Adwa is a colonial war among competing Colonial Empires despite the participation of subject peoples as footsoldiers

By: Tsegaye Ararsa

Indians, Nigerians, Ghanaians fought both World Wars (one of which is a purely colonial-imperial war) under the British. Eritreans and Lybians fought WWII for Italy. Likewise, Africans and Caribbeans fought for the French. In each case, the wars weren’t fought for their freedom. They fought the white man’s war as colonial subjects. It took decades of struggle for decolonization before these subject peoples fought for freedom.

Adwa is a colonial war of the scramble for the horn of Africa. It was a war among whites and honorary whites. Many subject peoples, most of them in chains, were weaponized against the Italians.

In the end, colonialism was entrenched and legalized in the horn of Africa. Eritrea was officially ceded to Italy as their colony. In subsequent treaties, the British title over the territories of the Sudan, Kenya, and British Somaliland was readily accepted. The Italian title over Eritrea and Italian Somaliland was legally entrenched. The French got full title deeds, as it were, for 99 years over the French Somaliland.

These Menelikan colonialist adventures were the price of Abyssinian sovereignty as per the colonial international law of the time. Abyssinian sovereignty, sanctioned and sanctified by colonial international law of the time–meant “to civilize the African ‘savages'” in Ethiopia and beyond, included many subject peoples into the fold of the territory of what was officially Abyssinia until 1946.

Today, those who like to fetishize the Adwa moment tell us that Adwa is the victory of all Ethiopians because even subject peoples have fought in the war. This is an attempt to include the subject peoples into the fold of their Abyssinian imperial adventures in order to totalize their own experience of the Adwa glory as the experience of these subjects. It is a strategy of retrospective legitimation by inclusion, I understand. But including the otherwise excluded for the sake of legitimizing the hegemon is still exclusion. It is exclusion by inclusion.

Adwa is anything but an anti-colonial war. Adwa accepted, confirmed, appropriated, and amplified the first premises and the logic of European colonialism and implemented it in the horn of Africa with a more barbaric rigor effected through European rifles. As such, it was merely a local instantiation of what Kipling called “the white man’s burden”, albeit done by black bodies.

Adwa is anything but a black victory over a white colonizer. Adwa was a moment of self-hating denial of blackness. Nothing typifies this more than the emphatic Menelikan disavowal of his blackness when he was invited to be an honorary president of the global association for the improvement of the life of the “Negro”. By saying “I am not a Negro; I am Caucasian,” Menelik stipulated that he is “an honorary white man.” This stipulation, while assuming alliance and identification with white Europe (the “community of civilized nations”), also inaugurated the habasha racism that, to date, discounts blackness, devalues black culture and identity, and belittles the dignity of black persons and all darker skinned peoples. In a way, Adwa was the inaugural moment for the birth of racialized hierarchy between and among the peoples of Ethiopia.

Adwa is anything but an African triumph over global imperialism. It was in fact a moment that contributed to the subjugation of Africa–the horn region–to European colonialism. It was a local instantiation of the global imperial project of the “scramble for Africa.” Much to the dejection of genuine pan-Africanists, this happened by propagating the Ethiopian exceptionalism in Africa (claiming that it is an ancient state, that it was Judaic/semitic, that it was christian, that is was the second Zion, that it was ‘civilized’, etc). Consequently, the Adwa moment ushered in the notion that Abyssinia, is IN Africa but not OF Africa, is “African but not quite.”

And yet, I understand that there are people who are passionately attached to this moment because of the positive material and moral consequences the moment yielded for them. That is as it should be, because it is experienced by them as their moment of glory.

That does not mean that everyone experienced the moment in the same way. Nor does it mean that the same positive consequences accrued to us all in the same way.

Yes, numerous subject peoples took part in it. Some in chains, some free. Some were deployed at a leadership level owing to their skills of war. Notable names of Oromo or of other non-habasha descent may have adorned the list of fighters or war leaders. But that doesn’t make the war theirs. Nor does it make any less colonial, any less imperial, or any more African, or any blacker. That Ghanaians, Indians, or Nigerians fought for the Britain; that Eritreans, and Libyans fought for Italy; that Francophone West Africans, Caribbeans, or Algerians fought for the French made the world wars wars of freedoms for their subject peoples.

To not celebrate your party is not to stand against it. It only means that it is YOUR party, not ours.

If you can hear this voice of hesitation, maybe, therein you will also find the hope of your redemption, inclusion on the terms defined by the hitherto excluded.

If not, you will dance to your own chants alone. That is fine by us as long as you don’t ask us to dance to your chants. To be in the house isn’t exactly the same as being in the party.

PS. For the mindless and homeless political rascals: now go out and fetishize the Adwa moment like you always do, like you fetishize most everything Abyssinian alright. But don’t ask us to dance to your chants.