Gadaa as an Alternative Understanding of Democracy in Africa

Gadaa locates democratic values and institutions locally, historically and culturally in Africa.


In understanding democracy in Africa, it is crucial to locate the process of democratisation in its historical context. The colonial enterprise is important in the understanding of the postcolonial erosion of democratic institutions. Indeed, colonialism was not a democratic system, and its masters were not the mentors of democracy as they propagated. Rather, they took self-governance away from Africans while destroying indigenous democratic values and institutions without building stable replacements. 

Democracy need not be seen as the exclusive property of the West; it can be found in various African cultural contexts. Defining democracy can be difficult as its expression remains controversial in many African countries and other parts of the world. Does democracy necessarily mean Western ideas of democracy? Is there only a distinct model for every country, irrespective of its traditions and culture? These are some notable questions to address in dealing with democracy in its entirety. 

Africans must draw on features within their societies to give local relevance to democratic concepts, rather than run the risk of having democracy transplanted without adaptation, as they have done with technology. Although the idea of Africa’s openness to external ideas may not be strange, these external ideas would prove more useful if they were modified to harmonise with African values, ensuring proper understanding by the population at large. If democracy is to exist on the African continent, Africans will have to keep reinventing it. The constant reinvention of democracy based on African initiatives is what is needed in Africa. The Gadaa system among the Oromos highlights that Africans are not just students of democracy but actually owners of democratic ingredients themselves.

The Oromo people are one of the largest ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa belonging to the Cushitic-speaking peoples in Northeastern Africa in general and in modern Ethiopia and Kenya in particular. Carsten Ten Brink

Conceptualising Democracy

Etymologically, the word democracy is derived from two Greek words – ‘demos’ meaning the people, and ‘kratos’ meaning rule. Hence, democracy is basically rule by the people. By implication, the government must belong to the people and not be imposed from outside. Citizens, not outside bodies, are entitled to set the democratic rules. Thus conceived, the cultural aspect is crucial to any democratic aspirations. Democracy as a government of the people implies that it needs to be owned by people  and not imposed by outsiders. It ought to be a product of their ideas which reflect their ‘culture, values, beliefs, orientations, attitudes, worldviews, history, traditions and customs so that it authoritativelyallocates their own values to them’.[1] People must be free to create their own styles of government as a means to achieving their intended goals. These will undeniably vary from place to place. The failure of Western liberal democracy in some parts of the world, therefore, can be impugned fundamentally on the failure to adequately gauge the impact of cultural differences.

Problematising Western Liberal Democracy in Africa

The history of democracy relies on an overtly Eurocentric narrative that emphasises key moments in Western civilisation. Isakhan notes that democracy:

remained a clear trajectory that can be traced from ancient experiments with participatory government in Greece and to a lesser extent in Rome, through the development of the British parliament, the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution, and then finally onto the triumphant march of the liberal model of democracy across the globe over the last 200 years, particularly under Western tutelage.[2]

Histories of democracy which rest exclusively on these events not only privilege the West and its successful colonies, but also miss the broader human story of the struggle for and achievement of democracy. 

In recent years, however, a counter-discourse has developed which challenges the academic orthodoxy that underpins this traditional Eurocentric democracy by bringing to the fore some of the neglected histories of democracy. This has opened up debate and discourse on the complex origins and multiple trajectories of this sophisticated form of government.

Western liberal democracy has become a dogma which the West, with the Bretton Woods organisations (with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as their principal agents), is preaching forcefully to the rest of the world, including Africa, as a means to attain good governance. Like ‘development’, the democracy rhetoric has become a religion. It is a religion in the sense that, though it has consistently failed to work in Africa, unflinching faith in it continues to discourage questions about its cultural compatibility, appropriateness, and affordability. Despite its failure,the imposition continues. However, the imposition is not democracy per se, that is, the rule of the people, but as Osabu-Kle argues, it is rather a ‘democrazy’, a demonstration of craziness.[3] It is no wonder that such imposition has not led to democracies in Africa, but democrazies, as exemplified by the historical experience of Nigeria’s Biafran War, Somalia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and recently, the experience of Kenya. Not underestimating the idiosyncrasies of each country, many of these cases in one way or another are linked to a failed transplantation of Western liberal democracy.

People listening to speeches during the Gada system ceremony in Borana tribe, Oromia, Yabelo, Ethiopia
The Oromo people gather under trees for prayers and other ceremonies. Eric Lafforgue/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

The organising principle of democracy as being ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’ is culturally specific. Since cultural values differ, African democracy cannot be expected to emulate Western democracy. Cultural compatibility that recognises and adapts to cultural dynamics to ensure political stability is crucial. Cultural incompatibility can lead to political chaos and instability. 

Democracy by the people means the people, and only the people, must participate in it as per the rules they have set and not according to rules set by various other agents. Strangers and outsiders are excluded and should not interfere. Heavy-handed interference by the West in the democratic processes of African countries is a very serious violation of this fundamental principle of democracy. Therefore, it is not surprising that the transplantation of Western democracy in Africa has led to much political turmoil on the continent and has weakened the achievement of the compulsory preconditions for effective development. 

Ethiopian men walk next to their horses during the opening ceremony of Irreecha celebration in Addis Ababa
Gadaa is an administration system where powers are distributed among the Oromo people based on age and experience. Reuters/Tiksa Negeri

Some of the characteristics and practices of liberal democracy further confirm its unsuitability in Africa. Its partisan and competitive nature is a case in point. The partisan nature of liberal democracy divides society.  When this partisanship is superimposed upon the multiethnic societies of Africa, the invocation of ethnic symbols during the competitive election campaign sets centrifugal political forces into motion, which tend to tear the very fabric of society apart. This is clearly seen in examples of party formation in Africa. The organising principle is usually the ethno-linguistic divide. It is not uncommon to observe that even in those countries that constitutionally ban party formation along ethnic lines, the political modus operandi is still ethnic identity.

Understanding the Gadaa System

Oromos are one of the largest ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa belonging to the Cushitic-speaking peoples in Northeastern Africa in general and in modern Ethiopia and Kenya in particular. They are well known, among others, for their advancement of an indigenous democratic process known as Gadaa. The Gadaa system is a socio-political, ritual, and economic administrative system through which the Oromo people have organised and managed themselves for centuries.[4] It existed as a fully-fledged system at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Currently, its practice continues in traditional Oromo societies of the Borana, among other societies. As the system is purely an indigenous democratic tradition, it can be used, despite its limitations, as a challenge against a discourse that renders democracy a perennial artefact of the West. It also presents Africa as not only a consumer but also a producer of democratic ideals. 

Kura Jarso the 71st Borana Oromo Abba gadaa and his councilors, Oromia, Yabelo, Ethiopia
The Abbaa, or head of Gadaa, is elected democratically and serves for eight years. Eric Lafforgue/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

The term Gadaa has no single and unanimously accepted definition. Gadaa is better conceived of lexically than analytically. Tsegaye presents the etymology of Gadaa as ka’aada, which is the combination of two antiquated terms: ‘ka’ and ‘aada’. He states that Ka means God – Uumaa or creator, and aada refers to norms. Together this refers to the ‘norms of God’.[5] When it comes to its intrinsic nature and function, Gadaa is chiefly an administration system where powers are distributed among the Oromo people based on age and experience.

The Gadaa system allows the male members of the society to join five Gadaa parties and pass through a number of age-grades (about seven to 13 in total) in different Oromo groups. The system is based not on biological age, as in the case of an age-set system, but rather on the maintenance of socially defined generations between parents and children. Parents and children are considered five grades or 40 years apart from each other. Each age-grade lasts for a period of eight yearsPeople change their age-grade as they advance in age. The age-grades before Gadaa mainly serve as schools for the young Oromo people. It helps the youth obtain different training that prepares them for hunting, military obligations, and community leadership.[6]

The sixth age-grade is called Gadaa. It covers 41- to 48-year-old Oromo men. It is the stage where political, social, military and ritual leadership is exercised. The Abbaa, or head of Gadaa, is elected democratically from among this Gadaa age-grade. The Abbaa serves for eight years as a leader and spokesman of the assembly. The other Gadaa officials include the Abba Dula who commands the army and the Abba Sera in charge of the traditional Oromo laws. These and other officials work diligently together for one Gadaa period, that is, eight years, and then hand over power to the next Gadaa grade at the end of their office. New officials for the eight-year period will then be elected. Thus, the Gadaasystem embraces the peaceful transfer of power from one Gadaa grade to another every eight years. Such power transfer, Berisso argues, is ‘conducted in a volitional manner, with full passion and without friction’.[7] Those who have left the office serve as advisors to the new Gadaa grade.

Men reading the aba Gada list during the Gada system ceremony in Borana tribe, Oromia, Yabelo, Ethiopia
Men read the Abbaa Gadaa list during the Gadaa system ceremony in the Borana tribe, Oromia, in Ethiopia (6 March 2017). Eric Lafforgue/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

The Democratic Dimension of the Gadaa System

Gadaa comprises various features that make it a democratic institution. A hierarchy or monarchy is absent from the system. All humans deserve to be treated with almost equal respect, without regard to human differences. Political power is shared equitably among the parties and across generations. Similarly, Holcomb asserts that the Gadaa system: 

organized the Oromo people in an all-encompassing democratic republic even before the few European pilgrims arrived from England on the shores of North America and only later built a democracy.[8]

This system, Negari states, has the principles of: 

checks and balances through the periodic succession of every eight years, and division of power among executive, legislative, and judicial branches, balanced opposition among the five parties, and power sharing between higher and lower administrative organs to prevent power from falling into the hands of tyrannical ruler.[9]

Thus conceived, the Gadaa system is founded on the principle of consensus-based decision-making. In the process of decision-making, perspectives are not discouraged and are interpreted from different points of view. The Gadaa system has been considered a democratic and just system compared to other forms of governance in the region. A periodic election every eight years with a clear term limit chiefly reflects the democratic elements. Moreover, the peaceful transfer of political power and impartial distribution of power across generations; rule-of-law and accountability; separation of politics from religion; social integration and peacebuilding roles; a period of testing; and the presence of a checks and balances system are all notable democratic principles of the system. Legesse describes this uniquely democratic system of the Oromo people as: 

One of those remarkable creations of the human mind that evolved into a full-fledged system of government. It contains genuinely African solutions for some of the problems that democracies everywhere have had to face.[10]

The Wider Image: Ethiopia's new leader relies on support from youth
The Gadaa system encourages individuals to be tolerant and to use dialogue to resolve conflicts and traditional institutions to restore and sustain peace. Promise Tangeman

One major contribution of Oromo democracy is the way power is shared by the generations. Far from being a government of the elders, Gadaa ensures that rights are distributed fairly among ‘fathers, sons and grandsons: no generation that is mature enough to be able to bear the rights and duties of citizenship is prevented from taking part in political life’.[11]Additonaly, leadership roles are equally divided among the five Gadaa parties and the successive Gadaa age-grades. There is no inter-party or intergenerational competition over power. Put otherwise, horizontal and vertical competition for the attainment of power is avoided. Describing the limitation of Western liberal democracies in terms of the distribution of power across generations, Legesse states: 

Western liberal democracies failed quite miserably to achieve any semblance of inter-generational equity. The youth movements and the movements of the elderly that swept across the United States and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s were attempts to correct the generational injustices that were, and still are, present in Western political systems.[12]

The Gadaa system ensures peace through participative democracy where the leaders are elected by members to serve for a single term of eight years in which they are accountable for their actions, and the constituents can recall them whenever necessary. The democratic election, fixed term of office, peaceful transfer of power, and accountability of the elected officials for their actions highlights that the source of power lies with the society. In this society, a leader’s prime mission is peace. The Gadaa system is also based on values of equality, human rights, and freedom. It allows every member of the society to be treated as equal irrespective of their status, economic fortune, and position. All society members’ rights, including the right to property, freedom of speech, elect, and so on, are inviolable.[13]

While, the Siqqee institution of Gadaa offers a separate platform for Oromo women to voice their concerns and address their social justice issues, it does not rectify the gendered exclusion of women from political decision-making processes. Reuters/Tiksa Negeri

The social justice and inviolable human rights of each individual member are ‘enforced through the legal system and judiciary of the Gadaa system’.[14] The Oromo concepts of peace and truth encourage individuals to live in peace with community members and others. It also encourages individuals to be tolerant and to use dialogue to resolve conflicts and traditional institutions to restore and sustain peace. Bulatovich explains: ‘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’.[15] Discussing the philosophy of Oromo democracy, Legesse notes:

What is astonishing about this cultural tradition is how far Oromo have gone to ensure that power does not fall in the hand of war chiefs and despots. They achieve this goal by creating a system of checks and balances that is at least as complex as the systems we find in Western democracies.[16]

The rule of law is fundamental in the Gadaa system. Leaders who act against the law of the land or whose families could not uphold the required standard of the system are recalled even before their term ends. Leaders selected under Gadaaimplemented the laws that were made by male representatives of the people. 

The Gadaa system thus makes use of checks and balances; periodic succession every eight years; division of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches; and power-sharing between higher and lower administrative organs to prevent power from falling into the hands of despots. Other principles of the system included balanced representation of all clans, lineages, regions and confederacies; accountability of leaders; the settlement of disputes through reconciliation; and respect for basic rights and liberties. Despite its democratic nature, the Gadaa system is also criticised for some of its limitations and gender insensitivity.

Critique of the Gadaa System

The Gadaa system is an egalitarian social system; however, women were excluded from passing through age-sets and generation-sets. The system excluded women from its politico-military-administrative structures, and they were only allowed to be married to men in a Gadaa grade.[17] Gadaa has thus been criticised for its gender insensitivity. Although women are excluded from the Gadaa system, their political and democratic rights, some argue, are represented and respected through a separate institution known as SiqqeeSiqqee has been used by women as a checks and balances system in countering male-dominated roles in the Gadaa system. It offers a political and social platform for Oromo women to voice their concerns and address their social justice issues effectively. This separate institution helps to prevent conflicts and violence through direct intervention. It further allows women to have roles in the social and economic affairs of society and to exercise their rights and contribute to peacebuilding. Women also play a key role in terms of socialising their children according to the values, norms, and beliefs of the society and encouraging tolerance and dialogue to solve problems. 

Though the Siqqee institutions remain instrumental in addressing the gender insensitivity of the Gadaa system, it is difficult to argue that this indigenous institution can absolutely rectify the exclusion of Oromo women from political decision-making processes, especially in the contemporary world. 


Africa’s place in the history of democracy is often ignored. The conceptualisation of the postcolonial state is intrinsically influenced by the ongoing problems of civil war, famine, and tribalism on the continent. Thus, due consideration for its indigenous egalitarian institutions has little or no space in academic engagements. The relevance of the Gadaa system and its democratic principles can be seen from three perspectives. First, it is genuinely an indigenous African system. Second, it existed long before the wave of democratic concepts was conceived in the Western world. Third, it survived against the backdrop of the colonial enterprise, which was characterised by the dismantlement of local civilisations.

However, considering Western democracy as the sole model for nonwestern society misses the broader human story of the struggle for and achievement of democracy. In this regard, the Gadaa system of governance is genuinely African and could provide solutions for some of the political challenges African states face today. 

Biruk Shewadeg is a Lecturer of Philosophy at Addis Ababa Science and Technology University and a PhD Candidate at the Center for African and Oriental Studies, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.


[1]Osabu-Kle, Daniel T. (2008) ‘Western Democracy: Is it Applicable in Africa?’ Democracy and Development in Africa, 1(3), p. 4.

[2]Isakhan, Benjamin (2015) ‘Democracy: Critiquing a Eurocentric History’, in Proceedings of the 2015 Australian Political Studies Association Conference, Australian Political Studies Association, Canberra, p. 1.

[3] Osabu-Kle, Daniel T. (2008) op.cit.

[4] Legessee, Asmarom (2006) Oromo Democracy: An Indigenous African Political System, Lawrenceville, NJ: The Red Sea   Press. 

[5] Tesfaye, Zelalem (2012) ‘Ethiopia: When the Gadaa Democracy Rules in a Federal State Bridging Indigenous Institutions of Governance to Modern Democracy’, PhD thesis, University of Tromsø, Norway. 

[6] Berisso, Taddesse (2018) ‘The Oromo Gadaa System: Why Considered Democratic?’ A Bilingual Journal of the Institute of Oromo Studies (IOS), 1(1).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Holcomb, Bonnie (1991) ‘Akka Gadaatti: The Unfolding of Oromo Nationalism – Keynote Remarks’, Proceedings of the 1991 Conference on Oromia, University of Toronto, Canada, 3-4 August, p. 4.

[9] Negari, Wogari (2018) ‘Indigenous Knowledge for Good Governance and Development: Unleashing the Wisdom of the Gadaa System’, Amity Journal of Management, VI(2), p. 15.

[10] Legesse, Asmarom (2006) op.cit., p. 263.

[11] Berisso, Taddesse (2018) op.cit., p. 3-4.

[12] Legesse, Asmarom (2006) op.cit., p. 24

[13] Holcomb, Bonnie (1991) op.cit.

[14] Abdulahi, Abdurahman (2019) ‘The Gadaa System and the Oromo’s (Ethiopia) Culture of Peace’, 2(160), p. 49, DOI: 10.21847/1728 – 9343.2019.2(160).164984.

[15] Buatovich, Alexander (2000) Ethiopia through Russian Eyes: Country in Transition, translated by Richard Seltzer, Lawrenceville, NJ: The Red Sea Press.

[16] Legesse, Asmarom (2006) op.cit., p. 2

[17] Kumsa, Kuwee (1997) ‘The Siiqqee Institution of Oromo Women’, The Journal of Oromo Studies, 4(1-2), p. 115.