The Legacy of the Battle of Adwa

By Meron Tekleberhan


Adwa BattleAddis Ababa, March 4, 2012 ( - The one hundred and sixteenth anniversary of the victory of the Battle of Adwa was celebrated on the 2nd of March in Ethiopia.


The Battle of Adwa was a historic battle fought between the ill-equipped armies of Ethiopia with the forces of a modern European power, Italy. Led by Emperor Menelik the II and the Empress Taitu, the Ethiopian army made up of voluntary forces desperately engaged the Italian Army under the command of the Italian governor of Eritrea, General Oreste Baratieri.


Relations between Ethiopia and the Italians had deteriorated following Menelik’s refusal to accede to the Treaty of Wuchale, which underhandedly attempted to place Ethiopia under Italian control. Skirmishes between the two sides continued with the poorly armed peasant forces called to battle by Menelik living of the land until the two main armies face off in Tigray.


Although the Ethiopian army clearly outnumbered the Italians, General Baratieri naturally relied on the sophistication of his army against the less skilled peasant army he faced. What he did not count on was the sheer will and patriotic fervor of the Ethiopians, and that proved to be his undoing and one that earned Ethiopia the victory on the battlefield.


But Adwa was more than a national victory for Ethiopia, it was a unique event in the European imperialist movement in Africa: the defeat of a white European power by a non-white nation according to Donald Levine.


The victory of Adwa would go on to inspire the independence movements of black people around the world. It became a symbol and an emblem of black pride and African independence.


Europe was forced to recognize Ethiopia as an independent nation and a power on the African continent that had so handily been divided into European spheres of influence at the Berlin Conference.


This year, like on other years, the anniversary of Adwa was marked by various commemorative events that officially honored the date. The events were attended by public officials and representatives of various civic societies and received due attention in the media.


For most of the society, however it is simply another public holiday, a day off from work or school and some years, like this an excuse for a long weekend. For many in my generation, the annual event seems to be nothing more than an empty memory of ancient victory and bygone glory.


We were all raised to the soundtrack of Ethiopia’s greatness and I for one believed it unconditionally and was proud until I reached the age where I encountered the modern versions of the Ethiopian legend.


The heart breaking reality of the various evils that besmirch our national image effectively overwhelm any lingering pride in what once was. Can we realistically expect a more than a century old event to mean more than that? My argument is that we can and we should.


Increasingly now we hear outcries from every sector of the erosion of cultural identity and the notable dominance of Western cultures and values especially in youth culture. Scholars lament the increasing pre-occupation of the mass media with Western events, figures and language and government policy increasingly attempts to preserve, national languages and cultures.


From what I have observed, however all efforts to undermine Western Cultural influences seem to be failing on all fronts. They fail because, in the absence of an alternative that is unifying and relevant to Ethiopians of all cultural backgrounds, they are destined to fail.


In spite of various historical tensions, and even if it may be unpalatable to Ethiopians of a certain generation, the only unifying factor that can ever stem the very real identity crisis being faced by young Ethiopians today can only be rooted in history.


Adwa and Menelik, are to be found in the center of that era when ‘Ethiopianess’ meant greatness and national pride had tangible meaning. Ethiopian’s of that time fought against all odds to retain their national integrity in spite of much internal differences because national identity was a unifying force.


In the absence of clear faithfulness to our history as a nation it is impossible to duplicate similar passion, patriotism and pride. No amount of academic and political exhortation can ever induce similar sentiments simply because such feelings are visceral in nature.


Adwa can continue to be celebrated as a national holiday in the years to come, but it loses all meaning when we attempt to divorce it from its central characters and the nationalistic urges that led to the victory.


Menelik, like all political figures of the past and present, might be a hero to some and a villain to other but none can deny his role as the architect of Adwa. As such he should, very rightly be honored as an embodiment of the best of our national heritage and be held up as role model to Ethiopians of this era.


The legacy of Adwa for this and all future generations is that of national unity and pride, forged by adversity in a unique historical setting that sets us as apart as a people. Recognizing Adwa in this light might very well afford us grounds to address the much bemoaned loss of cultural identity amongst young Ethiopians who are looking outside of their country for role models and are adopting the poor excuses that are being commercialized in the international media.


Affirming the legacy of Adwa and Menelik will offer true role models and generations of Ethiopians can be proud of being the heirs of such a unique identity.



Meron Tekleberhan


Meron Tekleberhan is Addis Ababa based reporter for She can be reached by sending email through this form.



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