The Oromo were a glorious, powerful, and independent people prior to the colonization of their country, Oromia, in the last decades of the 19th century by Abyssinian/Ethiopian colonialists allied with European imperialists. They were organized culturally, politically, and militarily through the gadaa system (Oromo democracy) and they maintained their civilization, wellbeing, security and sovereignty for centuries. The Oromo were known for their complex democratic laws, an elaborate legislative tradition, well-developed methods of dispute settlement, and a system of checks and balances that was at least as complex as the systems used in Western democracies. Their version of constitutional government, gadaa, existed before the emergence of contemporary democracy in the West. "What is astonishing about this cultural tradition is how far the 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."[i] The gadaa system had the principles of checks and balances (through periodic succession of every eight years), division of power (among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches), balanced opposition (among five parties), 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 and followers, the settlement of disputes through reconciliation and respect for basic rights and liberties.
There were five parties in the gadaa system. All gadaa officials were elected for eight years. Gadaa has been an all-encompassing institution of politics, military, defense, economy, religion, ethics, culture and tradition. The siiqqee or siinqee institution was/is used by Oromo women as a check and balance system to counter potential male-domination. The siiqqee institution has given a political and social platform for Oromo women to effectively voice their concerns and address their social justice issues. The gadaa/siiqqee system[ii] helped maintain egalitarian democracy. When various peoples were fighting over political power and economic resources in the Horn of Africa, the Oromo were effectively organized under the gadaa government, and until “the mid-nineteenth century [they] were dominant on their own territories; no people of other cultures were in a position to exercise compulsion over them."[iii] The Oromo democratic institution functioned as an egalitarian socio-political system by preventing oppression and exploitation and by promoting peace, security, sustainable development, and political sovereignty. With the imposition of Ethiopian colonialism on the Oromo “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. Their peaceful way of life [was] broken; freedom [was] lost; and the independent, freedom loving [Oromo] found themselves under the severe authority of the Abyssinian conquerors.”[iv]
The Oromo civilization, democratic governance, and worldview have been built on overarching principles that are embedded within Oromo traditions and culture and, at the same time, have universal relevance for all peoples because they have promoted individual and collective freedom, justice, popular democracy, and human liberation, all of which are built on the concept of safuu (moral and ethical order) and are enshrined in gadaa/siiqqee principles. Although, in recent years, many Oromos have become adherents of Christianity and Islam, the concept of Waaqaa (God) lies at the heart of Oromo tradition and culture. In Oromo tradition, Waaqaa is the creator of the universe and the source of all life. The universe created by Waaqaa contains within itself a sense of order and balance that is to be manifested in human society. The principles of Oromo indigenous religion, Waqqeffannaa, and Oromo democratic traditions reject and challenge the glorification of monarchs, chiefs, warlords or dictators who have collaborated with European slave traders and colonizers and destroyed Africa by participating in the slave trade and the projects of colonialism and neo-colonialism. As successive phases of the Oromo national struggle demonstrate below, there are fundamental contradictions between Ethiopian colonizers and their supporters and Oromo liberators that aspire to regain freedom and restore Oromo democracy and traditions that have emerged and become entrenched. Oromo social and political systems and Oromo religion are home grown, not adopted from other societies; hence, the Oromo people must cherish them.