The salutary lesson and significance of the spirit of Adwa Victory

(By: Samuel Addis)

The 117th anniversary of Ethiopia’s victory over Italy at Adwa was celebrated here in Addis Ababa on Saturday, March 1st. It was, as usual, a colorful and memorable commemoration of the great victory won by the Ethiopian army over the colonial forces of Italy on March 2nd, 1896, and held in the Piazza in the center of the city, where the statue of the victorious Emperor Minelik II still stands. The event was attended by the Speaker of the House, Abadula Gemeda, ministers, foreign and local dignitaries and veterans of the Ethiopian Patriots association as well as residents of Addis Ababa. A twenty one gun salute was fired in honor of the victory, and Speaker Abadula laid a wreath of flowers at the statue in honor of the heroic forces of Ethiopia who won such a crushing victory and successfully defended the sovereignty of Ethiopia. In his speech the Speaker called for the youth of Ethiopia to continue with this tradition of victory by rallying behind the country’s efforts to defeat poverty and backwardness. A symposium and a flag-hoisting ceremony were also held in the historic city of Adwa in northern Ethiopia.

Ethiopians have celebrated this victory, a victory for Ethiopia and for Africa, in the same way for year after year. Beyond the celebration and artillery salvoes, it is perhaps more befitting today to consider what is the significance for us today as well in the past.

As a historic watershed in the history of black Africa, the battle of Adwa has always resonated in the heart of black people as a symbolic victory, signifying defiance to colonialism and the aims of exploitation and control that it represented. It was the first major victory of non-white peoples over a European army. Indeed, it turned upside down the then widespread belief that Africans were no match for European colonizers. The defeat of Italian troops at the hands of less well-equipped Ethiopians became a constant reminder of the possibility of defeat to colonial forces elsewhere, as well as a real source of inspiration to the oppressed colonial peoples, and to the diaspora of black Africans elsewhere who were still struggling to free themselves from slavery and subjugation.

Today, as we commemorate the 117th anniversary of the victory, perhaps its most enduring value is the spirit of invincibility attached to it rather than the military value of the victory, important though that was. To be more specific, Adwa’s real significance lies in its value in having stripped bare the myth of the ‘civilizing mission’ of the colonizers. Indeed, it can be said that the delusion of the ‘white man’s burden’ met its ‘Waterloo’ at Adwa. Ethiopia’s patriots put to shame Emperor Umberto and Prime Minister Crispi who claimed it was ‘right and proper’ to colonize ‘savage and barbarous’ Africans. Indeed, it proved to the world that these ‘savage barbarians’ were the true defenders of freedom, equality and human dignity as the greatest of all the virtues of mankind.

Adwa, indeed, still stands as one of the most important of redeeming moments for black people, and still signals its role as a death blow to colonialists and social Darwinists who thought blacks were inferior who did not deserve inherent rights of humanity. It is also an immortal and major facet in the catalogue of gallant resistance offered by Africans to line up with the gallant Zulu resistance by Shaka in the 19th century or the Mau Mau in Kenya fifty years ago. It is a victory that reverberated in the hearts of Marcus Gravey, William Du Bois and Martin Luther King, and inspired them and the other great freedom fighters who led the Back to Africa and Civil Rights Movements in America.

In today’s rapidly growing Africa and the expanding economic, political and economic integration – under the rubric of the African Union’s “Pan-Africanism for the African renaissance” – the spirit of Adwa provides a moral springboard for the emergence of a new continent, a new Africa, an Africa free to decide its own destiny. Adwa certainly belongs to Africa,  but it also belongs to Ethiopia, and here too it provide the basis to imbue the youth of the country with the winning spirit, the example of the courage and determination we need to win our battle against poverty.


*Originally published on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, on March 2013, titled “The salutary lesson and the significanance of the spirit of Adwa”, authored by Samuel Addis.

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