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Adwa: A Dialogue between the Past and the Present Maimire Mennasemay Dawson College Adwa: The Turning Point Adwa may be considered as having two aspects—internal and external. The external aspect deals witii the relationsbetween Ethiopia and Italy;1 the internal aspect refers to the constitutive meanings and practices that made the victory ofAdwa possible. From the internal perspective, Adwa maybe seen as one of the crucial turning points ofEthiopianhistory, the break and die bridge between ancient and modern Etitiopia, bearing within itself, like such turning points, elements of the past as well as of the future, the decline of old interests and ideals, and the birth of new ones. Consequently, the internal aspect raises issues more fundamental tiian die external one—whence the struggle to appropriate it by the opposing visions of Ethiopia that have emerged since die conquest of power by the TPLF.2 The TPLF and its organic intellectuals present Adwa as a victory of Tigreans over Italians,3 minimizing the role played by Menelik, and undermining Adwa's symbolism as an Etiiiopian victory over a colonial power. In addition, they tie the part that Menelik played in the campaign to the logic ofwhat they describe as "Amhara colonialism," questioning the existence of a nation called Etitiopia at the time.4 Whereas the TPLF and its supporters consider Ethiopia herself as a colonial power, those ^Northeast African Studies (ISSN 0740-9133) Vol. 4, No. 2 (New Series) 1997, pp. 43-89 43 44 Maimire Mennasemay opposed to this interpretation see Adwa as a symbol of a national struggle against Italian colonialism. There are no comparable controversies regarding the significance of the battles of Gundat (1875), Gura (1876), and Dogali (1887), where foreign invaders, Egyptians in the first two cases, and Italians in die last case, were defeated by Etiiiopian forces. Nor have the battles ofMegdela (1868) and of Metemma (1889) led to acrimonious debates as to their significance in Ethiopian history. The reason for this lies partly in the fact that, though each of these events had its own constellation of forces and interests, these functioned within the same historical dynamics of a politically fragmented "feudal" order, characterized by highly fluid and ever-changing alliances. In a sense, these events are not controversial because they are variations on the same historical dynamics and do not create conditions that usher in a new epoch. Not so with Adwa, for it marked the rise of new forces and interests and a new vision of die future. To give primacy to the internal aspect of Adwa is not to deny the significance ofAdwa as a victory ofone state over another. But Adwa, as a batde between two states, was over in 1896. As a victory against an external power, a lot has been claimed regarding its relevance to Africans and people ofAfrican descent. Berkeley wrote, "The suggestion has been made. . .tiiat this is the first revolt of the Dark Continent against domineering Europe."5 "The racial dimension," writes B. Zewde, "was what lent Adwa particular significance. It was a victory of blacks over whites."6 This maybe so. But it has to be noted tiiat the victory ofAdwa did not become the spark that ignited die fire ofanti-colonialism in Africa. Marxist inspired revolutions and nationalist uprisings elsewhere had more impact on anti-colonial struggles in Africa than the victory of Adwa. One reason for this is the attribution of the victory to a ruler and die exclusion of die motivations and aspirations of the men and women who made the victory possible. This state-centered interpretation emptied Adwa of its emancipatory content. On the other hand, the consequences of the internal aspects of Adwa are still with us. The new constellation of forces, interests, and contradictions tiiat were incubated in Adwa introduced into die stream of Ethiopianhistory, via the question of the threat ofexternal oppression, the fundamental internal issues of freedom and equality. It is tiiis internal Adwa: A Dialogue between the Past and the Present 45 dimension, whose potentialities and contradictions have been developing since Adwa, that raises die questions bearing on the kind of selfunderstanding we have of ourselves, and thus on the kind of political arrangements...


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