News Analysis

Deadly Adwa day shows Abiy’s struggle to shift focus from divisive Ethiopian emperor

Menelik_II statue_Addis_Abeba, Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s socio-political tensions bubble over again in raging annual debate over external and internal colonialism.

Clashes between security forces and celebrants in Menelik II Square, Addis Abeba, resulted in “at least one death” and injury of civilians. 

The 2 March incident occurred as security forces attempted to disperse a crowd gathered to commemorate the 127th anniversary of the Battle of Adwa between invading Italian forces and those led by Emperor Menelik II.1The Battle of Adwa took place on 1 March 1896, and marked the climax of the First Italo-Ethiopian War. Ethiopian forces emerged victorious over the invading Italian army near the town of Adwa in northern Ethiopia, halting Italy’s campaign to expand their colonial empire in the Horn of Africa. Adwa became a crucial symbol of pan-Africanism, demonstrating that African forces could successfully resist European colonialism. The Ethiopian victory at Adwa also secured their sovereignty until the outbreak of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, which took place between 1935 and 1937. 

The recent violence spread to the nearby St. George’s Church, where followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) were celebrating a religious festival. 

According to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), government security forces used “unnecessary and excessive force” on peaceful gatherings of people around Menelik II Square and in nearby St. George’s Church.

The EHRC reported that the security forces’ actions resulted in at least one death and several injuries.

Similarly, the Addis Ababa Diocese of the EOTC accused security forces of violently disrupting a peaceful religious celebration and using tear gas on celebrants.

Venue Uproar

The government’s decision to move the celebrations from Menelik II Square to Meskel Square sparked widespread indignation among EOTC believers.2 According to government officials, technically the celebration took place in Menelik II Square, Adwa Bridge, and Meskel Square. So, the government would argue that the victory was commemorated in Menelik II square and the indignation of the celebrants is unwarranted. But it is evident that the main focus of the event was made to be at Meskel Square

The square hosts the emperor’s statue and is located near St. George’s Church of the EOTC, whose Tabot (Ark of the Covenant replica) was marched alongside the emperor’s forces and is said to have helped them win the war against the invading Italian army. 

The drive to move the celebrations was seen by some as a concerted effort to de-emphasize the role of the Church and the emperor in the historic victory.

While not canonized by the Church, Menelik II is venerated as a pious and benevolent emperor by many of the EOTC faithful.3As Joseph A. Steward writes in his master’s thesis on Adwa, “Menelik had largely succeeded in creating a growing national narrative about Adwa, the divine role of Saint George, who was increasingly being viewed as the Patron Saint of Ethiopia, and his own role, not just in the battle, but also in the establishment of a new, modern Ethiopia. His legend has, in many parts of Ethiopia, taken on an almost saintly status within the collective memory of Ethiopia.” 

EOTC leaders feel that the Church’s role as a spiritual guide in the monumental victory, as well as its overall place in Ethiopia’s socio-political history, has been under systematic attack by Abiy’s government. 

Consequently, EOTC leaders and its dominant Amhara socio-cultural base are indignant at the government’s perceived attempt to undermine the emperor’s legacy.

Disputed Ownership

Ethiopia’s triumph at Adwa was a monumental event that symbolizes African resistance to European colonialism. It represents a pivotal moment in Ethiopia’s history, in which the country’s diverse inhabitants banded together to fight a common enemy.  

Over the years, the egalitarian nature of the victory allowed Adwa to become an all-inclusive foundation on which modern Ethiopian nationhood was built.

However, more recently, there has been a tussle to claim sole ownership of Ethiopia’s political history among the country’s competing ethno-nationalist elites. This has caused arguments to intensify over who should take credit for the Battle of Adwa.


Amharas tend to credit Menelik II, who was the King of Shewa, a territory that is now mostly part of the Amhara region, before becoming emperor of Ethiopia in 1889. 

Oromo nationalists have emphasized the role of Oromo generals, such as Dejazmach Balcha Safo and Ras Gugsa Welle, in achieving the victory, disregarding the nationalist narrative about Adwa.

Many Tigrayans, for their part, note that the battle was fought in Tigray and claim the region’s leaders and inhabitants played a central role in the military victory.

Consequently, their commemoration of Adwa has centered around Ras Alula and Bashay Awalom, Tigrayan heroes of the battle, as embodiments of what they view as Tigray’s predicament of sacrificing the most but getting the least from the Ethiopian victory.

Divisive Figure

In the past, Emperor Menelik II was hailed as the main hero of Adwa. However, this view has caused consternation, particularly among Oromo nationalists, as he is a controversial figure due to his internal policies.

Menelik II’s bloody campaigns to expand the empire southwards in the late nineteenth century are bitterly resented by many Oromos and other southern peoples, making him a divisive figure. 

Oromo nationalists, who view the territorial expansion of the Ethiopian empire and imposition of the semi-feudal Neftegna-Gabbar system as a form of internal colonization, tend to portray Adwa as the clash of two competing imperialists. 

In the words of Tsegaye Ararsa, a prominent Oromo nationalist and legal activist, “it was a war fought between two maiden empires competing over the fate of black peoples in Ethiopia and beyond.”

Similarly, Tigrayan socio-political elites have increasingly challenged the traditional perception of the Adwa victory as a source of national pride and solidarity.4It’s noteworthy that the Tigray Communication Affairs Bureau’s Facebook page was forced to remove the picture of Menelik II it had used in its message commemorating the Battle of Adwa. Presumably, the TPLF-run Facebook page used Menelik II’s picture as a gesture of goodwill in the spirit of the Pretoria Agreement. However, this caused an uproar on social media from members of the Tigrayan community that forced the bureau to apologize. 

Emperor Menelik Addis Ababa Abyssinia reception of Theodore Roosevelt's Diplomatic Treaty Mission 1903-1904

Emperor Menelik II; Addis Ababa; 1903-1904; Massillon Museum.

They have emphasized Adwa’s symbolic significance in cementing Eritrea’s separation, which contradicts the national narrative that portrays the victory as the foundation of unity. 

Menelik II’s perceived decision in the treaties before and after the battle to bifurcate Tigrinya-speaking people north and south of the Mereb by ceding Eritrea to Italy has made the emperor unpopular among Tigrayans.5 There is a contention that the Treaty of Wuchale in 1889, which took place prior to the Battle of Adwa and was a catalyst for the war, resulted in Menelik II intentionally relinquishing Ethiopian territories north of the Mereb (now Eritrea) to Italy for political and financial reasons. According to the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission, “in 1889, by the Treaty of Uccialli, Ethiopia and Italy established the boundary between the Empire of Ethiopia and the areas of Eritrea then in Italian possession. On 1 January 1890, Italy formally established the Colony of Eritrea… [After the battle of Adwa] Ethiopia and Italy soon began their negotiations for a definitive frontier. Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia at first sought a frontier considerably to the north of the Mereb-Belesa-Muna line, but eventually agreed in 1900 to keep to that line (in exchange for a payment of 5,000,000 lire, apparently for forgoing a more extensive claim)”. 

A more nuanced view recognizes Menelik II’s leadership in achieving victory at Adwa while recognizing that history is complex and he was a man of his times.

Unifying Force?

Over the past three years, celebrations of the battle by Ethiopian nationalists while Adwa itself has been under siege and its residents subjected to unspeakable atrocities amid the civil war have been viewed by many Tigrayans as rubbing salt in their wounds.    

Government officials have claimed that the recalibration of the celebration was motivated by a desire to “strengthen national unity and nation-building”. 

Abiy’s efforts to move the focus of the victory away from the controversial figure of Menelik II and towards emphasizing Adwa’s role in unifying all of Ethiopia’s nationalities appears to be part of a larger policy shift towards sustaining the multinational constitution as per the Pretoria Agreement

While this move will likely be well-received by federalists, and may even contribute to an eventual consensus, it will continue to face stern resistance from Amhara nationalists and social conservatives in the EOTC, particularly as it’s accompanied by Abiy’s rapprochement with the widely despised TPLF.

Although the signs are bad, the National Dialogue Commission may possibly still play a significant role in fostering a compromise, without which the country faces further instability due in part to these underlying historical schisms.

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Main Image: Menelik II statue; Addis Abeba, Ethiopia; 27 October 2007.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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About the author

Ethiopia Insight


  • Radical activist like Ezikael Gabissa, Tisgaye Ararsa, and Radical ethnic based commentators, who are living in western modern world and benefiting and enjoying western capitalism and liberalism,want to practice and exercise tribalism an (illusion ideology ),on the people of Ethiopia. Let us Boycott those individuals!

  • The victory of Black people over the invaders(colonialists )
    and the contributions of the great leader king Minilik the second and the Orthodox Church should not be a hard pill for activities like ezikeal gabissa and tesgaye ararssa to swallow it.

  • Silly to fight over Menelik- he is been gone since 100 yrs ago. Truth is he is appreciated for his positive contributions. However, he is human and has many failures and poor decisions. But I take issue with those pretend Patriots of Ethiopia. Those who went to commit a genocide in Tigray against the innocent civilians. You have just disintegrated Ethiopia by this brutal action. So you can’t have a cake & eat it too. & You have banded with foreign forces inside Ethiopia, this is a cause for disintegration on a nation- ACCOUNTABILITY is lacking

  • “…Abiy’s struggle to shift focus from divisive Ethiopian emperor”

    Intentionally phrased title to misinform and mislead.

    There isn’t an Ethiopian leader that isn’t “divisive” if we go by your criteria. But this isn’t about that. This is about Abiy following in TPLF’s footprint to demonize Amhara people by proxy by using the same propaganda TPLF used to brainwash generations.

    If Ethiopian media is going to speak the glory of any leader, they will speak the glory of Menilik. There is and will never be compromise on this. 30 years is enough time to wake up from this murderous fantasy as Ethiopians will not accept it anymore.

    Oh yeah, by the way. King Minilik’s unification of Ethiopia was exactly what quelled an otherwise frequent and destructive wars in the south as well as rampant slave trade. Tell this to Dr. Gemechu Megersa. Don’t even mention Oromo Expnasion.

  • Obsession of hatred about Ethiopia is an identity crisis and inferiority complex.
    if we did not have a wise and courageous leaders and people , we (Ethiopian ,would not have achieved independence and free from Barbaric colonialism .
    furthermore, independence has gave Ethiopian to practice their languages and cultures as an Amehara, Oromo , sidama and the likes.
    We, salute,the wisest leader king Minilik and the entire Ethiopian .
    God bless Ethiopia, amen

  • In the first case there are no nationalist most of them are separatist that are hired by the Ethiopia enemies. They fabricate falsehood taking advantage of the young generation of Woyane era who was deprived of learning Ethiopian history. The generation feed by those power hungary monsters and paid pipers hatered and false tales to make them conqure Ethiopia and secure power dividing the unity of Ethiopian people by fabricating false tales. Who is Tsegaye Araresa? Where is now? He is still fabricating his false tales to divide the people living in harmoney. Long Live Ethiopia!!! Down Ethiopian enemies!

  • Fighting against europian colonialsts was not only in.ethiopia or adwa but also every where in the entire continent for example: zulu-kingdom in south africa, in zaire, nigeria , egypt, sudan etc. Even in Ethiopia before Minilik 2 , Thewdros 2 & Yohanis 4 of the then ethiopian kings tried to fight againist ; however they both lost & unable to save the country. For their defiet the reason was to bring the whole people of the nation together against the enemy.
    That was also the core element for almost all africans resistance against that time white colenialist to adorce the soverignity at that time which infleunce still challenging the continent.
    When one try to conclude the truth: ofcourse Empirior Minilik succeeded to bring all the nations & nationalities of ethiopia at that together both for victory and after the victory.
    With out his brilliant knowledge, famous diplomacy & the spiritual accompany of the church , the victory of adwa almost imposible.
    Remember, rival Tigrian leaders at that time, came to the King to appeal his support to fight the Italians with his leadership.
    Most oromos were at that time sensitive for being under white rule & eager for their free one ethiopia .
    I regret so much now the generation to be controvercial with the past histry while most of people starving & living under poverty.
    The europians & USA try to take ethiopians uncolinization as best reason for our starivation & claim even now to reconlinize or neocolinize deviding the nation with extrime nationalist or triabalist.
    I think it will be one day true or posible once again unless we wake up avoid wrong narativies from extrimist.

  • Clearly Abiy is facing difficult dilemmas time and again. His flawed attempt to appease the Amhara radical nationalists cum Orthodox Church, on the one hand, and appealing to all inclusive and wider segment of the diverse nations, people and ethnics for sense of reason, patriotism and public cohesion, on the other hand , for principles and public policy are increasingly incomparable. It is costing an arm and leg in every turn and move politically . One can’t be everything and be everywhere at the same unless he puts his priority in order. Also, one must keep in mind that he can never appease radical religio- ethnic nationalism regardless of concessions offered. Once given some concession made they demand even more . As for the Adwa battle itself and Minilik’s legacy, there are competing narratives depending on various groups historical perspectives. Whatever he achieved or intended to achieve at time, Amhara nationalist, along with the Church, corrupted and took advantage of it since when they legitimized injustice, plundering and exploitation through the newly expended territories in the south, centre and and the east in last 100 years. However, it would have been tolerable if they just celebrate in their own ways and not trying to rub salts on the old wound but apparently they are uninterested to do so. What deference it makes if they cebelate quietly in the Maskel sq. or Minilik sq unless there is intended provocation? None whasoever. Likewise, there is recurring provocative celebration in Jibjiga as well against Somalis by this same group since Abiy rise to political power . It hasn’t happened during woyane era in the last few decades. It is the so-called the Karamardha ( Karamara) pyrrhic victory. For those who hasn’t heard about it was a bloody and brutal campaign carried out by Ethiopian military regime in 1970s agaisnt inhabitants of the region in a pretext of fighting foreign enemies when faced tough nationalists insurgency for freedom, justice and equality. It was a wholesale of ethnic cleansing, genocide and widespread mass killings subjected to the local population.

  • The assertion of the author which says “Amharas tend to credit Menelik II, who was the King of Shewa, a territory that is now mostly part of the Amhara region, before becoming emperor of Ethiopia in 1889.” This is simply the author’s opinion. He/she should present evidences that Shewa is a territory that is now mostly part of the Amhara region.
    Again, a comment given by Shakiso Bokka judging Dr Tsegaye Ararsa as “none educated minority’s like Tisgaye Ararsa (a Gadio ethnic group) who dined his family origins and disturbing Ethiopian citizens” looks a reflection of hatred, ignorance and being non-critical. How someone says a PhD holder “none educated?”

  • It was starting in 1880s. European nation on taking over African lands and colonies they would hold.
    haw did ,These European nations stated colonialism?
    This is a very important question need to be answered.
    as historians recorded, famine and starvation was an occasional crises that struck Europe since early 14 centuries to 1600s.
    names,( the Great famine in Europe and The Black Death) which was killed millions of European.
    It was thus factor, that lead European to explore a more fertile land in the entire land of the earth. The conditions, we called it, Exploitation of European nations to the entire land of the world.
    it was during this time they discovered America and called the new land.
    So that , America became a place for the new European settlers, millions of European settled in the entire land of Northern and Southern America , they had been successful so far, but they need laborer to utilize the fertile land of America. So that, they started slavery and slave trade in Africa in 17 century.
    Millions of African forces fully travelled to America for forceful labor and many activists including agricultural, construction of Road , Railway and more
    It was in 1880s, that European started taking over African land becouse they were competing with new emerging Germany and Italy

    It was during this time , Ethiopian king Minilk and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church understood the European ambitions to take the land of Africa and destroying their culture.
    So that, from 1880s , the Ethiopian marched towards to their territories; southern, northern, eastern and western parts of their country, they sacrificed a lot and stopped colonists to furthermore expansions

    These was the fact that few, none educated minority’s like Tisgaye Ararsa ( a Gadio ethnic group) who dined his family origins and disturbing Ethiopian citizens.

    Just After they abolished slavery in America and the end of British in the North America

  • Ethiopia being free from colonialism,becouse Ethiopian hero lead by king minilik and the entire military and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church engaged in holy activities in the entire period of colonial time.
    So that, we do have Ameharic language as a national medium of communication like that of our brothers African do have English and French in most scenario.
    and we celebrate Adewa and oppose colonialism as far as we have given time to stay in earth .
    Furthermore,Colonialists should be responsible and accountable for
    Their distraction of human and environment so far they did and designed in the land of Africa. Africa will prevail

    • People see the amharic language imposed on them as a colonial legacy, with menelik and the EOTC seen as tools used to subjugate other communities, leading to massacres and displacement of millions of non-Christian groups. Those Amhara who hide behind pan Africanism to claim the defeat of Europeans and how Ethiopia has its own alphabet intentionally leave out the part about how this cultural assimilation was achieved how they want their history to be only ethiopian history leaving out other larger communities who are the majority So it’s time to confront some uncomfortable truths about Ethiopia’s dark past and stop this biased made up history.

      • “Those Amhara who hide behind pan Africanism to claim the defeat of Europeans and how Ethiopia has its own alphabet intentionally leave out the part about how this cultural assimilation was achieved …”

        Maybe it is time you take responsibility for your self? Get off the backs of Amhara people? You don’t want EOTC then leave. You don’t want to speak Amharic? That’s ok, don’t.

        What will not happen is, the continued slaughter of Amharans, which has exactly zero to do with your feeble , propaganda addled retale of past events.

        And by and by, what makes you confident that majority of Ethiopians are in any shape or form in support of this shameful brainchild of Meles Zenawi and his likes? Anyway, feel free to stay in ethnic zoo, but this slaughter by proxy has consequence.

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