By Degeufe Hailu
April 22, 2014 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In 1935 Ethiopia became the first and only country in Africa to defeat a European colonial power during the “scramble for Africa”, making it the only independent nation in Africa that has never been colonised.
On March 1, 2014, we Ethiopians celebrated 118 years since the Battle of Adwa, one of the most defining and significant battles in history. It became an inspiring symbol of anti-colonial struggle and helped pave the way for other anti-colonial movements.
As Paul B. Henze author of Layers of Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia, wrote, “the defeat at the Battle of Adwa as the beginning of the decline of Europe at the center of world politics”.
This battle had two fateful consequences: the preservation of Ethiopia’s independence from Italian colonisation and the confirmation of Italy’s control over the part of the country Italy had named Eritrea in 1890. Both consequences had repercussions throughout the 20th century.
For colonised Africans, the Ethiopian victory at Adwa symbolised the possibility of future emancipation. Black South Africans of the Ethiopian Church came to identify with the Christian kingdom in the Horn of Africa, a connection that led South African leader James Dwane to write Menelik for help in caring for the Christian communities of Egypt and Sudan.
The victory at Adwa inspired figures like Nnamdi Azikiwe in Nigeria, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya in the early years of the African independence movement, as well as leaders in the West Indies like George Padmore and Marcus Garvey from Jamaica.
Even in Japan, Ethiopia became appreciated as the first non-Caucasian power to defeat Europeans, an achievement the Japanese were to duplicate in warfare against Russia in 1904.
Adwa raised awareness among Europeans of African political yearnings and potential, as well as indigenous African cultural accomplishments.
Its legacy has resonated in the hearts of all Africans over the generations, striving for dignity, nationalism, a vivacious optimism for a better homeland free of external intervention and oppression.
Generations later, like most African nations, Ethiopia is suffering under corrupt and incompetent government and political instability. This and natural disasters have left its economy devastated. The long war with Eritrea (1998-2000), which led to the deaths of over 80,000 people, further crippled the Ethiopian economy.
Ethiopia has an abundance of natural resources such as gold, methane, copper and platinum. It also exports more than US$400 million dollars worth of coffee per year. Yet, according to the new UNDP Development Multidimensional Poverty Index, it has one of the poorest populations in Africa and in the world.
Over the years, the US Agency for International Development has given Ethiopia $675 million in aid. The United States closely collaborates with Ethiopia in covert missions against fundamentalist Islamists and others in neighboring Somalia and South Yemen. Much of this support from the USA comes from the portrayal of Ethiopia as a strong and stable government in a region riddled with political upheaval.
When the Ethiopian People’s Revolution Democratic Front (EPRDF), whose members mostly came from the former Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), came to power in 1991 it promised to democratise the country. However, two decades later the party has a tight grip on all public institutions, from the capital to remote villages.
Formally a federal democracy, Ethiopia is a highly centralised one-party state. No independent media, judiciary, opposition parties or civil society to speak of exist in today’s Ethiopia. Many of the country’s businesses are affiliated with the ruling party. The corrupt government dominates the economy and the military and this has made Ethiopia one of the poorest country in the world –- with the support of the USA.
Most Ethiopians do not dare discuss politics for fear of harassment by local officials. Political leaders over the decades have had little to no experience in the political arena, “voted in” undemocratically, uncontested by opposition and supported by various Western countries with a vested economic interest.
Case in point: in 2005, Birtukan Mideksa, leader of Ethiopia’s main opposition party, Unity for Democracy and Justice, contested the election that year, but lost under questionable circumstances. When she and her supporters peacefully protested against the legitimacy of the election results, thousands were arrested. Birtukan and more than 100 journalists, opposition leaders and others were put on trial. A well-known journalist and supporter of Birtucan, Andu Alem Arage, was sentenced to life imprisonment -– the same sentence Mandela was given by the apartheid regime in the 1960s.
This is a sad situation considering Ethiopia was once a symbol of African anti-colonial resistance.
As Malcolm X said when he visited Egypt and eastern Africa in 1960: “One thing the colonialist did in all parts of Africa they had under their control was to plant the seeds of hatred and separation in the heart and mind of the innocent indigenous people, so can fight each other and colonialist could have everything under their control.’
He was correct.
The Italian colonialists in the northern part of Ethiopia planted such seeds of division. An Italian colonial diplomat called Count Pietro Antonelli was advised to demarcate the northern part of the country and named it “Eritrea”.
Ethiopians and the peoples of the countries in the Horn of Africa are connected by cultural and historical values. These ties have been formed over the generations through marriage and religion. The constraints of colonialism have brought us together through a quest for nationalism and political autonomy, but unfortunately it has also torn us apart.
The throwback of Italian and British colonialism, that is “divide and rule”, has effectively plunged the Horn of Africa countries into a century of war, divisiveness and political, social and economic instability. The colonialists did not impart the tools to be self-sufficient, but rather, left a chaotic disarray of post-colonial struggle for which suffrage continues to be felt today. A struggle that I believe, would have the heroes of the Battle of Adwa rolling in their graves.
The Battle of Adwa is an important moment of Ethiopia’s resistance. If we organise another wave of struggle against the corrupt government, and cohere a pro-poor leadership capable of convincing the people to take power, this could lead to Ethiopia’s liberation.
I believe this will require an international intervention to support a real democratic process –- one in which people can vote freely, exiled opposition leaders can return without threat of violence, elections that are not influenced by external factors, terror or guns and, most importantly, a process that advances the quest for unity.
[Degeufe Hailu is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Sydney. This is his personal view.]