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HomeOpinionSlavery and Terror Were Integral Parts of the Gadaa System

Slavery and Terror Were Integral Parts of the Gadaa System

Yonas Biru (File)

Yonas Biru, PhD

Let me at the outset flag two caveats to avoid misunderstanding and shed light on the aim of this article for those who wonder. 

First, historically, the story of Ethiopian politics is a story of different political groups brutalizing each other. In most cases the predator and victim relationship continue for many decades even after the vanquished fully submitted.  The Amhara, the Oromo, Tigray, Somali/Afar, etc. have done it in turn. Followers of Christianity, Islam, Waaqeffanna have gone through it both as perpetrators and victims. There is no nation that has not gone through such a brutal chapter in its quest for nationhood and socio-economic development. 

Second, judging what happened in centuries past based on the moral and judicial norms of the 21st century is a futile exercise that often polarizes and encourages those who would use hate as a tool of division and conflict. 

The raison d’être for the article is neither to condemn nor lament about Gadaa’s past. It is to refute the false narrative about Gadaa that Oromummaa intellectuals are peddling as a historical fact. The story of Gadaa is more like the proverbial parable of blind men and the elephant as told by Buddhist since before the birth of Christ. The story goes as follows:

A group of blind men heard about a strange animal. The animal was an elephant that wandered into their village. They wanted to know what the fuss surrounding it was all about. Each blind man was allowed to touch only one part of the elephant and describe what the animal felt like.

The first blind man who touched the elephant’s leg, said the animal was like a tree. The man who touched the body, believed it was like a wall. Another who reached out to touch its tail had the misfortune of touching and smelling its dung. He believed the animal was made of smelly dung. The blind man who grabbed the elephant’s tusk insisted all his friends were wrong. The animal was like a long smooth and slippery rock in a river. 

Likewise, Gadaa for some is the most humane and embracing system of assimilation. For others it is the definition of unmitigated human cruelty whose land is soaked in blood and gore, smelling like an elephant’s dung.

To name just a few examples, Asafa Jalata insists Gadaa is a democratic system and signifies an example of classical African civilization. He puts Gadda center stage, “at the heart of Oromo tradition and culture, which shapes the basis of Oromummaa.” His narrative elevates Oromummaa and Gadaa as foundations of individual and collective freedom, justice, popular democracy, and human liberation.” He even talks about the concept of safuu as Gadaa’s and Oromummaa’s “moral and ethical order.” 

In “The Oromo of Ethiopia: A History 1570-1860” published by Cambridge University Press, Professor Mohammed Hassen, the most popular Oromo historian, presents tribal assimilation under Gadda as follows. “The Oromo genius for assimilation quickly claimed any non-Oromo, defeated or otherwise not only through force but also through the “process called moggaasa (adoption)”

Let us now turn to the dung version of Gadaa. Pedro Paez described Gadaa warriors as follows. 

“The Oromo slaughtered many people and carried out extraordinary cruelties, because they cut to pieces the men and many of the boys and girls that they seized, and they opened up pregnant women with their spearheads and pulled the babies out of their wombs. The people of that land therefore came to fear them so much that nobody dared resist them.” 

In the 1924 issue of the Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol.23, No. 90, C. F. Rey wrote: 

“Gadaa’s methods of warfare were cruel even for that age, and it was they who introduced the horrible practice mutilating the dead, and even the wounded and prisoners.”

Despite providing other equally characteristics of the Oromo, C. F. Rey provided a boarder perspective, stating: 

“I do not wish to suggest that the [Oromo] exhibit these [negative] traits generally, or even to any appreciable extent to-day… But I mention the facts in order that the lamb-like pictures which have been presented of Oromo folks since their subjection by the Abyssinians may be taken at the proper value, and that it may be understood why the Abyssians have been somewhat harsh in dealing with their century old enemies when their turn came.” 

The purpose of this article is twofold. First is to show that C. F. Rey’s narrative of the cruelty of Gadaa militarism reflects the truth and that Mohammed Hassen and Asafa Jalata are aware of it. Second is to show the Gadaa era was brought to end by the excesses of its cruelty not by Abyssinian governments as the likes of Jawar Mohammed and Asafa Jalata claim.

Allow me to call Mohammed Hassen as an alibi to drive my point home on both issues. Mohamed is the perfect alibi for three reasons. 

First, he is the most prominent Oromo historian. His most referenced book on Gadaa was published by the Cambridge University Press. This means the veracity of his historic account has gone through the rigors of academic editing for professional quality. 

Second, politically, he is among the leading peddler of the Oromummaa cult and political dogma. 

Third, he is a member of the international delegation of Oromo Shene. 

Therefore, his historical account cannot be shrugged off as either Oromo mania or Oromo phobia because it was vetted by one of the world’s premier publishing houses.

The Terror of Gadaa: In Mohammed’s Own Words

In his 530-pages long documentary titled “The Oromo Ethiopia, 1500-1850,” Mohammed documented Gadaa conquest required the vanquished to adopt Oromo language, culture, and identity and even Oromo genealogical heritage. Those who refused to Oromize their body, spirit, soul, and genealogy were wiped out of existence in a bloodshed.  Let us hear it firsthand from him.

The Oromo warrior classes which fought with frenzied determination astonished the elite of the Christian and Muslim states and terrorized the populace. 

When new areas were attacked, the men were killed, and animals were captured. Probably the killing was intended to spread terror among the resisting population while the taking of cattle booty was to enrich themselves. Once the newly conquered areas were turned into safe bases coupled with the increase of animal population, extra hands were needed for herding the cattle, producing grain and contributing fighting men. Now enslaving the vanquished people was an economic as well as military necessity. 

The Oromo term for the conquered people was Gabbro (“those who serve”), The Oromo adopted the gabbro into the gada system, giving them a clan genealogy, while the able-bodied men were recruited for military service. What all this tells us is that, while the frontier of the Christian kingdom was shrinking, a new nation was being formed out of its debris.

Mohammed goes on in more detail 

[Gadaa warriors] are the devils who attack in the evening. This sophisticated form of guerilla tactics, which from the Arab chronicler’s report seem to have been highly developed and used in Bali, was very similar, if not identical, with the type of guerilla warfare with which the pastoral Oromo terrorized the entire region during their epoch-making migration.

Wealthy Oromo men substituted the noble institution of adoption into the gada system with an entirely new element of slavery and servitude of the vanquished people. Most of the conquered people who had earlier submitted with little or no resistance to the Macha, found that they were no longer equal members of a clan within which they were incorporated, but slaves who were used as gifts and commodities for sale. 

The End of Gadaa: In Mohammed’s Own Words

Let us give Mohammed time and space to tell us the truth in his own words. 

As a historian, Mohammed is a different person from Mohammed the politician and Oromummaa peddler. As a politician he accuses successive Ethiopian rulers as the primary culprits for the end of the Gadaa system.

As a historian, he provides two primary reasons for the beginning of the end of the Gadaa system: (1) societal progress, and (2) Gadaa’s slave trading cruel legacy. 

Mohammed the historian presents Oromo during the Gadaa era as pastoralists whose way of life was typically nomadic. In his above-mentioned book, he wrote: 

“The Oromo moved from place to place with their flocks and herds, always in search of pasture and avoiding its loss… They seem to have fully developed their Gada system, the institution which seems to be more suited for pastoral society than for sedentary agriculturalists… In short, the Gada system seems to have flourished among that part of the society engaged in the pastoral economy.” 

As a result, with social progress and the advent of agriculture as a predominant source of food, Gadaa lost its muster and competence and died of natural causes, having reached the end of its life cycle. This is consistent with what other Oromummaa peddling and Gadaa worshiping intellectuals have written.  Professor Endalkachew Lelisa Duressa puts it as follows. 

Due to the geographical expansion of the Oromo territory and an increasing population, the central Gadaa government declined beginning in the mid-17th century and autonomous regional and local republics took its place.”

This is echoed by Professor Jalata as follows: 

The nonfederal nature of the Gadaa System, lack of Strong Central government, lack of regular meeting of Gadaa official and long distance of Gumii (assembly) from political center made Gadaa system less Competent”.

Despite this Mohammed the politician, along with Asafa and Jawar is the co-author of modern-day Oromo bloodletting that foments conflict and unleashes Oromummaa’s savagery against innocent people. This group is not only shameful, but also criminal and accountable for the millions of non-Oromos who have been displaced from the Oromo tribal land and tens of thousands who have become victims of Gadaa inspired mass murder.

The Slave Trader and Terrorist Legacies of Gadaa: In Mohammed’s Own Words

Speaking of the collapse of the Gadaa system, Mohammed wrote: “By the beginning of the seventeenth century, Oromo social organization was starting to break down.” This is centuries before Menilik’s armies stepped a foot in the Oromo tribal land. This, however, has not stopped Oromummaa criminal intellectuals including Mohammed Hassan the politician from accusing Menilik of killing Gadaa. 

Mohammed the historian captured the cruelty of Gadda that led to its break down in one pregnant sentence in his above-referenced book. 

“Their sixteenth century capacity to terrorize was second only to their inexhaustible talent for self-mutilation during the seventeenth and subsequent centuries.”  

He explained in more detail.

The factors which made for the strength of the Oromo society in the previous century were becoming a source of weakness for a society which had spread over such a large area. When the Oromo were on the move, fighting for individual honor unleashed a dynamic spirit to push forward; but once they began settling down, fighting for individual honor became the source of perpetual anarchy, the cause for endless war among themselves. Common interest united them and made them a terror to their enemies. With their spread over wider * territory, it became very difficult to reconcile the interests of various groups. In the absence of a binding interest, they turned against each other. Clan interest replaced the wider interest of the confederacy. 

Disharmony undermined their unity and their fighting capacity. With the break-up of confederacies, different groups fought against each other as much as they fought their enemies. By turning against each other, they gave some breathing space to their enemies, and encouraged the rebellion of their subject people. 

Clearly then, the Oromization of the conquered did not exclude their subjection to extractive and exploitive relations despite the fact that they were incorporated in the gada system. Indeed, the rights of the gabbaro were trampled upon, their women and children sold into slavery by their Oromo masters” leading to rebellion “all over the Matcha land. 

Consequently, gada governance was not able to resolve its internal contradictions, which, for example, led to the gabbaro uprising of 1618, and eventually to the demise of gada governance in the Gibe states in the nineteenth century. 

The conquered people, whose pride was humbled in the dust of slavery, and whose number was reduced through sale realized that the only hope of safety was open rebellion against their arrogant masters. 

The morally malnourished and ethically devoid Oromummaa political elites will continue their bloodletting false narrative about Gadaa until Ethiopians push back with forceful rebuttal. But Ethiopian intellectuals are screwed up. They believe rejecting the bloodletting false narrative of the morally malnourished and ethically devoid Oromo intellectual clan will anger Oromos. What a screwed-up line of thinking it is I do not understand. 

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  1. Beautifully written and very persuasively argued. The onus is now on the “intellectuals” quoted in the article to come up with their counterarguments. Stop name-calling and dishonest diversions and face the challenge head-on. We’re ready to listen.

    A minor correction for Dr Yonas. You’ve exchanged the quotes of Mohammed and Endalkatchew. Fix it.

  2. All I can say here is wow! I’m so disheartened and there is nothing I can do about it. It is like watching helplessly when some one is being swept away by a raging flood. May The Almighty, The Merciful Save That Gem of Humanity!!!

  3. To my knowledge, Dr. Yonas Biru is professionally economist. yet he’s giving us much sensible historical facts on the Gadaa system . But why historians, professionals in the field, are deaf and dumb of the arguments for and against the rise & fall of the Gadaa system. I wish reading from diverse sources on these topics. Anyways, thank you Dr. Yenas!

  4. Dr. Yonas again came up with one his anti-oromo diatribes. The historical facts he put together to fit his on going narratives about Oromo may sound plausible and convincing. I don’t see them that way. He uses them to foment discord between Amhara and Oromo intellectuala. His last paragraph is testimony to that thinking process of his. I hope many readers will see this and stay away from any unnecessary polemics. Today we have a new set of problems which requires a united efforts to solve them. We need to resist putting ourselves to dwell in the 17th century(as Dr. Yonas want us), instead focus on our current common predicaments.

  5. Dr. Yonas is a fellow with mercurial temperament. He tends to exaggerate when it suits his purposes. Otherwise, he will curse you to your face or mock you to no end. Not unlike Oromo intellectuals he cited here. As for slavery and its discontents, the prime examples are Menelik, Yohannes 4th, and Tewodros. Or the legendary Gudit, if you go back few centuries. We’re talking about de-limbings, gouging out eyes, cutting tongues, etc. These atrocities are passed on to us by royal court chroniclers! What is incomprehensible is that these acts were not frowned on at all; rather they were used to extolling reigning monarchs! How primitive and heartless.

    We’ve read in Borkena how Yonas was maligned for coining (perhaps highlighting) “Oromo Shene.” Now he is trying to take advantage of Fano chaos to rehabilitate himself as a true Amhara patriot. ግርግር ለሌባ ያመቻል። I believe he nurtures a secret longing to become the first economist in a coming Fano Nation! Dream on. This way he would be getting back at Abiy for chucking him out as special adviser or for refusing to appoint him to a cabinet position.

  6. In 2018, the so called pm was swept up to the helm, on his incessant plea for forgiveness from Ethiopians, unabated condemnation and incrimination of the ousted TPLF dominated EPRDF. This inept individual was given hitherto unprecedented support from tens of millions of Ethiopians both at home and abroad and a supportive global audience. He was entrusted to bring stability, the rule of law, democracy, freedom of the press, good governance and accountability to all Ethiopians.

    It did not take for the butcher that long to massacre, loot, commit extra judicial killings and corrupt everything and everyone he touches or comes across. It is not Ethiopians fault that his cursed trajectory is leading the nation to more chaos and bloodshed. He was given time and opportunity to bring change!!!! He has miserably failed and needs to go now!!!!!!!!

    All these hoopla about museums, buildings and parks are nothing but distractions. All people who opposed TPLF for having committed the same crimes and transgressions must now demonstrate they are not partisan troglodytes that are ok with the same crimes and transgression just because they are now committed by abiy ahmed.

    The 16th century Oromo gadda culture was discarded and abandoned because it was no good. The demise of the antiquated and barbaric gadda culture was a product of evolution. It is no different from the discarding and demise of the antiquated Affersata culture in Amhara. No “Amhara Intellectual” is arguing that the Afferesata or Awchagegne (አፈርሳታ/ አውጫጭኝ) must be resurrected from the dust bins of history and replace modern criminology, forensics and police work in the 21 st century just because it was an Amhara tradition and culture.
    ልክ የማህበራዊ ስርአት ለውጥ ( social evolution) የአፈርሳታን አሰራር አህክ እንትፍ ብሎ እንደተወዉ ሁሉ የገዳ ስርአትም ከ400 አመታት በፊት አሃክ እንትፍ ተብሎ የተተፋ ግዜ አሸቀንጥሮ የጣለው ያስወገደው ስለሆነ እዚህ ላይ ግዜ ማጥፋት ስራ ፈትነት ነው በተጨማሪም ድንቁርና ነው::

    All these are distractions and nothingburger for Ethiopians. Let’s focus on what matters at most.

    Under the incompetent buffoon and his toadies and sycophant idolatrous worshippers reign of terror, Ethiopians experienced:

    1) the death and massacre of an estimated over 1,000,000 people
    2) a currency devaluation of -450%
    3) the rise in teff price of 1500%
    4) the rise in cost of one loaf of bread of some 700-800%
    5) the rise in cost of one egg by over 600-750%
    6) and on and on

    What else has the good ole pm, his excellency has brought to Ethiopians:
    1) the impossibility of traveling by car from one place to another
    2) the meddling in the the internal affairs of the EOTC and the Islamic Majlis
    3) the imprisonment of opposing political party members of parliament
    4) extra judicial killings, massacre and abductions
    5) unprecedented embezzlement and looting of public resources.
    6) and on and on

    The so called pm and his party are all incorrigible Change is inevitable and unavoidable.

    The so called pm is corrupt, morally reprehensible, unethical, belligerent, vindictive, narrow-minded, mendacious, power hungry war monger, and most of all UNQUALIFIED. He has sociopathic and psychiatric tendencies, is a megalomaniac and suffers from deep seated inferiority complex of unknown magnitude. He lies about everything big and small. His lust for power is no less than his lust for violence and massacre. He cannot be reformed. He cannot be advised to improve and evolve. He has all the worst characteristics of a typical tyrant and more.

    The idolatrous worshippers and enablers of the butcher, the likes of daniel kibret ( ጋኔል ክስረት) are well known to the average Ethiopian. እነዚህ የካድሬ ስብስቦች ዘመንና ስርዐት በተለወጠ ቁጥር ከባለግዜና ተረኛ ነኝ ባይ ገዢ ስር ከጌታቸው ለሚወረወርላቸው አጥንትና ፍርፋሪ ሲሉ ህግ የሚያጣምሙ :ፍትህን የሚነግፉ : ለከርሳቸው መ ሙያ ሲሉ ኢትዮጵያን ላይ ልክ እንደ መዥገር እና ትኹዋን ተጣብቀው የድሃውን እና መላ ኢትዮጵያውያን ደም የሚመጡ የካድሬ ተውሳክ ተባይ ናቸው::

    ሰርተው ኑሮዋቸውን ማሸነፍ ስለማይችሉ እንደ ጋኔል አይነቱ ተባይ እናትቤተክርስቲይንን ማህበረሰቡን ተጠግተው ችግራቸውን እከካቸውን በድሃው ኢትዮጵያ ላብና ደም አራግፈው እኛ እንውቅልሃለን ለገዳይ ጨፍጫፊ ተገዛ ስገድ እያሉ ከርስ ከርሳቸውንና ከጌታቸው ለሚወረወርላቸው አጥንት ሲሉ ልክ እንደውሻ ( ውሻ እንኳን ክብር አለው) ጭራቸውን የሚቆሉ የህብረተሰቡ ሸክም ተባይና ተውሳክ ናቸው!!!!! አለመታደል ሆኖ ይሄንን የገማ የበሰበሰ የካድሬ ቅርሻታም ለሃምሳ አመታት በሙሉ አንዴ ደርግ: አንዴ ኢህአዲግ አንዴ ብልፅግና ነኝ እያለ እንደእስስት ቀለሙን እየለዋወጠ እንደ እባብ ቆዳውን እየቀየረ ሲመጣ ዘወር በል ብሎ አናቱን ቀጥቅጦ ከጫንቃው ላይ የኢትዮጵያ ህዝብ ሙሉ በሉ ገና ወርውሮ አልጣለውም::

    በህዝብ ሃብት የተገነቡት መገናኛ ብዙሃንም የገዢው አካል አጨብጫቢዎች እንጂየህዝብ አይን ጆሮና ልሳን ስላልሆኑ ምንም ዋጋ የሌላቸው የገዢው መደብ አደንቋሪ ጥሩምባ ነፊ ናቸው::

    Bottom line is pp is incorrigible. The pm cannot himself be reformed let alone become a reformer. Change is inevitable, change is unavoidable, the writings on the wall do not mince any words: this joker has gotta go just like his predecessors. The caveat here is “must change the judiciary and legislative at the same time as the executive” and the judiciary must be fiercely protected and enabled to bring charges, prosecute and sentence all criminals of all branches of government, including the pm!!!!!!!!!!!


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