Bridging gaps over the Battle of Adwa

Wednesday March 1st 2017

By Zecharias Zelalem

121 years ago today tens of thousands of Ethiopian soldiers under the command of about a dozen or so battalion leaders marched northwards to the peaks of Adwa in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. There they met the deflated demoralized remnants of the Italian colonial army, who were rendered a shell of their former selves after several brutal battles with Ethiopians throughout what would be termed as the first Italo-Abyssinian War. On this final day of conflict, the Italians were routed and dealt the coup de grace that would condemn their expansionist aspirations to the grave, at least for another four decades.

Ever since Menelik led Ethiopia’s (or Abyssinia’s) convincing triumph over Italy at the Battle of Adwa, the event has been feted as a source of pride and inspiration among Ethiopians. To this day, Ethiopia is largely recognized as the only African nation to have military fought off being subjected to European colonisation and to have maintained its independence, despite the repeated efforts of Italy, which included a five year period of Addis Ababa being under Italian occupation (1935-1941).

Adowa, Battle preparations.jpg
Artist’s portrayal of the Battle of Adwa


Outsiders who come across this fascinating anecdote of history tend to be rendered ponderous by many things. Among the questions they ask, how could Ethiopia spend so much of its history in a state of perpetual misery? Throughout the past century Ethiopia has been prone to near chronic outbreaks of civil war and weather induced famines. Why is the foundation of Ethiopia’s nationhood so easily rattled when the people of this country once had the spunk and fierce loyalty to resist colonisation and unite for a common cause? There is no easy answer for this, but internal divisions tend to be the answer we fall back on.

But in recent times, the entire history of the Battle of Adwa has turned into a political flashpoint. While circumstances in Ethiopia don’t permit for open discussion due to the oppressive nature of the establishment, social media outlets have exposed just how deeply divided Ethiopians are when it comes to the legacy of the event. The annual memorial celebrations, the historical recounts and cultural depictions of what occurred on the mountains of Adwa over a century ago are heavily scrutinized.

The annual Adwa memorial day celebrations have created a gap between Ethiopia’s political right and left, as if there wasn’t enough to isolate the two already. The main source of dispute is the depiction of Ethiopian Emperor Menelik. Ethiopia’s reform demanding political left balk at the idea of the long standing traditional lionization of Emperor Menelik, whose status borders on that of a patron saint of sorts among adherents of the traditional political right. The right capitalize on the holiday and read eulogies praising Menelik’s diplomatic and military manoeuvring that brought about the historical coup in 1896. The left, many who are descendants of Ethiopia’s traditionally oppressed ethnic groups, scoff at these as nothing more than idolizing a man who only several years before the Adwa encounter, had finished his colonial escapade which resulted in the massacres of countless of would be subjects who resisted being cloaked into the Abyssinian Empire. There is a general consensus that a heroic effort by Ethiopian troops resulted in the Italians being pushed out of the country and back into their then colonial territory of Eritrea, but the legacy of Emperor Menelik in subsequent retellings of the battle has been cause of unending feuds.

Emperor Menelik II

So how must Ethiopians commemorate the heroics of their ancestors on the peaks of Adwa? What must be done to bring about some sort of common agreement in order to create a sense of mutual understanding despite the many differences? And are the demands of the Adwa “naysayers” considered reasonable? For that last question, I will try to provide a detailed but obviously less than objective response. As for the others, I will attempt to explain that when it comes to Adwa, the ball is in our court and despite an affinity of popping the bubbles of those we wrangle with politically, the door is more than open to be bridge builders.

Emperor Menelik! He is equally loved by his admirers as he is loathed by his detractors. Over a century after his death, he still maintains his place in Ethiopian folklore for his dealings starting from his falling out with the Italians over a misleading translation of the Treaty of Wuchale. Unbeknownst to him, he had signed a document recognizing Italy’s territorial ownership of Ethiopia, as the Amharic translation of the treaty was significantly altered from the Italian version which highlighted the extent of colonial Italy’s malicious designs on Ethiopian soil. Emperor Menelik quickly declared the treaty void but the Italians announced that this action was tantamount to a declaration of war. His wife, Queen Taitu Betul would go down in history for her chastising the Italian King Umberto’s envoy in his presence and her defiant tone that pretty much sealed Italy’s case for the necessity of armed conflict:

“I am a woman. I do not like war. However I would rather die than accept this treaty.”

“If it is your wish, start the war next week. Nobody is afraid. We will see when you turn to action. Nobody is afraid. Don’t think that we are not willing to sacrifice our comfort and die for our country. Doing so would be an honourable death. I don’t want to keep you here; it’s getting dark, I’m sure you have a lot of things to do to put your threats into action.”

And of course, history records Queen Taitu as having been a leader of a battalion of soldiers herself. Most Ethiopians have grown up hearing these quotes on the radio, in theatre, or have come across them in history books. Menelik’s repulsion at the concept of Italian rule over Ethiopian territories is a reoccurring theme that solidifies the no nonsense patriotic portrayal of him. There is ample evidence of his rallying up a nation to war and returning to Addis Ababa, triumphantly with war booty and thousands of Italian prisoners of war in tow.

Empress Taitu Betul

However, there is also ample evidence of his no nonsense brutality towards those who resisted his surge up the political ladder prior to his becoming Emperor of Ethiopia. Menelik’s pre-coronation trials haven’t been given significant focus by the Ethiopian state mechanism over the past century. Due to their being mentioned at the minimal or being totally censured, Menelik’s historically archived acts of brutality as a conquering warlord haven’t reached some sectors of the Ethiopian populace, long accustomed to hearing nothing but the heroic portrayal of the man believed to have inspired Africa’s last remaining sturdy resistance to Europe’s scramble of Africa. But before Menelik conquered areas spanning from western to southern Ethiopia, he pitted his armies against soldiers and populations alike. For instance, the Wolayta Kingdom refusal to submit to Menelik saw their army and population decimated by Menelik’s marauding forces, with Wolayta oral recounts tallying over a hundred thousand Wolaytans killed.

In the eyes of Ethiopians whose descendants fought and resisted the expansion of Menelik’s Shewan Empire, he is but a mass murderer who put many Ethiopians to the sword simply for refusing to submit to him. But to those who grew up admiring him, it is unfathomable to even begin to reconcile this depiction of a brutal madman with the heroic father of Africa they had been brought up to love. Hence the inevitability of the feud over Menelik’s legacy only intensifying as both sides don’t appear to be backing down, and Ethiopians can be frustratingly resolute in their beliefs.

The insistence of some to specifically laud Menelik as the decisive factor without whom the Adwa victory wouldn’t have been fathomable has caused some Ethiopians to totally reject the idea of commemorating the battle altogether. Being the polarizing figure he is today, he doesn’t exactly spawn the unity in Ethiopians today that saw their ancestors come together when they were most needed.

Artists depiction of Ras Darge Sahleselassie. He was Menelik’s uncle and right hand man. He is said to have carried out orders when he oversaw the 1886 Anole massacre of Arusi Oromos as vengeance for their resistance to Menelik  

Ethiopians who don’t conjure up the warm fuzzy feelings of patriotism during the Adwa battle celebrations do so for a variety of reasons. Besides the sitting through presentations of their historical villain being portrayed as a saviour, the battle of Adwa further consolidated the Shewa dynasty power base, and would keep Ethiopia entangled in the oppressive Imperial system for decades more. This is considered by leftists to have been a blow to the aspirations of freedom seeking Ethiopians of the time, brutally enslaved by an elite selection of royal family land owners. Another reason is that despite the military scalp and despite the insistence of Menelik’s military chief Ras Alula that the army had the stamina to march northwards and attack the Italians in their remaining strongholds in Eritrea and force them out of Africa and into the Red Sea, Menelik chose to hold fire and stay put. The defeated Italians wouldn’t be pursued into Eritrea. Menelik’s decision not to chase the Italians into Eritrea is widely believed to have been made to protect the Shewan dominance over the empire. The biggest threat to the Shewan hegemony over Abyssinia was in the shape of the Tigrigna peoples, and allowing the Italians to control the land adjacent to the Mereb River kept the majority of ethnic Tigrigna peoples in land under Italian control. The remaining ethnic Tigrigna peoples living in the lands south of the Mereb wouldn’t be as numerous and thus less of a threat to Menelik’s establishment.

Menelik subsequently signed a treaty in which he knowingly signed over territorial rights to these lands over to Italy. This meant that despite Ethiopia having the military upper hand and the impetus to push on and liberate Eritrea from Italian rule, for the sake of tribal inclinations, Menelik may have deliberately endorse the separation of millions of people into two different states, as well as rendering his own country landlocked. Eritreans to this day point to Menelik’s willingness to give Eritrea up as historical justification for their right to independence and nationhood.

Colonial era map shows the regions beyond the Mereb River as Italian possessions, ratified by Menelik’s signing of the 1896 Treaty of Addis Ababa

Critics point out that Ethiopia may have strategically lost more than it gained in the aftermath of the Battle of Adwa. While those whose ancestors were on the cusp of cultural and historical erasure through the forced cultural assimilation that Imperial Ethiopia was infamous for, argue that Italian colonization might not have been as bad for Ethiopia’s traditionally marginalized masses. For these and many other reasons, a significant portion of the Ethiopian population are obviously less than jolly when the first of March comes around each year.

After reading this, one might have the impression that Ethiopians who enthusiastically await the arrival of the annual holiday to take part in ceremonies or festivities are supporters of the Imperial leaderships and deny the crimes committed against so many of their countrymen a century or so ago.

I myself wrestled with the topic and was often left reflecting over the necessity of the sometimes exuberant celebrations that often failed to assemble Ethiopians of all political beliefs and backgrounds under one roof, despite most of them being descendants of soldiers who took part in the battle.

Map detailing Italian military encroachments of Ethiopian military positions just prior to hostilities breaking out on March 1st 1896

In March 2013, I worked as a translator for Ethiopian football club Dedebit. As Dedebit were taking part in continental competition, I would be required to accompany visiting African club sides they would be facing during their stays in Addis Ababa. They were French speakers for the most part and I spent my days guiding players and staff around Addis as they shopped and toured the city.

One day, a team from the Central African Republic was in town. Alongside the players and coaches, several diplomats accompanied the team, including a member of the C.A.R’s parliament. Sitting at a cafe overlooking the Megenagna Bridge and the bustling public transportation roundabout, we spent a few moments silently gazing at the teeming mess of rushing pedestrians, honking cars below us, while construction of Addis Ababa’s then yet to be completed light rail way tracks continued unabated, in the midst of everything.

The diplomat looked at the scene with amazement in his eyes. “Wow!”  he exclaimed. “You Ethiopians are lucky to have the freedom to be building your own country and changing the image of your people! So many new buildings and now a city train. But Ethiopians in the diaspora only tell me bad things. Why does your diaspora always complain?” he asked me.

I told him that despite the construction boom, there was more than meets the eye and that despite what he had seen, Ethiopians are frustrated with the lack of jobs and skyrocketing living costs. Besides, we were far from being “free” in Ethiopia.

“Why don’t you change your government?” he asked candidly, almost as if he was asking for the bill at a restaurant.

He had to be speaking figuratively, I assumed. “What do you mean?”

“I know it isn’t easy to overthrow a leader,” confirming my assumptions. “I mean that at least you Ethiopians control your own country. You can change your own future. In my country, for example, our government has discovered oil resources. We completed the studies. We tried to hire a South African company to bring in an excavation team. But the French government forbid it from happening!”

He went on to tell me that despite the country having attained “independence” of sorts from France in 1960 and despite there being an independent judiciary, military and political system, running afoul of France was tantamount to spelling one’s downfall.

In that sense he is right, we are lucky. Despite the horrors of what many innocent Oromos, Wolaytans, and other Ethiopians belonging to ethnic minorities experienced at the hands of the Imperial former warlords, those warlords have no say over their affairs today. Emperor Menelik doesn’t have control over the destinies of the millions of descendants of people killed by forces loyal to him over a century ago. Emperor Menelik remains a relic of history and plays no role in influencing the futures of Ethiopians today per se.

Many Africans haven’t been accorded this freedom of direction by their former colonial overlords today. Some forty, fifty and sixty years after most of them saw the erection of their own national flags atop national palaces and the declaration of “independence,” portrayed as a new dawn, the likes of Britain and France are still deeply entrenched in the political processes of many nations across the continent. Where cronies on the European payroll aren’t protecting the interests of the likes of France, French troops parachute in to dethrone one power hungry African leader and install another power hungry African leader who will cater to their every whim. These military operations are sometimes ordered in the name of fighting “terrorism” or “peacekeeping” which was the preferred term of use by the M16 and British army units during their direct participation in the Sierra Leone civil war, back in 2000.
The diplomat from the Central African Republic must have been prophesying his own downfall when he said such was the fate of those who provoked the ire of France. Three weeks after his conversation with me, rebels in the C.A.R overran the capital city of Bangui and overthrew the government. At Bangui’s international airport, a contingent of 250 French troops were ordered not to intervene by French President Francois Hollande and sat back as the country descended into civil war. The rebel advance was reportedly supported by France in an attempt to oust President Francois Bozize. After his ouster, the ensuing chaos was an excuse for the French to send hundreds of troops in to secure their interests and consolidate the power of their allies in the country. Talk of exploitation of any oil resources has been well and truly shelved in a country that has been utterly destroyed. I have no info on the whereabouts of the diplomat I met in Addis. I still have his old parliamentary business card as a souvenir. It sits in my wallet to remind me how fragile peace in Africa can be.

French soldiers in the C.A.R are accused of having exacerbated the conflict in that country (Image: Reuters)
British troops deployed to Sierra Leone in 2000 (Image: Reuters/Dylan Martinez)

Millions of African leaderships across the continent are politically standing on pins and needles, a whisker away from being thrust into conflict by former colonial superpowers as punishment for insolence. Burkina Faso’s 2014 overthrow of President Blaise Compaore, a man complicit in the assassination of the country’s charismatic patriotic leader Thomas Sankara, was celebrated across Africa. Compaore was widely viewed to have bound Burkina Faso to French serfdom.

Ethiopia, despite the country’s endless woes and internal strife, doesn’t have to worry about suits in Rome, London or Paris banging the gavel and funding the reawakening of long expired ideologies or offshoots of inactive armed rebel groups. It can be said without a trace of doubt that this is down to the events in history over the course of the 19th and 20th century. Italy had designs on extending the country’s sphere of influence. The reoccurring theme among the pre fascist era Italian patriotic elite was the return of the “Roman Empire.” To show the rest of Europe that Italy was no less capable of pacifying natives, plundering resources and bringing “civilization” into Africa like their European counterparts, Italy set its sights on Ethiopia. Somalia and Eritrea would encompass the great Italian East Africa Empire, but the jewel of its possessions and the seat of the empire were to be in Ethiopia.

Initially disguised as scouting parties, repeated Italian incursions into Ethiopia were rebuffed throughout the end of the 19th century. The coup de grace was dealt to the Italians in the battle that culminated in the annihilation of their invading forces and their defeat in the First Italo-Abyssinian war, the Battle of Adwa.

Crucial to the idea of an independent African state is the fact that the Italian military’s defeat on the mountain tops of Adwa some 121 years ago today, brought upon the international recognition of an entity not ruled by a foreign coloniser. In October of 1896, some six months or so after the Adwa victory, Ethiopia and Italy signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa. Despite what is arguably seen as the treacherous nature of Emperor Menelik’s signing a document solidifying Italy’s claims to the entirety of modern day Eritrea, legally land locking Ethiopia in the process, independent uncolonized Ethiopia gained acceptance as an international trading partner and a regional power player, a first for Africans. The treaty would open the door for the world to Addis Ababa, embassies were opened and Ethiopia created diplomatic links with many states for the first time. Ethiopia would be invited to send envoys to prestigious summits and conferences. Of course the argument among Ethiopians today would be that these envoys were part and parcel of the oppressive imperial rule. This is a fact that is impossible to deny. But sacrifices paid by Ethiopian troops throughout the First Italo-Abyssinian war established the principle of Ethiopian diplomacy. Since that day, Ethiopian government representatives from the imperial days, throughout the Derg and current EPRDF eras, are summoned as negotiators and/or mediators, not lackeys carrying out orders at the threat of being deposed. This is something that perhaps a future generation of democratically elected Ethiopian politicians will also be glad to inherit. And when that day comes, Ethiopians can take pride in the fact that their interests and concerns will be a pressing international concern that cannot be brushed aside, thanks in no small part to battle field heroics a century ago and the powerful political influence wielded by Addis Ababa today.

Artist’s depiction of the Battle of Adwa

Could the battle of Adwa be better celebrated tomorrow when Ethiopians marginalized by the current abusive EPRDF regime’s practices are free from their current sufferings? Perhaps. One could argue that this could figuratively exonerate many from the burden of guilt of continuously believing in the unity of the state despite the endless sorrow said “state” has caused them. Supporters of the elitist clique, many who fail to recognize the current miseries faced by a generation of self aware muzzled, incarcerated, killed and maimed victims of EPRDF rule, the idea of a future commemoration of the Adwa battle in unison doesn’t compute. To them, there is no post EPRDF Ethiopia, hence their absolute hostility to those who contemplate celebrating the Adwa battle in freer circumstances.

But even then, as I mentioned earlier, the idea of a gallant Menelik will forever create friction among Ethiopia’s right and left winger camps.

So what to do?

As I mentioned above, the Battle of Adwa played a prominent role in ensuring Ethiopia wouldn’t be cursed with the same fates of many an “independent” ex colonized African state. According to an article by Global Research, these states shoulder the burden for a 500 billion US$ colonial tax paid to France by African countries every year, decades after independence. That’s not even counting the bloodshed and mass murder that came with the estimated fifty coup d’états said to have been instigated by Paris. This was the alternative for Ethiopia. In 2017 however, despite the irony behind the statement, Ethiopians can be proud to say that they are their worst enemies, their worst enemies don’t reside in Europe. The importance of Ethiopia’s anti colonial struggles cannot be downplayed. Ethiopians of heightened self awareness can rally their kin towards a future of justice and equality without asking for permission from Europe. This in itself is a luxury so many Africans are denied. So to request the cancellation of “Adwa day” is too extreme of a call.

Screengrab from a YouTube video shows a standoff between French tanks and Ivorian protesters in 2004. France intervened in the Cote d’Ivoire’s political process to prop up a political leadership. French soldiers would be accused of massacring unarmed protesters

Why not get involved in the editing process? Ethiopians are in agreement that a heroic uprising did indeed transpire 121 years ago. Why not articulate how that occurred? Instead of the usual vocal blasting of the mainstream event, why not participate in something deemed constructive? Why not sponsor the creation of art, theater, song and dance that celebrates the battle in a way deemed less hostile to the memory of fallen ancestors? The battle of Adwa is a part of Ethiopia’s national heritage. If as the right proclaim, the victory belongs to “all Ethiopians,” no one would have the right to strictly define it along political, ethnic or religious lines. The narrative would be open to being rewritten by anyone as long as he/she is Ethiopian. So what’s stopping the left from engaging in something other than verbal rebuttals when they have the potential to perhaps produce something that may uplift and galvanize a nation much more than the annual ceremony that takes place in Addis Ababa’s Arada Giorgis district?

I have stated my reasons for why I believe the sacrifices at Adwa are worthy of being feted among Ethiopians. Times have changed, and I won’t be afforded much more than a couple minutes of my grandchildren’s memory span if I plan on sitting them down on my knee and delivering an impassioned retelling of how their brave ancestors fought on European conquerors. In the generation of digital media, children will want to listen to songs or watch videos on YouTube recounting every vivid detail missed by the geezer that I might become. As it stands, the most renowned film depiction of one of the most noteworthy events in Ethiopian history is the music video produced for popular singer Teddy Afro’s 2012 single “Tikur Sew.” Ethiopia’s political left have lamented what they deem to be historical inaccuracies as well as the portrayal of Emperor Menelik in the popular video. Somewhere up to half of the population of Ethiopia is assumed to sympathise with their stance. So why hasn’t this motivated anyone to release another piece of art which could be used as a referral tool for those who would love a digital retelling of the event?

If the mainstream version is considered to be lacking, Ethiopians should be challenged into making something deemed fulfilling, rather than simply protest without providing an alternative. We must come to terms with the fact that what happened at Adwa 121 years ago won’t be forgotten or cast away any time soon. A much more constructive idea would be an attempt at reformatting the way it’s presented. Of course this idea will be countered strongly by the explicitly divisive elements. There are those who fear the repercussions this course of action would potentially have with regards to their political agendas. Mutual understanding and compromises isn’t what the doctor ordered for those who seek to foster further division and ethnic strife.

Artist’s depiction of the Battle of Adwa

But those who sincerely seek a future March 1st where there is less squabbling among countrymen of two political camps, who are all descendants of soldiers from the same camp, ought to look at entertaining different artistic retellings of the battle, or perhaps coordinate a joint effort to dissect where exactly the two sides fall out in order to mend things.


In the meantime, there is a silver lining in the endless disagreements caused on the anniversary of the Italian defeat to Abyssinia: the fact that in 2017, so many are unrelentingly opinionated in their stances testifies to the truth that Ethiopians are free to think and ideologically align themselves. Perhaps they wouldn’t be as keen to do so if they had the fate of their motherland in the hands of relentless shrewd European ex colonial overlords. After all, why bank on beliefs that could potentially cause the ruin and destruction of their country? Today Ethiopians politically stray as far as China and the New World.

I savour and drink in this freedom paid for atop the blood-soaked mountains of Adwa.

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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