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Slavery and Terror Were Integral Parts of the Gadaa System

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.

 

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “Slavery and Terror Were Integral Parts of the Gadaa System”

  1. 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!!!

  2. Hi Borru,

    What can Ethiopianist elites do? Your suggestion is “… to push back with forceful rebuttal.” Is your suggestion that “clash of narratives” will lead to the truth and the truth will eventually bring peace? I find this argument silly simply. Over the decades, the Gadda narrative has metamorphosed beyond recognition from sheer mythology to create the nation of Oromia to an organic Oromummaa politco-economic and military force. The stage it has reached now is irriversible by any counter narrative. So, better left to its own devices. Let Oromo scholars theselves correct their history before its too late.

    Time is the essence here. The way I see it, Ethiopianists have given up arguing with Oromummaa elites and opted for action. Some of them believe only dissociating from the state swallowed by Oromummaa is the way forward until they correct their narration and come around. I’m talking about confederation to renegotiate new relations. If this is not possible, shake hands and say good-bye. Amhara should start this blessed move.

  3. Indeed.

    Pedro Paez said, “The people of that land therefore came to fear them so much that nobody dared resist them” This was the description of the Oromo war on Gojam hundreds of years ago. The intent of the recent Merawi Massacre of Amhara in Gojam by Abiy Ahmed is this same desire to terrorize the people into cowering in fear of the savagery of Oromumma.

    No wonder they killed unborn babies, gunned down pregnant women, murdered a 90-year-old nun in the terror rampage of January 29, 2024.

    “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.” Pedro Paez

  4. Dr. Yonas,
    Thank you for pointing out the dichotomy between Mohammed Hassen the historian and Mohammed Hassen the politician. In fact, there are two ‘Mohammed Hassen the historian’s. One before he became politicized and one after.
    The book Mohammed wrote before he became drawn into the Barentu (or Islamic Oromyia/Oromumma) political nexus was a historical masterpiece. The Oromo of Ethiopia. The latter book, by comparison, is a book that could be described more as a work of creative writing than a work of non-fiction. That book was titled, The Oromo and the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia.

  5. Koki did a great job at this time. However, very difficult to trust him since he never had consistency. It was shameful when he called Fano the Amhara Shene. Fano came out of the most humane society where as Shene is the biproduct of the terrorist Gadda that he is talking about.

  6. Dr. Yonas,
    Thank you for pointing out the dichotomy between Mohammed Hassen the historian and Mohammed Hassen the politician. In fact, there are two ‘Mohammed Hassen the historian’s. One before he became politicized and one after.
    The book Mohammed wrote before he became drawn into the Barentu (or Islamic Oromyia/Oromumma) political nexus was a historical masterpiece. The Oromo of Ethiopia. The latter book, by comparison, is a book that could be described more as a work of creative writing than a work of non-fiction. That book was titled, The Oromo and the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia.

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