You are currently viewing Deadly Adwa day shows Abiy’s struggle to shift focus from divisive Ethiopian emperor

Deadly Adwa day shows Abiy’s struggle to shift focus from divisive Ethiopian emperor


Ethiopia’s socio-political tensions bubble over again in raging annual debate over external and internal colonialism.

Clashes between security forces and celebrants in Menelik II Square, Addis Abeba, resulted in “at least one death” and injury of civilians. 

The 2 March incident occurred as security forces attempted to disperse a crowd gathered to commemorate the 127th anniversary of the Battle of Adwa between invading Italian forces and those led by Emperor Menelik II.1 

The recent violence spread to the nearby St. George’s Church, where followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) were celebrating a religious festival. 

According to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), government security forces used “unnecessary and excessive force” on peaceful gatherings of people around Menelik II Square and in nearby St. George’s Church.

The EHRC reported that the security forces’ actions resulted in at least one death and several injuries.

Similarly, the Addis Ababa Diocese of the EOTC accused security forces of violently disrupting a peaceful religious celebration and using tear gas on celebrants.

Venue Uproar

The government’s decision to move the celebrations from Menelik II Square to Meskel Square sparked widespread indignation among EOTC believers.2

The square hosts the emperor’s statue and is located near St. George’s Church of the EOTC, whose Tabot (Ark of the Covenant replica) was marched alongside the emperor’s forces and is said to have helped them win the war against the invading Italian army. 

The drive to move the celebrations was seen by some as a concerted effort to de-emphasize the role of the Church and the emperor in the historic victory.

While not canonized by the Church, Menelik II is venerated as a pious and benevolent emperor by many of the EOTC faithful.3 

EOTC leaders feel that the Church’s role as a spiritual guide in the monumental victory, as well as its overall place in Ethiopia’s socio-political history, has been under systematic attack by Abiy’s government. 

Consequently, EOTC leaders and its dominant Amhara socio-cultural base are indignant at the government’s perceived attempt to undermine the emperor’s legacy.

Disputed Ownership

Ethiopia’s triumph at Adwa was a monumental event that symbolizes African resistance to European colonialism. It represents a pivotal moment in Ethiopia’s history, in which the country’s diverse inhabitants banded together to fight a common enemy.  

Over the years, the egalitarian nature of the victory allowed Adwa to become an all-inclusive foundation on which modern Ethiopian nationhood was built.

However, more recently, there has been a tussle to claim sole ownership of Ethiopia’s political history among the country’s competing ethno-nationalist elites. This has caused arguments to intensify over who should take credit for the Battle of Adwa.


Amharas tend to credit Menelik II, who was the King of Shewa, a territory that is now mostly part of the Amhara region, before becoming emperor of Ethiopia in 1889. 

Oromo nationalists have emphasized the role of Oromo generals, such as Dejazmach Balcha Safo and Ras Gugsa Welle, in achieving the victory, disregarding the nationalist narrative about Adwa.

Many Tigrayans, for their part, note that the battle was fought in Tigray and claim the region’s leaders and inhabitants played a central role in the military victory.

Consequently, their commemoration of Adwa has centered around Ras Alula and Bashay Awalom, Tigrayan heroes of the battle, as embodiments of what they view as Tigray’s predicament of sacrificing the most but getting the least from the Ethiopian victory.

Divisive Figure

In the past, Emperor Menelik II was hailed as the main hero of Adwa. However, this view has caused consternation, particularly among Oromo nationalists, as he is a controversial figure due to his internal policies.

Menelik II’s bloody campaigns to expand the empire southwards in the late nineteenth century are bitterly resented by many Oromos and other southern peoples, making him a divisive figure. 

Oromo nationalists, who view the territorial expansion of the Ethiopian empire and imposition of the semi-feudal Neftegna-Gabbar system as a form of internal colonization, tend to portray Adwa as the clash of two competing imperialists. 

In the words of Tsegaye Ararsa, a prominent Oromo nationalist and legal activist, “it was a war fought between two maiden empires competing over the fate of black peoples in Ethiopia and beyond.”

Similarly, Tigrayan socio-political elites have increasingly challenged the traditional perception of the Adwa victory as a source of national pride and solidarity.4 

Emperor Menelik Addis Ababa Abyssinia reception of Theodore Roosevelt's Diplomatic Treaty Mission 1903-1904

Emperor Menelik II; Addis Ababa; 1903-1904; Massillon Museum.

They have emphasized Adwa’s symbolic significance in cementing Eritrea’s separation, which contradicts the national narrative that portrays the victory as the foundation of unity. 

Menelik II’s perceived decision in the treaties before and after the battle to bifurcate Tigrinya-speaking people north and south of the Mereb by ceding Eritrea to Italy has made the emperor unpopular among Tigrayans.5 

A more nuanced view recognizes Menelik II’s leadership in achieving victory at Adwa while recognizing that history is complex and he was a man of his times.

Unifying Force?

Over the past three years, celebrations of the battle by Ethiopian nationalists while Adwa itself has been under siege and its residents subjected to unspeakable atrocities amid the civil war have been viewed by many Tigrayans as rubbing salt in their wounds.    

Government officials have claimed that the recalibration of the celebration was motivated by a desire to “strengthen national unity and nation-building”. 

Abiy’s efforts to move the focus of the victory away from the controversial figure of Menelik II and towards emphasizing Adwa’s role in unifying all of Ethiopia’s nationalities appears to be part of a larger policy shift towards sustaining the multinational constitution as per the Pretoria Agreement

While this move will likely be well-received by federalists, and may even contribute to an eventual consensus, it will continue to face stern resistance from Amhara nationalists and social conservatives in the EOTC, particularly as it’s accompanied by Abiy’s rapprochement with the widely despised TPLF.

Although the signs are bad, the National Dialogue Commission may possibly still play a significant role in fostering a compromise, without which the country faces further instability due in part to these underlying historical schisms.

Query or correction? Email us

Main Image: Menelik II statue; Addis Abeba, Ethiopia; 27 October 2007.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.


1    The Battle of Adwa took place on 1 March 1896, and marked the climax of the First Italo-Ethiopian War. Ethiopian forces emerged victorious over the invading Italian army near the town of Adwa in northern Ethiopia, halting Italy’s campaign to expand their colonial empire in the Horn of Africa. Adwa became a crucial symbol of pan-Africanism, demonstrating that African forces could successfully resist European colonialism. The Ethiopian victory at Adwa also secured their sovereignty until the outbreak of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, which took place between 1935 and 1937.
2     According to government officials, technically the celebration took place in Menelik II Square, Adwa Bridge, and Meskel Square. So, the government would argue that the victory was commemorated in Menelik II square and the indignation of the celebrants is unwarranted. But it is evident that the main focus of the event was made to be at Meskel Square
3    As Joseph A. Steward writes in his master’s thesis on Adwa, “Menelik had largely succeeded in creating a growing national narrative about Adwa, the divine role of Saint George, who was increasingly being viewed as the Patron Saint of Ethiopia, and his own role, not just in the battle, but also in the establishment of a new, modern Ethiopia. His legend has, in many parts of Ethiopia, taken on an almost saintly status within the collective memory of Ethiopia.”
4    It’s noteworthy that the Tigray Communication Affairs Bureau’s Facebook page was forced to remove the picture of Menelik II it had used in its message commemorating the Battle of Adwa. Presumably, the TPLF-run Facebook page used Menelik II’s picture as a gesture of goodwill in the spirit of the Pretoria Agreement. However, this caused an uproar on social media from members of the Tigrayan community that forced the bureau to apologize.
5     There is a contention that the Treaty of Wuchale in 1889, which took place prior to the Battle of Adwa and was a catalyst for the war, resulted in Menelik II intentionally relinquishing Ethiopian territories north of the Mereb (now Eritrea) to Italy for political and financial reasons. According to the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission, “in 1889, by the Treaty of Uccialli, Ethiopia and Italy established the boundary between the Empire of Ethiopia and the areas of Eritrea then in Italian possession. On 1 January 1890, Italy formally established the Colony of Eritrea… [After the battle of Adwa] Ethiopia and Italy soon began their negotiations for a definitive frontier. Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia at first sought a frontier considerably to the north of the Mereb-Belesa-Muna line, but eventually agreed in 1900 to keep to that line (in exchange for a payment of 5,000,000 lire, apparently for forgoing a more extensive claim)”.

The post Deadly Adwa day shows Abiy’s struggle to shift focus from divisive Ethiopian emperor appeared first on Ethiopia Insight.

Source: Link to the Post

Leave a Reply