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How a major anti-colonial victory divided Ethiopia

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Today marks the 123rd anniversary of the battle of Adwa in which Ethiopia inflicted a crushing defeat on Italy's colonial army. It was a landmark victory that permanently altered the course of Ethiopian and African history. The outcome of the battle was so stunning for Ethiopia and so humiliating for Italy that, according to the New York Times, even the pope was "greatly disturbed".

Adwa is annually commemorated as an iconic victory in Ethiopia, but it nevertheless remains a focal point of political and ideological contestation between various nationalist groups in the country.

For some, it is a momentous event that defined the weight and prestige of Ethiopia on the global stage and stands as a shining example of the endurance and fortitude of the Ethiopian people to this day. For others, the historic battle is not a "heroic victory" as such, but an unfortunate military achievement that helped Emperor Menelik II consolidate his brutal southward expansion. Still others view Adwa as the very first decisive victory of a black African power against colonialism, and celebrate it as a critical juncture in black people's collective struggle against European colonial domination.

In other words, the battle of Adwa is an event that is etched into the consciousness of a significant portion of the Ethiopian population, but it does not carry the same meaning for everyone. The contemporary narratives about the battle are largely retrospective, often reconstructed based on current political and ideological considerations. They aim to control meaning, solidify an ideological position, or simply fit this historical episode into a larger contemporary narrative, and as a result, cannot agree on a single interpretation.

Today, the differences between these multiple interpretations are more obvious, and impactful, than ever before. As Ethiopia seeks to forge a new path forward, it brings existing ideological and political faultlines into a sharp focus, and in the process history in general and Adwa, in particular, are becoming a battleground where multiple forms of power struggles and competing modalities of remembering and forgetting converge.


© Al Jazeera