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  • Ethiopia’s Original Sin
  • Hassen Hussein (bio) and Mohammed Ademo (bio)

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“Battle of Adwa”

On March 1, Ethiopia marked the 120th anniversary of its victory over the invading Italian army in what has come to be known as the Battle of Adwa. In the capital, Addis Ababa, there was the predictable nationalist fanfare: Brass bands, led by baton twirlers, marched down a main thoroughfare; politicians stood behind a podium and gave self-congratulatory speeches; and silver-haired veterans in full regalia sang of wartime bravado as locals and diplomats [End Page 22] watched from Menelik II Square, named for the Abyssinian emperor who led the victorious rag-tag army and built the modern Ethiopian state.

“As it is a significant anti-colonial rebellion, we have made a call to celebrate the victory in all African countries and urged all black and oppressed people to mark the day,” Daniel Jote Mesfin, head of the Ancient Ethiopian Patriots Association, told Anadolu Agency.

But not even all Ethiopians agree with Mesfin’s call to “all black and oppressed people.” Adwa is among the most contested historical debates in the country. In mainstream Ethiopian historiography, the pivotal battle between Italy’s army, equipped with all the arsenals of destruction that the industrial revolution made possible, and Ethiopia’s motley warriors armed with spears, swords, and shields is cast not only as the event that cemented Ethiopia’s statehood but also as a proud symbol of black resistance against European colonial rule.

In the competing narrative—espoused by the Oromo and other marginalized ethnic groups in Ethiopia, who together form the majority of the country’s nearly 100 million people—the symbolism of Adwa is not so clear-cut. While it definitely marks the defeat of one colonial power, the Italians, it is also seen as a turning point in their own subjugation. The Battle of Adwa enabled Emperor Menelik II to consolidate his fledgling empire, using the same violent tactics that forged European colonial empires in Africa, Asia, and South America.

This history—and a lack of reckoning with it—lies at the heart of the debate over Ethiopia’s future. Ethiopia’s failure to acknowledge past wrongs still divides the country. The state’s historical narrative beginning at Adwa provides the foundation for a nationalist myth that excludes most of Ethiopia’s population and treats the Oromo and other minority groups as subjects, not citizens. Revising the official history of Adwa may sound like a small step, but it’s a crucial move toward establishing a genuinely multi-national, multi-ethnic Ethiopia.

What does not sit well, especially with the Oromo, is the conflation of Adwa with [End Page 23] its leader, Menelik, who reigned from 1889 to 1913. Among the Oromo, no person is as reviled as Menelik. To the elevation of Menelik as the quintessential black hero, Oromo historians retort that at the onset of the scramble for Africa, when European powers sought to divvy up the continent, Menelik was on a southward march, subjugating indigenous peoples in what is today southern Ethiopia.

To safeguard against his own colonial ambition, Menelik entered into pacts with various European powers, effectively facilitating their triumph in the sub-region to spare his nascent kingdom. This portrait of Abyssinia as a willing participant in Africa’s colonization is in sharp contrast to the sanitized account of Ethiopia as the beacon of black freedom.

The Battle of Adwa was in fact triggered by one such pact, the Treaty of Wichale. In a bid to prove itself to other Europeans as a worthy colonial power, Italy urged Menelik to abrogate the sovereignty of his kingdom and make it a protectorate. The Italians couldn’t convince Menelik, so they resorted to crass forgery: inserting texts in the Italian translation of the documents to the same effect. In breach of that pact’s stipulation of friendship and comity, Italy invaded Abyssinia and declared it part of its East African empire. Infuriated by the double treachery, Menelik and his commanders went straight into war preparations.

To counter this disadvantage in arms, Menelik rallied the very people he had just conquered and...