Ill-Informed Misinformation or Purposeful Disinformation?
March 6, 2008

In his book titled Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society, Professor Donald N. Levine noted that the details of how the Gada system of the Oromo people in East Africa at large operates are enormously complicated. He added: "Indeed, the Gada system represents one of the most complex systems of social organization ever devised by the human imagination."

According to a review of a book on the Gada system authored by Professor Asmarom Legesse, this system is a "'multiheaded' system of government of the Oromo, which is based on clearly defined division of labor and checks and balances between different institutions.” The review went on to say that “the system has had a long and distinguished history, during which the institutions changed by deliberate legislation, and evolved and adapted with time, thus revealing the inherent dynamism and sophistication of this indigenous African political system."

Back in 2004, the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported about an upcoming Abba Gada, Guyo Goba, in the Borana region in the Oromo State in Ethiopia. Abba Gada may roughly mean the leader of a given Gada in a sequentially revolving five Gadas, with each Gada limited to 8 years in office. It takes forty years to complete each cycle, which is called Jara.

According to the IRIN report, as he was preparing for his future role in leading the society that elected him, Guyo Goba clearly expressed his opinion that what may affect his society is a heavy responsibility for him and that it is constantly on his mind. The IRIN report added: "... his reticent responses to questions put to him about the role awaiting him do not reflect unease or shyness, but the strict training that teaches future leaders to quietly observe without making judgments."

On March 4, 2009, Anita Powell, an Associated Press writer, reported, under a title "Ethiopian cattle-herding tribe crowns new king," that Guyo Goba has been elected by his people to lead them through a process that she found "as difficult to explain to outsiders as the American electoral college." For reporters based in Africa that write to the international media, the news of a peaceful transfer of power should be good news given the continued reports about the lack of democracy in Africa in recent times.

In the contemporary history of Ethiopia, almost all leaders have come to political power by spilling the bloods of their opponents and subjects. In recent times alone, Mengistu Hailemariam oversaw the executions of countless citizens and stayed in power for more than twice the time Guyo Goba is going to stay in office under the terms of the Gada system that brought him to political power. Meles Zenawi, Mengistu Hailemariam's successor, is responsible for the executions of many citizens. By the time he leaves office in 2010, if we are to expect that he is going to live by his words this time around, he will have stayed in office for nearly two and a half times the time Guyo Goba is going to stay in office. That is without counting the number of years he had been at the head of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the core group that fought its way to take power in Finfinne (Addis Ababa) in 1991. It has been ruling the country ever since.

The fact that this peaceful transfer of power happened once more in Borana a few years after nearly 200 people lost their lives in Finfinne over a fight for power or to keep power, and just about a year after many died in Kenya over the same issue, is bound to go down in the history books as an immensely important milestone in the politics of our region. If for nothing else, the contrast it has created in terms of the loss of human lives for political power in Ethiopia will live on for eternity, outshining the mythological or symbolic pronouncement included in the report that the process is so sacred it has the power to kill unauthorized observers.

What is lost to this story is the salient nature of the system itself, which provides a mechanism to review, revise, or amend the existing law, or motion for the passage of new laws, as frequently as there is the opportunity for the peaceful transfer of power. The knowledge the system has established over the ages goes beyond peaceful transfer of power and social harmony.

Its teachings of nature are at par with many of humanity's observations, such as the Balanced Universe concept of the ancient Egyptian and the Universal Harmony concept of the ancient Chinese people. Some of its time reckoning concepts using astronomical observations is at par with those of modern astronomers. After studying the Borana-Cushitic Calendar in East Africa by studying old astronomical observations at Namoratunga, Lawrence Reeve Doyle of the Space Science Division at NASA once noted that "Western thought should certainly not again underestimate the ingenuity and intellect present there." He also wrote his observation that "While Western thought has always prided itself on scientific objectivity, it has often been found unprepared for such surprises as an intellectually advanced yet seemingly illiterate society."

Whether such a peaceful transfer of power in Borana is going to overreach north to Finfinne and south to Nairobi, or whether it is going to be sandwiched between the past practices of the two cities in political matters, is bound to be seen. Yet, it has become abundantly clear that those who attempt to take political power through violent means are on the wrong side of history. That means history and time are on the side of the Gada system that has just shown a flicker of its resilience in Anita Powell's report that found its way to the international community.

Any inaccurate reporting of such system that may well be humanity’s shared history would be disservice to both the readers of the report and that shared history. Unlike in the United Kingdom, the Gada system is not based on monarchical values, but on egalitarian values that is an avenue to change by "deliberate legislation," that "evolved and adapted with time" with an "inherent dynamism and sophistication," as the review of Professor Asmarom Legesse's book reveals.

No one has produced conclusive evidence about when the Gada system started to function. But speculation goes as far back as the time before humanity left Africa. Therefore, to the extent that this speculation holds any truth, the resilience of this system, which may be a reflection of the innate quest of humanity for liberty, is as strong as the resilience of humanity's existence itself. This may well be why learned people value such a system while brainwashed, uprooted, and cultureless vices that pretend to walk as learned people may become the sources of ill-informed misinformation or purposeful disinformation about such innate quest of humanity.

About a dozen years ago, this writer had a privilege to attend a conference organized by a reputable US government institution on the history and cultures of Native Americans. One of the invited speakers representing the Native Americans suggested during her presentation that the early founders of the United States government borrowed the concept of peaceful transfer of power from her ancestors. Even though this suggestion is subject to debate and there is discrepancy between the multiparty system in the US and the revolving multiple party arrangements in the Gada system, there is no doubt that the term limit and peaceful transfer of power in the US is widely acknowledged to be a very successful political experiment. We can only imagine how much the suppression of such system in East Africa has contributed to the political, economical, and social developments of the region over the last many years, especially since the overreaching actors started their attempts to influence the region.

A recent documentary film titled "Greece: Secrets of the Past" clearly noted that Europe's Classical Civilizations started with the borrowing of egalitarian values from elsewhere. It was also evident in the same documentary that ancient Egypt had something to do with it. A reasonable link has already been established between ancient Egypt and the Oromo people, who may well be the root of several groups of people in the region these groups of people may have been grafted on during the recent past. As a matter of fact, a March 2006 issue of the National Geographic magazine reported that the Borana area was the original home of humanity that started its greatest journey some tens of thousands of years ago. While Anita Powell's knowledge about the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt may just be as a name or as historical figures, the Borana people understand the meaning of the term and the context within which it is used.

However it may be viewed by media reporters and their informants alike, certain things are for sure. A democratic deliberation and peaceful transfer of power are the demands of our time and the hope of our future. It may not be without a reason that Professor Donald N. Levine asserted in 2006 that "The Oromo tradition of Gumi Gayo, which brings people together from all over (many many parts of) Oromoland is one of the most democratic institutions. And, I only wish that the Congress of the United States could operate in the democratic way that the Oromo Gumi Gayo operates." Perhaps, it may not be easy for those people who are used to the customary system of kingdoms to clearly see the distinction between their customary worlds and a full-fledged democracy that they characterize as a process that is as complex as the American Electoral College. It is a deliberate fight for independence by determined and farsighted honorable people that set them free from the customary system of kingdoms. Ill-informed misinformation or purposeful disinformation neither serves the quest for knowledge nor humanity's innate quest for liberty.