The fighter’s spirit: Commemorating the Adwa Victory 125 years on Victory Day as opposed to Independence Day

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By Yohana Kassahun

There is an unusually tense atmosphere at Menelik Square. The nation has gone through an unfortunate series of events the previous year, with the misfortune trickling into 2013EC. The unrest in the north had left the country slightly divided. The recovery from that seemed like it would be a bit more speedy on Tuesday when hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians were seen in cultural clothes and T-shirts with prints commemorating the Adwa Victory. Tuesday’s celebration commenced in the attendance of Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde, the Minister for Culture and Tourism, Hirut Kassahun, senior government officials and members of the Ancient Ethiopian Patriots’ Association, and thousands of city residents who gathered around a bronze statue of Emperor Menelik II on horseback. Security forces stated that the victory day was celebrated peacefully with no security incident.
The victory of Adwa took place on March 1, 1896, at Adwa, in north-central Ethiopia, between the Ethiopian army of Emperor Menelik II and Italian forces. The victory had major significance for being the first crushing defeat of a European power by African forces during the colonial era. The Ethiopian army’s victory checked Italy’s attempt to build an empire in Africa.
The war declaration was widely heeded and welcomed throughout the country, a clear affirmation of his popularity. Menelik’s declaration is an important literary document in the context of preparation, the will to fight and become victorious at the Battle of Adwa. Menelik appealed to the love of family, religion, and country. He reminded Ethiopians that the enemy intends to take away the core values and traditions cherished by the people. Menelik declared:
“Up until now, through the grace of God, who permitted me to live by destroying my enemies and expanding the territorial boundaries of our country. It is also through the grace of God that I am ruling. Therefore, I have no fear of death. More importantly, God has never let me down and I am confident that he will let me be victorious again.”
“At this time, another enemy has entered our territory by crossing our God-given sea. His objective is to destroy the country and to change religion. As a result of a major cattle disease that devastated a large number of our livestock and brought great sufferings to our farmers and pastoralists in the last few years, I remained quiet and patient to numerous hostile provocations. And yet the enemy continued to dig deeper in the ground like a hog.”
“Now God willing or with God’s help, I will not surrender my country. My fellow country folks, I do not believe that I disappointed you in the past. You have not also disappointed me. If you are strong, then help me with your strength to fight the enemy. If you are not strong, I seek your moral support for the sake of your children, wife, and religion. If, on the other hand, you seek a lame excuse not to join the national campaign against our enemy, I will be upset and I will have no mercy on you, I will punish you. My campaign begins in October, and I expect volunteers from Shewa to gather in Woreilu by mid-October.”
The call came as such and the patriots obliged.
Menelik’s forces were well armed with modern weaponry. They numbered more than 100,000. Menelik, however, shrewdly downplayed this military strength by leaking false reports indicating a much smaller number of troops under his command and by spreading rumors that there was widespread discord among his forces.
The number of those in the Italian army who were killed is estimated to have been more than 6,000, of whom slightly more than half were Italian; the remainder were askari forces (African troops hired and trained by the Europeans). Additionally, between 3,000 and 4,000 of those fighting under Italian command were taken prisoner by the Ethiopians. Perhaps as many as 70 percent of Italy’s soldiers were thus killed or captured. More than 5,000 Ethiopian troops were killed and 8,000 wounded in the battle—a number greater than Italy’s losses, but a small percentage of all Ethiopian forces.
The Treaty of Addis Ababa, signed in October 1896, abrogated the Treaty of Wichale and reestablished peace. The Italian claim to a protectorate over all of Ethiopia was thereafter abandoned, and the Italian colony of Eritrea, finally delimited by a treaty of peace (September 1900), was reduced to a territory of about 200,000 square km (80,000 square miles).
Menelik’s victory over the Italians gave him significant credibility with the European powers, bolstered his mandate at home, and provided the Ethiopian kingdom with a period of peace in which it was able to expand and flourish, in contrast to most of the rest of the African continent at that time, which was embroiled in colonial conflicts.
Ethiopia’s President Sahle-Work Zewde stated in her speech “We have to understand the problems we are facing now and find a solution. We must strive to move forward for a better future by embracing the spirit of Adwa,” the president emphasized, adding, “We must work in harmony to secure a developed country for the coming generation, accepting the fact that nothing comes above our beloved country,” she said.
Muferiat Kamil, Ethiopia’s Minister of Peace, stressed that the Adwa victory is an important milestone, and Ethiopians should tap into the sense of unity that resulted from the memorable victory towards building national resilience that would help withstand current misunderstandings among the Ethiopian society. “The victory of Adwa is a symbol of unity, togetherness, and strength not only for Ethiopians and the rest of African but also for the global community,” she said.
Getachew Birhanu, a 23-years-old university student from Ethiopia’s northwestern Bahir Dar city who is presently attending the Addis Ababa University, said the day signifies a profound achievement not only for Ethiopians but also for all Africans and other freedom fighters across the globe.
“As the name depicts, it signifies a momentous victory by a less-equipped Ethiopian force against a well-equipped colonizing Italian force. Because of them (Ethiopians who fought against the colonizer force), we now celebrate a Victory Day as opposed to Independence Day,” added Birhanu.