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.

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THE PEOPLES’ ADWA: The Imperative of Embracing Plural Interpretation

Tsegaye R. Ararssa

1 March 2016
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Every year, when March is around the corner, Ethiopian social media activists start to be noisy. The defenders of Adwa as a phenomenal black history moment and the revisionists battle it out fiercely, often in a vulgar mode of exchange. Over the last two years, I have been observing this discussion between those who seek to promote the old narrative of state orthodoxy as the only and the universal meaning of Adwa and those who take a more sceptical stance seeking to show the darker sides that the Adwa moment signifies.

The following paragraphs were written in response to those who seek to impose on the Oromo this exhausted old narrative of the ideologically motivated imperial State Orthodoxy.

1.There are right reasons to celebrate the battle of Adwa. But to say Adwa is a black man’s war fought for securing the freedom of the people of the black race is celebrating the event for the wrong reason.

2.Truth be told, it was a colonial war fought among colonial empires, framed by rules of colonial international law, with a colonizing consequence for Africa.

3.It was a war fought between two maiden empires competing over the fate of black peoples in Ethiopia and beyond. This was clearly stated by the emperor himself several times, the emperor who also clearly denied that he is black, the emperor who rather mysteriously claimed to be Caucasian, the emperor who refused to identify with Afro-Americans and Haitians who saw him as one of their own and sought to salute him for his achievements at Adwa, the emperor who brutally murdered millions of black people, the emperor who personally owned over 70, 000 black slaves, the emperor who negotiated with white colonial powers on the fate of other black peoples (Eritreans, Djiboutians, Somalis, and the Sudanese) under white colonial rule.

4.To say Adwa is a pride of black people, therefore, is a distortion of historical truth and a gross misrepresentation of the man and the event.

5.To say that our people sacrificed, especially those of them who were in chains, to preserve a semblance of an African sovereignty; to commemorate the lives lost in that war and to honor the sacrifices thereof is the right reason to celebrate it. As someone whose forefathers have paid dearly for this and for the subsequent fascist war, I feel the pain, I share the loss, and I honor their sacrifice.

6.As I honor their sacrifice and commemorate and celebrate the lives of the many black bodies lost there, I speak the truth, the whole truth, and stick only to the truth.

7.To my compatriots who insist that we should celebrate it for the wrong reason, I insist in telling you the truth, the raw truth, especially on the issues we disagree strongly.

Doing this is paying a proper tribute to the agony and anguish of those who lived and died in chains to defend a state that left them outside of the polity. To do this is a sacred duty, a civic duty, an act of loyalty–even to the state that is formed on my forefathers’ graves.

This is an act of sacrifice, as I am fully aware of the past and present reality of rejection in Ethiopia, completely cognizant of its violent beginnings and violent bearings in the present, totally imbued with faith in redemption, and immensely driven by the almost impossible hope of transformation, even of transfiguration.

To those of you who don’t see the gibberish in the incoherence of, and the irony in, the Menelikan claim to be (an honorary) whiteman but think I am making a gibberish (you know who you are!);

To those of you who claimed that we prefer an Italian colonial rule to an Abyssinian one (almost all of you in the Menelikan fetish camp have said it!);

To those of you who–being the children and grandchildren of bandas and the shumbash–came out to whitewash yourself by calling me names such as banda (and you know who you are!!!);

To those of you who, because of historical misinformation–via political and cultural propaganda such as songs by Gigi, Tedy Afro and essays by Bewketu, and a self-conscious and yet a romanticizing film produced by Professor Haile Gerima, etc– to those of you who could not distinguish the right from the wrong reasons for celebrating the event as a result;

For you, I have only pity.

But I like to restate to you in the strongest possible terms that I come from a people of hope and redemption.

I note the fractured beginnings of the state.

I note its violent inauguration.

I note its deficits of pan-Africanism (which is still the reason that Ethiopia is IN Africa but not OF Africa).

I note the Ethiopian State’s imperial and colonial beginnings.

I note all of its ‘original constitutional sins’.

And I will openly tell you about it.

I will be happy to engage you in a conversation in public or private.

In fact, I encourage a deeper public conversation on the matter. Yes, a deeper national conversation that is long overdue. (This might also help us develop a sense of ‘ethical listening,’ a sense of agonistic listening, to each other as a polity.)

And I do so because I believe in the hope of transformation. I believe in the hope of going beyond and above those inaugural wounds. I believe in building a better future in spite of, and BECAUSE OF, those wounds. I believe in the transfiguration of society.

I will also tell you what I won’t do:

I will not pamper you.

I will not come to you with half-truths.

I will not mystify the objective truth.

I will not shrink the meaning of the event or the historical figures into one and only one. I insist on multiple interpretations of Adwa and all other historical events in Ethiopia. I insist on multiple popular interpretations.

I will not regurgitate and reproduce the state orthodoxy of the past as the truth or the one and only interpretation of historical truths.

For far too long, we have seen historical narratives told to us ex cathedra.

For far too long, the voices, the stories, and the narratives of peoples have been suppressed.

For far too long, your grand narratives have ignored, silenced, and erased the voices of the peoples–especially the voices of the frontier peoples (the peoples who were never people in the democratic–the demos–sense of the term).

Also, I will not flatter you, especially if the truth refuses to flatter you. I won’t spare you from my wrath if you come and write a gibberish, or, even worse, your insults (as most of you are bent on doing). I promise you: I will return the compliment in kind, or I will block you.

If you want a civil conversation, I welcome you (especially if you are willing to do your part of the home work).

To the people of hope, to the people of redemption, to the people that were not ‘people’ in the past, I say:

YOU HAVE COME A LONG WAY, EVEN TO THE MOUNT OF ADWA (for no gain or glory). You have survived darker days. You shall survive these ones, too.

As we resist the present abuse, we also resist a hegemonic discourse that fetishizes the cause of all our ills into a benign state orthodoxy.

Resist we will, in part because, to do so has now become our (unchosen) way of life.

Resist we will, because for some of us, it has now become a way of being in the world.

And we will do so in truth. … Told in love. … Told with an undying hope.

Happy celebration of the peoples’ Adwa…and, for once, a celebration for the right reason.
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Source: https://advocacy4oromia.org/…/the-peoples-adwa-the-imperat…/