Oromo Democracy: An Indigenous African Political System. By Asmarom Legesse. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 2006, 296p, 10 figures, 8 pictures. $ 29.95 paperback. ISBN 1-56902-139-2.
have been grappling with the question of why post-colonial Africa
has failed to achieve any semblance of democracy, peace, stability and development. People have looked for solutions and paradigms everywhere, including state-building based on Western concepts of democracy. Nevertheless “changes” in the desired directions remain elusive. The aim of this paper is to review a book whose author attempts to provide answers to the predicaments within current political systems in Africa, and to the uneasy relationships between western social sciences and grand African social issues.
Based on four decades of research and specialty in the areas of African democracy, political thoughts and anthropology, Asmarom Legesse—an African anthropologist, a Harvard PhD
and former emeritus professor of Boston and Northwestern universities—argues that his book “reveals the many creative solutions that an African society has found for the problems people encounter when they try to establish democratic methods of governing their affairs,” (p. xiii). A related argument is that Africa continues to be beleaguered by social and political ills and system failure because peoples do not show a sense of ownership for modern African constitutions and political traditions built on foreign ideas they do not understand or respect. Imported African democracies fail because they have not organically emerged from the African soil.
To justify why studying an indigenous African democracy is a worthwhile enterprise, Legesse holds: “it is a rich source of ideas that can inspire and inform constitutional thinkers in Africa. On that foundation of historic and ethnographic knowledge, we can build genuinely African democratic constitutions that differ from borrowed constitutions of today—alien constitutions people do not care about and will not defend when they are violated,” (p.xiii). The author’s position is not a mere rejectionist and ethnocentric attempt to dismiss anything Western, as it seems, because he himself is against “ethnocentrism” and “counterpropaganda” as approaches to achieving objective scholarship from the moment he traveled from Harvard to southern Ethiopia
to conduct his field research for his PhD dissertation
in 1960, which produced his first book Gada: Three Approaches to the Stud of African Society
that the current study evolved out of (Legesse, 1973: 11, 273-274). He has been a strong critic of ideologized scholarship that is masked in any sort of ethnocentrism or propaganda as he succinctly puts it: “The war that Africans must wage in the postcolonial era is a war against ethnocentrism as practiced by Africans whose intellectual horizons do not reach beyond their own ethnic backyards and by Europeans who believe that their civilization is the terminal stage of human development,” (1973:274).
What makes Asmarom Legesse one of the important African critical theorists of the 20th
and 21st centuries is that he engages in what I call “a multi-tiered empirical-comparative criticism” of social systems in Africa, Ethiopia and the United States
. In Oromo Democracy,
and his earlier work, he is basically saying ‘even if ruling African elites and Western ones are agnostic to the merits of indigenous political systems, I will show them how and why that is so.’ He wanted to show the world how African democratic institutions, principles, and constitutions can contribute to improving the superficial democratic practices on the continent and even in the U.S.
He is compelled to do this because since he was student at Harvard he has come to see the inimical relationship between Western social sciences and the study of African societies (1973:3). Specially, he had problems with Western imperialist anthropologists whom he referred to as “cultural peddlers whose task is to disseminate Western civilization
to the rest of mankind,” (1973:273). Since the products of most Western social science research on Africa are primarily meant to serve the interests of the West, he believes that they are not good resources in helping solve African problems. It was the realization that African social sciences have themselves become a mere copycat of the Western ones that made him not only call for a paradigm shift but helped him venture into his research. “African social science must go back to first principles and develop a body of sociological theories that are not inimical to our existence and to our fundamental aspirations,” (1973:3). The following section reviews the author’s theories.
Critiques of Ethiopianist, Africanist or Eurocentric Intellectual Traditions
In the preface and the first chapter, the author surveys and critiques the mentioned intellectual traditions in order to put his study in perspective. Doing that is important as a prelude to the analysis without which readers will be left in the dark as to why little is known about indigenous democracies and institutions if indeed they exist, as the author claims. He needed to critique the traditions to show factors (barriers) that retarded the growth of indigenous democratic traditions and prevented them from spreading over the continent. Proudly rebutting, in a typical Horn of African manner, the agnosticism among Western scholars about the relevance of such a project, Legesse states “…but that should not deter us from this magnificent virtue into our own ‘dark continent’—a continent that looks so dark to others, so brightly lit from where we stand…” (p.xiii).
The idea of an indigenous democratic system by default, not by choice, comes from the Oromo people
of Ethiopia, a majority group with a long history of repression by Ethiopian authorities. All the milestone achievements by this society are automatically dismissed and despised merely because of its association with the group. The resentment over that gave birth to the Oromo studies tradition in the diasporas in Europe and North America; Legesse, though an outsider African (Eritrean) to the Oromo society, adopts an Oromo studies perspective. Here is a summary of his critiques of the intellectual barriers in examining Oromo/African democratic institutions (Legesse, 2006: xiii-39):
- Barriers in Ethiopian Studies: Ethiopianist scholarship focuses on the Abyssinian-speaking populations of Northern Ethiopia and their culture, languages, literature history and archaeology (p.2). Ethiopianists dismiss Oromo studies as nonessential. Ethiopianists scholarship has been a barrier because “…research was conducted from an Orientalist rather than Africanist perspective, which tended to dissociate North Ethiopian civilization from its African roots and from those populations of Ethiopia whose cultures are entirely African in character,” (p.2). For a long time, Abyssinia projected an ambiguous identity to the outside world: it viewed itself as a non-African and glorified its Sabean, Jewish and Christian heritage based on legends. Implied here is a ludicrous assertion of self-denial that Ethiopians are neither Africans nor blacks, a myth on which the empire thrived for centuries in its foreign relations.
- Barriers in Africanist Studies: Anglophone scholars, who wrote widely on African political systems, showed strong and sustained interest in African monarchies and chiefdoms, but very little interest in, and great disdain for indigenous African democracies. This group also thinks that “democracy” is an exclusive invention of the West and to talk about it by Africans is nonsensical. Legesse maintains barriers in African studies are part of “the much larger and older problems in the Africanist literature,” (p.9). He bemoans that this brand of scholarship has been playing a destructive function of promoting African monarchies in order to implement the European colonial systems of direct and indirect rule (p.10). The author stresses the continued mutual seductions between African and European empire-builders. From political point of view colonialism in the traditional sense is defunct, but “the underlying system of values is still at work,” (1973:275). The monarchist perspective detracts from any attempts to examine African democratic traditions in their own terms (pp. 10-27).
In the rest of the book, Legesse attempts to show that democratic thoughts and institutions exist in Africa. He even compares the principles in African democracies to the principles in the American Constitution to show flaws of that Constitution in and to suggest things that can be learned from Oromo democracy.
Theory I: The Indigenous Democratic Institutions
He explains that Oromo developed their own variety of democratic organization that existed at least for four centuries of recorded history (p.30). The system is based on elected leadership and an orderly transfer of power from one leadership to another. Most importantly, it is built on three institutions: the generational system (Gada, “the rulers”); the moiety organization (Qalluu, “electors and ritual leaders”); and the National Assembly (Gumi). A brief summary of the three institutions and their key responsibilities follows (pp. 94-132):
- The Gada System is a system of Gadaa classes (luba) or a portion of the genealogical generations that succeed each other every eight years in assuming political, military, judicial, legislative and ritual responsibilities. A “generation” is forty years long and is made up of five gada classes. It is headed byAbba Gada (father or leader of the institution, equivalent to “President”). The Abba Gada has the power of blessing, decision-making and presiding over general assembly meetings.
- Qallu: The Moiety Institution (pp.133-134)—Qallu are the two halves of the Oromo nation and they play many important political roles and functions. It is a balancing mechanism since it divides the society into two permanently opposed camps, which becomes the basis for balanced opposition and power-sharing (p. 136). The Qallu leaders are the most pious (rooted in Waaqeffannaa, an African indigenous monotheistic religion) and hereditary group of leaders who serve as electors to political offices and mediators in conflict. People go on pilgrimages from distant places to the sites of the two most senior Qallus to receive blessings. They have a responsibility to mediate conflict within a moiety; and conflicts that failed to be resolved at lower clan levels are referred up to the national Qallu councils for mediation. Any conflict that cannot be resolved at the level of Qallu is taken to the level of the General Assembly.
- The Gumi Institution (pp. 32-31,100, 211). Gumi is the highest and the most important of the three branches of the indigenous social organization. The author is succinct in putting the descriptions of this body as: “The NATIONAL ASSEMBLY, (Gumi) is made up of all the Gada assemblies of the Oromo, who meet, once every eight years, to review the laws, to proclaim new laws, to evaluate the men in power, and to resolve major conflicts that could not be resolved at lower levels of their judicial organization. The present and former Abba Gada are leaders in the main session of the Gumi…The Gumi stands in a superordiante position vis-à-vis the other institutions. It is the institution that gives structural substance to the notion that power rests ultimately with people—a right they exercise by direct participation or by delegating power to five groups of Gada leaders, active and semi-retired,” (p.100).
In five out of six the chapters, the author engages in an extended analysis and discussions of the three institutions briefly summarized above.
Theory II: The Principles of Oromo Democracy
Legesse draws some principles of Oromo democracy based on his analysis of the key institutions of the system. He goes back to his idea of “going back to the first principle” (dhugaa ganamaa) to bring about an effective social change when he states that “democracy is not a purely Western phenomenon,” (p.93). He appears to mean this in a progressive way, not in a way that suggests a regressive or nostalgic wish to turn the clock back. Legesse underscores the need to recognize and learn from the varieties of democracies invented by many African societies.
A skeptic may ask: if such democratic values and intuitions existed, why are so many African countries despotic? Legesse would think many African countries are not so democratic today not because Africa lacks democratic culture and institution, but because the continent’s modern state structures that imitate the West created elites that have abandoned and delegitimized the political systems that have been developed for many centuries (p. 214-215). Because Africans have given up on governing themselves through the national assemblies, he cites cases of dictators who want to rule for their lifetime (p.15). The Oromo Democracy answer to the constitutional threat Africa faces from leaders who refuse to relinquish power peacefully is to ensure no president or war chief is left long enough in office with uncontrolled power (p.215).
Legesse’s study lists and describes eighteen principles of Oromo democracy constructed from the unwritten constitution of the people (pp.195-246). He then compares these principles to the U.S. constitution and democratic processes. I will list all, but discuss only a few of these that the author thinks do not exist in Western democratic traditions. The principles are (p. 198): (1) the laws (ada-sera) that stand above all men, (2) the principle of accountability: the role of confession and impeachment (buqqisu), (3) subordination of warriors to deliberative assemblies, (4) man-made laws and the great lawmakers, (5) supreme authority of the national assembly (Gumi), (6) government by councils and assemblies (ya’a): seniority and equality, (7) terms of office and measurement of time, (8) limitation of office to single term (Gada), (9) a period of testing: time gap between elections and investiture, (10) use of history as ethical guide and precedent (dhacch’i), (11) hereditary and elective leadership (warra Qallu and warra Bokku), (12) staggered succession versus the convergence of destabilizing events, (13) alliance of alternate groups (walanna and qadaddu), (14) bridges across generations in the face of political discontinuity, (15) the principle of balanced opposition, (16) distribution of power across generations, (17) separation of powers: functional and spatial, and (18) separation of ritual and political domains (ebba and mura).
Comparing the inter-generational equity principle in Oromo Democracy to Western democratic tradition, Legesse claims such principle of sharing power across generations does not exist in Western democratic tradition. The consequence of this is events like the youth and elderly movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which were aimed at “correcting generational injustices,” (p.248). Indigenous democracy restrains the power of the president in three ways by: putting the ultimate power in the hands of the General Assembly, putting a period of testing as a prerequisite to the real office for decades, reviewing the president’s performance and impeaching him if he is likely to do some damage even if that is at the beginning of his term. In contrast, Legesse points out how some democratically elected populist leaders can turn into despots and take a nation down the path of war or fascism because they have too much power in their hands. He provides the case of the rise of Hitler and Nazism and the ensuing holocaust and wars in Europe because of constitutional loopholes (p.250). These are strong examples that can help check ‘democracy’ from turning into something some people legitimately and pejoratively call “mob rule.” Western democracies have in the past veered in the direction of despotism (Nazi or fascism); there is a potential for this to be repeated as long as the war-making powers of the presidents are not constitutionally and directly subordinated to the people. I will critique why Legesse is compelled to make the comparisons and if the comparisons are fair or are of the kind between ‘apples and oranges’ in the “Limitation” section of this paper.
The writer does not conclude just by painting a perfect picture that an African democratic tradition is perfect. It is one of the strengths of the book that the author identifies the following four systematic weaknesses in the African indigenous constitution (pp.256-254): (1) exclusion of women from political institutions, (2) rigidity of political structures, (3) corruption in political life, and (4) traditional societies and modern state: the question of scale. These are also sensitive weaknesses. The author rightly takes the exclusion of women from formal participation in the political process and leadership as “the single most important deficit in Oromo democracy,” (p.256). He could have elaborated and contextualized this better in gender issues. In terms of corruption, bribing indigenous jurors has been commonplace.
Methodology and School of Thought
In his first book, Gada, and then again, in Oromo Democracy, Legesse is explicit that he is structuralist anthropologist whose ideas are shaped a great deal by Claude Levi-Strauss. Legesse states, “Structuralism is an important contributor to this study,” (1973:233). He uses three approaches to the study African society: Levi-Strauss structuralism, American cultural anthropology and the ‘case analysis’ method developed within the British social anthropology.
The method with the most influence on his work is probably Levi-Strauss’s structuralism as Legesse is often seen quoting, summarizing and paraphrasing Levi-Strauss.He uses the same Levi-Strauss’s direct quote as a way of inspirationally ending his first book and as a hook into his second one.
He is heavily humanist in his approach.
Given the difficulty he mentions about the uneasy relationship between African and Western social science, it appears that the methodological choice he made was reasonable and progressive.
It is also an appropriate method to the study of social organization and political systems. In the second book he adds a center-periphery approach to how colonial rule influenced Oromo institution. The strategies he used for data collection were surveys, interviewing and participant observation over many years. His current book can be classified more specifically under the “Oromo Democracy Project” that he and his four other colleagues started in 1987 within the Oromo Studies tradition (p.xiii). More generally, the book belongs in the class of books on African anthropology, politics and sociology.
Comparing Oromo Democracy to Max Weber’s ‘Authority’
Even if the indigenous political system (institutions and principles) Legesse studied and theorized cannot be precisely mapped onto Weber’s typology of authority, it is still possible to do some comparisons between the two. Legesse is not Weberian since he does not cite him anywhere in his book. The theories of both authors are similar in the sense that both studied social organizations. They differ in that Weber writes mostly from a Western sociological perspective while Legesse writes from an African one. I will first briefly define Weber’s types of legitimate authority and then compare them to where the leaders of Legesse’s three intuitions get their authority from.
The validity of claims to legitimacy comes from three sources of authority (Weber, 1947:328). These are rational authority, traditional authority and charismatic authority.
First, in ‘rational authority’ leaders have the right to make decisions (issue commands) on the basis of people’s beliefs in the legality of ‘normative rules’. This kind of authority is prevalent in modern state systems and organizations io ipso bureaucracies are set up and staffed (p.333). There are number of criteria governing the behaviors of elected or appointed officials: (1) officeholders are personally free and subject to authority ‘only in respect to their impersonal obligations, (2) staff and offices are clearly and hierarchically organized, and (3) offices are governed by contractual relationships and so on (Weber, 1947: 333-334).
Second, people who exercise traditional authority do so based on “established belief in the sanctity of traditions and the legitimacy of the status of those who exercise authority…” People obey a leader primarily because “the object of obedience is the personal authority which he enjoys by virtue of his traditional status,” (Weber 1947:341). The relationships between the leader and his people are very personalized in a sense that there is no clear demarcation between his personal and official life as opposed to legal authority (ibid, 341).
Third, leaders who exercise charismatic authority do so based on “devotion to the specific and exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him…” (ibid. 328). The leader is set apart from ordinary men by a quality known as “charisma” that originates from “supernatural, superhuman, and exceptional,” sources (ibid, 358).
Now let us focus on how Weber’s typology of authority can or cannot explain ways in which leaders of the three African democratic institutions exercise their authority.
Gada System, Gumi and Legal Authority. This institution is the most democratic, legalistic and powerful of all other institutions Legesse analyzed. It is the most democratic of the three since power rests with the people and all sections of the nation are directly or indirectly represented in the council (Caffee). The active and retired Abba Gadas (presidents, the retired ones are considered emeritus presidents) chair the national assembly meetings. The job of this body is to make new laws, revise old ones and to evaluate the performances of elected leaders. If the leader underperforms or abuses official power, an impeachment proceeding is initiated and the leader is removed. The penalty for breaking laws ranges from soft punishments such as cursing (which is believed to kill the cursed person) to capital punishments such as the direct execution of the guilty person, including the president. Unfortunately, I did not come across any concept of imprisonment as penalty. Where the Gumi differs from Western bureaucratic rationality is in that decisions made are committed to memory by a specialized group of elders. Customary laws exist in oral tradition and decisions made are not recorded on paper primarily because the ancient community practicing this brand of democracy lack formal education and lead an agrarian lifestyle. In southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya, where this democratic tradition is alive, it is a parallel form of governance to that of modern Ethiopian and Kenyan state institutions. There is conflict between modernity and tradition because people are required to obey modern laws. Nevertheless, they are loyal to traditional governance and care less for modern establishments. There is no evidence suggesting monetary remunerations for the services of leaders.
To become the top leader of the Gumi is very rigorous and can take a life-long apprenticeship, passing through every cycle of the Gada. The performance of the individual is more important than the time he spends in the institution. To become a leader of the Gumi one is required to spend forty years and above in the Gada cycle, which has eleven generational stages with eight years interval between grades. This ranges from entry time of childhood initiation at age eight and the exit (retirement) time at age eighty-eight. Each generation in each stage has specialized tasks in society (Legesse, p. 122).
The Qallu Institution and Traditional Authority.Qallu maps perfectly onto Weber’s concept of traditional authority and, hence, it can be considered one of its best examples. The primary roles of the top Qallu leaders are to act as ritual leaders and elections observers and organizers (Legesse, p.32). They have the right to perform these tasks for reasons characterizing traditional authority that Weber describes. Based on their pious genealogy from the family of Qallu (Warra Qallu), the leaders of the institution play important roles in society in the areas of indigenous religion (blessing and payers), and conflict resolution (mediation, arbitration) in a non-binding manner. Warra Qallus are the ones who are generally accepted to create social harmony. They have those powers because such traditions “have always existed,” (Weber, 1947:341). Leaders of Qallu institution can influence national politics by dividing society into two halves of affiliation, but it does not play a direct political role (Legesse, 136). Its role is squarely in the areas of rituals and spirituality. The family of Qallus exercise their authority because Oromo tradition allows them to do so.
Weber’s concept of charismatic authority is barely applicable to describing any of the leaders of the institutions of the indigenous social system, Gada. There is little evidence in the book or from my knowledge about the rise of Messianic figures like Jesus, Moses and Mohammed in classic African societies, although famous people and heroes are celebrated, as in any social system.
Comparing Zizek and Legesse : Returning to the ‘First Principle’
Slavoj Zizek’s idea of “how to begin from the beginning,” (p. 209) can be compared to the thrust of the argument that Legesse makes in the sphere of bringing social change by going back to the communal, exotic and nostalgic ‘first principle’. Zizek is a minor comparison and I would like to note that I would not like to stretch his concepts too much here. Zizek’s few ideas are relevant to framing change in the society Legesse studied. Zezek writes (p.212):
The only true question today is: do we endorse the predominant naturalization of capitalism, or does today’s global capitalism contain antagonisms powerful enough to prevent its indefinite reproduction. There are four such antagonisms: the looming threat of ecological catastrophe, the inappropriateness of the notion of private property for so-called ‘intellectual property’, the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics), and, last but not least, new forms of apartheid, new Walls and slums.
The consequence of the first antagonism— ‘the looming threat of ecological catastrophe’— on indigenous communities and their social and economic organization is happening. Threats of ecological catastrophe are not fiction in the Borana (Oromo) community of southern Ethiopia. The threats are very real in indigenous regions of our planet, where man-made famine and ecological devastation are causing the loss of the lives of thousands of people. African states, including Ethiopia, are evicting hundreds of thousands of farmers in order to sell land to foreign owners of capital in what has infamously come to be dubbed “the land grab.”
Pollution, drying of rivers and death of livestock are common because of the collaboration between local elites and predatory corporations.
The antagonism of capitalism (globalization) manifested in the privatization of property is destroying “Commons” (Hardit and Negri, pp. 300-303). The threats against “the commons of external nature” that Zizek cites (pp.212-213) can be readily witnessed in the very same forms of pollution and exploitation mentioned. The “commons” is a very important concept that needs to be explicated further. The concept is important because it explains the destruction inflicted upon on pristine environment and humanity in Oromia, Ethiopia, Africa and the World as a result of wanton state elites’ overindulgence in letting their countries be raped by the greedy corporations that have no regard for human life. The case of neo-colonial ‘land grab’ is exactly an example of the destruction of the commons. The concept is important also because it suggests strategies of countering the destructions instead of always bemoaning them, but practically doing nothing to overcome them. Overcoming and formulating new workable orders are where solutions lie. Hardit and Negri (2000:300-303) provide a succinct and contextualized definition of “commons”
There has been a continuous movement throughout the modern period to privatize public property… Throughout the world what remains of the vast public spaces are now only the stuff of legends: Robin Hood’s forests, the Great Plains of Amerindians, the steppes of the nomadic tribes, and so forth. During the consolidation of industrial society, the construction and destruction of public spaces developed in an ever more powerful spiral…A new notion of “commons” will have to emerge on this terrain…”commons” is really an activity that combines the intelligence and action of the multitude, making them work together. Constructing the concept means making exist in reality a project that is a community…The commons is the incarnation, the production, and the liberation of the multitude. Rousseau said that the first person who wanted a piece of nature as his or her own exclusive possession invented evil. Good, on the contrary, is what is common [emphasis in the original).
Legesse’s way of undoing this unprecedented damage much like Zizek’s is to start all over (from beginning) by learning from the lethal mistakes of accepting inimical and manufactured value systems originating from capitalism and the intellectual traditions that legitimize it today. Despite similarities, the contexts in which Zizek and Legesse use the notion of “beginning from the beginning” are different. Legesse’s “beginning from the beginning” might mean, inter alia, abandoning foreign ideas of democracy that do not work and embracing African democratic traditions as a powerful vehicle for social change. In contrast, “beginning from the beginning”, for Zizek, is a much more revolutionary idea of getting rid of capitalism and embracing communism. Although Legesse proclaims that he is a structrualist (Levi-Straussian type), he could be, but he does not obviously come across as the opponent of capitalism unlike many structuralist. To be sure, he does enough criticisms of state systems. Both share a common assumption that the prevailing systems do not work and they need to be replaced by better systems that respond to the needs of most people.
I see a few serious limitations of the book. Women and girls are excluded from all the cycles, which is the society’s fault. However, that the system is so deeply patriarchal and misogynistic highlights the profound weakness of Oromo democracy and makes the authors argument somewhat vulnerable to criticism from outsiders. The book broaches the issue, but does not offer an adequate analysis of the problem of women’s exclusion from political life. This is the most vulnerable and indefensible aspect of the book and of the indigenous social system. It is a serious weakness that the author spends only a page and half of the 296 pages book on the issue of women’s exclusion from the African traditional democracy. Even in that one and half page, the author does not provide methods of remedying this problem. From a conflict resolution perspective, the issue of women’s exclusion itself is a type of structural violence on women that concerns feminists and non-feminists alike. The issue of women’s exclusion is not, however, limited/unique to indigenous African democracies since there is ample evidence that Western ‘democracies’ themselves have been dominated by men and suffer from similar problems as the African ones. One can say that women’s participation in political/public spheres has been more closed in Africa than in the West.
Second, appealing as it was, it was not clear why the author was compelled to compare the principles of Oromo democracy with that of the United States. This is particularly problematic since most of his field research is focused on the indigenous African democracy. He conducted no matching empirical study on the United States constitution or constitutional history to warrant the kinds of conclusions he arrives at. The comparisons he makes are inadequate and lack depth. Even if we say he could do the comparison, how can it be fair that he opposes the imposition of Western democracy on Africa while he is advocating the imposition of African democratic tradition on that of the West? Is this not a two-way relationship?
The author achieves his core goals, but with varying degrees of success. The author’s goal was to show that indigenous African democratic institution and principles do indeed exist. His goal was not simply to prove a point that they exist, but he wished to open the eyes of Africans to see and value what they have and to build on that a strong and sustainable democracy. It is implied in his argument that borrowing political structures and ideas are correlated with the rise of despotism on the continent, accompanied by the continent’s increasing addiction to aid and foreign ideas that do not exist in the local lexical system. The corollary goal was to suggest that Africa has a democratic system that can contribute to world’s civilizations.
As a scholar with decades of expertise in the indigenous African democracy, Legesse does more than save the African face. He provides empirical answers to the embarrassing question: “What can Africa contribute to civilization or mankind?” (1973:283). He showed it can contribute homegrown democratic institutions and principles that can become the basis of transforming African political culture and system into sustainable and peaceful democracies.
He wants African democracies to emerge from their own traditions when he writes: “the strongest, most stable, and most viable democracies today are those that developed from their own historic roots…Botswana, Morocco, Switzerland, not those that were built on borrowed models, example, modern Kenya or Ethiopia,” (p.259). The reason he thinks that imported institutions will wilt away and die is because those intuitions are uprooted from certain historical and cultural root and transplanted, stripped of values and ethical roots on which to grow (p.259). It is a valid argument that foreign ideas cannot survive without their root.
It is difficult to know if he has achieved his implied goal of earning recognition and respect for African democracy from Western scholars in the social sciences. When Legesse asks, “How often have Western writers used Africa as the great primordial continent whose prodigious backwardness demonstrates by contrast the greatness of European civilization?” he is foremost criticizing the ethno-centrist orientation in Euro-American scholarship, but by implication he is also trying fight that image scholastically by showing some evidence of progress (1973:285). Overall, the author realized his core purposes for writing the book.
The book is well organized, readable and well-referenced. It is unfortunate that like many important academic books, this book is also addressed to the higher education audience.
Legesse, Asmarom. Oromo Democracy: An Indigenous African Political System. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 2006.
___. Gada: Three Approaches to the Study of African Society. New York: The Free Press, 1973.
Legesse, Asmarom. Oromo Democracy: An Indigenous African Political System. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 2006.
___. Gada: Three Approaches to the Study of African Society. New York: The Free Press, 1973.
Parsons, Talcott. Max Weber: The Theory of Social and Economic Organization.
Translated by A.M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. New York:
The Free Press, 1947.
Zizek, Slavoj and Costas Douzinas. The Idea of Communism. Verso, 2010.
Zizek, Slavoj. “How to Begin from the Beginning”, 209-225.
Derbyshire, Jonathan. “Interview with Slavoj Zizek-Full Transcript.” NewStatesman, October 29, 2009.
Hardt, Michael and Antoni Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
A society can live, act, and be transformed, and still avoid becoming intoxicated with the conviction that all societies which preceded it during tens of millenniums did nothing more than prepare the ground for its advent, that all its contemporaries—even those at the antipodes—are diligently striving to overtake it, and that the societies which will succeed it until the end of time ought to be mainly concerned with following in its path. This attitude is as naïve as maintaining that the earth occupies the center of the universe and that man is the summit of creation. When it is professed today in support of our particular society, it is odious. —Claude Levi-Strauss.
The following quote he uses as another hook in this book from the conclusion of his 1973 book, demonstrates his deep humanism:
We study African cultures so that they may live and grow to become the enduring foundation of a distinctive African civilization. In that process of growth, every culture has something vital to offer. Man’s wider cultural identities must be allowed to grow, not by the predatory expansion of one civilization, but by the complimentary integration of many diverse cultures. No human community, however humble, should be forced to give up its cultural identity without making a critical contribution to the larger reality of which it becomes a part. That remains true whether the larger reality is national culture, pan-African culture, or universal culture. –Asmarom Legesse 1973.