The Historical Significance of Adwa
Adwa is a city in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia.
The city is known, and widely celebrated, as the site of Ethiopia’s victory over Italian colonizers in the 1896 Battle of Adwa.
To this day, Ethiopia’s victory against the Italian invasion in Adwa has a strong national and anti-colonial significance.
Since November 2020—and following the invasion, occupation, destruction, and siege of Tigray—the city that was once a symbol for Ethiopia’s independence has become victim to the violence of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s genocidal war.
National Observance of the Victory of Adwa
To commemorate Ethiopia’s victory in the Battle of Adwa, a national holiday is observed on March 2.
This victory has been a source of celebration and recognized as a holiday for 125 years. Despite Ethiopia never being fully colonized, Adwa Day is celebrated much like an independence day as it commemorates resistance and victory against colonization and the solidification of Ethiopian identity.
Anti-colonial Significance of the Victory in Adwa
Part of the significance of the Battle of Adwa to Tigrayans lies in the participation of ordinary people who fought, including soldiers from every region of Ethiopia and rural farmers from Tigray.
Adwa represents the bravery and the heroism of the people and the unexpected but crucial triumph of Africans over a heavily armed European power.
For some, it marked the beginning of a greater anti-colonial struggle in Africa and beyond. Compared to their well-resourced opponent, the victory of Africans against a colonial force became a symbol of Black freedom on the continent and globally.
The Legacy of Adwa in Ethiopia
Adwa is predominantly recognized as a symbol of anti-colonialism and victory against western imperialism. However, the significance of Adwa has been manipulated to suit different political agendas throughout Ethiopia’s domestic, national history.
Because people travelled from all over Ethiopia to Addis Ababa in preparation for the battle and advanced to Adwa from there as one, mainstream historical narratives emphasize the territorial and political unity of the Ethiopian empire and, later on, nation-state.
The victory was juxtaposed by the history of a colonized Africa and perpetuated a narrative of Ethiopian exceptionalism from colonization. It proved that subjugation was not the
only destiny of African nations, and that Africans had the power to maintain their culture, language, and identity.
The strength and unity of the Ethiopian people during the Battle of Adwa has been used to encourage Pan-Africanism and Ethiopianism in the decades following the victory. This brand of Ethiopianism—centering ideas of self-worth, dignity, and freedom from colonialism—later served as the foundation of various Pan-African organizations, including ones in the United States.
The Brutal Expansion of the Ethiopian Empire Following Victory in Adwa
The counter narrative and historical significance of Adwa to indigenous and southern peoples is centrally concerned with Ethiopian expansion as foreign domination itself. The glorified battle occurred during the reign of Emperor Menelik II, whose victory at Adwa established his power in the national arena and “appeared to cancel, or rather conceal, the internal policy of expansion and consolidation of his country’s rule in the region.”
By 1913, under Menelik II’s rule, Ethiopia incorporated territories far beyond the traditional
boundaries of the Abyssinian empire—forcibly including Oromo, Afar, Somali, Kaffa, Nuer, Sidama, and Konso lands, which remain in the Ethiopian empire today.
The common justification for Ethiopian expansion is andinet (unity). In the context of the Battle of Adwa, this unity was used as a guise to undermine indigenous resistance to the Ethiopian empire. This resulted in a rewriting of history, or a dominant narrative, that legitimized the imposition of borders that subjugated many people.
This narrative exploits events like the Battle of Adwa to glorify the supposed historical unity of Ethiopia, and thereby disregard the existence and validity of ethnic diversity within the nation-state.
Massacre, War, and Threats to Tigrayan Self-Rule Today
In this tweet, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy utilizes Ethiopianist narratives, associating the strength of the country and the continent at large with unity and solidarity with the Ethiopian nation-state, despite the government and military abuses of varying degrees against civilians in Tigray, and in Oromia, Benishangul Gumuz, and Afar.
Adwa, once a symbol of Ethiopian unity, was one of the first targets in Prime Minister Abiy’s genocidal war in Tigray that began in November 2020.
In November 2020, residents of Adwa reported that over 30 civilians were massacred by Eritrean soldiers. Journalists and human rights groups confirmed the massacre, but only 12 of the victims were identified.
Adwa as a Target for Genocide
Despite consensus on what Adwa’s victory represents, the town and its people are subjected to weaponized starvation. Children in Adwa are suffering from severe acute malnutrition, as most of the population faces a man-made famine. Children are being born malnourished because of the nutritional deficiencies of their mothers.
Adwa has also suffered through indiscriminate violence. Adwa was a repeated target of mass killings in the genocidal war in Tigray in February and April of 2021. It is representative of the relentless nature of violence in Tigray perpetuated by invading forces against civilians.
An eyewitness of the April 2021 attack said:
“There was no fighting, but just shooting at passersby.”
The victims of the massacre in Adwa are a percentage of the thousands of victims who have been killed in 230 massacres throughout Tigray during the last year of war.
A Forever Changed Adwa
Ethiopians’ disregard for the patterned and systematic violence seen in Adwa and other parts of Tigray only perpetuates and prolongs destruction, giving up the opportunity to preserve its history and significance.
Adwa once represented the potential for Ethiopianism—including dignity, glory, and strength in diversity.
However, Ethiopianist rhetoric has contributed to a genocidal war that seeks to destroy the people of faith and their heritage sites that are significant to Tigrayan and Ethiopian history, such as Adwa and Axum.
- Marzagora, Sara. Alterity, Coloniality, and Modernity in Ethiopian Political Thought: the First Three Generations of 20th Century Amharic-Language Intellectuals. University of London, 2015.