The ghosts of Adwa

The Battle of Adwa, painting by an unknown. Ethiopian artist.

On 1 March 1896, the First Italo-Ethiopian War reached its dramatic climax at Adwa, a decisive battle that secured Ethiopia’s independence and soundly defeated Italian colonial designs for an expansive East African empire. At the moment in which European powers scrambled for the Horn of Africa and France, Britain, and Italy each competed for and claimed their respective territories, Ethiopia — or Abyssinia, as it was typically known at the time — managed to evade European colonial rule.

It is a battle of legendary status in the collective memory of many Ethiopians, inscribed and re-inscribed through stories and commemorative acts of the state; it is also an episode that figures heavily in the imagination of the African diaspora. The heroics of Ethiopian emperor Menelik II and the imagery of an Ethiopian army overpowering an Italian invading one reverberated across the globe, while the successful defense of Ethiopia’s external sovereignty enabled the emperor’s control and consolidation of central state power at home, in what he saw as the restoration of the Solomonic dynasty’s ancient glory. In Ethiopian art depicting the battle, Saint George hovers over their soldiers, offering divine assistance as the patron saint of Ethiopia, of God’s chosen country.

For the black diaspora, Adwa seemed to confirm Biblical prophesy that “Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God” (Psalms 68:31), a verse that took on unique significance in black religious traditions forged in a context of enslavement, racial oppression, and disenfranchisement and emphasized black liberation and emancipation. Though in classical texts, Ethiopia stood in for Africa is a whole, Adwa fused this symbolic Ethiopia with the contemporary Ethiopian state in the minds and hearts of the African diaspora. It produced and proliferated a particular idea of Ethiopia in Pan-Africanist thought, one that saw Ethiopia as the vestige of black freedom in a world where black people – whether in the Americas, Europe, or Africa – were subject to racial domination and exploitation. Indeed, at the first Pan-African Conference in 1900 – where W.E.B. Du Bois uttered his famous statement that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” delegates declared the Ethiopian emperor a “Great Protector” of African peoples everywhere.

As Michel-Rolph Trouillot powerfully argued in Silencing the Past, historical narratives are structured by power, and the very process of historical production creates “a particular bundle of silences” for the historian to deconstruct or unearth. The idea of Ethiopia as a symbol of African independence and sovereignty that circulated in the Ethiopian nationalism and the Pan-Africanist imagination is a narrative structured by power, marshaled by the Ethiopian state following the Second World War and wielded against self-determination claims by the peoples who came under its rule. The fundamental paradox of Adwa is this: the very Ethiopia that inscribed with anti-colonial meanings after its victory over European colonialism was a colonizing state itself. 

There is another way to tell the story of Adwa and its silences. This narrative could begin in the battlefield on that very day in 1896, when Menelik’s army of 100,000 men stood in wait with modern rifles – accumulated through strategic dealings with the competing European powers in the Horn – as an unsuspecting Italian force of less than 20,000 made their way from Mount Eticho towards Adwa. It could begin years prior, when Menelik moved southward beyond his Shewa kingdom, and by 1886 created a capital for his new empire that his wife Taytu named Addis Ababa, carved out of the land the conquered Oromo called Finfinne. It could start with the east, with the defeat and flight of the last Emir from Harar in 1887 and the emperor’s army poised to occupy the city and enter its ancient gates, the first opening to the rich, grazing lowlands of the Somali peninsula that Ethiopian armies would claim after Adwa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is the narrative of the making of modern Ethiopia, a process by which the state expanded south and southeast beyond its traditional northern highlands, doubling Ethiopia in size by the turn of the 20th century and into its current shape.

Contemporary Ethiopian politics can be analyzed in terms of historical narrative. It can be understood through the historical claims and historical grievances of the many peoples of the former Ethiopian Empire, each with their own stories, each with wrongs not addressed or rectified in the transition to an imperfect ethnic federalism and nominal democracy after 1991. As I write this, Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn offered his resignation to the ruling party, in the midst of unprecedented state concessions in response to sustained protests mainly by the Oromo – the largest ethnic group in the country – that began in November 2015. The trigger then was the Addis Ababa Master Plan that would have seen the growing city expand its administrative and territorial limits into the surrounding Oromia region, but the protests swelled into a movement calling into question the very workings of Ethiopian statehood – a state in which federalism is said to govern, but power remains, as it has in its entire modern history, concentrated in the hands of a few.

At stake in this movement is not simply political reform, but the histories of disenfranchisement and systematic exclusion of the Oromo and many other historically dominated ethnic groups by successive Ethiopian regimes, a narrative that exists in the collective consciousness of protesters today. Though it is too early to know what transformations are yet to come, it seems as though we are in a moment in which the ghosts of Adwa may finally be put to rest.

Further Reading