March 12, 2021

The Battle of Adwa: A Moment of Reckoning for Ethiopia?


The battle of Adwa is more than a battlefield; it represents the victory of the Black race, and it symbolizes ‘Ethiopianism.’

Avatar: Moges Zewdu Teshome
By Moges Zewdu Teshome

Moges Zewdu Teshome is a former law lecturer at Haramaya University and has law degrees from Addis Abeba University and the University of Dundee. He is a candidate for a Master of Advanced International Studies at Vienna School of International Studies.

The Battle of Adwa: A Moment of Reckoning for Ethiopia?

The battle of Adwa is more than a battlefield; it epitomizes the halt to imperial foray in Ethiopia, it questioned the conventional wisdom of white supremacy, it represents the victory of the Black race, and it symbolizes ‘Ethiopianism.’ For the current generation, Adwa connects the past to the present and more likely, the gift to the future. The Battle of Adwa, which was carefully designed, ferociously fought, and deservedly won by the native Ethiopian Soldiers, represents what a united people could achieve together. Indeed, as Lincoln would have it, ‘‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’’. This, in every aspect of life, including in modern politics, is a simple guiding principle. The victory of Adwa has the potential to unite the house divided from within if appropriately harnessed. 

But, when we celebrate the victory of Adwa, there are baggage of issues that comes along with it. Among others, the cause for which we celebrate it, the process that led to the ultimate victory, and its aftermath- Adwa’s legacy- are still a subject of controversy. Few of them justified, many of them unfounded. Or even this very statement could be morally laden and fairly subjective. In any case, having a common understanding of the bare minimums of history would, at the very least, mitigate the damages. Of course, We (Ethiopians) cannot afford to be haunted by mythologies, false narratives, and distorted representation of history. Simply stated, we cannot move forward as we look backward with no end in sight. 

So, what shall be done to come to terms with the past, leave contested history behind us and forge a better future? I am not a historian to delve into the nuts and bolts of the past, and I cannot be sure about the future, for I am not a fortune teller, either. Nonetheless, I can provide my perspectives on some of those debilitating issues. That is to say, the moment of reckoning has come, and it is now. By capitalizing on the gains of the victory of Adwa and rectifying the dark side of history, we can reconcile with the past, with ourselves, and let the generations to come live in relative harmony. We have to reconcile with the past for, as William Faulkner noted, ‘‘the past is never dead. It is not even past’’. As such, we may consider venturing on the following three major things; reconciling with the past, forming a legitimate government, and cultivating the culture of dialogue, until such time that we may learn to live with our differences.

Sifting Through the Thorny Past 

There is no consensus about the preludes to the battle of Adwa, its official representation, and the ‘wounds of victory.’ Modern Ethiopian political history is marred with contradictions and competing narratives. Even worse, we are yet to have a common understanding of the very history of state formation in Ethiopia. For some, the likes of Assefa Jalata, Ethiopia is an empire built on the ruins of independent nations disseminated by Emperor Menelik II forces. From this narratives transpire that Ethiopia is a multinational state, and subsequently, any political arrangement should reflect this fact. This narrative had gained traction and culminated in the institutionalization of the ethnolinguistic federation through the instrumentality of the 1994 constitution. 

On the other hand, there is a competing narrative to the effect that Ethiopia, as a state, has been there for more than three thousand years. This interpretation of history entails the opposite outcomes and prescribes a different solution to treat the political ills. For the protagonist of this narrative, the past glory of a united, strong Ethiopia should be restored, and the current political structure is illegitimate; the constitution is a dictator and a clear usurpation of history. The prominent ideologues of this camp are the likes of Prof. Habtamu Tegegne, who reconstructed the medieval history of Ethiopia in his book entitled ‘Barara (Addis Ababa’s Predecessor): Foundation, Growth, Destruction and Rebirth (1400-1887)’.

Then, there is, of course, some tendency to occupy a middle ground but inconsequential so far. The current government, seemingly the result of the Oromo-Amara movement, better known as Oromara, has shown a glimpse of hope three years ago. But fast forward, today the centre could not hold, and those hopes seem to have faded since the Oromara is considered by many observers as a chimera for temporary tactical alliance and a political fiasco. This is discernible from the current political atmosphere. 

At a risk of being redundant, I contend that an inclusive, trustworthy, and independent ‘Commission of Historical Memory’ should be set up to sift through the mist of competing narratives, mythologies, and historical facts so that we will have an opportunity to take stock of our history. Whether We like it or not, there is an unavoidable nexus between collective memory and national identity. It may not be a panacea to mend the rift of history; far from it. It can, however, help us determine how much to forget and how much to forgive or the combination of it. Significantly, as Martha Minow puts it, there is a danger in too much forgetting and too much vengeance. Although the Ethiopian Reconciliation Commission was established with many lofty goals two years ago, its contribution towards this end remains oblivious and it appears dysfunctional at the moment. After all, it was not entrusted with the particular task of making historical inquiries. Thus, sooner or later, possibly after the coming national election, the task of coming to terms with history must be done, if we are intent on ending the recurrent cycle of violence. 

The Need for a Legitimate Government 

A legitimate government is constituted by a political community through a process predicated upon the free and popular will of the governed. Even though there is no one-size-fits-all model through which the free and popular will of the people materialize, nevertheless, there must be a government for all, the one which does not suffer from a chronic legitimacy deficit. After the monarchy’s fall (which claims legitimacy through the Solomonic dynasty) in 1974, no government has ruled Ethiopia with legitimacy from below. The Derg ruled with its military might until it was crumbled, the TPLF has installed the system of ethnic clientelism until the popular protest has brought its demise and the successor of the TPLF-the current regime, is nothing more than an oligarchic system that hijacked the political transition. Put differently, and we are yet to have a legitimate government with representative democracy. 

Some argue that the upcoming (national) elections will bring an end to the legitimacy deficit and chart the way forward to the democratic system in Ethiopian politics. This reductionist view emanates from a lopsided view of the current political dynamics. For one thing, election (provided it is fair, free, and participatory) is only one of the factors, not even the main factor, by which the legitimacy of the government is measured. The second reason is that election is not meant to set national dialogue and consensus in motion. Instead, an election is the last in the list of making the environment conducive for a transition towards democracy. That is why I have argued for a need to have national reconciliation before the national election in Ethiopia. To do so, it should be acknowledged that Ethiopia is a home divided against itself and the fact that there will never be a legitimate government unless national consensus on fundamental issues is attained.

The third and important point is that, in an environment where part of the country is ravaged by conflict, the humanitarian crisis is looming large, the security situation is deteriorating from day to day, many formidable political parties are crippled and the very sovereignty of the country is in question, there is no ‘national election’ unless the meaning of the term has changed. 

Thence, the incumbent government may do everything at its disposal to enthrone itself, as its predecessor has done. Still, it must be noted that it may not rectify the huge political bankruptcy it suffers from akin to the biblical parable of ‘a foolish man who built his house on the sand’.

From a ‘Community Prison’ to the Community of Reason

Perhaps one of the greatest revolutions in modern human history is the age of enlightenment which brought about rationality in politics and highlighted the utility of reason. With enlightenment came some sort of liberation of citizens from the shackles of the prison of collective thinking. The fact that human beings are endowed with the power of reasoning and rational thinking is indomitable. Rather, the challenge lies in utilizing the untapped potential of rational thinking within a political community that pays huge homage to authority than to truth and solidarity than to reason. 

This is particularly a daunting task in a political system dominated by identity politics as is the case in Ethiopia. In a market where every road leads you to one merchant-ethnic salience, there is hardly room for the market of ideas, or at least, the market is not competitive. The politics of identity, especially the unbridled nationalism, by its very nature rarely entertains moderation, as Jack Snyder noted. What matters most is not the truth but whose truth. The ‘We-feeling’ does not allow an individual to appreciate issues and make rational conclusions independently. There is no truth as such but competing narratives or the quest for hegemonic narratives.

If someone needs empirical evidence for this, one can easily understand that from the social media usage and digital war in Ethiopia. That is what has happened and still happening regarding the conflict in Tigray. Anyone, including journalists and political analysts, has only one option: either you support the propaganda of the government or the lies of the other group. You may wish, but nothing in between! Those who blindly support the government’s propaganda are the real patriots, while those who show some humanity are considered the treasonous Junta. The same works for the other side; you are either a freedom fighter or the dishonest Banda. 

This is just for an illustration. Apart from the unruly identity politics, the main culprit is the utter absence of the culture of dialogue and debate in the country. As is the case in some corners of the world, the power of argument does not seem to resonate with the elites, let alone with the general public. With little space for reasoning and critical thinking, the culture of dialogue and moderation politics becomes a luxury. 

It is obvious that structural change takes time, commitment and requires massive works. All the same, when ‘epistemic community’ degenerates, if we have any at all, then the prospect of inculcating rational thinking and cultivating the community of reason is slim. That being what it is, working to bring about change, in due course, and through sustained commitment, is not a choice but a challenge to face.

By way of conclusion, as we celebrate the victory of Adwa as national pride, we should also think of the dark side of history, the ever-growing political rift, and the challenges of building a democratic system. The victory of Adwa is a potent tool to unite the divided society as the vast majority of people are owning the victory. By using Adwa as a national symbol and a source of inspiration, we must embark on the project of, among others, narrowing competing historical narratives, rectify political legitimacy deficit and nurture the culture of dialogue across the board. So, it seems the time of reckoning is around the corner to grab with both hands. I should reiterate; let us  give transitional justice a chance before it is too late and too little. If not, the future of a ‘unified and strong Ethiopia’ itself hangs in the balance.