Question 12.

What is Gebar System? What is Gebar? What makes Gebar a system?


In the discussion of Ethiopian past as a feudal society we hear terms such as Rist, Gult, Gebar, etc. These terms represent and depict a complex social history, whose essence and dynamics still remained obscure to most of us.

In this issue I will briefly discuss Gebar as a system. Since its period of emergence the term Gebar had been used and defined in a number of conflicting ways by founders of the system, scholars and common people alike. There are at least three ideas expressed in the use of the term. In the dictionary it is defined as "he who works because he must and gives the administrator his strength (labour) and property (agricultural produce)", see, Kidane Wolde Kifle, Mezgebe Sewasew we Gis we Mezgebe Kalat Hadis. (bracket is added). In the expression of contemporary governors and advisor of Menelik such as Dejazmach Girmame, the term Gebar refers to the special function assigned to Rist land holding peasant who was assigned with the task of provisioning (Senq Mechan) to the army (Tor Zemach). (See, Haile Zeleqe n.d. Ye Dajazmach Girmame Hiwet Tarik). Mahteme Selassie, a former higher court official (in1940s), who was the author of the book Zekre Neger, used the term as defined in the dictionary. Gebre Wolde Engda Work, former minister of agriculture during the government of Haile Selassie, gives us a detail labour and payment obligation of peasants, in his book, Ye Ityopia Meret na Gebr Sem. Based on the work of these two traditional scholars, some foreign and Ethiopian scholars take the term Gebar in relation to the complex problem of land ownership and use it to refer to the kind of land tenure prevalent in southern Ethiopia (see Donham and James (eds.), The Southern Marches of Imperial Ethiopia, 1986. Others who consider only the tax burden of the peasant use the term in the sense of symbolizing an oppressive social system particularly of the Menelik period (see, Lapiso G. Delebo; Ye Ityopia Gebar Sereat na Gimr Kapitalism, 1900-1966.

The definitions mentioned above are correct, in so far as they depended on one's own view and subject of interest. The problem is that they only explain partial phenomena, not essence, aspects not totality, and the danger of emphasising (or exaggerating) certain aspect, might lead to wrong and unbalanced judgement and understanding of the past. To define Gebar as a system is not an easy task that one can do away by making certain refernce or accepting of things at their face value. For the last five years I have been doing on this term and each time I come up with new definition, and sometime I find the exercise quite frustrating. In the first place Gebar was a dynamic system, and one has to follow its development in time. It emerged in the region of northern Shewa and central Wello during the beginning of the eighteenth century, as an economic base of the military aristocracy of the regions. Gebar emerged in areas where Gonderain royal power was lest felt and where there was a synthesis of Amhara social organization and newly settled Oromo culture. It was the outcome of local and provincial arrangements made by territorial lords of the area, in a word it was a system that developed from below, not by royal decree or initiative of Gonderain kings. In other words one has to know when and why was the Gebar system emerged?

Secondly one has to make a difference between the Gebar system and those systems that preceded it. The Gebar system was different from the old Gult-Rist system which was dominant in the highland regions of Eritrea, the region of Tigray, Begemder, Gojjam, northern parts of Wello, and Shewa. The Gebar system, as an economic base of the regional aristocracy, was also diferent from the Amisho-Rim (one-fithe payment) system of Gonder and central regions.

Unlike the Gult-Rist and Amisho-Rim systems, whose forms of revenue allocation was negotiated or legally justified (as in the documents of Serate Gebr and Serate Mengest), the Gebar system rested initially on confiscation of communal and Balabat lands and imposition tax payment on individual holdings. Confiscated land was given as Maderiya, payment for service, for soldiers and land tax was used for recruitment of transport corps. The Maderiya land which was cultivated by tenancy arrangement, or the kind aristocrats sponsored tenancy system, was different in its tax assessment and payment and collection from Gult-Rist and Amisho systems.

The point of mentioning this point is to bring into awarness on the different mechanisms and various stages in the development of Gebar system. When definig the term, one ought to consider not only the questions when and why, but also how the system functioned. What is true for its emergence, for all time and stages of its development, is that basically Gebar is an individual registration (identification) of holdings and calculation of land tax payment on the size and/or fertility of land. This type of tax system, first served as an economic base of the Were Seh aristocratic family of Jejju, who were in power from 1780s-1855, and Shewan aristocracy who dominated central power from 1889-1974.

I differ further discussion on the Gebar system to a future work, but I like to comment the relevance of raising the issue in this column. I have two points in mind. The first one belongs to an attempt to clarify misunderstanding and interpretation around the power struggle between Yohannes IV (1872-1889) and Menelik (1889- 1913). The second point is to redress unfair judgement hitherto accredited to the Gebar system, particularly by politician and ideologist. In some circles and writings the conflict and power struggle between Yohannes and Menelik is interpreted wrongly based on ethnic and regional perspective. Menelik's agreement with Egypt, Italy and Mahdist of Sudan (points that can not be discuss here) are interpreted as a conspiracy against Yohannes. Counter argument to this is propounded that Yohannes had also collaborated with British military expedition against Theodros. In such a way argument and counter arguments continue, often appealing only to emotion. For the purpose of categorization, I have labelled such discussion as "conspiracy views" on history of the period (not theories, since these views have not developed to reach status of theory).

Exponents of the "conspiracy view" ignore that during the second half of the 19th Century, diplomacy was not yet in the exclusive sphere of the central government. Like the period of Zemene Mesafint, princes had continued to foster independent relationship with outside power, particularly to procure firearms. Emperors had no monopoly over import of firearms and had not yet established sovereign power over diplomacy. These questions were in the process of making. Most important for our purpose at hand is that, the conspiracy view completely disregards comparing and considering the logistic base of the two emperors. Even though emperors Yohannes and Menelik had a considerable size of troop under their disposal, the resource base of their troop was completely different. The army of Yohannes was based on the Rist Gult system. In this system kings were dependent on the local Gultgna lord and on the peasant community for mobilization of an army. This system was inefficient for the maintenance of troops on regular basis, and any mobilization of troops was at the expense of peasant community and Gultegna, which often result in rebellion. The troops of Menelik was based on Gebar system which has the advantage to increase the financial capacity of the state, and mechanism to harmonize the military needs with the existing form of the economy. (For a general discussion on the importance of Gebar system as sound and efficient economic base of the Ethiopian state, and its importance and difference with those that preceded it see my article titled " A Revolution from Above? Change in the Fiscal and Military Organization of the Ethiopian State, 1855-1913", in New Trends in Ethiopian Studies. Papers of the 12th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies. Marcus, H. (ed.). 1994;

The various techniques used in the Gebar system in the creation of resource to the state, will appear in a future work). The shift of power from north to the center occurred not as result of conspiracy of Menelik or shrewdness of the Shewan Amhara as hitherto is propagated or believed, but in the very formation of the logistic base of the state, in the techniques and system of creating resource for a military state. And this is explained by the Gebar system, defined as an individual registration of holdings and land tax payment on the size and/or fertility of land. The Gebar system constitute techniques which enabled to increase the financial capacity of the state, and it contained principles and flexibility important for the allocation of resources for military ends. The continuation or fragmentation of power lies on system of its economic base.

For the peasants the Gebar system was a burden. It demanded their labour and what they produced. In the absence of external finance (international loan) and internal system of credit, the state had to depend internally on the peasant economy to defend colonialism. Not all peasant economies defended colonialism. The forces in Ethiopia were not only reactive, but also creative in responding to the challenge. This can be explained partly by the technique, principle and system of Gebar. After the death of Yohannes, the Gebar system served as an alternative base of a central power to continue the increasingly sophisticated and tense challenge posed by colonialism.

With my best greetings,

Tsegaye T.