Adwa’s Lessons to the Democratic Opposition

Maimire Mennasemay,Ph.D. / Feb.28 2008
The Battle of Adwa, in which Ethiopian forces under Emperor Menelik II united to defeat an invading force of Italian troops, was one of the most significant turning points in the history of modern Africa.

On March 1st, 2008, Ethiopians commemorate the 112th anniversary of the Adwa victory. Adwa is one of those historical events that tears apart the fog of politics and unveils a new horizon that reveals a people’s capability to become a master of its own destiny. But our rulers have reduced Adwa to a drum-and-trumpet event and emptied it of its liberating spirit. However, there is a living Adwa, critical of the mummified Adwa our rulers celebrate, which dwells in our history as an unfinished task that urges Ethiopians to complete the struggle for freedom their ancestors started in 1896. Openness to Adwa as a living experience could disclose a historical compass that could help the democratic opposition find its way out from its current disarray.
The Battle of Adwa, in which Ethiopian forces under Emperor Menelik II united to defeat an invading force of Italian troops, was one of the most significant turning points in the history of modern Africa.
“I would never give any nation over Ethiopia” Emperor Menelik II

In 1896, Ethiopians of all origins thwarted Italy’s effort to advance its colonial interests by fomenting ethnic hatred and pitting Ethiopians against Ethiopians. From every corner of the country, Ethiopians joined hands with each other and Emperor Menelik to fight the threat of colonial oppression. Many who had serious disagreements with the Emperor put aside their misgivings and sided with him. Even those who suffered at his hands rose above their pains and stood with him to defend Ethiopia’s independence. Menelik on his part welcomed with open arms those who for years were opposed to him.

This successful unity against the threat of external oppression gave birth to a new and still unresolved question: If it is right to reject and fight against external oppression, why should Ethiopians accept internal oppression? After all, oppression, whether it is of foreign or domestic origin, is always oppression from the perspective of freedom and must be rejected. Not surprisingly then, many who stood with Menelik at Adwa turned against him after the war. This dynamic meaning of Adwa, that the defeat of external oppression must be broadened to include the elimination of internal oppression, has haunted Ethiopian rulers since 1896. Predictably, our rulers prefer to celebrate a mummified Adwa rather than to awaken it as an unfinished task of emancipation. But as long as we do not extend Adwa’s victory over external oppression into a domestic victory that abolishes internal oppression, we will be celebrating the mummified and not the living Adwa, and the sacrifices of our ancestors will have been in vain.

The perspicuous Wylde wrote in 1896 that Ethiopia needs “a civil revolution”, which will be the “great turning point in its history”, before she “settles down to modern civilization”. We are in 2008, celebrating the 112th anniversary of Adwa, and we have yet to make our “civil revolution”. On the contrary, instead of moving towards a historical “turning point” that announces a future of freedom and justice, the ethnic divide-and-rule that the TPLF/EPRDF has imposed through the barrel of the gun has thrown us back to the 1935 Fascist project of an ethnically fragmented and suffering Ethiopia. Against this historical regression and despite Meles’s repression, Ethiopians voted massively for freedom and unity in the 2005 elections. Contemptuous of the voice of the people, Meles replaced ballots with bullets and quashed this democratic victory. The task of emancipation initiated at Adwa is still unfinished.

In addition to putting the elimination of internal oppression on the Ethiopian political agenda, Adwa also illuminates the necessity of unity for achieving it. Adwa is a victory not only against Italy but also against discord and disunity. All the important political forces, including those who were opposed to each other, rose above their personal and regional interests and presented a common front in defense of Ethiopia’s independence. The unity at Adwa was rooted in the practice of reconciliation, embraced by both Menelik and his erstwhile adversaries, enabling Ethiopians to go beyond conflicting interests for the sake of a higher cause: freedom. The reconciliation, which decisively contributed to the Adwa victory, demonstrates the political and moral maturity of our ancestors. It bears a priceless lesson for the present effort to evict tyranny and establish democracy.

The uniqueness of Adwa shines through the history of Ethiopia, which is largely a narrative of rivalry and war among her various rulers. Disunity has marked Ethiopian history even in the face of external threats. Emperor Tewodros had to confront alone a foreign army whose advance his Ethiopian adversaries facilitated. He sacrificed his life at Mekdella on April 13, 1868, rather than humiliate Ethiopia by submitting to a foreign force. Emperor Yohannes did not receive the support of other Ethiopian rulers in his fight against the Dervishes and was left to face alone an enemy determined to wreck havoc on Ethiopia. He died on the battlefield at Mettema on March 18, 1889, valiantly defending his country. The historical lesson is clear: discord and disunity spell defeat.

Ethiopia’s history thus confronts the democratic opposition with the lessons of two political paths: the path of Adwa, which is the path of reconciliation and unity; and the path of Mekdella-Mettema, which is the path of discord and disunity. It shows conclusively which path leads to victory and which to defeat, a lesson confirmed repeatedly since 1896.

The current struggle against the dictatorship of Meles is a continuation of the political battles that Ethiopians have waged since 1896 to extend the victory against external oppression into a victory over internal oppression. Up to the present, these struggles have not borne fruit. The Weyane uprising of 1943, the Bale uprising of 1963, and the Gojjam uprising of 1968, all fought in isolation, were all defeated in isolation. The democratic movements of the 1960’s disintegrated on the reefs of disunity; the revolution of 1974 crumbled under the assaults of violent factionalism; and the democratic surge of 2005 is falling apart, sapped by personal recriminations. Discord and disunity ensured the longevity of the Imperial regime, the Derg’s usurpation of power, and now the continuation of Meles Zenawi’s dictatorship. If the democratic opposition is to succeed in evicting tyranny and ushering in democracy, it must abandon its affection for discord and rivalry, open its eyes to the lessons of Ethiopia’s history, and embrace Adwa’s spirit of reconciliation and unity.

True, those in power use all the means at their disposal to undermine the people’s quest for freedom. But that is what tyrants do when confronted with threats to their powers. Not only do they use naked repression, as Meles’s current scorched-earth policy and carnage of civilians in the Ogaden amply show, but they invariably try to provoke the disunity of democratic forces. Instigating dissension among those who fight for freedom is one of the insidious methods tyrants use to perpetuate their power. It is then the responsibility of the democratic opposition to unite and thus deny Meles Zenawi the opportunity to transform the fragmentation of the democratic forces into a weapon against Ethiopians and democracy.

The spirit of reconciliation and unity that cemented Adwa’s victory could serve as a moral-political compass to the democratic opposition. To practice reconciliation so that Ethiopians could join hands to overcome oppression—that is, to put aside differences and unite for a common cause, to go beyond past conflicts and work together for a better future—is, from the perspective of Adwa, the essence of political and moral maturity. Sadly, the current scarcity of such maturity has led to the proliferation of internal conflicts and divisions among the democratic opposition, undermining the struggle against Meles’s dictatorship. Nevertheless, the flame of hope that every vote for democracy kindled in 2005 is still alive in the heart of every Ethiopian. The democratic opposition has in 2010 another opportunity to rekindle it. But to do so, it has to espouse Adwa’s spirit of reconciliation and unity.

First, all the members of the democratic opposition claim to be against Meles’s despotism and his ethnic divide-and-rule politics, and they assert to be committed to a democratic Ethiopia. Given this shared and honorable cause, there is no conceivable reason that could justify the absence of reconciliation within the democratic camp. The democratic opposition’s present fragmentation subverts the clearly stated desire for democracy in the 2005 elections and contributes to the consolidation of Meles’s tyranny.

Second, a number of former members of the TPLF/EPRDF, who have witnessed at first hand the political euthanasia that Meles is inflicting on Ethiopia, have abandoned his regime and signaled their readiness to join the democratic struggle. Even if it is the case that some of them have participated previously in the oppressive actions of the regime, what is important is the future of Ethiopia, as Menelik and his domestic adversaries recognized. For the sake of liberating Ethiopians from Meles’s tyranny, the democratic opposition must let the past bury its sins, and make the present a time of reconciliation with all those committed to replacing the present dictatorship with a democratic regime.

No reason could trump the need for reconciliation when its goal is the creation of a democratic Ethiopia. To refuse reconciliation with those who want to contribute to the democratic struggle because they were former members of the TPLF/EPRDF is to ignore the powerful example Ethiopians gave in the 2005 elections. Though Meles has been infecting Ethiopia for decades with what Kahsay Berhe and Tesfay Atsbeha call “a culture of hatred” in their article on this website, Ethiopians responded with a “culture of reconciliation and unity”, put the divisions and recriminations of the past behind them, and voted to replace the ethnic regime of Meles with a democratic one. Meles’s violent response to this peaceful rejection of his rule demonstrates that ousting his regime depends crucially on the widening of the political basis of the democratic opposition. It is hard to see then how one could construe an anti-reconciliation stand as widening the political basis of the struggle against Meles’s dictatorship.

On this 112th anniversary of Adwa, we need to turn to our history, reflect on its successes and failures, on its beautiful and ugly sides, in order to create a better future. Our actions as Ethiopians necessarily take place in the context of this inherited, living and complex history. Hence, the members of the democratic opposition must weigh whether their decisions actualize and advance the liberating or oppressing, the unifying or the disintegrating, currents of our past. It may be that we never learn from history, as some claim. But, if we are to rescue ourselves from the present tyranny, we cannot afford to be ignorant of our history. A people that forgets its history is a people that abandons its responsibility to the future. Hence, it becomes an easy victim of divide-and-rule. It is not without reason that, since the day he grabbed power, Meles has been disparaging Ethiopian history and trying to make Ethiopians forget their history by reducing Ethiopia to a mere collection of mutually hostile ethnies. To paraphrase a statesman, to be ignorant of one’s history is “to remain always a child”, forever barred from the political and moral maturity needed to overcome the kind of complex crisis we now confront.

The members of the democratic opposition face a crisis that requires a historical choice: follow either the path of Mekdella-Mettema or the path of Adwa. If they choose the first path, they will certainly receive Meles’s encouragement, for they will be strengthening his favorite anti-democratic weapon of divide-and-rule. They will be betraying the democratic trust Ethiopians have put in them, for our history shows us that the terminus of the Mekdella-Mettema route is defeat. If, however, they choose the second path, they could bring to life Adwa’s spirit of reconciliation and unite to ensure the triumph of Ethiopians over tyranny.

If the democratic opposition espouses Adwa’s spirit of reconciliation and unity, it could reenact in 2010 the democratic miracle of 2005 even more decisively, and end Meles’s dictatorship. A democratic victory in 2010, though coming 114 years after Adwa, will have nevertheless successfully extended the victory against external oppression into a victory over internal oppression, achieving finally our “civic revolution”, thus completing the task our ancestors started in 1896. What better recognition and honor could we offer our ancestors who came from every corner of Ethiopia and sacrificed their lives at Adwa to set us on the road to freedom?