Ethiopia: Rejecting Attempts to Undermine a Unifying Symbol


A hundred twenty-five years ago this week Ethiopians displayed unrivaled bravery at Adwa to achieve a momentous victory that dealt a humiliating blow to European colonialists and inspired black people all over the world to hold their heads high. The 1896 Adwa Victory epitomizes the bravery, perseverance and sacrifice of our ancestors. Though the invading Italian army was armed to the teeth with modern guns, artillery and other armament, the Ethiopian forces arrayed against it from all corners of the country had nothing more than outdated weaponry and an unshakeable love of country. Bound by a bond of unity they paid the ultimate price to vanquish the enemy. Our fearless forefathers achieved the most improbable of feats despite the untold suffering they were subjected to at the hands of the then leaders because they were fiercely protective of for their country and put its sovereignty above everything else. Present-day Ethiopians can never forget this patriotism when we commemorate the Adwa Victory.

As we celebrate the unprecedented victory of black people over a European power at Adwa, it is befitting to draw attention to some of its ramifications. It dispelled the notion of white supremacy perpetuated by European colonialists and became a rallying cause for anti-colonialism struggles in Africa, Latin America and Asia. It also laid a strong foundation for the Pan-African movement and played a vital role in convincing Africans to choose Ethiopia as the seat of the former Organization of African Unity now the African Union. It further enhanced Ethiopia's standing on the world stage, thereby giving it the right to be a founding member of the League of Nations and the United Nations. This is not an embellishment; as a matter of fact it's something the world has recognized and paid tribute to.

Sadly, the manner in which the victory was consecrated this year in Addis Ababa has to say the least been controversial. In a departure from the usual celebrations the victory was observed in two separate events at the Menelik II and Meskel squares. While there is nothing wrong with this, the absence of any overt display of Emperor Menelik II--the leader of the Ethiopian forces who inflicted the crushing defeat on the Italian colonial army--and the advancement of a competing narrative during the Meskel Square commemoration has left many baffled and disappointed at what they see as a deliberate snub of Menelik's role in the victory and an attack against a feat that should serve as unifying symbol. Though this may not be the intention of the organizers of the commemoration, they should have foreseen that the omission was bound to elicit such a reaction.

It truly beggars belief that our valiant ancestors vanquished an enemy with a vastly superior firepower in a war no one gave them a chance of winning. They put aside their differences and came together to defend the sovereignty of their beloved motherland. But how much do Ethiopians really love their country today? How ready are they to pay the sacrifices asked of them? How many are genuinely committed to improving the lot of the country and fellow citizens instead of power mongering or advancing personal interest? These are some of the issues that need to be the topic of serious deliberations. These days mistakes that undermine national unity abound thanks to the tendency to judge the past harshly in hindsight and view it through the prism of the present. Sadly, some compatriots incapable of appreciating the indispensable role that their fellow citizens' deep sense of patriotism had in forging the strong bond between them are belittling the contribution of the protagonists of the Adwa Victory. However, the sacrifices of selfless Ethiopians can neither be denied nor disparaged. After all, the fact that Ethiopia has never been colonized is an enduring testimony to their accomplishment.

The Adwa Victory is a timeless exploit achieved by Ethiopians of all walks of life and their rulers alike in defense of a holy cause: the sovereignty of the country and its people. It is therefore incumbent upon politicians, public officials, academics and particularly the leadership of the Prosperity Party to emulate such a display of commitment and patriotism. Similarly, they have to remind themselves that a country which is emblematic of the freedom movement of black people and striving to extricate itself from democracy must not relegate the democratization process to the back. They have to ask themselves why a nation that long served as the beacon of freedom and has registered impressive growth on the economic front is now the butt of perennial criticism when it comes to respect for the rule of law and fundamental liberties.

The Adwa Victory is an enduring legacy of the profound sacrifice that unmistakably demonstrated Ethiopians' passionate desire for independence; it is an expression of freedom, honor and what defines them as a people. As the current generation marks the 125th anniversary of the victory it needs to pay homage to the sacrifice paid in blood, sweat and tears to secure freedom. Ethiopians may continue to take real pride in this shining victory if and only when democracy takes root through peaceful and civilized means and becomes the norm. If the price paid during the Battle of Adwa is not to be in vain and inspire the establishment of a democratic order anchored in the free expression of the will of the people, the victory has to be celebrated in an atmosphere fostering unity and harmony. Any attempt to milk it for political mileage and thereby undermine its value as a unifying national symbol needs to be rejected in no uncertain

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