The 120th anniversary of the Great Adwa Victory, one of if not the most seminal moment in Ethiopia’s history, was celebrated on Wednesday by Ethiopians with great pride. The vanquishing of a European colonial power that was armed to the teeth by an African nation heralded freedom for all oppressed black people. The unprecedented victory, which our gallant ancestors paid dearly for with their blood, is the historic legacy of the great nation of Ethiopia and its heroic people. As we commemorate the day it is imperative that Ethiopians re-examine the significance of the victory for present-day Ethiopia.
Overseen by Emperor Menelik II with the invaluable organizational skills of Empress Taytu Betul, the leadership of his military commanders and the valour of all Ethiopians, the Adwa victory is a gift for black people all over the world. During the half-day battle an estimated 5,000 brave Ethiopians were killed and another 8,000 wounded. The invading Italian forces suffered about 7,000 deaths, two of them commanding generals, with 1,500 wounded and 3,000 taken prisoners. They also left behind all of their artillery and 11,000 rifles, as well as most of their means of transport. The victory came as such a shock that it made the front page of the major European and U.S. newspapers. It forced colonialists to hang their head down in shame while it inspired black people under the yoke of colonialism to hold their heads proudly high.
Ethiopia has remained sovereign throughout history thanks to the heavy sacrifices paid by its strong-willed people. The patriotic and determined citizens of the nation were not content when they marched in their hundreds of thousands ready to die for the motherland. Particularly during the Era of the Princes (1769-1855), a period when Ethiopia was divided within itself into several regions with no effective central control, thousands perished in internecine wars for control of power and territory even as the vast majority of the population were dispossessed of their land and were forced to serve as serfs under feudal lords. Ethiopians from every corner of the country were subjected to egregious forms of suffering without exception. Nevertheless, regardless of the miserable existence they may lead, Ethiopians have never negotiated away their nation’s sovereignty. Such fervent nationalism is the very defining character which made it possible to achieve an extraordinary victory at Adwa that left for posterity a proud legacy.
The Adwa victory and the ensuing recognition of Ethiopia’s sovereignty proved to be rallying points for later African nationalists during their struggle for decolonization, as well as activists and leaders of the Pan-African movement. They also inspired the civil rights movement of African-Americans, the establishment of the Organization of African Unity and the adoption by several African and Latin America countries of the national tri-color (green, yellow and red) in their flags. The victory has earned Ethiopia a special place in the annals of history. Paradoxically though, we have missed the chance to seize the ample opportunities this magnificent exploit availed us to propel ourselves to even greater heights and cringe in shame at our failure.We have done a disservice to the emblematic symbol Ethiopia has in the eyes of black people and faded into insignificance. History will judge us harshly if we do not develop an ethos that lives up to the promise and the challenge the victory demands.
Presently we find ourselves at a time when it is of critical importance to forge a national consensus towards a shared goal. We have to demonstrate the same patriotism that our heroic forefathers exhibited instead of harping on ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic and political differences. The interest of the nation and its citizens can be jeopardized if it is sacrificed for the competing interests of certain groups with untoward motives. A proud people who willingly paid the ultimate price to defend their country’s territorial integrity while co-existing harmoniously for centuries, Ethiopians are entitled to protection from acts that undermine the stabilityand unity of their homeland. Their incredible feat in unifying the black people of the world through a display of valor and resistance must not be sullied by myopic and hot-headed elements. The Adwa victory is proof that they treasure nothing more than the unity and survival of Ethiopia.
Tens of thousands of Ethiopians have died in the last four decades with even more incarcerated in jails and forced to migrate overseas due to bloody conflicts instigated by the political elite. The scars left by the hate politics they espouse continue to haunt Ethiopia to this day. There abound fellow citizens on all ends of the political spectrum who wait for opportune moments to settle old scores, who prefer to resolve differences through force rather than civilized discussions, who do not care an iota about the national interest and are blinded by the lust for power. A country that for long epitomized tolerance and harmony is slowly turning into the battleground of chauvinists and religious fanatics. At a time when the world is venerating the Adwa victory, we are increasingly witnessing incidents which detract from the fundamental values it embodies and let the nation down. How long can this be tolerated? Unless a solution is promptly sought, the consequences are boundto be dire for all.
As many historians say the Adwa victory was a fundamental turning point in Ethiopian history. 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 and were on a quest for an answer to the myth of African “inferiority”. And 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. It is therefore a national embarrassment to sink to the level 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. As we celebrate the Adwa victory we must rededicate ourselves to authoring a glorious page in our history by solidifying national unity and renaissance.