoming leader. On February 21, 2016, the 73rd President, Wako Dube (2007 - 2015) peacefully transferred the power to the 74th President, Jilo Mandho (2016 - 2024). This event marks a week long intensive communitarian deliberation.
Asmarom Legesse, (2006) (First Full ed.), “Oromo Democracy; An Indigenous African Political System", Red Sea Press Inc.
Noel, Alain, (2006) “Democratic deliberation in Multinational Federation; Critical review of International Social and Political Philosophy", Vol. 9 No. 3 pp. 419-444.
The Guji Zone Culture and Tourism Office, Megazine 2016.
Wheatley, Steven, (2003) “Deliberative Democracy and Minorities", European Journal of International Law, Vol. 14, No. 3 pp. 507-527.
Zelalem T. Sirna (2015) “Old Wine in New Bottles: Bridging the Peripheral Gadaa Rule to the Mainstream Constitutional Order of the 21st C Ethiopia.” Oromia Law Journal. P. See also: http://www.ajol.info/index.php/olj/article/view/120606
 If two people simultaneously says kophisee, then one of them will say qoxise, meaning let you give me a chance. Then the chance will be his.