March 1: Celebrate Ethiopia’s Defeat of Italy At Adwa; A Victory Against European Imperialism

This article was published in the March 2017 Newsletter of the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington DC. If you read the headlines of  the European press following Italy’s defeat in 1896, you will see that this battle shook the foundations of European Imperialism to its core. 

Victory at Adwa- A Victory for Africa

Ethiopia’s victory against Italy at Adwa on March 1, 1896, profoundly shaped the future of Ethiopia.

Lawrence Freeman

March 1, 2017

The battle of Adwa is probably the most renowned and historic battle in Ethiopian history. This celebrated victory by the Ethiopian army helped define the future of their nation, as one of only two non-colonized countries in Africa. The defeat of a European colonial empire by an African country, following the “Scramble for Africa” after the 1884-1885 Berlin conference a decade earlier, is not only a source of enduring pride and nationalism for Ethiopians, but also an inspiration to other Africans, who took up the fight for independence six decades later. Some historians suggest that this victory also led to the idea for the Pan-African movement. As a result, it is no surprise that on May 25 1963, Ethiopia under the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie was a founding member of the Organization of African States-OAS.

Adwa, also known as Adowa, and in Italian Adua, was the capital of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. A late comer to grabbing territory in Africa, Italy began colonizing Somaliland and Eritrea in the 1880s. It was from the vantage point of Eritrea from where Italy launched its campaign against Ethiopia. The immediate pretext of the invasion was a dispute of Article 17 of the 1889 Treaty of Wuchale. Italy insisted that the treaty stated that Ethiopia had to submit to its imperial authority, thus effectively making Ethiopia a colony of the Kingdom of Italy. The Ethiopians resisted Italy’s military enforcement of its version of the treaty, leading to the outbreak of war in December 1894, with the Italian imperialists occupying Adwa and moving further south into Ethiopian territory. On March 1, 1896, King Menelik II, who, commanded a force of over 70,000, defeated the Italian army, killing 7,000 of their soldiers, wounding 1,500, and capturing  3,000 prisoners, routing their enemy, and forcing them to retreat back to their colony of Eritrea. It has been speculated that, if Menelik had pursued the retreating Italian troops, and driven them off of the continent, it might have prevented a second Italian invasion. On October 3, 1935, Italy led by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, launched its second military incursion into sovereign Ethiopia territory. Five years later in 1941, Ethiopia once again drove the Italian invaders out of their country. The 1896 defeat of a European nation, considered an advanced country, by Ethiopia, viewed as a backward Africa country, led to riots on the streets of Italy and well deserved consternation in the capitals of European powers.

Without taking the time now to review the ninety years of Ethiopian history following this famous battle, the military defeat of Ethiopia’s dictatorial Derg Regime in 1991 brings us to the beginning of contemporary Ethiopia. When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front-EPRDF assumed control of the government in 1991, it was led by the now deceased, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who initiated the economic policies that have guided Ethiopia for over 25 years. It was Meles Zenawi’s intellectual leadership, in particular his understanding of the indispensable role of the state in fostering economic development that distinguishes Ethiopia today from all other sub-Saharan African nations. For him the state was not “a night watchman,” but rather an active participant promoting economic growth for the benefit of its people. Ethiopia is a poor country. with a population approaching one hundred million, not endowed with rich mineral or hydrocarbon resources, and repeatedly struck by drought. Yet it has emerged in recent years with a rapidly growing economy. This is the result of Zenawi’s legacy that created a leadership with a self-conscious commitment to use the powers of the state to build an integrated infrastructure platform, which has served to drive the economy forward. This is clearly evident in Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plans I and II, which set ambitious economic goals five years into the future, along with its proposed thirty year road construction plan. Since the EPRDF took over the responsibility of governing the nation, more than thirty new universities have been created, graduating more students that can be easily employed.

In collaboration with China, Ethiopia operates the first electrified train in sub-Saharan Africa, traveling 750 kilometers in seven hours from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, establishing a port to export Ethiopia’s products. Their highway system consisting of toll roads, highways, and all weather roads will connect their light manufacturing industries to the port in Djibouti via their new rail line.   As a result of coherent policy planning in energy infrastructure, the Gibe III hydroelectric power plant has now added 1,872 of megawatts to the country’s electricity grid, and over the next two years, the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) will add an additional 6,000 megawatts, making Ethiopia the second largest producer of power in sub-Saharan Africa, behind South Africa.  The next step to develop the Horn of Africa is for Ethiopia, Sudan, and Kenya to extend their rail lines to become the eastern leg of an East-West railroad. Thus would transform Africa by connecting the Gulf of Eden/Indian Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean , creating an economic corridor that would literally revolutionize the economic power of the continent; contributing to the ending of poverty, hunger, and war.

One cannot deny the success of Ethiopia’s unique path of development, nor can one omit the important role contributed to this process by Ethiopia’s successful resistance to foreign occupation; thus never having to suffer the dehumanizing effects of colonialism.

Nation State vs Ethnicity in Africa

Mahmood Mamdani raises proactive questions on the role ethnicity in Africa and Ethiopia in particular. (See excerpts and article below).

Africa has been plagued to this day by two legacies from colonialism (British): 1) the intentional failure to build infrastructure; 2) the deliberate fostering of ethnicity. Historical literature is replete with evidence of the British creation of ethnic and/or native administrative units as a central feature of their divide and rule colonial policy. Lord Frederick Lugard, who authored the infamous “indirect rule” stratagem, implemented his scheme in Nigeria when he became the Govern General Nigeria in 1914, and ruled the North and South differently. Similarly, the British cultivated the North versus South conflict in Sudan with their separate Southern policy exemplified by their 1922 Passport and Ordinance Act. There are more examples available.

Accentuating ethnic, tribal, religious, and geographical distinctions is used as a means to thwart the creation of sovereign Nation States, particularly in Africa. A functioning Nation State is not founded on a collection of minorities, or even a majority. Instead, it is created on principles that define its responsibilities to provide for the general welfare of its citizens and their posterity, which must include nurturing the creative potential of each child. Nation States transcend differences within their populations by uniting all their people in a common mission, not only to develop their nation, but to contribute to the future of mankind as well.     

Ethiopia uniquely evaded colonization with its 1896 military victory against the Italian army in Adwa, led by Menelik II. Yet as Mamdani points out, Ethiopian Federalism accommodates ethnicity, which is divisive today, and is being used to undermine the central-federal government. By following the core economic thesis of Meles Zenawi’s “Developmental State” Ethiopia has embarked on a bold campaign to transform their country through government directed investment in infrastructure, while protecting their economy from being invaded by foreign financial predators. As a result of Ethiopia’s relative success among African nations in performing this necessary Nation State function, it has become the “enemy” to those forces-internal and external-that oppose development of African nations. Not surprisingly in the last six months there have been renewed efforts to liberalize-deregulate Ethiopia’s financial system in an attempt to weaken its commitment to the “Developmental State” model. 

Therefore, the suggestion of a new kind of non-ethnic federalism is a conception that could lead to strengthening the institution of the Nation State in Africa.   

The new Tram in Adds Ababa typifies Ethiopia’s approach to infrastructure.

“Ethiopians used to think of themselves as Africans of a special kind, who were not colonized, but the country today resembles a quintessential African system, marked by ethnic mobilization for ethnic gains.

In most of Africa, ethnicity was politicized when the British turned the ethnic group into a unit of local administration, which they termed “indirect rule.” Every bit of the colony came to be defined as an ethnic homeland, where an ethnic authority enforced an ethnically defined customary law that conferred privileges on those deemed indigenous at the expense of non-indigenous minorities.

An interesting book worth reading by Mahmood Mamdani is: “Saviors and survivors.” It about Sudan and Darfur, but also discusses the creation of ethnic groups.

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