Ethiopia: Lessons from the battle of Adwa

Ethiopia: Lessons from the battle of Adwa
  • PublishedFebruary 25, 2015

Ethiopia’s historic victory in the Battle of Adwa in March 1896, well-documented and celebrated for ending Italy’s mission of conquest on the continent, may have further lessons for modern day Africa. Pusch Commey explains.

There are many explanations for how Ethiopia, led by Emperor Menelik II, defeated one of Europe’s major powers in the famous Battle of Adwa. But what is little known is that the victory – in the age of relentless European expansion into Africa – had its roots in the law of contract. In this case, the casus belli (justification for war) was article 17 of the infamous treaty of Wuchale.

At the close of the 19th century most of Africa had been carved up by the European powers at the Berlin Conference, with the exception of the Republic of Liberia, and the Ethiopian Empire. Italy had taken control of the impoverished territories of Eritrea and Somaliland, but wanted to further advance its imperial ambitions by taking over adjoining Ethiopia.

The newly installed Emperor (Nagusa Nagast) Menelik was keen to preserve his rule in the face of a full European assault on the continent, and so he agreed to a treaty that ceded some territory in return for a guarantee of his rule, financial assistance and military equipment.

In the eyes of the Italians, the treaty made Ethiopia a protectorate; meaning Ethiopia had surrendered its sovereignty. What they did not appreciate was Menelik’s foresight.

Not so fast! he must have thought. As it turned out later, Menelik had had the wisdom to execute the treaty both in Italian and the Ethiopian language, Amharic. According to the Amharic version, the agreement was just a treaty of cooperation, and not a surrender of sovereignty, as stated in article 17.

Italy, crying breach of contract as per their Italian language version, made that their excuse for an all-out war of annexation. Menelik was not going to roll over. He rallied his empire and fought back tooth and nail, in what has now become the most famous battle involving the defeat of a European power at the hands of an African army – though more importantly, Ethiopia is now in the history books as the only African country to successfully fight off European colonisation.
So what are the lessons from Adwa?
Indeed, there are still good lessons Africa can learn from the battle of Adwa.

The first is Menelik’s ability to win the loyalty of all the bickering factions in Ethiopia, who in the face of a common enemy, put aside their differences and contributed 100,000 troops. Unity was crucial in the face of a superior force on paper. The Chiefs (Ras) put aside personal animosities and fiefdoms to march in unison to Adwa. Amongst them were Ras Makonnen, Ras Tekle Haymonot, Ras Mengesha Yohannes, Ras Sibhat of Tigray, Ras Mikael of Wollo, Ras Wole of Yejju Oromo, and Ras Gebeyehu, who died fighting at Adwa.

Secondly, Menelik enjoyed the unqualified support of his wife, the Empress Taytu Betul, who personally went to the battlefield in full combat gear as a cavalry commander. She turned out to be a formidable leader, and outperformed some of the male commanders. In a declaration to the Italian envoy Antonelli, prior to marching to war, she drew a line in the sand:
“We have also made it known to the powers that the said article, as it is written in our language, has another meaning. Like you, we also ought to respect our dignity. You wish Ethiopia to be represented before the other powers as your protectorate, but this shall never be.”

Perhaps the most useful lesson of all is the wisdom of executing such an important treaty or contract in their native language.

After the colonisation of the continent, mainly motivated by the quest for resources, African capital was now housed in Europe. The next stage in modern times was the use of that capital, technical expertise, and the tools of contracts to acquire more resources to create more wealth and capital for the West. The Chinese, spectators in the old game, have now entered as players in the new scramble for Africa.

With more and more discoveries of oil, gas, and other natural resources in various parts of Africa, and with the “Africa rising” narrative, the nature of how contracts are made with foreign countries needs revisiting and a leaf should be taken from Menelik’s book.

The complaint is that African governments are poor negotiators of contracts and end up giving away large chunks of the countries’ wealth and resources in complex transactions. Often there is also the bane of corruption, with capital greasing the sticky fingers of those in high office as they sign away the continent’s patrimony and dignity.

With respect to disputes, as happened at Adwa, country-backed multinational companies now usually include an arbitration clause, as a means of resolution. The place and rules of arbitration are typically dictated by the terms of the contract to which both parties agree.

The terms of the arbitration clause are dictated by a variety of factors including the location and preferences of the parties involved. African countries, desperate for revenue, are often outmanoeuvred by these companies, who come armed with top legal experts, and end up controlling the process of negotiations, including the crucial details around the jurisdiction where disputes are resolved.

Gabon has been trying since mid-2013 to regain control of its energy assets from three international companies.

Disputes over foreign investment terms and conditions built up tensions between oil industry leaders and Gabon’s oil ministry. Many African countries are getting wiser, taking more control over their resources instead of putting up with the crumbs the continent has always ended up with in many global economic negotiations.

The African Union is reportedly setting up an expert panel to assist in drawing up and overseeing the terms and conditions of the new scramble for resources. They should first visit the battlefield of Adwa, write exams on the historical lessons, and pass their knowledge on to schools.

Most importantly, these officials should ensure that all contracts signed with foreign firms have their African language  equivalent. As in Adwa, the devil is in the interpretation. And after all, the headquarters of the AU is right there in Ethiopia; not far from the battlefield of that definitive African victory.

Written By
Pusch Commey

Pusch Commey is a Barrister of the High Court of South Africa, Award winning writer and associate editor of New African Magazine since 1999. He is based in Johannesburg South Africa. He is the author of 9 books including the best selling 100 great African kings and queens, and Tofi's Fire Dance. He is also the CEO of the South African based Real African Publishers, and the founder of the Real African Writers  series.

3 Commentaires

  • Thank you Mr. Pusch Commey. Africans need to learn from one another.

  • Adwa surely does have its significance in the fight against colonialism, but tens of millions of Ethiopians do not celebrate it. Many Oromos- the majority ethnic group in Ethiopia- as well as other ethnic groups, consider themselves victims of “African colonialism” when Emperor Menilik II comes to mind. I quote, from the following article:

    “But for the majority of Oromos and many other ethnic groups in southern Ethiopia, the 19th century emperor was a genocidal empire builder. From the 1860s to 1900, the Oromo population was halved by the conquest and a famine that ravaged the country in the war’s aftermath, according to University of Toronto professor Abbas Haji Gnamo. No other incident in Ethiopia’s modern history has had such a devastating impact on the Oromo.”


    Much of today’s unrest in Ethiopia comes from an oppressive government, and it’s not just Oromos, but also other groups, who are victims of the oppression, which has led to a state-of-emergency.

    History is frequently bitterwsweet.

    • Have you been to Ethiopian n tried to ask the people who live in southern and northern part of ethiopia. propaganda is not fact.Half of the army who fought Italy at ADWA are OROMOS and your saying they are not celebrating it what an idot Dr.

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