Gadaa: An Oromo Democracy and the Symbol of Oromo Civilization

By Anga’a Dhugumaa

In this section, I will attempt to give a summary of the Gadaa System as revised by Makoo Bilii about five hundred years ago.

Gadaa is an Oromo social, political and economic order. It is a symbol of Oromo unity, and love among the Oromos. It is a democratic system of government that symbolizes Oromo civilization. Gadaa governs the beliefs of the Oromos. It controls the religion (Qaalluu) institution, too.

The Oromo people grouped themselves into five parties. These parties are: RoobaleeDuulooBirmajii,Michillee and Horata. They are named after a phenomenon or whatever occurred during the governance of one particular party. For example, Roobalee was named after rain. The fact that it rained heavily is indicated by the phrase “the Roobalee and its bountiful rain” (Yaa Roobalee ya roobashii)Duuloo was named after preparation for war. The fact that the Oromos prepared a big war is indicated by the phrase “Duuloo and the preparation of war” (Duuloo qophessa duulaa)Birmajii was named after happy festival and dance. The Oromos had happy time and phrased this as “Birmajii and its happy dances” (Ya Birmajii ya sirbashii)Michillee was named after war victory. Oromos had great victory over their enemy and showed this by the phrase “Michillee the best friend of war” (Ya Michillee nichuu duulaa)Horata is remembered and was named after years of excellent cattle breeding. These good years were phrased as “Horata and the feeling” (Ya Horata maal godhataa). The names of the five Gadaa parties are indicated in the below figure as supplementary to the above description. 

Each party takes power from one another after every eight years. Nevertheless, the Gadaa parties overlap with each other for four years before transfer of power. Hence, new comers are in office alone only for the last four years of their term. The outgoing party stays with the incoming party for the first four years, as an advisor. However, the advisors have no power of decision-making whatsoever. The same tempo cycle repeats itself whenever a new party takes over after every eight years. From the above statements, it is understandable that one party stays in office for a total of twelve years. This is to say that a party stays in office for eight years with power, and for additional four years without power as an advisor.

At the same time, as one Gadaa party leaves office, the peoples’ militias are promoted to the next Gadaagrade. This action automatically eliminates the power of the outgoing party. Thanks to the formula of Makoo Bili, there is no possibility of coup d’etat.

Each and every party has its own sub-division. These sub-divisions are limited to two only. These sub-divisions are called Cooraa and Hoboo (C’ooraa fi Hoboo). This is so formulated in order to prevent a party in power from abusing its office. Makoo Bili, the founder of the Gadaa democracy, created a surprisingly effective system of checks and balances. Every Oromo is born either Cooraa or Hoboo. For example, if the father is born Cooraa, his children are designated as Hoboo. The system stipulates thatCooraa supports Cooraa while Hoboo supports Hoboo. This means if a father, who is in power isCooraa, even his children, who are bound to be Hoboo’s, cannot defend him if and when he abuses his power. By the same logic, the grandchildren of the father, who is Cooraa, also become Cooraa. This means whatever support he can hardly get could come from his grandchildren, a very rare case because of the age difference. As members of a party, say, Horata party, Cooraa and Hoboo watch each other so carefully that corruption is unthinkable. When it comes to Oromo national interests, Cooraa and Hoboooppose each other even in private. Also, a Cooraa discuses openly and frankly very intimate matters only with a Cooraa. So does Hoboo with Hoboo.

Naturally, offenders who are in power are punished. If the individual in power misbehaves in spite of all the error preventive methods, an impeachment system has been devised. The Abbaa Gadaa is told to surrender his power temporarily to the people. This is symbolic, just to rather shame that person, not to harm him. The Oromos have a strong belief that no one is above the law, which they had agreed upon unanimously and adopted. That same person is installed to power again after he apologizes to his people.

A period of eight years is called the Buttaa. Four Buttaa’s are considered as one generation (Jirenyaa). This is a total of thirty-two years as compared to the European generation, which is thirty years. Buttaa is considered as one quarter of one generation (Jirenyaa), which means that a generation (Jirenyaa) is calculated as four Buttaa’s multiplied by eight years (4x which comes to 32 years.) Buttaa is also the proceeding or the ceremony, which takes place before the candidate takes power as Abbaa Gadaa. The proceeding may last as long as two years. It is also part of the evaluation and observation period to test if that individual candidate can assume this great responsibility as a leader. Abbaa Gadaa is highly regarded as an honest man in the community, reliable as a leader and a shield for Oromiyaa and the Oromos. It is the result of forty years of hard work. He then is declared Abbaa Gadaa.

Foollee: The new Abbaa Gadaa prepares plenty of food to feed the people who pass by to congratulate him. There is no invitation sent out. They must come in groups, not less than twenty at a time. The greater the number in one group, the better it is for the host. In such circumstances, he has to slaughter a bull, and the chances of wastage becomes minimum. Those who do not visit him and eat are considered as non-voters. All his former girlfriends (sanyoo) must bring food to support him in feeding the influx of people. All his relatives and close friends bring as much food as they possibly can, because failure to feed his guests may make his people unhappy. Remember that the new Abbaa Gadaa may wish to go to the top position. The groups must sing (Foollee dhitu), and dance until they sweat. The songs and dances are specially designated to the Gadaa only. The songs start with “the year of Gadaais a year of prosperity” (Yaa Foollee or yaa sayyoo, baraa Gadaa barakataa), and the five Gadaaparties are mentioned as stated above.

The reader has to know that every Oromo cannot be lucky to go through the Buttaa ceremony at age close to forty. I have witnessed those who had gone through the process at age ten or seventy. This happens depending on the age difference between the father and the son. The Buttaa ceremony puts a fixed forty years gap between father and son. By this definition, we understand that the individuals who will be lucky to assume power as Abbaa Gadaa’s are those who are born after the father had gone through the process of Buttaa ceremony because by the time they get to their turn, they are still below the age of forty. Those who are born long before the father had gone through Buttaa will have no chance of taking office as leaders, but will be serving as the Gadamojjii’s. These will be advisory, ceremonial and blessing duties.

There are plenty of elders who qualify for the position of leadership. The criteria (Madaala) for electing few of them to the top positions are as follows: The candidate must be freedom-lover caring for his people (Kawoo). He must be a man who is very healthy (Fayyaa). The Oromos firmly believe that he who does not enjoy health can not be effective on job. He has to be a well-to-do man (Dureessa). He must be a brave man (Jagnnaa). The position of the Abbaa Duula requires a vigorous physical and bravery checks, too.

Gadaa.comBirth to 8yrs, Child, loved and cared for well. (Da’imua or Hijoolee)
Gadaa.com8yrs to 16yrs, Young Boy, helps on farm and learns about life. (Dabballee)
Gadaa.com16yrs to 24yrs, Grown-up, trainee, mostly defense. (Ittimukkoo)
Gadaa.com24yrs to 32yrs, Man, militia, completes military service. (FoolleeLoltuu)
Gadaa.com32yrs to 40yrs, Candidate, respected family man. (RaahuButtaa)
Gadaa.com40yrs to 48yrs, Leader, at different levels. (LubaAbbaa GadaaHayyuu)
Gadaa.com48yrs to 56yrs, Adviser to active party for four years. (Lubaa)
Gadaa.com56yrs to 64yrs, Retired, blessing and peace making everywhere. (Gadaamojjii)

Summary or description of the above age-grades and family value is as follows. A child has to enjoy life up to the age of eight years. He will be fed well and is allowed to play as he or she pleases. For the next eight consecutive years, as a young boy, he is taught what life is all about. Boys begin to assist in looking after calves first, and gradually go on to look after cattle, while girls begin to help their mothers. They also learn history of their ancestors. At the completion of age sixteen, the boy has to go through a military training. Such training includes: horse riding and maneuvering on horseback. Spears are thrown at a running (rotating) object called the Giingo. This is a round (circular) object, which when thrown, rotates like a powered wheel. This is a typical representation of a fast-moving enemy. A surprise attack in the night is also taught. This kind of attack is called the (Bulguu or Gaaddu) attack. An equivalent word for this expression is an invisible attack. This form of attack is usually done during the night. Other training is given to prepare these 16-year-old youth for the next step of Gadaa life. At the age of twenty-four, they are considered grown-ups and are automatically promoted to the standing peoples’ army or militiamen. They come out of this military service at the age of thirty-two. Up to age forty, they become leadership recruits or candidates. This is the period of Buttaa in progress. It is a very happy and enjoyable age group. They gain high respect from their community members. They feel so proud that they have completed their military service. Their title is “candidate or recruit for leadership” (Qondalaa,Raaba or Buttaa.) This is a time of devotion to look after their families and children. They exercise gentleness and humbleness. They have to show some capacity of leadership quality to both their families and their community. By carefully going through these, they proceed to the leadership ceremony called Buttaa that takes place at age forty. From age forty to age forty-eight, they become leaders in theGadaa system. For the few top positions called Hayyuu, they have to go through thorough investigations as stated under the title “election criterion.” At age fifty-six, they become advisers to the party in power. At age fifty-six, they will assume their permanent position called the gadaamojjii. Their duties include: blessing and peace-making among communities or individuals who might be in feud.

Certain age groups qualify for military service, while congruently others qualify for leadership. Both groups stay in service for eight years only. They go out of service at the same instant when Abbaa Gadaa leaves office. Therefore, the possibility of staying in office forcefully is absolutely nil. The next step of service is more exciting to life than the preceding one. Their respective service positions are also automatically occupied by the following age groups. They are all organized in a chain system. There is no way that the flow could be disrupted. Disrupting any one of the steps will jeopardize the entire system. It is a well formulated mechanism that gives no one a chance to try to hold on to power or usurp power without the will of the people.

Oromos are not violent because they are born and grown up in Safuu. Comparison of Gadaa to the democracy of the developed nations suggests that Gadaa is self-controlled while the modern democracy controls the people through the police. Gadaa achieves this through developing and evaluating the individuals at a regular interval of eight years. Most African leaders fight over power today because they are not exposed to Safuu. Makoo Bilii did not have a chance to teach even his neighbors the concept ofSafuu, let alone to distant African countries.

The Gadaa had been in use as an Oromo democratic ruling system long before Makoo Bilii had revised it. The Gadaa System that I have elaborated above is the revised version by Makoo Bilii. Makoo Bilii prescribed the separation of the rule of Gadaa and the function of religion. However, he made it known that Gadaa itself was derived from the law of Waaqa (God). This is true if we look into the function of“Safuu” under its title on the upcoming pages.

The standing committee, the supreme council or the”politburo” members are nine. This group that is named after Boorana is the final decision-maker for the Oromo democratic government. Unless the congress that assembles once every eight years changes the decision of the Salgan Yaa’i Boorana, no other body can challenge the decision and power of this group. The Salgan Yaa’i Boorana will be released only after a new Gadaa party takes over power at the end of one Buttaa. This group of nine is elected among the already elected Hayyuu’s. Complaints against this group is never heard in Oromo oral history. The Oromo people show great love for even the name “Salgan Yaa’i Boorana.” This group is mandated to amend the Law (Seeraa), if necessary. Salgan Yaa’i Boorana is the only authorized supreme body to give the final interpretation of the Oromo Constitution. Therefore, the Oromo people place this elected group next to God (Waaqa). This group is highly regarded, and a prayer at formal meetings starts with the name “Salgan Yaa’i Boorana.” The assembly of the Salgan Yaa’i Boorana is conducted at the Odaa center only, which is believed to be Odaa Nabee, located in the center of Oromiyaa.

Odaa is a highly respected place where the Oromo basic laws (Seera) are passed. All locally amended laws go to the Odaa for final approval and distribution. The Odaa is somewhat similar to the American Senate, the upper branch of Congress. However, when Gadaa was revised some five hundred years ago, the Oromos did not enjoy the modern buildings of today. The congress of the Oromos during those years took place under a big oak tree in the open-air. The species of this oak tree is called Odaa. Oromos enjoy coming together in the open-air even today. The absence of bad weather makes it so pleasant to hold meetings in the open-air under the shade of the Odaa tree. The Bokku’s are very similar to the Odaa’s. The main difference is that Odaa is used at the national level while the Bokku is used at the regional level. The participants of the Odaa assembly are representatives of all Oromo regions, while that of the Bokku are from one region only.

Bokku has two meanings. As stated above, it is the assembly place for the decentralized constituency for local parliamentarians composed of several Abbaa Gadaa’s. Second, it signifies and symbolizes governance and power. This symbol (Bokku) is made out of an olive tree. Its use is mostly symbolic, and it is carried by the defense minister (Abbaa Duula) at war fronts. It is also widely used by the Administrator (Abbaa Bokku) as a symbol of power. Sometimes, the Bokku and Kalachaa could be used together. Kalachaa serves the same way as the Christian cross. It is carried by the Qaalluu’s.

There are six Odaa locations in Oromiyaa. They are Odaa Bisil in Maccaa, Odaa Bultum in Bartuuma, Odaa Nabee in Tuulama, Odaa Garres in Boorana, Odaa Makoodi in Walloo, and Odaa Rooba in Arsii. The locations of these Odaa’s suggest that there were six administrative regions in Oromiyaa, prior to the occupation by the Abyssinians, a little over one-hundred years ago. However, the occupation force could not remove the Odaa locations from their existing places, nor from the minds and hearts of the Oromos.

All regions of Oromiyaa ought to have sub-offices of the Odaa’s called Bokku. I have been able to trace three Bokku locations in Macca, namely, Bokku Bulluq, Bokku Cittuu and Bokku Wee. However, the search for more locations will continue, particularly for the other five regions. Among the above threeBokku locations in Maccaa, Bokku Xulee and Bokku Cittuu are celebrated yearly in October and December respectively.

CAFFEE: Caffee is an open-air administrative and adjudication place. The word Caffee is equivalent to the word ‘office’ and/or ‘court.’ It is a place where day to day administration and adjudication activities take place relevant to the people’s request. Unless there are cases, there is no need for the people in the Gadaa to come to this place. All kinds of laws are enforced at Caffee. All problems that occur during the implementation of the Gadaa law shall be referred back to the Bokku and, if need be, to the Odaa – depending on how important they are. If new cases appear and if the Salgan Yaa’i Booran cannot handle, such cases may take as long as eight years, or shorter depending on how long the next Buttaais away from the time of submission. Those who are eligible to sit at the Caffee and serve the law ofGadaa are those who had been qualified by going through the Gadaa age-grades.

In the Gadaa system, a single person cannot assume responsibility. This is an important principle that every Oromo must keep in mind. All important decisions that affect the people are made by committees (koree), the composition of which had been fixed. Thus, there are 3-man defense or administrative committee, 5-man judiciary committee, and a 9-man supreme council. The total number of members in each committee is associated with something that helps one to easily remember this important fact. For instance, three is associated with sunsumaa, three stones used for supporting cooking utensils. The three stones that made up or constitute sunsumaa are placed in a circular area in a triangle form at equal distance from each other. Three signifies the three Abbaa Duula’s (the three top military leaders) and Abbaa Caffee (the three top administrators). In addition, sunsumaa is also associated with quality, just like it is hard to overturn an object that has a triangular base, it is also difficult or impossible to beat military/administrative decisions made by three leaders. This way, each Gadaa committee is associated with one of the 10 numbers. Starting with 10, each number is counted aloud in reverse order. Each number and whatever it signifies is learnt by heart by every Oromo child and is recited in a reverse order as follows:

Gadaa.comTEN (Kurnen kurnii Waaqayo) Above all, ten for God
Gadaa.comNINE (Salgan Yaa’i Boorana) Nine for the Supreme council
Gadaa.comEIGHT (Saddeettan dhalaa neencaa) Eight to signify a lioness’ gestation period.
Gadaa.comSEVEN (Torban nannoo Dilbataa) Seven signifies the cycle of Sunday
Gadaa.comSIX (J’ahan jabbii yarxaa) is assigned to calves, signifying where they graze.
Gadaa.comFIVE (Shanan quba harkare) Five fingers to signify the five-man judiciary committee.
Gadaa.comFOUR (Afran muchaa sarryaa) To signify the four teats on an udder of a cow.
Gadaa.comTHREE (Sadan sunsumanii) 3 stones used as a stove signifying defense/administration.
Gadaa.comTWO (Lamaan mucha re’ee) To signify two teats on the udder of the she-goats
Gadaa.comONE (Tokkeen tokkittumaa) one is almost nothing – signifying inefficiency.

Observe that all even numbers are automatically omitted from being used in the Gadaa system because nature had already assigned them for various other functions as indicated above. These even numbers are also divisible by 2, i.e. with no remainder signifying ease and absence of challenge.

The odd numbers, except one (1), are significant in this system. The Oromos say, “mukti tokkoo hin aaraa moo hin boba’a” which means one single piece of wood can not burn and give out smoke at the same time. In short, one is ineffective which concludes that ‘one (1)’ cannot be assigned to duty that involves high responsibility even though it is an odd number. This elimination method leaves us with odd numbers 9, 7, 5, 3. The larger the number, the better it is to cover all Oromo regions for the purpose of political representation. Therefore, “nine” (9) is chosen as the maximum number of Oromo council of representatives called Salgan Yaa’i Boorana.

“Seven” (7) is considered as a day of rest even though Oromos conduct important meetings after six hard working days. On the seventh day of the week, called Dilbataa, all regular meetings are held. The seventh day is also spent mostly by playing a game called “Saddeeqaa” for those who have no meeting agenda. Others prefer friendly discussions among themselves. The Saddeeqaa game is somewhat similar to the chase-game. It is a game that helps one to think where to start and where to end.

“Five” (5) is the number of judges with similar functions as American jurors. Five is chosen, as our ancestors told us, on the basis of the ability of our fingers that coordinate with each other effectively. Consequently, the number of judges is fixed to tie. The numbers of elders composed of Abaa Gadaa’s in this manner is called “Shanachaa.” One can simply consider this word shanachaa a single judge in spite of five people in the composition. The plaintiff and the defendant may not agree to the compassion of the jurors. However, both have no right to change the quantity.

The last, but not least, is the number “three (3)” that was assigned to the number of Abbaa Duula’s(Defense leaders) and Abbaa Caffee’s (Administrators). The concentration is on the Duula (War) which has to be as rigid as the base of a triangle called Sunsumaa. These are three round stones used to support cooking pots or pans. The three stones are placed in a circular position at an interval of 120 degrees apart. Oromos understand how hard it is to overturn an object having triangular base and, therefore, concluded that war should be directed by three men.

Abbaa Alangaa is one of the Abbaa Gadaa’s who is responsible for the judiciary. He uses a whip(Alangaa) as a symbol of law enforcement. It is made of Hippopotamus skin (Roobi)Alangaa is used in the same way a gavel is used today at courts and meetings. With the wooden hammer, one bangs the table. On the contrary, the Oromos whip the ground, the only available surface at hand. Once the ground is lashed with this Alangaa, the chance of reversing the case is impossible. There should be fiveAbbaa Gadaa’s in one court that forms a team normally addressed as (Shaneel Shanachaa). Among these five, one is referred to as the speaker (Arrab coolleessaa or Abbaa Alangaa). In simple terms,Abbaa Alangaa is head of the judiciary. Abbaa Alangaa can be considered as one who is responsible to reinforce the law, too. It is some what equivalent to the Attorney-General of this modern age.

Duulaa is a defense mechanism organized at a higher level than the Caffee. War in the Oromo society is a very serious business. Therefore, Duulaa (defense) is attached to the Salgan Yaa’i Boorana. The nine members of the supreme council have to agree and dispatch orders if the fatherland needs to be defended. However, the detail work and the leadership of the war will be the business of the Abbaa Duulaa’s. Again a single person is never allowed to declare war. As the expression “Waraanii Sadii” (war is led best by three people) attests, war is led by at least three persons called Abbaa Duulaa’s. However, war is declared by nine people. These are Abbaa Gadaa’s who are member of the Salgan Yaa’i Boorana.

In the process of law making (Seraa Tumaa), all eligible Oromo people must participate. All those present can air their views freely, regarding a topic under discussion. The law includes: civil, criminal and all other social customs. Example: the rules of marriage (Seeraa Fuudha). After an intensive discussion, a final summary is presented by the Chairman, (Abbaa Bokku). He then will ask a final question like “any addition to or deletion from the statement given.” There is no room for majority vote. A single objection leads to adjournment without decision. When unanimity is achieved, the chairman (Abbaa Bokku) strikes the ground with a whip (Alangaa) in his hand, and the bill under discussion becomes the law.

As a high moral principle that enhances the implementation of the law (Seeraa)Safuu:

– Maintains coexistence and harmony among all people;
– Maintains coexistence and harmony between humans and animal;
– Maintains a good relationship between God and man;
– Maintains a good relationship between the old and the young;
– Maintains a proper relationship between the poor and the rich;
– Is a sign of love and peace among the Oromos;
– It is a sign of peaceful life;
– It insures that an approach by a stranger is safe.

Safuu is implanted into the brain of Oromos from childhood. During the steps of the “age grades,” all Oromos are given the chance to learn to live the right way. Therefore, Oromos refrain from killing, stealing, lying and are not viololent. Their names tells it all. Typical Oromo names indicate prosperity, growth, love and peace, i.e. Hortuu, Gabbattaa, Jaalataa and Nagaasee, respectively. This culture is near fading away today owing to the influence of the Abyssinians’ culture that was forced upon the Oromos for the last 120 years.

In the Gadaa system, lending money to be paid back with interest is illegal. Whatever one borrows, one returns the original capital only. However, borrowing cattle, which is called (dabarsaa), is handled differently. One may borrow a milk cow from a well-to-do family, but such a person is not allowed to sell or transfer the cow to others. The borrower can keep the milk cow or oxen borrowed as long as he wants. However, he may return part or wholly if and only if he is able to purchase more cows by using the labor of the borrowed cattle. He does this only on his good gesture and free will to gain good reputation. There is no law or exercised culture that may force him to return the cattle to the original owner. It is only his conscience that may motivate him to pay his liability to the owner with thanks. One may borrow grain for consumption, while one is equally producing as the lender. If such is the case, the borrower must return to the lender the amount he borrowed in same kind at the next harvest time. Failure to do so will restrict the borrower from further allowance from his customer and from his community as well.

All Oromos are not expected to remember the Gadaa laws (Seera) in detail. There were ways of keeping the Seera at a central place. It is like printing the law and keeping it in a safe place. Very unfortunately, the Orornos did not have their own script during those years. Therefore, they devised a way of preserving their law. They chose individuals who had a great capacity to memorize such laws. They named such individuals “Saphaloo.” Saphaloo’s are intelligent persons who interpret the Seera. They should be individuals with great memory and understanding. The Saphaloo’s do not retire. They remain as the Seera’s encyclopedia. The government of Oromo, groups or individuals had to refer to theSaphaloo’s to retrieve what had been passed by the Gadaa assembly at the great Odaa. The Saphaloo’shad to remember all amendments made at the end of every Buttaa.

Makoo Bili and his work are loved and admired by all Oromos. His memory will reside in the heart of all Oromos for ever. In order to signify the work of Makoo Bili, and express the love and respect the Oromos have for him, the Oromos sing every year the following song designated to him many years ago.


It means: Oh, Makoo, my Makoo! Makoo, hundreds of swords are ready (for battle/combat), however, we are waiting only for fear of law, otherwise we are ready for battle!



The Ogaden Peace Talks: Public Relations Stunt or Genuine Initiative?

Jawar Mohammed|September 10, 2012

It is reported that the Ethiopian government has held another round of peace talks with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in Nairobi. First announced by the Ethiopian government, the news is confirmed by the rebel group, which has listed the key procedural points on which preliminary agreement has been reached.  This was followed by another announcement that the Swedish journalists sentenced to 11 years after they were caught in Ogaden have been pardoned. This is an interesting development, but might not necessarily be a game changer for the conflict.

Why now?

The negotiation, which is being mediated by Kenya, has been going on for about a year according to sources taking part in the process. The latest round of negotiation was attended by a high level delegation from both sides: the government was represented by the defense minister, while the Ogadenis sent the commander of the army, head of its diplomatic section and prominent intellectuals representing civic society. Therefore, it seems each side wanted to make this appear a serious undertaking, and they have already achieved that as the news has gone viral among the international media. However, the timing of the current announcement and history of the prior relation between the two parties makes us doubtful.

First, it is important to note that Meles initiated the current negotiation a year ago just at the time he announced a new strategy of regime change towards Eritrea. Since such strategic shift would provoke Eritrea into taking a preemptive strike, Meles needed to free up the Eastern command in order to redeploy it to the Northern frontier. But that would make the regime vulnerable to attacks by the ONLF; hence peace talks were initiated to distract them from focusing on building their military capacity.


Second even as the said negotiation was taking place in Nairobi, the Ethiopian authorities continue continue to terrorize the Ogadeni civilians. The ogadenonline  reports that  “ mass murder took place in the Village of Miirdanbas near Qoriile town on Sept 6, 2012” and lists names of 13 people who were killed. Committing such horrendous act while holding peace talk on the other side of the border does not signal real interest in resolving the conflict.

Third, the intent of the Ethiopian government’s decision to engage in such public negotiation with an insurgent group at a time when the ruling party is struggling to contain the boiling factional war on succession is suspicious. The year-long talks were said to have been suspended due to Meles’s sickness, and there is no logical reason that their resumption could not have waited until the new prime minister is in place. Hence, this announcement is either a diversionary tactic meant to distract public attention from the internal crisis, or one of the factions is using this as public relations stunt to present itself as a more reformist choice. Moreover, the regime hopes that such positive news would help it deflect attention from thenationwide protest by the Muslim community demanding religious freedom and the growing urban grievance caused by the rising cost of food.

Reaching out to one of the several rebel parties is a well-known tactic of the ruling party whenever it faces crisis. For instance, when his hold on power was threatened by the Amhara parties following the 2005 election, in order to avoid fighting the two largest ethnic groups (Oromo and Amhara) at the same time, Meles initiated negotiations with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), only to reverse course once he put the situation under his control. Similarly, in 2008 during the height of the ONLF’s military successes in the region, the Ethiopian government initiated discussion with the United Western Somali Liberation Front (UWSLF) and smaller factions of the ONLF itself, finally securing their surrender in 2010.

During the run up to the 2010 election, two opposition leaders, Lidetu Ayalew and Hailu Shewal signed agreement with Meles on electoral code of conduct, while  the larger coalition, Medrek, refused  to do so insisting on electoral reform. As the opposition bickered on this defection, the pressure on the government to establish an independent electoral board was reduced,  enabling it to eventually claim a 99.6% victory. Those who sided with the regime were denied  even a single seat as reward and came out  humiliated and with eroded political legitimacy. Basically, the regime has been using peace talks as a tactical weapon to divide and weaken its adversaries, and this has worked for it quite effectively as its opponents keep falling for the ploy.

Sending  powerless negotiator does not signal seriousness

The choice of Siraj Fegessa as chief negotiator on behalf of the government also further solidifies the doubt. Although Mr. Fegessa is officially a defense minister, it is public knowledge that he holds no real power, as defense matters are handled by the Tigrean military generals and party leaders. Since Seeye Abreha, the position has been held by non-Tigreans (Abadula Gemeda, Kuma Demeksa and now Siraj Fagessa) but these ministers were kept away from deciding on vital internal and external security matters as this report by the US embassy reveals.

For instance, for most of the last two decades the Ogadeni case was handled by Abay Tsehaye, founding member and senior leader of the TPLF. As minister of federal affairs and later as national security advisor to Meles, Abay practically ruled the Ogaden region by directly reshuffling the region’s politicians as well as monitoring and supervising military deployment and security activities. He is the designing father of the notorious “Kilil 5 militia” that was organized to aid the army in its fight against the ONLF but was mostly known for terrorizing civilians in the region. Therefore, assigning Mr. Fegessa to lead the delegation – instead of influential figures such as Abay who have intimate knowledge of the conflict and also holds real power to ensure implementation of potential agreements – tells us that the regime might not be serious.

Having dealt with this regime for a long time, the ONLF leadership surely knows this. It appears that their optimism about the current peace talks is in part due to high level involvement from the Kenyan side. It is said that Kenya’s defense minister Yussuf Mohamed Haji, who is born to the Ogadeni clan, has assured the ONLF that the Ethiopian side is willing to address most of their demands. No doubt that the minister’s personal connections and Kenya’s own interest in resolving  the conflict are important in facilitating these talks. However, unless there is interest-driven political commitment from the real powers in Addis, Kenya has minimal leverage over Ethiopia to ensure that it upholds its promises.

Negotiation  on what?

Let us for a moment dismiss the doubts listed above and suppose that the Ethiopian government is genuinely interested in making peace this time around. What would such a resolution entail? To answer this we need to remember why the ONLF resumed armed struggle after being part of the government for three years (1991-94). The main cause of the fallout was the ONLF’s refusal to become a dependent satellite party that can be controlled by the Tigrean Liberation Front (TPLF)   which at the time was fabricating surrogate parties that would rule the federal subunits on its behalf. Consequently, the TPLF decided to kick out the ONLF although it won the local elections, and replaced it by a newly invented loyal surrogate, the Ethiopian Somali Democratic League (later renamed Somali People Democratic Party) that currently administers the region. Therefore, the ONLF resumed armed struggle not because it demanded outright secession as is often alleged by the government, but rather because it was denied the right to function independently and govern the region it won through election. The TPLF kicked it out because it could not afford to have such a strategically important state be ruled by an autonomous political party.

Then what would be acceptable to the ONLF to return, and how much is the TPLF willing to concede? Autonomous regional self-rule and a fair share of central power for their people (the third largest, and larger than Tigreans who currently rule the country) is the minimum that could satisfy ONLF’s rank and file. Anything less than that they already have it , with the current arrangement of nominal self administration, in which the SDP runs the state as dependent surrogate of the TPLF.

Mind you, the TPLF might commit on paper to all demands listed by the ONLF, but it is unimaginable that they would commit to their implementation.  For the TPLF, keeping direct control of the Ogaden region is vital for sustaining its hold over the country, because it fears that an autonomous Ogaden would be used as launching pad for other rebels, particularly the OLF, that operate in the adjacent region. Let alone allowing such a strong, nationalist organization that enjoys strong grassroots support to govern this strategically crucial region, the TPLF could not trust even the current surrogate, SPDP, which is why the regional administration is in constant reshuffling mode, resulting in 11 presidents in two decades. The average for other regions during this period is four, while the federal government had just one leader. Since the ONLF cannot be reduced to a surrogate weaker than the SPDP, it cannot coexist with the current Ethiopian regime. Therefore, unless the elites ruling Ethiopian make significant behavioral changes – i.e., democratize the political space – the probability of the current negotiation bearing fruit that brings lasting peace to Ogaden is quite slim.

High risk for uncertain reward

The talks might give the ONLF breathing room to rebuild its fighting capacity, which has been weakened in the last couple of years, and also raise its fading profile to boost the morale of its base.  However, unless it is careful, the ONLF leadership risks splitting its base and weakening itself operationally if and when these highly publicised talks fail to materialize. Such failure could also further erode trust and narrow the door for future negotiations.  It is possible that the ONLF could buy into the current plot, abandon its struggle and join the government, only to be forced out once again.

It took a decade for the ONLF to recover from the damages it sustained during its partnership with the TPLF in 1990s, which saw the assassination of several of its capable leaders.  The inevitable cost  from another round of gambling could be even worse; apart from damage to its fighting force and leadership, it could  fracture it into various factions as a result of disappointment  of the rank and file, and infiltration by the regime. The worst case scenario is that the ONLF might repeat the catastrophic end of the Tamil Tigers who, through use of peace talks, were lured into lowering their guard and relaxing  their discipline, which exposed them to obliterating attacks by the Sri Lankan army.

A much wiser strategic approach would be  for the ONLF  to coordinate its struggle with other opposition groups in order to induce lasting change in how the Ethiopian state behaves. Although the ONLF might have a unique set of demands, none of them will be genuinely and practically addressed as long as the Ethiopian state is not democratized. On its part, if it is serious about lasting peace and stability,  the Ethiopian government  needs to stop  beating around the bush and open up the political system to competition and contestation.  If it does that, there will be no need to engage in unilateral negotiation with specific group, as none would be interested in hanging around the bushes.

Jawar Mohammed  is political analysts and  graduate student at Columbia University. He can be reached at  His articles can be accessed at