A hundred twenty-seven years ago this week Ethiopians registered an epoch-making victory at Adwa that dealt a humiliating blow to European colonialists and inspired black people all over the world to hold their heads high. The 1896 Adwa Victory is a symbol of bravery, perseverance and sacrifice. Hailing from all corners of the country, the Ethiopian forces arrayed against the invading Italian army, which was armed to the teeth with modern guns, artillery and other armament, possessed nothing more than outdated weaponry and an unshakeable love of country. Our fearless forefathers achieved the most improbable of feats in spite of the untold suffering they were subjected to at the hands of the then leaders because they had a deep-seated love for their country and put above its sovereignty. Ethiopians can never forget this patriotism when we commemorate the Adwa Victory.
The unprecedented victory of a black nation over a European power at Adwa has had ramifications that continue to reverberate to this date. Few events in the modern period have brought Ethiopia to the attention of the world as it has. Ethiopia became emblematic of African valor and resistance, the bastion of prestige and hope to millions of Africans who were the victims of humiliating European conquest. The victory and the ensuing recognition of Ethiopia’s sovereignty became rallying points for later African nationalists during their struggle for decolonization as well as activists and leaders of the Pan-African movement. After waging an anti-colonial struggle largely inspired by the victory culminated in independence, Africans chose Ethiopia to be the seat of their continental organization. The feat also inspired the civil rights movement of African Americans, and the adoption by several African and Latin America countries of the national tri-color (green, yellow and red) in their flags.
As one of if not the most seminal moment in Ethiopia’s history, the Adwa Victory has always been commemorated with great pride and a sense of profundity. Sadly, this was not the case this year. At least one person was killed and may sustained serious injuries in clashes between Ethiopian security forces and residents of Addis Ababa who descended on Menelik Square – where the victory is perennially celebrated in the city. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets and used batons to disperse the gathered crowd. Several followers of the Ethiopian Tewahdo Orthodo Church attending liturgy on the occasion of St. George’s monthly commemoration in the premises of the adjoining Saint George Church were also teargassed. Countless residents who were on their way to Menelik Square to take part in the celebrations were also denied access to the square. A day that should have been one of festivity and solemn reflection instead turned into a day of ignominy.
While it’s not clear at this stage what instigated the violence which marred the victory day celebrations, the government has blamed it on unnamed elements that it said had planned to disrupt the event. Regardless of who incited the shameful episode, video footage circulating on social media and ample anecdotal evidence suggest that the security forces employed disproportionate force against unarmed civilians. Given the training they receive as well as the latest technology and riot gear at their disposal, they should have been able to foil the threat the alleged elements behind the violence may or may not have posed without resorting to heavy-handed tactics. This makes it only fitting for thee federal and Addis Ababa city governments to issue an official apology to the residents of Addis Ababa. They must also take administrative against anyone implicated in the fiasco and ensure that they are held accountable to the fullest extent of the law irrespective of the office they hold. Otherwise, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s assertion soon after he came to office that preceding governments terrorized citizens will apply to his administration as well.
It is a national embarrassment to sink to lows which desecrate the legacy of Adwa. The courage to resolve our differences peacefully through dialogue let alone resist foreign invasion is deserting us. This has to stop immediately before the rot sets in. At a time Ethiopia is at a crossroads failure to set in motion a broad-based process aimed at steering the country on the correct path is apt to make it the laughingstock of the world. In the meantime the unhealthy and frankly speaking inimical rivalry between the actors on opposite ends of the political spectrum as well as the vitriolic rhetoric spewed on social media is aggravating the political crisis. Using force to resolve political differences and hang on to power rather than demonstrating the courage to do so through civilized and democratic dialogues in no way help advance the interest of Ethiopia and its people. As we celebrate the Adwa victory we must rededicate ourselves to authoring a glorious page in our history by solidifying the values it represents.