March 2014 marked 118 years of the historic victory of Ethiopian forces over an aspiring imperial power, Italy, soon after the shameful Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 that cut up Africa and divided its territory and resources. Pusch Commey takes us down memory lane.
The Battle of Adwa (29 February-1 March 1896) is of huge significance for Africa in that the decimation of the continent could not be completed. Ethiopia turned out to be the last man standing.
So thorough was the defeat of Italy by Ethiopia, that there were violent riots all over the country, and it resulted in Italy being forced to pay indemnities to Ethiopia and recognise its borders. It is thus not by chance that Ethiopia hosts the African Union headquarters, and serves as an inspiration to Africans all over the world on how to stand up to bullies.
It all began with the Treaty of Wuchale, a cooperative agreement between Ethiopia and Italy. But the devil was in the interpretation. Most significantly, Emperor Menelik II, who claims lineage from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, had the good sense to have his own language version of the treaty, in Amharic.
In the Italian version, Rome claimed that Article 17 meant Ethiopia had relinquished its foreign policy to Italy and thus had become a protectorate. This was disputed by the Amharic version, which clearly stated that Italy and Ethiopia would cooperate on foreign affairs.
Italy then used this as a casus belli to wage war on Ethiopia, which responded ferociously. In a landmark speech made to the nation, Emperor Menelik II made this declaration:
“Enemies have now come upon us to ruin our country and to change our religion. Our enemies have begun the affair by advancing and digging into the country like moles. With the help of God, I will not deliver my country to them. Today, you who are strong, give me your strength, and you who are weak, help me by prayer”.
Of equal significance is the role played by Menelik’s wife, the Empress Taytu Betul, who stood firmly by her husband by telling the Italian envoy, Antonelli: “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.”
What can be achieved by an Africa United was demonstrated by the Battle of Adwa. Ethiopia as a country was divided, as many ethnic groupings swore allegiance to their own chiefs (or Ras). When things came to a head, Emperor Menelik was able to convince all of them to put aside their differences and contribute 100,000 troops to face down the invaders. Prominent amongst them was Ras Mikael of Wollo, Ras Sibhat of Tigray, Ras Wale of Yejju Oromo, and Ras Gebeyehu, who died fighting at Adwa. Empress Betul was the commander of a cavalry.
Italy was completely humiliated. The Italians made many tactical errors in the mountains of Adwa, against a determined and valiant Ethiopian force. A key moment in the battle came when Brigadier Dabormida, the Italian commander, under siege from Ethiopian artillery, decided to withdraw.
Dabormida’s brigade had moved to support Brigadier Albertone but was unable to reach him in time. Cut off from the remainder of the Italian army, Dabormida began to fight while retreating towards friendly positions.
However, he inadvertently marched his command into a narrow valley where the Oromo cavalry, under Ras Mikael, slaughtered the brigade, shouting Ebalgume! Ebalgume! (“Reap! Reap!”)