At the Battle of Adwa, in 1896, Emperor Menelik II routed the invading Italian army. For some in Ethiopia, this event is a proud symbol of black resistance against European colonial rule. But writers Hassen Hussein and Mohammed Ademo argue the glorification of Menelik, a brutal conqueror, removes the Oromo and other marginalized ethnic groups from the national record. This is significant for those left out of history are more easily disregarded in the present.
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 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 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 reduced to colonial subjects to face the European encroachment. And history shows that they fought in great numbers. French missionary scholar Martial de Salviac and University of Washington history professor Raymond Jonas attribute Abyssinia’s victory at Adwa in large part to the Oromo horsemen. “The appearance of Oromo cavalry men at the Battle of Adwa had a notably dispiriting effect on the Italian soldiers,” Jonas writes in his 2012 book The Battle of Adwa. “The Oromo were mounted infantrymen. They rode into position, dismounted, and fired . . .. The Oromo functioned with such grim efficiency that they hastened the demoralization of the crumbling Italian army.”
While the Battle of Adwa brought together all manner of Ethiopians, official historiography fails to pay homage to many of the heroes who made the victory possible. A case in point is Fitawrari Gebeyehu, commander of Menelik’s army, who was killed during the battle. In official Ethiopian narratives, Gebeyehu is mentioned in passing without reference to his Oromo surname. This is at the root of the Oromo ambivalence toward Ethiopia: The Oromo are good enough to fight and die for Ethiopia but not to live in it with their full human dignity and identity.
The defeat of the Italian army elevated Menelik’s stature nationally and internationally, allowing him to turn his attention to expanding his empire. As a result, for many Ethiopians, including those in the diaspora, Menelik is a war hero and diplomat par excellence who saved Ethiopia from the scourge of colonization—not only by playing one European colonialist against another but also by uniting the country’s diverse population to hand Italy a crushing defeat. It was hardly a surprise to see a Menelik impersonator riding into a stadium to a crowd of cheering Ethiopians at the 33rd tournament of the Ethiopian Sports Federation in North America held in Toronto, Canada this July.
But for the majority of Oromos and many other ethnic groups in southern Ethiopia, the 19th century emperor was a genocidal empire builder. From the 1860s to 1900, the Oromo population was halved by the conquest and a famine that ravaged the country in the war’s aftermath, according to University of Toronto professor Abbas Haji Gnamo. No other incident in Ethiopia’s modern history has had such a devastating impact on the Oromo.
The contrasting narratives find their true meaning in the statue of Menelik, mounted on horseback, near the Addis Ababa City Hall. For his supporters, the monument represents his bravery and statesmanship. For many others, the sight of his towering statue on what was once a ceremonial and sacred territory for indigenous Oromo is a reminder of the pillage and mutilation by the colonizing Abyssinian army.
Before confronting the Italians, Menelik was conquering the fertile and resource-rich Oromo country in the south. No other battle between the Oromo and Menelik’s forces generates such animated and raw emotions as the 1887 Battle of Aanolee, in South Central Oromia, where Abyssinian forces hacked off the genitals and right hands of men and the breasts of women. To make matters worse, this barbarity took place during a meeting called by Menelik’s generals, ostensibly to sign a truce to conclude what had become a drawn out war.
Peace and compromise are central to Oromo culture. No one is more celebrated among the Oromo, who otherwise shy away from hero worship, than a peacemaker. Peacemaking and the places where peace is made are sacred. That is why the story of the massacre, and the betrayal that led to it, is told and retold to generations of Oromo as the darkest and most traumatic event in their people’s history.
Ethiopia’s official historiography, written by court historians, is largely silent on Adwa’s impact on Menelik’s colonial subjects. This is also why while Adwa is officially commemorated throughout Ethiopia, it does not signify the same thing everywhere and is certainly not celebrated by all. In fact, much of Ethiopia’s ancient history is a contested terrain that is as divisive today as it was in the past.
A segment of Ethiopians take immense pride in what they consider the country’s uninterrupted 3,000 years of history. This group often emphasizes with great pride that Ethiopia was one of only two African states that escaped European colonization, and that its Amharic script and calendar system are shared by no other country on earth. Their emphasis on the country’s uniqueness is at the root of Ethiopian exceptionalism, a notion that spans everything from the country’s history to its ideals of beauty.
The Oromo, who were forcibly incorporated by Menelik’s invading army into the Abyssinian Empire and currently make up more than a third of the country’s population, have been reduced to minority status through centuries of discrimination and systematic exclusion. They see the state-building process that led to the formation of the Abyssinian Empire as just as bad as the European conquest of the continent—since it led to the same expropriation of native land, subjugation of cultures, and denial of languages and identity. For instance, the 1931 Ethiopian constitution contained language that could be construed to categorize the Ethiopian people into either citizens of Ethiopia or subjects of the empire. Ethiopia has since ratified other constitutions, but the citizen vs. subject dichotomy, as well as Ethiopia’s imperial structure, which favors the dominant Amhara and Tigrean ruling classes, remains in place. This has made the question “Who is Ethiopian?” as contentious as ever.
This also makes inter-ethnic dialogue and solidarity difficult within the Ethiopian diaspora. Take Washington, D.C., home to the largest Ethiopian community outside of Africa. On trains, at parking garages, and in grocery stores around town, Ethiopia’s historical wounds are on full display. We, like many Oromo contacted for this story, often struggle to answer one banal question: “Are you Habesha?”
To many in the region, Habesha is a racial category that imagines ethnic Amhara and Tigrayan speakers as part of a separate non-black entity, emphasizing a Semitic origin and a mythical and direct descent from the Israeli King Solomon. “Like Whiteness,” writes Azeb Madebo, a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California, “Habesha ethnic identity in the Horn of Africa has been constructed through oppressive, racist, and essentialist means that privileged the Amhara, Tigre, and Tigrayan speaking peoples of Ethiopia.”
Similar to the popular caricature of a post-racial society in the United States, the use of Habesha identity masks Ethiopia’s enduring politics of exclusion. The Oromo resist the imposition of the term Habesha as a way to demand recognition, end their continued subordination, and protest the erasure of their identity. But brief encounters don’t allow for any opportunity to have a nuanced conversation about identity—as to what and who is Habesha. It is sometimes easier, out of a desire to connect and seek communality, to simply say “yes” and avoid having uncomfortable exchanges with ill-informed elderly folks at cash registers or in parking lots. But doing so also perpetuates the continued use of a racist identifier.
The roots of the Habesha moniker in the diaspora can be traced directly back to Adwa. Menelik’s army was strong enough to deal the Italians at Adwa a dramatic blow but not to dislodge them beyond the Mereb River. Uncontested, the Italians consolidated the area beyond this natural boundary and christened it as today’s Eritrea. When the United Nations debated what to do with colonial territories after World War II, it decided to federate tiny Eritrea with its much larger southern neighbor, Ethiopia. The 1962 abrogation of this federation by Emperor Haile Selassie, Menelik’s successor, led to the 30-year war, which ended in Eritrea regaining its independence. During this bitter war, the Eritrean diaspora was distinguished by their vociferous refusal to be called Ethiopians. Enterprising that the diaspora always is, distraught Ethiopians started using the Habesha designation to emphasize the deep ethnic bond connecting the peoples.
The separation of the two countries, however, did not end all trouble. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bitter war from 1998–2000 over the exact location of their border along the Mereb. Here and elsewhere, the impact of Adwa reverberates in today’s Ethiopia.
Menelik and his successors, buoyed by victory, embarked on a grand nation-building project, which included the elevation of Habesha culture and the Amharic language and the suppression of all other cultures and languages. In opposition to the Amhara ascendancy that was inaugurated at Adwa, proponents of greater Tigray rose up and captured state power in 1991 after having waged 17 years of war against the military junta led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Once in power, the Tigreans had to give some badly needed official acknowledgement of the horrendous crimes committed by Menelik and successive rulers against Ethiopia’s southern nations, particularly the Oromo people. Under pressure from the latter, the Tigreans restructured the country as an ethno-linguistic federation. However, rather than instituting a genuine federation and allowing for self-government by the constituent regional states, the Tigreans simply monopolized power and continued to lord over the marginalized Oromo and southern peoples as well as the Amhara themselves. Eclipsed by the Tigrean hegemony, Amhara politicians have championed liberal democracy since 1991. Many Oromo, however, see this as an attempt to return to power and a rejection of self-government by Ethiopia’s diverse peoples. As a result, full reconciliation between these two communities, who together make up close to two-thirds of the country’s population, has been elusive.
After years of waging ineffective low-level guerrilla warfare and isolated protests against the Tigrean-led Ethiopian state, in November 2015 the Oromo launched an unprecedented and still ongoing campaign of civil disobedience. The Tigrean-controlled security forces responded with disproportionate force, killing over 400 protesters, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. Rather than quelling #OromoProtests, the crackdown instead galvanized the Oromo people’s long struggle to regain control over their homeland and themselves.
During these protests, some in the Amhara camp argued that ethnocentrism among Oromo revolutionaries was an obstacle to an inclusive countrywide movement for democracy and civil rights. In response, the Oromo pointed to the marginalization and discrimination in Ethiopian society, which has been institutionalized and entrenched in the body politic since the country’s inception. In his 2006 book, Ethiopia at Bay, John H. Spencer, adviser to the late Emperor Haile Selassie, recounts Menelik’s infamous exchange with Benito Sylvain, a Haitian emissary who visited Addis Ababa to solicit the emperor’s support for the amelioration of the black race. “I am not a Negro at all; I am a Caucasian,” Menelik told Sylvain, according to Spencer. It may come as a surprise to most non-Ethiopians, but the Habesha elite have derogatory names for fellow Ethiopians and Africans with darker complexions. Spencer adds that Selassie, Ethiopia’s last emperor who was deposed in the 1974 revolution, confided to Chief H.O. Davis, a well-known Nigerian nationalist, that he regarded Ethiopians as being “a mixed Hamito-Semitic people,” and hence not black.
Such views are not isolated aberrations. The desire to classify all people from Ethiopia as Habesha is rooted in that tradition. In fact, many Ethiopian Americans use Habesha as a separate ethnic category to avoid being identified with African Americans or other black immigrants.
Yet, the mass protests against Tigrean domination in the Amhara region—beginning in and radiating from the historically important northern city of Gondar where the Amhara and the Oromo once shared power—has raised prospects of a rapprochement. Since then, expressions of solidarity with the Oromo, once a rarity, have become more common, a development that has made the Tigrean elite very anxious. Still, mending the old wounds between these groups will take time.
To disentangle the country from a history in which the Amhara and Tigreans sit at the top, Ethiopian identity must be reconceptualized to reflect the histories of its diverse peoples. The Oromo question—a demand for self-government and the preservation of Oromo culture, language, and identity—is a reaction to Ethiopia’s historical and ongoing oppression.
To initiate this healing process, Ethiopia should begin by rewriting its history, starting with the story of Adwa. Since Menelik is reviled among the Tigreans as well as the Oromo, decoupling him from the Battle of Adwa may seem like a smart idea. But Menelik is the central figure in that battle, and that shouldn’t be deleted from history. His victory and his misdeeds, however, should be placed in context. Additionally, history books and commemorations should balance Menelik with other key figures from other ethnic groups. Among the personalities central to Adwa, one—Gebeyehu—died at the battle. His disappearance from Ethiopian history parallels the erasure of his people’s contributions from the country’s official historiography.
The other key protagonist was the Tigrean general, Ras Alula, whose descendants, the Tigreans, make up 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population. Tigreans have been in power since 1991. However, rather than using this position of political dominance to right past wrongs, Ethiopia’s current rulers have instead instituted new systems of repression and exploitation, provoking widespread resentment from the Amhara and Oromo populations.
Due to the sheer weight of demography, Tigrean-dominated Ethiopia is untenable. Change is inevitable. The possibility of the Amhara and Oromo coming together offers the best chance to transform the country for the better. For this effort to be successful, Ethiopia ought to be re-imagined. We need a new Ethiopia—a multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and multi-religious country, in which the accidents of history do not dictate a person’s place in society and where self-governance and democracy are not hollow promises on paper. Straightening out Ethiopia’s complex historiography requires overturning its society’s deeply held assumptions, which favor the dominant Habesha group. Long after the official end of imperial order, Ethiopia’s original sin—its oppression of the Oromo following the Battle of Adwa—continues as an unstated ideology that permeates everyday life.