How a major anti-colonial victory divided Ethiopia

The Victory of Adwa has been a very divisive issue in Ethiopia for decades. It’s time to change that.

Emperor Menelik
Ethiopia celebrates the Victory of Adwa every year on March 1 [File: Mohammed Abdu Abdulbaqi/Anadolu Agency]

Today marks the 123rd anniversary of the battle of Adwa in which Ethiopia inflicted a crushing defeat on Italy’s colonial army. It was a landmark victory that permanently altered the course of Ethiopian and African history. The outcome of the battle was so stunning for Ethiopia and so humiliating for Italy that, according to the New York Times, even the pope was “greatly disturbed“.

Adwa is annually commemorated as an iconic victory in Ethiopia, but it nevertheless remains a focal point of political and ideological contestation between various nationalist groups in the country. 

For some, it is a momentous event that defined the weight and prestige of Ethiopia on the global stage and stands as a shining example of the endurance and fortitude of the Ethiopian people to this day. For others, the historic battle is not a “heroic victory” as such, but an unfortunate military achievement that helped Emperor Menelik II consolidate his brutal southward expansion. Still others view Adwa as the very first decisive victory of a black African power against colonialism, and celebrate it as a critical juncture in black people’s collective struggle against European colonial domination. 

In other words, the battle of Adwa is an event that is etched into the consciousness of a significant portion of the Ethiopian population, but it does not carry the same meaning for everyone. The contemporary narratives about the battle are largely retrospective, often reconstructed based on current political and ideological considerations. They aim to control meaning, solidify an ideological position, or simply fit this historical episode into a larger contemporary narrative, and as a result, cannot agree on a single interpretation.

Today, the differences between these multiple interpretations are more obvious, and impactful, than ever before. As Ethiopia seeks to forge a new path forward, it brings existing ideological and political faultlines into a sharp focus, and in the process history in general and Adwa, in particular, are becoming a battleground where multiple forms of power struggles and competing modalities of remembering and forgetting converge.

The ruins of collective memory

Collective historical memory is a highly heterogeneous and complex constellation of momentous events, figures, and phenomena that helps a nation define its identity and place in the world. It comprises stories of revolutions, wars, victories, defeats, and conquests – events that most profoundly affect lives and arouse passions and for that reason shape the political, social, and cultural fabric of a given people. The collective historical memory is the repository of a people’s own self-perception, awareness, and beliefs. It is the formative ground for societal collective consciousness. But collective memory is not about historical accuracy. It is inevitably selective, idiosyncratic, mythic, symbolic, and binary (right/wrong, true/false, hero/villain).

In Ethiopia, where the use of history and memory as a weapon of control, subjection, and even liberation is ubiquitous, collective memory is always viewed from a combative position. This is particularly true of the Oromo and the Amhara, the two great historical antagonists of the Ethiopian state, who together make up about two-thirds of Ethiopia’s 108 million population.

Ethiopian history is the history of many peoples and the history of some is not necessarily the history of others. For example, the history of the Oromos after their fall to Menelik’s nascent empire is not the same as the history of the Amharas who were the victors.

Like every other country, the unity of the Ethiopian state is forged by means of violence – battles, conquests, plunders, defeats, and victories. The presumed unity of the nations and nationalities that make up the Ethiopian state is born in the fog and frictions of war, in the burning villages, plundered communities, and ravaged fields.

Adwa is undoubtedly one of these formative battles, but it is also much more.

Today, if shared history and collective memory is serving as a vital battleground between various nationalist forces, it is because collective national memory, ie, the ideals and values that define the nation, its strengths, viability, and endurance, is not just the foundation of the state’s self-respect and pride but also a critical factor of political mobilisation and organising.

The battle over the past is not about the past as such. It is not even about the present. It is about the future.

Emperor Menelik II (1844-1913) in a war costume - illustration by Thiriat from L'Illustration, No 2764, February 15, 1896 [File: Getty]
Emperor Menelik II (1844-1913) in a war costume – illustration by Thiriat from L’Illustration, No 2764, February 15, 1896 [File: Getty]

The Adwa paradox

While segments of the Ethiopian society view Adwa as Ethiopia’s “finest hour” that defined its place in the regional and global balance of power, there is a significant portion of the public, including the Oromo, that remains ambivalent towards this historical moment. 

For Oromos and those on the periphery of Ethiopia’s collective memory, those whose lived experiences and memories have been relegated to subterranean existence by official historiography, Adwa carries a complicated legacy for three key reasons.

First, the historical figure that masterminded the victory at Adwa, Emperor Menelik II, also presided over some of the most brutal atrocities committed against the various groups in the southern part of the country, particularly the Oromos, as they resisted his southward expansion. For Oromos, Menelik II is devil incarnate and is beyond redemption. Perhaps, the association of Adwa with Menelik II is the single most important reason behind Oromo ambivalence towards this historical event.

Second, the victory at Adwa – and the prestige it brought – allowed Menelik II to consolidate his empire, depleting the ability of those he conquered to resist.

Third, official Ethiopian historiography filtered out the contributions of historically marginalised groups including the Oromos from the public memory of Adwa, essentially erasing their images, experiences and accounts of the war. And yet they played a pivotal role in the battle. As historian Raymond Jonas points out in his book The Battle of Adwa, the appearance of Oromo cavalrymen at the Battle of Adwa had a “notably dispiriting effect on the Italian soldiers … The Oromo functioned with such grim efficiency that they hastened the demoralization of the crumbling Italian army.”

Reconstructing Adwa

Debates over national identity and collective memory are not solely rational, fact-based exchanges. They often involve strategic efforts aimed at foregrounding new realities and consolidating well-rehearsed narratives. 

The intractable predicaments caused by the different contemporary interpretations of decades and even centuries-old battles, revolutions, victories, defeats and conquests can only be overcome through a new elite consensus based on recognition and acknowledgement of all of the country’s complex histories. 

Today, as the government promises to build a peaceful and secure future for all, Ethiopians have the opportunity to move away from endless bickering over history. Reconstructing the battle of Adwa as an all-inclusive Ethiopian victory against a colonial power can be the first step towards affirming and embedding a new spirit of unity and harmony in the country.

As Ethiopia commemorates the 123rd anniversary of the Adwa victory and contemplates a new future, the political elites of today should try to learn some lessons from this historical episode. 

Adwa was a great and truly monumental victory won by the collective sacrifice of all Ethiopians. It was indeed Ethiopia’s “finest hour” – had March 1, 1896, ended differently 123 years ago, the Horn of Africa would have been a completely different region today.

However, for the history and memory of Adwa to be complete, room must be made for all stories of front-line heroism – including the ones by those in the periphery, who had previously been written out of national history and memory. If Adwa is to serve as a value-based foundation for the new Ethiopia, Ethiopians should remember its defining significance. They should acknowledge some of its problematic consequences and refuse to succumb to the temptation of glorifying or romanticising a controversial figure like Emperor Menelik II.

Ethiopians overcame the onslaught of a modern European army 123 years ago. There is no reason why the country could not muster the strength and demonstrate the fortitude that enabled it to inflict a decisive blow against Italy’s colonial ambitions once again to overcome today’s challenges. If Ethiopians are able to look back at their “finest hour” as a unified nation and remember how they defeated a seemingly superior military power collectively, they can surmount any discord and division that is threatening to destabilise their country.

Italian representatives signing the peace treaty in front of Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia, Frontpage of French newspaper Le Petit Parisien, 1896, Private Collection [File: Leemage/Getty Images]
Italian representatives signing the peace treaty in front of Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia, Frontpage of French newspaper Le Petit Parisien, 1896, Private Collection [File: Leemage/Getty Images]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.