Unlearning the lesson of Adwa
By Yilma Bekele | March 3, 2009

Menelik Statue in Addis
Adwa was a turning point in the history of non-Europeans everywhere. Adwa’s significance extends beyond our national boarders. Our ancestor’s victory over the Italians made the smug Europeans to rethink of their relationship with those they considered ‘savage’ and needed enlightenment from the superior race. Ethiopians stood tall. After Adwa, fierce, compassionate and merciful is what they said about us.

The 1800’s were not kind to Africans and people of color everywhere. This was the time of what became known as the ‘scramble’ for Africa. Every two bit European power possessing a few ships was sending expeditions to plant their flag and claim land as far as the eye can see as their own. No one was safe. The British, French, Portuguese and Dutch were the main culprits. As time went on every one of them got into the act. To be left behind in this mad scramble for resources and national honor was considered a national embarrassment.

Thus the Italians sent ships and scouts too. They claimed Somalia, Zula and Massawa. As time went on their ventured further inland and built military forts and staging areas for further encroachment. Ethiopia kings were going thru consolidations of their own. Emperor Tewodros has been busy conquering Shewa, forcing Tigrai to submit, Controlling Gojjam. Who said it was easy building an empire? He needed arms, he needed expertise and he needed foreign recognition to reach his goal of greater Ethiopia. His entanglement with the British was his undoing. Yohanes IV of Tigrai followed him. Same story here. One minute the Shewans are your allies and the next thing you know they are conspiring with Gojjam to get rid of you. The British were knocking from the West, the Italians were coming from the East and Islam was a constant threat. He died fighting the Mahdists at the battle of Mettema in 1889.

Menelik of Shewa seized his chance. He was crowned King of Kings and then sent out messengers throughout the Empire, to Beghemidir, to Gojjam, Wollo and to Tigrai and the north, to Harrar, to Wellega, to Keffa and Sidamo, to Gemu Goffa, to Arsi, to Bale and Illubabur calling for oaths of loyalty to "Menelik II, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings of Ethiopia.” While Yohanes was King he had allowed Menelik to negotiate a treaty with Italians, which was signed at Wuchale, Wollo. It was this arrangement that became a point of contention between the two powers. Article 17 was a time bomb. The Italians interpreted it to say that the King of Italy will represent Ethiopia in all dealings with other powers whereas the Ethiopian version said Menelik would avail himself the office of the King of Italy if he so chooses. The difference became irreconcilable.

The mighty Italians decided to teach the African savages a lesson. They believed in the superiority of their weapons, the quality of their refined culture, their modern military techniques and the supremacy of their Christian god over this heathen Africans. Their arrogance blinded their judgment. Surrounded by their mountains cut off by their rift valleys the Ethiopians were oblivious to this European mind set. Empress Taitu Bitul ‘light of Ethiopia’ told the Italian emissary to bring it on and said ‘" If it is your wish, start the war next week. Nobody is afraid. We will see when you turn into action. Don't ever think that we are not willing to sacrifice our comfort and die for our country.’ I love Taitu Bitul!

Now we come to the most interesting point of this epic conflict. Both sides have their job cut out for them. Surely a European power with many ships, unlimited weapons capable of mighty destruction, a professional military force with modern supply and the support of their rich cousins is no match to a rag tag army gathered at the last minute using weapons bought from different suppliers and living of the land. Lloyds of London will not underwrite this risk. Las Vegas odd makers will sit out this bet.

So our Italian friends devised two-pronged attack. Number one was of course their well-trained army and the local Askari force. The second was their belief that hey will buy off the different kings and subvert the local chiefs to help them against Menelik. Little did they know these Ethiopians were very tricky people. They proved them wrong on both counts.

Menelik was able to assemble a force of 100.000 motivated solders. Country or death was the battle cry. They came from all four corners of the country. Those further south that cannot make it contributed money and resources in millions of silver Maria Theresas, gold and ivory. Ras Mengesha Yohannis of Tigrai, Ras Sebhat Aregawi of the house of Sabagadis and ruler of Agame, Ras Sebehat Shume of Agame, Ras Welle Bitul of Wello, Ras WoldeGiorgis, Ras Tesema Nadew, Azajh Wolde Tsadik, King Tekle Haimanot of Gojjam, Ras Wolde Michael Solomon of Hamasien, and Ras Mekonen all stood together.

What the Italians saw was Amharas, Tigreans, Oromos, Gurages, Welaitas and Sidamas prepared to do battle to defend the motherland. The Italians underhanded trick to divide them by promising power and riches to the different Rases and chiefs was rejected. With the consent and knowledge of Menelik they all pretended to conspire with the enemy and lulled him into complacency. The parts knew there was no Ethiopia without the whole as one.

Emperor Menelik took up his position on Amba Abba Gerima with his Imperial Guards, King Tekle Haimanot and the 12,000 man army of Gojjam marched off and formed the right wing of the Ethiopian forces. Ras Mengesha Yohannis and Ras Alula with the 13,000 man army of Tigrai took up positions at Kidane Mihret and the left wing. Ras Makonnen and his Harrar troops, Ras Michael and his Wello Oromo troops, and Ras Welle with his Yejju and Simien troops made up the center. Empress Taitu also took up a position close to Amba Abba Gerima where her 5000 man army and her canons prepared for the Italian onslaught. The rest is history.

That was March 1st. 1896. It is one hundred and thirteen years ago our forefathers stood up and told the whole world do not thread on us. They shouted loud and clear to be heard around the world ‘Ethiopia has no need of no one; she stretches out her hand to God.’ Where do we stand today? Are we standing on the shoulders of these historical giants or are we at their feet slithering like snakes? Did we mange to build on their accomplishments or are we an embarrassment to them and their memory?

It is sad but the true story of where we are today will not only embarrass us Ethiopians but all those who thought it was the beginning of a new dawn of pride and purpose of unity. Today we have Kilils, Nations and Nationalities and the infamous Article 39, a time bomb built in into our constitution. Article 39 is our new article 17 that brought about Adwa. The new usurpers are playing the old game of sabotaging our unity by promising phantom power and riches to a few Askaris. The children of those who marched north together to face the common enemy are told that they are enemies to be separated into Bantustans and view each other with suspsion and contempt. Those who lived together for millennia, intermarried and shared common religion are told it is not all true, it did not exist and history is re written in front of our own eyes. It has become a fashion to declare ones allegiance to ones tribe instead of ones nation. We are told not speak each other’s language, not teach our children in a common language, not to think as one. Some of us have believed it. Some of us have taken it to heart. Some of us have traveled thousands of miles away from home and learnt to live with strangers but refuse to relate to our kin and friends from the same mother.

Oh! How soon we forgot that if it were not for our unity at Adwa there would have been no real Ethiopia of our forefathers. It is not farfetched to say if it was not for our gallant ancestors that there will be no Injera to eat, no Shema to wear and no books in Amharic, Tigregna or Oromegna but only Spaghetti and Lasagna to eat, Armani to wear and bleached face and straightened hair to exhibit.

So it is with sadness that we hear the Ethiopian government wants to raise funds to construct the word ‘Adwa’ both in Amharic and English at this holy site of all black people. It is a copy of that tourist attraction of nothingness near Los Angles, the Hollywood sign. A clear example of form over essence if you ask me. So it seems that we have fallen down again. It is all right, it happens to nations and it happens to people. The trick is to try to get up. We should try again energized by the memory of Adwa and those that fell down so the rest of us can get up and continue the job. They have done their part, it is our turn now. Success is built based on unity respect and shared values. May the God of our ancestors watch over us.

The writer can be reached at yilma@pacbell.net.

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