By Dr. Mesfin Genanaw
እንደምን ዋላችሁ ዳላሶች! Good afternoon! As advised by the organizers, let me make a brief remark in English about today’s event for our young children and people who do not speak Amharic. We have to teach our children about Adwa in the language they understand. Why are we celebrating Adwa victory every year even though many people do not show up?
Let me first throw my disclaimer: I am not a history scholar. History is not my vocation, but consider it to be one of my avocations. Nothing makes me as much proud as an Ethiopian as celebrating the Adwa victory. It is so significant in our history; everything else pales in comparison. The least we can do as Ethiopians is to remember the sacrifices of our forefathers who gave us a proud and independent nation by giving up their own lives. You know February is the black history month. And here we are celebrating on the last day of February and the eve of Adwa victory, killing two birds with one stone.
March 1, 1896, is one of the best days in world history, especially for people of black descent and all people under the yoke of colonialism in the 19th century. Under the leadership of Emperor Menelik and Empress Tayitu, Ethiopia achieved what was then unthinkable – defeating the European colonial army. It was a fight between David and Goliath. Just like the biblical story, Ethiopia, that is the David in this case, has won decisively. It was a full-scale war by Italy, which was reconstituted as a nation in the 1860s after the fall of the Roman Empire 500 years earlier, against what Crispi called “a small and savage nation.” Italy wanted to show the world the reincarnation of the old golden Roman Empire. But it was not meant to be. They picked the wrong enemy just as Egypt is posturing for war today.
Colonial Italy came with tens of thousands of well trained and well equipped professional European army to face approximately 100,000 under-equipped and under-fed Ethiopian ordinary citizens. Menelik became Emperor in 1889 (EC) in the middle of the great famine of 1888-1892 that killed approximately a quarter of the Ethiopian population and 90% of the cattle. Colonial Italy introduced Rinderpest in the northern part of the country deliberately to kill the cattle & impoverish Ethiopia before they declared war against it.
It was in the midst of all of these challemges that Emperor Menelik had to assemble a volunteer army. Can you imagine how tough it must have been to assemble 100,000 volunteers from all corners of Ethiopia in the 19th century? There is no Facebook, no internet, no telephone, no television, no radio, and no car. Only mules, horses, and donkeys.
As he was a wise leader, he used diplomacy to delay the war until 1996, that is until the country recovers from the famine and collect firearms. Once that was done, he was ready to fight whatever the consequences. Nearly half of the 100,000 volunteers did not have weapons but follow those who have rifles so that they pick up the gun and fight when their fellow countrymen fall. When they fall again, other compatriots with no rifle will take over. That is how they saved Ethiopia from the most degrading history of colonialism.
The Emperor was in a makeshift tent attending liturgy/kidase when a soldier came in and told him Italy has already started the war. He let the clergy finish what they had started before he walked out and ordered his army to fight back. You can tell from this story how much trust he has in God and his steal confidence to defend the nation. Within hours on this miraculous day, March 1, 1896, the Emperor’s volunteer army crushed the Italians, killing over 6,000 soldiers and many generals and capturing up to 3 thousand prisoners. It was the only decisive victory against colonial Europe by people of color.
The European colonial plan was to crush the last independent African country for good and carve up the African continent with or without its people in the name of a mischievous “civilization mission” as agreed at the Berlin conference in 1884 under the leadership of Germany’s first Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. If you doubt that assertion, google how many people have been savagely murdered in Congo, South Africa, Namibia, West Africa, and others. In Congo alone, the number of people killed was in millions.
But Ethiopia turned that evil mission on its head. As a result, we speak our own languages, eat our own food (even in the diaspora), kept our own names, and above all, we have kept our dignity intact. As an example, let me tell you the most popular first names in one of Ethiopia’s neighboring country is a European name. You have to turn several pages to find their indigenous names on the popularity list. This phenomenon did not happen by accident. It is the impact of colonialism.
Had Emperor Menelik failed to return the Italians back to where they came from, most of your names would have been like Oreste Baratieri or Antonelli, Antonio, or Crispy by now. Your language would have been Italian. Whether you are Kebede, Chala, or Hagos, you would be speaking Italian, with a heavy accent, I may add. The population could also have diminished, like Native Indians in the Americas and other African indigenous people who had lost the fight. How do I know that? I know for sure Ethiopians would never submit until that country is independent again. And not only Italy but also other European countries would have joined them to protect their colonial interest elsewhere.
Remember how many Ethiopians were killed by Graziani in the 1930s, over 30,000 in Addis Ababa alone. The population of Addis Ababa was then estimated to be 80,0000. That means over 40% of the population were wiped out in a few days. All that because an attempt was made to kill Graziani, the Italian army general. Over 2000 were killed at Debre Libanos monastery alone. It is estimated close to a million people were killed in the country at large when Italy came back after forty years of preparation to avenge their loss at Adwa. If you crunch the numbers, Ethiopia’s population would have been 6 million more had there not been Fascist Italy’s second invasion in the 30s. Those Emperor Menelik had educated in modern schools were selectively killed by Graziani, and Emperor Hailesselasie had to start his reign with nearly zero educated people. Do not forget Italy never paid compensation for such a genocidal act.
Adwa’s victory elevated Ethiopia’s status on the world stage and turned the country as the symbol of Freedom and the beacon of hope for the rest of the continent. Many African nations adopted this beautiful Ethiopia’s Green, Yellow, and Red tricolor in their flags because of the Adwa victory. African liberators started saying if Ethiopia can do it, why not us? They started forming liberation armies with some help from Ethiopia militarily and diplomatically. Adwa victory was a prelude to the decolonization of the African continent. It was the beginning of the end of colonialism as we know it.
Had Ethiopia lost the war, I do not doubt that Africa would have stayed colonized for many more decades. But Adwa victory changed everything. It became the wind in the back of liberation movements in the continent.
Even the Japanese were inspired by this victory to go to war with Russia and defeat it. They were impressed that a non-Caucasian African country would beat a European colonial power.
Mao Zedong himself had told his compatriots to learn from Ethiopia’s experience of fighting and resisting foreign invaders.
Whereas the rest of Africa and the United States celebrate their independence day, Ethiopians celebrate a victory day. Adwa has taught the world a lesson on how to stand up to bullies. And this victory day was the birthday of modern Ethiopia that we know today. That is why we celebrate Adwa victory every year.
If we had lost the war, we would have been grandchildren of Bandas or slaves because all those who were determined to fight the invaders would have continued until they die. Only the week and the submissive and the opportunist would have survived the colonial era, and today’s Ethiopian population would have been mostly of the descendants of this segment. Now we argue which one of our local Ethiopian languages should be superior, but had there not been Adwa victory; we would have lost all of our languages, our pride, and our dignity. And we would have become a commodity for sale.
Had Abraham Lincoln lost the civil war, the confederates who were in favor of slavery would have their way. Blacks would not have been free, and we would not be in America today.
It was the unifying power of Menelik that rebuked colonialism and gave you an independent country instead of multiple colonies speaking multiple European languages. A divided Ethiopia would have lost the fight, just like our other African brothers. War has consequences, especially in the 19th century. There was no human rights organization or the Geneva convention. Winners take all in that period of human history.
Multiple colonial armies had already surrounded Ethiopia. Menelik had to unite Ethiopians and defend the nation with limited weapons. Those who hate Menelik cannot have it both ways. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. You are either for Menelik or colonialists. There was no democracy or a third option in the 19th century. Besides defending the nation, he tried hard to abolish slavery, put Ethiopia in a development trajectory, delegate real power to regional kings and chiefs, and own most of their local resources. Colonialism would have taken all of them away.
No leader can be blame-free even today, but when you hear some people blame Emperor Menelik for Ethiopia’s past, you wonder if they are holding him responsible for all the ills of Ethiopia’s thousands of years of history. He only ruled as king of kings of Ethiopia seven years prior to the Adwa war, mostly preparing for it, and twelve years after the great victory, before he became bed driven in 1906. On December 16, 1906, The Washington Times newspaper ran a cover story saying, “WHEN THIS KING DIES, LOOK OUT- AND HE’S SICK. Menelik of Abyssinia, the Most Democratic of All Monarchs, is Seriously Ill…….”. Hundred and fourteen years ago, a white American newspaper portraying the Emperor as “The most Democratic of all Monarchs,” which by the way includes all European Monarchs, meant something for anyone with a clear conscience. For me, the choice b/n Emperor Menelik, and colonialism is a choice between a day and night. I prefer Emeye Menelik 1000 times. So would the rest of Africa. That is why we are celebrating the Adwa victory. The victory of all black people.
Thank you for inviting me again!!
*the speech was slightly modified for the reading audience.