Adwa and Abyssinia’s Participation in the Scramble for Africa: Has that Relevance to the Ongoing Oromo protests? Mekuria Bulcha, PhD, Professor


Adwa and Abyssinia’s Participation in the Scramble for Africa:

Has that Relevance to the Ongoing Oromo protests?

Mekuria Bulcha, PhD, Professor

Whenever an Oromo scholar or politician mentions Menelik or his conquest of Oromia, the scathing criticism that meets him or her is that history is irrelevant for the current crisis. They are often advised to stop looking backwards and to focus on the future. Meanwhile, the irony is that in the lead up to and weeks after the 121st anniversary of the Battle of Adwa, many Ethiopian scholars and politicians have been engaged in intense debate about this event. In fact, I am all for a debate about Ethiopian history; however, I was surprised when I read an article written by Teshome Borago entitled “Adwa: When Oromos fought Italy as Abyssinians” published on the Ethiomedia webpage on March 3, 2017. Borago wrote the article to commemorate the anniversary of Ethiopia’s victory over Italian forces at Adwa in 1896. By and large, he talks about the victory at Adwa as an example of unity among the peoples of Ethiopia and calls on the peoples of Ethiopia to keep up that spirit of unity. But the problem is that he did not stop there; he used the Oromo contribution to the victory over the Italian forces obliquely as a pretext to question the validity of Oromo grievances voiced by the ongoing protests. He laments the “new generation” Oromos’ failure to appreciate their forefathers’ contributions to the Adwa victory, and for not respecting the spirit of Adwa which was Ethiopian unity. He refers to their protests as an effort made in defense of “tribalism”. My criticism is that, using the victory of Adwa as a point of departure, Borago distorts not only Oromo and Ethiopian history, but also misrepresents the motives of the ongoing Oromo protests. Borago is not the only writer who has been labelling the Oromo struggle for freedom as a manifestation of “tribalism”, or to criticize Oromo views about Menelik and the creation of the Ethiopian state. There are dozens of commentators who, like him, have been distorting Oromo history and demonizing Oromo politics and scholarship. Haile Larebo has been one of the most vocal representatives of this group.

The views which are expressed in both Borago’s article and Larebo’s story about the Battle of Adwa, which was broadcast on March 22, 2017 on Aronios Radio are the points of departure for this article. The purpose of the article is to critically assess the meanings of the Battle of Adwa for the Oromo and other non-Abyssinian peoples who were conquered and forcibly incorporated into the Ethiopian Empire by Menelik. The following questions will guide my discussion: (a) what were the conditions under which the Oromo and the other non-Abyssinian peoples participated in the Battle of Adwa? (b) What “benefits” did they derive from the victory at Adwa? (c) In what ways was the Battle of Adwa a turning point in Abyssinia’s participation in


the Scramble for Africa? (d) What was the relationship between the peoples of the south including the Oromo and the Abyssinian state before and after Adwa?

Menelik’s army at Adwa: freemen, gabbars, captives and slaves

As Wendy James has aptly pointed out, “without the contributions of Ethiopia’s southern peoples, whose sweat and blood go unrecorded in Ethiopianist annals, the Battle of Adwa in 1896 might not have been won and Menelik II might not have gone on to build his empire.”1 Obviously, one of those peoples were the Oromo. I am not denying Oromo contribution to the Ethiopian victory over the Italians at Adwa. My critique concerns the representation of the conditions under which their contribution occurred. I argue that Oromo human and material resources were not “contributed” voluntarily as Borago and Larebo want us to believe. By and large, they were robbed. To start, as Harold Marcus has stated, “Menelik had exploited the south and the south-west to purchase weapons.” He was “indirectly Ethiopia’s greatest slave entrepreneur and received the bulk of the proceeds” from the slave trade. Marcus wrote that being a Christian Menelik was not directly involved in the trade, but “Many slaves were however supplied by him.”2 The “human merchandize” used in that trade were Oromos and others who were captured during his conquest of the south. Pankhurst has also stated that “the supply of slaves was…swollen by large numbers of prisoners captured during Menelik’s southern campaigns.”3 The evidence is extensive to present in this short article, but it is important to not here that Menelik covered in part the cost of the firearms used at Adwa with revenue from the export of human merchandize.

What is also equally important to understand is that the fighters who marched north carrying those firearms were not all freemen, but also a motley of captives, gabbars and slaves, including thousands of women. Most of them were Oromo, Walaita, Kambata and Gurage and were from territories which were conquered a decade or a few years prior to the Battle of Adwa. They were used not only as fighters, but also providers of the services that made the fighting possible. They were bearers of firearms and supplies; they cooked for the fighters and looked after the horses and mules used by the fighters. In this connection, a remarkable story emerges if we look closely at the case of Walaita which was conquered in 1894 just two years before the Battle. It is also interesting to note that Borago who writes that “several kingdoms volunteered and mobilized from every region in Ethiopia to fight at the Battle of Adwa” claims Walaita ethnicity. According to archival evidence collected by the historian Tsehai Berhane-Selassie, one of the aims of the expedition against Walaita was slave raiding. She noted that it was carried out in order to replenish depleted manpower because of the severe famine of 1889-92, to pay


outstanding debts to arms dealers, and to finance the impending war against the Italians.4 Describing the battle the French business agent Gaston Vanderheym who accompanied Menelik on his campaign against the Walaita, expressed the “crushing effects” of newly acquired guns on the southern conquests as “some kind of infernal hunting were human beings rather than animals served as game” and “where no distinction was made between fighters and civilians.”5 Prouty notes that according Menelik’s own chronicler, 118,987 Walaita were killed and 18,000 were enslaved. The King of Walaita Tona was wounded and captured and his kingdom was destroyed.6 Martial de Salviac wrote that the captives were made to march in a single line in front of Menelik who “chose the most robust and had a cross marked on their hands with a sharp object.”7 In fact, Menelik not only enslaved thousands of Walaita, he also drove 36,000 head of looted cattle all the way to Shawa. Two years later, the captives were used to transport food, weapons and ammunition from Shawa to Adwa in 1896.

The united country called Ethiopia, which according to Larebo and Borago existed centuries before Adwa, is a myth. The fact is that when he turned north to meet the Italians at Adwa, Menelik was in the midst of the conquest of the south (see Map…). The entire Macha region – the Gibe and Leeqa states – was annexed only in 1886. Arsi was conquered in 1886 and Hararge in 1887. As indicated above, Walaita was conquered in 1894. The sores inflicted by the atrocities committed against the Oromo at Anole and Calanqoo in 1886 and 1887 by the conquering Abyssinian forces were still bleeding. Even Wallo’s conquest in the north was completed in 1878 after years of fierce battles between Menelik (then King of Shawa) and Emperor Yohannes IV on one side and the Wallo Oromo on the other.


What is most remarkable is Larebo’s assertion that the Ethiopian people were united from corner to corner at the time of Adwa. In his interview on Radio Atronos, he posits that there was not a single village in Ethiopia which did not send fighters to Adwa. The absurdity of this proposition is that the Gujii and Borana Oromo and more than 80 percent of what is today the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SSNP), Gambella, Benishangul, Ogaden were outside the reach of Menelik’s empire. Needless to stress that Larebo’s assertions are not true because the country not only lacked unity, but, geographically, Ethiopia as we know it today did not exist at that point.

Indeed, the Ethiopian empire was defended by the blood and bones of Oromo fighters, but their blood was shed not for love of country as Larebo and others would have us believe. While the Abyssinians were defending their freedom, the Oromo had no freedom to defend against the Italians. They had lost it to the Abyssinians during the preceding decade. Their land


was an Abyssinian colony. The “contribution” they were forced to make to the war effort saved the Abyssinians from European colonialism, but it did not help them to regain their own independence. There is no indication that they were beneficiaries of the victory over the Italians. In fact, as I will explain later, their contribution to the victory had reinforced colonial Abyssinian rule which Menelik had imposed on them a decade or two prior to the Battle of Adwa.

Ironically, like the naftanya elite, Borago and Larebo have few sympathetic words for the Oromo and the other conquered peoples of Ethiopia. It seems that they saw nothing wrong or immoral in the atrocities committed against them when they lay claim on Oromo loyalty to Menelik. They want the Oromo to see Menelik as their hero and an icon of their resistance against racism and colonialism. The Oromo admit that their forefathers had fought and defeated the Italian army together with Abyssinians. However, the war was not a joint undertaking, but an Abyssinian war with Italy. The Oromo were used as means to defend Abyssinia’s independence. Few believe Larebo’s repetitious story about Menelik being the defender of the black race against white colonizers. As the Oromo scholar Tsegaye Araarsa has expressed the matter, to call the empire built by Menelik the beacon of black freedom is a blatant “distortion of history intended to galvanize legitimacy for his rule.”8 It is a deceitful attempt to cleanse the history of the atrocious conquest from the stains of blood with which it was smeared. Given the great harm his conquest had inflicted upon them, one must be contemptuous of the Oromo to expect them to honor Menelik as their hero. I know that there are Oromos who take pride in the valor which their forefathers had shown at Adwa, but I have also seen their pride giving way to bitterness as soon as they discover the “rewards” they had received for their heroic contributions to that victory. Several years ago one of the Oromo admirers of Menelik II sent me a note and a picture of the Oromo cavalry who fought at Adwa.


Portrait of Oromo cavalry at Adwa

My friend who is an ardent “pan-Ethiopianist” was exhilarated when he read about the valor of Oromo fighters at the battle of Adwa in a book he came across. In the note he mentioned Fitawrari Gebeyehu as one of the heroes who made the victory at Adwa possible. Gebeyehu died in action leading the troops under his command in the forefront of the battle. However, he felt offended when he reflected on the fact that Gebeyehu’s name is rarely


mentioned and his ethnic identity obscured by Ethiopian historiographers. He lamented, “The sad thing however is that Gebeyehu's father’s name, Gurmu, is never mentioned in the history books. One day we will all be free from this and that type of racism little or big and the real patriots will be celebrated by all Ethiopians.” Gurmu is not a “genuine” Abyssinian name. However, Gebeyehu was not the only Oromo who was denied his social identity in Ethiopian history in that manner. Many Oromos who contributed to the defense of Abyssinia’s or Ethiopia’s independence were treated in that way. Even the ethnic origin of Haile Selassie’s grandfather was concealed. The reason was that the Abyssinian ruling elite were reluctant to recognize Oromos as partners in the making of Abyssinian-cum-Ethiopian history. As Hassen Hussein and Mohammed Ademo have expressed Gebeyehu’s “disappearance from Ethiopian history parallels the erasure of his people’s contributions from the country’s official historiography.” As the two authors have stated, “This is the root of Oromo ambivalence toward Ethiopia: the Oromo are good enough to fight and die for Ethiopia, but not live in it with their full dignity and identity.”9 This also underpins the lukewarm Oromo attitude toward the history of Adwa.

That the role of Oromo fighters was crucial for Menelik’s victory at Adwa is undeniable, but the victory did not help them as a people in any manner. It is remarkable that Borago and Larebo who come from conquered and marginalized peoples in the south, the Walaita and Hadiya respectively, could miss the cause of the unenthusiastic Oromo feeling toward Ethiopia and “Ethiopiawinnet”. Presenting Oromo forefathers as significant players in defense of the Abyssinian Empire does not change that reality or disprove the fact that the empire was a colonial creation and the Oromo are its colonial subjects. The point is, the Oromo did not fight at Adwa as ethnic Abyssinians or citizens of Abyssinia as Borago and other commentators try to suggest. They fought for their colonizers. They were not the first people to fight a war for their enemies. Colonized peoples had done that throughout history. For example, over 1,355,300 Africans fought for the British in WWII.10 They did not become Englishmen because of their contributions to British victory in that war. They returned home and struggled for their independence. The Oromo have not been silent subjects because of the victory at the Battle of Adwa. Although their struggle has been sporadic, as reflected in the current uprising, the hope for independence is alive and strong.

Did the Abyssinians participate in the Scramble for Africa?

Teshome Borago is suggesting that a “united Ethiopia” was in place long before Adwa when he says “One has to wonder, how could [did] we win unless a multiethnic Ethiopian nation existed


long before the so-called ‘Abyssinian colonization’? How can we defeat a European superpower without sharing a sense of common identity and destiny?” With these rhetorical questions he joins the numerous Habesha politicians and scholars who deny Abyssinia’s participation in the Scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century. Concerning Abyssinia’s conquest and colonization of the Oromo and the other peoples in the south, the attitude of Habesha politicians’ and scholars’ is like that of climate change deniers. They ignore volumes of historical and scientific evidence that prove the reality of what they deny. However, to answer Borago’s questions, a multi-ethnic Abyssinian state and nation existed for sure long before the Scramble for Africa. Its main ethnic constituents were the Amhara and the Tigrayans with Agaw, Qimant, Falasha and Shinasha ethnicities. Its territorial base was, to a large extent, the current Amhara and Tigray Regional States and parts of highland Eritrea. One sees them as an Ethiopian nation since Abyssinia and Ethiopia often are interchangeably used. In contrast, the Ethiopian nation Borago has in mind did not exist before Adwa and is not a reality even today. The reality Borago will not acknowledge is that in the Horn of Africa, there were nations like the Oromo, the Sidama, the Walaita, the Afar, Somali and the Kaficho that existed parallel to and independent from Abyssinia. The victory at Adwa not only saved Abyssinia from European colonization, it also encouraged Menelik to continue, with renewed vigour, the colonization of the rest of the Oromo territory and the greater part of what is now south and southwest Ethiopia. I will present, below, a summary of evidence gleaned from the works of scholars on Abyssinia’s colonial exploits during the Scramble for African. I will use “imperial ambitions”, “ideology” and “possession of firearms” as guiding themes to identify the parity of Abyssinia’s participation in the Scramble for Africa with that of the European imperialist powers of the day.

Imperial ambitions: The evidence for Abyssinian imperial ambitions is reflected in Menelik’s letter to European heads of state wherein he states “if Powers at a distance come forward to partition Africa between them … I do not intend to be an indifferent spectator.”11 In the words of Gebru Tareke, impelled by “the appearance of European colonialist in the region”,12 Menelik “embarked on a much larger scale of colonization in the 1880s” than what had been attempted previously. Bahiru Tafla wrote also that it was “European colonial acquisition in Africa [which] awakened imperialist interest in the minds of the Ethiopian rulers of the late nineteenth century.”13 The influence of European imperialism on Menelik is articulated further by Elspeth Huxley who figuratively states that “the Abyssinians had caught a severe attack of the prevailing imperialist fever” and they “were the only Africans to join the scramble for Africa.”14 In his Ethiopia: The Last Frontiers, John Markakis writes that Abyssinia “competed successfully in the imperialist partition of the region [Horn of Africa]. Not a victim but a participant in the


‘scramble’, Ethiopia doubled its territory and population in a burst of expansionist energy, and thereafter proudly styled itself the ‘Ethiopian Empire’. He notes that “the title [‘Empire’] is not a misnomer, since Ethiopia’s rulers governed their new possessions more or less the same way and for similar ends as other imperial powers were doing. The people who took the pride in calling themselves Ethiopians were known also as Abyssinians (Habesha).” He states that “Today’s ruling elite frown at the use of this name because it obstructs their effort to forge an inclusive Ethiopian national identity.”15Here, it is interesting to note that the Abyssinian use the term today, particularly in the diaspora, to differentiate themselves from other black peoples. When used as such, it has racial underpinnings as indicated by Hussein and Ademo in their article mentioned above.

Ideology: Asserting the colonial ideological factor in the creation of the Abyssinian empire, the conflict researcher Christian Scherrer notes that “European and Abyssinian colonialism occurred simultaneously, pursued similar interests, albeit from differing socio-economic bases, and this was reinforced by comparable colonial ideologies of the idea of empire and notion of ‘civilizing mission’ and the exploitation of the subjugated peoples.”16 Writing on the ideological underpinnings of Menelik’s colonial conquests, Gebru Tareke, a historian from the north, has also stated that the Abyssinian ruling elite acted like the white colonial rulers in the rest of Africa. The language they used when describing their colonial subjects did not differ from the language the European colonialists were using. It was a language which was infused with stereotypes, prejudices and paternalism. He adds, “They [the Abyssinian elite] tried much like the European colonisers of their time, to justify the exploitability, and moral validity of occupation.” They “looked upon and treated the indigenous people as backward.”17 One can add here that stereotypes and ethnic slurs about the Oromo, popular in Habesha discourse are the product of this colonial ideology.

Military technology: Obviously firearms were the other crucial elements in making the imperial colonial penetration of the African continent in the nineteenth century possible. Therefore, drawing parallels between the Abyssinian and European and Abyssinian colonial expansion during the Scramble, Margery Perham notes “The speed with which this great extension of the empire was made ….is explained by the …firearms which the emperor [Menelik] was obtaining from France and Italy. This same superiority was carrying the European powers at the same speed at the same time from the coast into the heart of Africa.”18 The Swedish historian Norberg also says that “using the same military technology as the European powers”,19 Menelik managed not only to conquer the neighbouring African territories, but was also able to garrison them with large forces called naftanya who


controlled and lived on the conquered populations. As suggested by Richard Caulk, “the system of near serfdom imposed on wide areas of the south by the end of the nineteenth century could have not been maintained had the newcomers not been so differently armed.20 The historian Darkwah notes that “Menelik succeeded in keeping the arms out of the reach of the [Oromo] enemy. He did this by imposing a strict control over the movement of firearms into his tributary territories and the lands beyond his frontiers.”21

Menelik was not a manufacturer of firearms but was a keen importer of them. The bulk of firearms in his arsenal numbered around 25,000 in 1878. According to Luckman and Bekele, he was able to import over one million rifles, a quantity of Hotchkiss guns and artillery pieces between 1880 and 1900.22 For that purpose, he used more than a dozen French and Italian commercial agents and suppliers of firearms. In addition, European states were also supplying him with modern weapons in an attempt to use him as a proxy in their colonial scheme in northeast Africa.23 As I will explain below, the support Menelik received from European powers in his Scramble for colonies was not limited to firearms; military training and diplomacy were also included.

Europeans in the making of the Ethiopian empire

The other dimension of the history of Abyssinia’s conquest of the south, which is bypassed silently by Ethiopian historiographers and is denied incessantly by Habesha politicians, is the involvement of European fortune seekers and mercenaries in the making of Menelik’s Empire. There is no research on how many Europeans were in his service but, whatever their number might have been, the role they played in his conquest of the south must have been significant. Darkwah notes that “in 1877 a Frenchman named Pottier was employed in training a group of Shewan youths in European military techniques. Another Frenchman, Pino, was a regular officer in the army which was commanded by Ras Gobana. Swiss engineers, Alfred Ilg and Zemmerman were employed on, among other things, building bridges across the Awash and other rivers to facilitate movement.”24According to Chris Prouty, Colonel Artamonov together with other Europeans was attached to the forces commanded by Ras Tasamma Nadew in Ilu Abbabor. He adds that even Count Nicholas Leontiev, a colonel in the Russian army, was a commander of a force which was sent to conquer the southwest in the 1890s. Another Russian officer, Baron Chedeuvre was Leontiev’s second-in-command during the expedition. Several French and Russian medical officers were also attached to the Abyssinian forces, particularly those which were led by Menelik and European commanders. The Russian Cossack Captain Alexander Bulatovich wrote that with him, there were Lieutenants Davydov, Kokhovskiy and


Arnoldi along with a command of Cossacks who had finished their term of service” and who were received in audience by Menelik and took leave from him and returned to Russia in June 1898.25

Several advisors helped Menelik in different fields to build his Empire. The Swiss engineer, Alfred Ilg had served him in a variety of capacities including diplomatic contacts for 27 years. The Italians made not only material but also diplomatic contributions that enabled Menelik to compete effectively in the scramble for colonies. The idea and the contents of the circular letter which Menelik sent to European heads of state in 1891 delineating his territorial claims came, for example, from the Italian Prime Minister Francesco Crispi himself. Menelik was advised to send the letter to European heads of state because the European powers were about to meet in Paris and establish the boundaries of their colonies in Africa. The territories which were defined in the letter the Italians drafted for Menelik to claim extended “as far as Khartoum and to Lake Nyanza beyond the land of the Galla [Oromo].” 26The territories were those which the Italians were planning to claim for themselves through Menelik as their proxy. However, the European support in firearms and diplomacy given to Menelik was a double-edged sword. It helped him to conquer the Oromo and amass resources to defeat the Italians at Adwa. That said, the conclusion we can draw is that Abyssinia’s participation in the Scramble for Africa is crystal clear. As the historian Haggai Erlich succinctly stated, “While rebuffing imperialism successfully in the north, Ethiopia managed to practice it in the south.”27 It was also based on what is outlined above that Bonnie Holcomb and Sisai Ibssa have eloquently described the Abyssinian conquest of the south as manifestation of “dependent colonialism” and its outcome the “invention of Ethiopia”.28 By that they meant the direct and indirect meshing of Abyssinian and European interests in the making of the Abyssinian-cum-Ethiopian Empire. Thus, notwithstanding the inconclusive arguments being orchestrated by denialists, the historical facts lead to the unescapable conclusion that Abyssinia was an active participant in the Scramble for Africa.

Where colonialism did not have race or color

Based on what I have described above, it is logical to construe that colonialism had no specific color or nationality in the Horn of Africa – its color was white and black and its nationality English, French, Italian or Abyssinian. The difference is in the degree of brutality used against the colonized peoples and the severity of exploitation exercised in the colonies. The intensity of demonizing Oromo scholars, activists and politicians who write and speak about the colonization


of Oromia and the cacophony of denials expressed in the flora of written and oral commentaries will not change this historical truth.

That a black African force had defeated a white European army at Adwa in 1896 is beyond doubt. But, the representation of Adwa as an anti-colonial war and an African victory over colonialism is an atrocious lie. Indeed, Adwa was a turning point in the Scramble for colonies in the Horn of Africa; Menelik relinquished the role he was playing as an Italian proxy at the battle of Adwa, retained for himself the territories he had hitherto conquered using the firearms he had acquired partly from the Italians, with the understanding that they would be partners in the ownership of the territories he was conquering. He became a member of the colonialist club in his own right. In short, as colonialism lost its color at Adwa, military might became the decisive factor in the share of the African cake. The European mass media of the time reported that fact. The Spectator of 27 February 1897, for example, reflected the British view of the matter stating that, although Menelik, his queen, and his generals care little for human life, “this native dynasty of dark men,” nominally Christian is “orderly enough to be received into intercourse with Europe.” The European colonial powers recognized ‘the dynasty of dark men’, as their junior partner in the scramble for colonies. Soon after Adwa, both Britain and France negotiated and signed agreements that delineated the colonial borders with Abyssinia.

The whole story about the battle of Adwa is not written yet. Its bright side has been illuminated time and again. But its ugly sides are deliberately concealed from proper scrutiny or distorted by self-appointed “gurus” of Ethiopian history with Professor Haile Larebo as their outstanding representative. In the following paragraphs, I will describe briefly some of the non-glamorous sides of the victory at Adwa, namely, the ‘recruitment’ of colonial subjects for the war efforts, their treatment in the aftermath of Adwa, and the atrocious treatment of black (Eritrean) prisoners of war.

The circumstances, under which the peoples of the south, such as the Oromo, who were conquered in the 1880s, and the Walaita, who were conquered by Menelik two years before the battle of Adwa, were made to march north and participate in the battle, remains uninvestigated. Did they march north to fight against Italian colonialism voluntarily? What had happened to them after the war? These questions are never raised or answered in the story. Were they rewarded for their contributions in the victory over the Italians? I will not delve into details, but the answer is a definitive ‘No’! They were, as indicated in the case of the Walaita, captives who were forced to march north and became cannon-fodder. The reward for those who had survived the war and returned home must have varied depending on their status. The probability for those who were slaves to remain as such was almost hundred percent. The probability that some were


sold by their masters to cover expenses on their southward journey after the war or afterwards was significant. Thus, the Oromo, the Sidama and Walaita, who participated in the battle of Adwa, did not win any victory over colonialism for themselves. They helped a black colonialist to defeat a white colonialist in a war over colonies. They did not defend themselves or their peoples against the colonialists. They fought for their enemy and strengthened the grip of black imperialism on themselves by defeating its white Italian antagonist. It was after Adwa that Menelik imposed the notorious gabbar system on the conquered south. Slavery and the slave trade became even more rampant thereafter with the conquest of the rest of the south and southwest which became hunting grounds for captives and ivory.29 Ironically, it was the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1936 which brought the outrageous institution and evil trade in human beings to an end. To suggest that it was a “united Ethiopia” that fought the Battle of Adwa or Ethiopia was united because of the victory achieved at Adwa is a charade.

In the interview he gave on March 22, 2017 to Radio Atronos, Larebo calls Menelik the most democratic emperor in world history and that Ethiopia was blessed to have had him as their ruler. However, this “most democratic” emperor had no mercy for black prisoners of war. In his book From Menelik to Haile Selassie II, (was used a history text book in grades four through seven in the 1960s in Ethiopia) the historian Tekle Tsadiq Mekuriya notes that “Menelik released the Italian and Arab [presumably Libyan] prisoners of war and gave them food and drinks, but he ordered with the approval of the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abuna Matewos, the mutilation of Eritreans caught fighting on the Italian side.”30According to another source, “The Italians taken prisoner were treated well but Ethiopian [Eritrean] troops (around 800) who had fought for the Italians were mutilated with their right hands and left feet being cut off.”31 Where is the saint-like character Professor Larebo ascribes to Menelik? The cruelty with which the Eritreans were treated was similar to the crime committed against thousands of Oromo men and women whose arms and breasts were hacked off by the order of Menelik’s paternal uncle Ras Darge ten years earlier at Anole, in Arsi. The difference was that the Eritreans were Italian colonial soldiers while the Oromo were unarmed men and women who were invited to a meeting, which appeared to be for peacemaking, by Ras Darge many months after the Battle of Azule in September 1886. In that battle with the invading Abyssinian forces the Arsi Oromo lost some 12,000 warriors and were defeated.

(go to part II)


Adwa and Abyssinia’s Participation in the Scramble for Africa:

Has that Relevance to the Ongoing Oromo protests?

Mekuria Bulcha

Section II (continued from March 27, 2017)

In the first part of this article which was published on March 27, 2017 by Oromia Today and other Oromo webpages I have critically assessed the conditions under which the Oromo and the other conquered peoples in southern Ethiopia had participated in the famous Battle of Adwa. I discussed the Abyssinian participation in Scramble for Africa, and the role of Europeans in the making of Menelik’s empire. In this second and last part of the article I will explore the effect of the victory achieved at Adwa on the peoples of what is now southern Ethiopia, I will discuss the meaning of the Battle of Adwa for the Oromo and absurdity of blaming the Oromo for lack of pride in the victory achieved at Adwa and critique the futile effort of Habesha and non-Habesha scholars and politicians to erase Oromummaa and replace it with Ethiopiawinnet using Oromo contribution to Ethiopia’s victory at Adwa. As in the first part of the article, the views which are expressed in both Borago’s article and Larebo’s story about the Battle of Adwa, which was broadcast on March 22, 2017 on Aronios Radio are the points of departure also in this second part of the article.

Competition with colonialists

One of the results of the Adwa victory was the strengthening of Abyssinia’s competition with European colonial powers to colonize other African peoples in its neighbourhood. Consequently, immediately after he returned from Adwa, Menelik sent his generals to south and southwest to compete with the British for territories. The Russian Bulatovich who served as an advisor to Ras Wolde Giyorgis writes in his book With the Armies of Menelik II that “By order of the emperor, a fifteen-thousand-man corps, set out on a campaign to annex to the realm of Ethiopia vast lands which lie to the south of it, which no one before this had explored, and which were completely unknown.”32 Some of the peoples in the region “never even heard the existence of the Abyssinians” or expected an Abyssinian invasion to put up any meaningful resistance.

The Battle of Adwa was a turning point in Abyssinia’s participation in the Scramble for Africa. Menelik who was (or pretended to be) a proxy for European colonial ambitions before 1896 could now venture to use a European as proxy for the expansion of his colonial domains following his victory at Adwa. Thus, in June 1897, he enlisted the adventurer Russian Count


Leontiev as a proxy saying “by this letter, I inform you that it is my wish to appoint you forever over the land on the limit of which you open. So as to pay for your losses, we will give you as much as five-years gratis; but after that, if in the land you have opened be found any gold, silver, ivory or coffee …so shall you pay your tribute. This land on the limit that I give will be on the south side of Ethiopia.”33 Menelik’s victory at Adwa enhanced not only his competition with the British colonialist for more territories but also brought destruction on the conquered peoples of the south. The reports of those who had participated in the conquest and witnessed its consequences or visited the conquered territories a decade or two after conquest, reveal the perpetration of genocidal killings on unarmed populations. The most devastating atrocities were committed against the Kaficho, the Gimira and the Maji between 1897 and 1899.

Genocide and slavery in the aftermath of the Battle of Adwa?

The result of Menelik’s colonial pursuits in the aftermath of the Battle of Adwa was genocide against the conquered peoples. His morale boosted by the success at Adwa, Menelik despatched 30,000 well-armed fighters under the command of Ras Wolde Giyorgis to conquer the Kingdom of Kafa who defiantly faced them. Overwhelmed and defeated in the first rounds of battles, the Kaficho King Gaki Sherocho resorted to guerrilla warfare. Alexander Bulatovich, who served as logistics officer under the command of Ras Wolde Giyorgis, the emperor’s general who conquered the Kingdom of Kafa and the adjacent territories in 1896-1898 wrote that during the nine months that followed, the Abyssinian soldiers looted his kingdom “set fire to everything that would burn, killed the men, and captured and enslaved women and children.”34 After nine months of resistance, Gaki Sherocho was wounded, captured and sent to Shawa in chains. On the way, he threw his regalia of gold ring into the Gojeb River on the northern border of his kingdom exclaiming: “The end of the Kingdom of Kafa has arrived, let her royal ring lie under your silt undisturbed forever!”35 Indeed, a relatively prosperous ancient African kingdom was devastated and buried with the royal ring. Its proud king, Gaki Sherocho, died twenty years later in 1918 in an Abyssinian prison far away from his land and people.

Frank de Halpert, who toured Kafa in 1933, on behalf of the Society Against Slavery, estimated that judging by the traces of abandoned villages, the population of Kafa had probably decreased by three quarters as a result of conquest.36 The demographic collapse was caused by genocide, slave raiding and famine in the aftermath of the war. Warner Lange, who has collected and analysed Kaficho songs and ballads in the 1970s, stated that the Abyssinian colonization had imparted a traumatic experience on those who survived the conquest and that their ballads expressed “the sighs of oppressed creatures” and a “rejection of the present and a yearning for


the pre-conquest period.”37 Kafa has never recovered from the consequences of the genocide. While genocides committed in Africa are associated with colonialism or explained as a consequence of consolidating the post-colonial African state, Ethiopia is seldom mentioned in the literature of genocide studies in that context. However, it is plausible construe that the genocide of the Kaficho was one of the indirect consequences of Menelik’s victory at Adwa. Had the Italians been the winners the Kaficho could have not suffered genocide. It does not mean they could have avoided colonialism but the Italians or the other competing force the British could have not committed genocide against them or captured the women and children in mass to make money in the Arab slave market.

Genocide was committed on the Kaficho. It was also the fate of many of the indigenous peoples in the Omo River Valley, Lake Rudolf region and of the south-western lowlands who were conquered by the Abyssinians in the aftermath of the Adwa victory. The sources suggest that more than 90 per cent of the Maji or Dizi and about 80 percent of the Gimira or Bench, had lost their lives as the consequence of the conquest.38 Reports by contemporary European observers who visited the region indicate unanimously that more than half of the population of the region were wiped out by the war, slavery, pestilence and famine.39 One of Menelik’s most trusted generals, Ras Tesemma, confided in 1899 to a French military delegation to Ethiopia, that in the past the emperor and his men “made war to kill, ravage, pillage and collect beasts [livestock] and slaves. Now, His Majesty Menelik wants no more of this kind of aggression.”40 However, although the actual conquest was completed in 1900, the atrocities against the conquered populations did not cease; by and large, slavery and the slave trade continued until the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1936. As Bahru Zewde has stated, Menelik’s extension of Ethiopia’s frontiers and the incorporation of new areas accentuated “the predatory tendencies of the ruling class and the soldiery. South-western Ethiopia became a hunting-ground for humans as well as animals. Ivory and slaves became the two precious commodities with which traders and adventurers returned from the region.” He wrote that “Members of upper nobility came to have thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of slaves at their disposal.”41 Giving examples of some of the large slave owners Pankhurst notes that Menelik and Taytu owned 70,000 slaves and Ras Wolde Giyorgis owned 20,000 slaves at the beginning of the twentieth century. Even Ras Teferi (later Emperor Haile Selassie) is said to have owned 7000 slaves; he freed them in 1931, a year after his coronation.42 Obviously, the story which Ethiopianist historiographers such as Dr. Larebo are telling their audience and the world is far from the truth. Their description of Emperor Menelik as a blameless saint who had fought against slavery and abolished the slave trade is fake.


In 1936, forty years after the Battle of Adwa, the British journalist and author Evelyn Waugh, wrote that the “peoples of the south and west were treated with wanton brutality unequalled even in the Belgian Congo. Some areas were depopulated by slavers.”43 Comparing the harms inflicted by Belgian colonialists in Congo and Abyssinian colonialists in the south, he argued that “The significance of the Congo atrocities is not so much that they were committed as that they were exposed and suppressed.”44 In other words, when their atrocious treatment of their African subjects was revealed by liberal minded Belgians and other European observers and the Belgian colonialists were forced to acknowledge and cease the crimes they were perpetrating against their colonial subjects. That was not the case with Abyssinian colonial crimes. Notwithstanding the magnitude of the destruction it had caused and the enormity of human lives it destroyed, it remains largely unknown to the public outside the affected areas even today. Since I have dealt with the subject at length elsewhere,45 it suffices to note here that the genocide committed by Abyssinian conquerors in the south was comparable to those which were committed in Congo and Namibia by the Belgians and Germans respectively. For example, Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn wrote that, “No fewer than 80 per cent of the Herero and 50 per cent of the Nama had …fallen victim to colonial rule.”46 The German government has acknowledged the crime recently. In Ethiopia, the fate of the Kaficho who were reduced to less than a third, the Bench (Gimira) where reduced by 80 percent and the Dizi (Maji) who were nearly exterminated is seldom mentioned.

In the past, there were two important factors which accounted for the obscurity of genocide committed during the Abyssinian conquest of the south: the victims’ lack of visibility and the conquerors’ denial of their crimes. Since they lacked contacts and visibility, victims of genocide and genocidal massacres are often the least likely to raise accusations of genocide. This was particularly the case of the Kaficho, Dizi (Maji) and the Bench (Gimira) who were made invisible and “voiceless” as their leaders were killed and their institutions incapacitated or completely destroyed. For decades after conquest, they had no contacts with the rest of the world; regrettably, they lacked members with modern education to communicate their plight to others. The few who had the chance have not been able to speak on behalf of their people.

Ethiopian historiographers in general have also been silent about the heinous crimes committed against the conquered peoples in southern Ethiopia. There are even scholars who deny that crimes were ever committed them as peoples. One of the fervent denialists is Dr. Larebo. In his many radio and TV interviews,47 he has repeatedly asserted that, unless it is an “invention of ethnic” politicians and scholars, there has never been any ethnonational oppression in Ethiopia (Amharic quote here). Claiming authority on Ethiopian history he stresses the


validity of his denialist assertions and criticizes Oromo and non-Oromo scholars whose views on Menelik and his conquests are different from his views. The audacity of his denial has been increasing in tandem with the intensification of the ongoing Oromo protest and applauds he has been getting from Ethiopian media outlets and their audience for his “heroic service to his country” every time he makes his controversial commentaries about the Oromo people. As mentioned in the first part of this article, Larebo refers to Emperor Menelik as a “symbol of freedom” and the “most democratic emperor the world has ever seen” etc. As a researcher who claims authority on knowledge of Ethiopia’s history, he should have taken into account at least what had happened to the conquered peoples such as Kaficho, Dizi (Maji) and Bench (Gimira). Instead, he is promoting the myth of a 3000 years (according to him 6000 years) old Ethiopian state and the hegemonic discourse of the Habesha elite. He tries to silence any voice, be it of the Oromo or others, who will challenge the Habesha myth about Ethiopia and criticize behaviour of its monarchs. In general, he sounds like a Holocaust denier, who notwithstanding the abundance of information about the horrors of the concentration camps and gas chambers, insists that Jews were not murdered in Nazi dominated Germany.

Has the victory at Adwa any relevance to the ongoing Oromo protest?

The relevance of Menelik’s victory at Adwa to the ongoing Oromo uprising is an undeniable fact; but the relevance has different interpretations. Ironically, the Oromo contribution to victory at Adwa was not recognized in the past but brought into light in reaction to the Oromo protest and is being flagged by Habesha politicians and scholars to propagate for Ethiopian unity. The 121st anniversary of the Battle of Adwa was used as an event to oppose the identity and purpose reflected in the #Oromoprotest. It was to say there is no separate Oromo identity and question because, as Borago argued, the Oromo were Abyssinian or Ethiopians even when the participated in the Battle of Adwa.

The Oromo interpretation is different. First, as noted before, they participated in the Battle as conquered and colonized subjects, and secondly the eviction of the Oromo from their land in Finfinnee and the adjacent district which caused the Oromo uprising in 2014 has its roots in the colonial policy which made the Oromo into gabbars (serfs) in the aftermath of the Battle of Adwa. It is understood that Menelik was doing what imperialist particularly the European colonialists of his time were doing. They were exploiting the human and material resources of the colonized peoples. Menelik did the same and the contention is that the contribution to the victory at Adwa which was made by the Oromo was part of that exploitation. For the Oromo, the 121 years which had elapsed since the Battle of Adwa were not years of freedom, but of oppression and


exploitation. Therefore, the victory at Adwa does not have for them the emotive appeal it has for the Abyssinians. The Oromo do not get the psychological satisfaction which the Abyssinians are getting from it. It is true that Adwa was a victory of a black African force over a white European army. However, from an Oromo perspective the battle was between Abyssinian and Italian colonialists; it was not a war between “races”. As mention in the first part of this article, the Oromo did not fight to defend their own freedom, or on behalf of the black “race” against Italian colonialism. They were forced to fight for Emperor Menelik who was their colonizer. Therefore, it would be irrational for the Oromo to “feel proud” of being colonized by a black emperor or accept the identity he imposed on them and forget their own identity and rights as some critics of Oromo scholars and activists expect them to feel or do.

The Oromo cannot afford loss of historical awareness

As indicated above, the creation of the Ethiopian Empire was enhanced and Abyssinian colonialism was established in Oromia and the rest of the south as a consequence of the victory Menelik had achieved at Adwa. It is true that, had the Italians won the war, the Oromo could have been Italy’s colonial subjects; but it is plausible to construe that the Oromo situation could have not been worse than what it has been under the Abyssinian rule. There is no record that suggests that the experience of the Eritreans and Somalis who were colonized by the Italians was worse than that of the Oromo and others who were conquered by Menelik. The reality also is that the Europeans who colonized the rest of Africa have gone home decades ago while the Oromo the other peoples colonized by Menelik are suffering under Abyssinian colonial rule still today. Therefore, the role the Oromo had played in the Ethiopian victory at Adwa need not be “swallowed” by the Oromo as a sedative and make them forget their quest for freedom. As a renowned historian has stated “loss of historical awareness is not the prerogative of nations caught up in catastrophe.”48 It will be ludicrous if the Oromo were to celebrate the victory at Adwa as if it were scored in defense of their own freedom. Furthermore, it will be naïve for the Oromo to take the Battle as an undertaking for the common interests of the Oromo and the Abyssinians of the time, or consider the outcome of the victory as mutually beneficial to both afterwards, as suggested by Borago and others. The victory had enhanced and preserved the Abyssinian colonial yoke and the Oromo have been struggling to remove it from their shoulders for the last 121 years. Reminding the Oromo about their contribution to that victory is no solution to their current conflict with the Ethiopian state. The conflict should be put in a proper historical context in order to suggest a sustainable resolution. The fact that the Oromo participated in the Battle of Adwa as subjects and not free people should be admitted. The


acknowledgement of atrocities which were committed by Menelik and his successors against the Oromo before and after the Battle of Adwa should open the way for talks regarding the resolution of the conflict. It is absurd to seek a solution to a problem while ignoring or distorting its cause.

Promoting Ethiopiawinnet by denigrating Oromummaa

A people or a nation can be conquered and forced to live under foreign domination, but changing their identity is not as easy as conquering them. However, Haile Larebo seems to argue that the mere fact of their conquest by Menelik makes the Oromo Ethiopians. Teshome Borago posits that the Oromo were already Ethiopians at the time of the Battle of Adwa – they participated in it as Abyssinians. According to both of them the idea of a separate Oromo identity is a hoax forged by foreign missionaries and extremist Oromo scholars and politicians. By and large, the views of Larebo and Borago are also the views of the Habesha elite. Barago writes “Oromos need to change this mentality. It is time to restore Ethiopiawinet.” They are attempting to solve the Ethiopian crisis by rejecting Oromo self-definition as a nation (Oromummaa) and by defining them as a “tribe” or gosa. The arguments they use are couched in the denigrating terminologies that are employed in the Habesha elite’s discourse to belittle the Oromo struggle for identity. Like them they label the ongoing Oromo protest as a “tribal” or an “ethnic” hullabaloo rather than as an expression of a genuine grievance of a people with cultural and national rights. Both of them demonize Oromo claims to their inalienable rights to freedom as a reflection of “extremism”. While ascribing a sacred, abstract and primeval nature to Ethiopian identity, “Ethiopiawinet” as he calls it, Larebo in particular posits rudely that the Oromo are “a collection of tribes” who lack collective identity, a common culture or collective consciousness as a people. In his interview with ESAT on January 10, 2017 he posited for example that those Oromos who live in the east do not even understand those who are settled in the west. Haile Larebo was trying to use a strategy - the suppression of ethno-national identities which Ethiopian regimes have been using to create a homogenous Ethiopian nation. He ignores the waves of Oromo demonstrations that were rocking the Ethiopian regime or the millions of men and women of all ages who were carrying the same placards and singing the same slogans from north to south and from east to west saying “Finfinnee is ours, Sabataa is ours, Buraayyuu is ours, etc.” He pretends to be unaware of the Irreecha festivals which bring together millions of Oromos in Bishoftu when he calls Oromo as a “collection of tribes” without a common culture. Apparently caught the ages old nightmare of the Habesha elite concerning Oromo demography and eager to prove that Ethiopiawinnet is driving out Oromummaa he uses obscure statistics


which reduces the Oromo population from over 35 million to seven million or by 80 per cent. He posits that 80 per cent of the Oromo population are from intermarriage between different tribes and are not actually Oromos but “real” Ethiopians. I understand this gigantic “assimilation by intermarriage” as a figment of Larebo’s wishful thinking rather than a demographic reality. Ironically, there are Habesha media outlet who are citing him without any sign of hesitation.

Both Larebo and Borago share the Habesha elite’s nostalgia for the imperial past and will reinstate its provincial administrative divisions as a solution to the present crisis which they see is an outcome of what they call “tribal politics”. Larebo is specific on this point. In his interview on ESAT TV mentioned above, he stressed his strong preference of old imperial division of Ethiopia into provinces without any consideration to its ethnic or linguistic composition. Borago is also advocating the pre-1991 system and opposing the idea of self-determination of peoples when he says “Instead of rejecting the status quo of tribalism under TPLF, Oromo activists are defending it.” Blaming the Oromo even more, he argues that “Instead of challenging the system on paper, they are hoping to implement it even more.” Ironically, he is blaming them for exercising their rights. He writes that “Some Oromo activists actually want to be more woyane than woyane.” Here he blames the TPLF indirectly for including “the right to self-determination” in the constitution and condemns the Oromo strongly for demanding its implementation. What is implied in what Borago calls “the system” is not only the ethnonyms, such as Oromo, Amhara and Afar that designate the regional states within the federal structure, but also the right to the use their own languages in administration, in law and education within the geographical, administrative and cultural framework suggested by the federal structure. Thus, when he says the Oromo activists are defending rather than rejecting the “status quo of tribalism” he refers particularly to the use of the Oromo language in education, administration and law in Oromia. Borago also shows a strong resentment regarding the use of the Qubee script by the Oromo to write their language. In an earlier article he wrote that:

In 1992, TPLF hired OLF hardliners to destroy the Ethiopian educational system. Meles Zenawi personally picked the Oromo extremist Mr. Ibsa Gutema for Ministry of Education job in the 1990s. Mr. Ibsa changed all Ethiopian historical textbooks to make new generation Oromos, Amharas and others hate each other. … In 1990s, the OLF Education Minister of Ethiopia Mr. Ibsa Gutema adopted and imposed the foreign Latin script for Oromo alphabet instead of the local Geez. So we must remember who has divided our country for two decades.49


The quote contains the typical language used by Habesha elite to vilify Oromo scholars and politicians and disparage activities that involve the use of their rights. To start with, it is bizarre to depict Ibsaa as an “extremist” simply because he is an OLF member. To posit destroyed or would destroy the Ethiopian educational system in just a year is an overstatement to say the least. Ibsaa left Ethiopia when the OLF was pushed out of the Transitional Government by the TPLF in June 1992. Indeed, it was under his competent leadership as a Minister of Education that a decisive step in the field of Oromo literacy and education was taken and implemented. However, Ibsaa did not make the decision for using the Latin-based Qubee to write Afaan Oromoo. The decision was made by scholars, intellectuals and politicians. The only people, the Oromo, who have the prerogative to reject the decision were, to say the least, satisfied with the alphabet. So are their schoolchildren. Under Ibsaa as a Minister of Education the mother tongue was made the medium of instruction in elementary schools not only in Oromia but throughout Ethiopia. Borago prefers the pre-1991 mono-lingual school system which he thinks will guard “the prison house of nations”, to borrow Ernst Gellner’s name for Ethiopia, from being “divided”. He ignores the traumatic experience of the non-Amhara children in Ethiopian schools and wishes to revert to the naftanya elite’s ideal of one language, one nation and one country. In Borago view Ibsaa’s “sin” was putting in place an obstacle to the monolingual Ethiopiawinnet Borago in mind and protecting non-Amharic-speaking schoolchildren from the biased system where Amharic was the only medium of instruction.

The name Oromo was “invented”

As pointed out above, Larebo posits that the term Oromo is invented. Borago who shares the view wrote “the label ‘Oromo’ is a recent creation of OLF and TPLF/OPDO, used to unify a diverse (previously separate) groups of clans, gibes and regions based on language.” The statement reflects a strange resentment for Oromo identity which Borago shares with many Habesha scholars and politicians rather than an anthropological or linguistic fact. I have written extensively about the social history of the Oromo as an emergent and ancient nation and will not go into details.50 However, to those who have been listening to Larebo or others who posit that the name Oromo is “invented” by foreigners and Oromo scholars or it was an idea from the Woyane as implied in Borago’s article, I will take the liberty to suggest for readers reports written by travelers and scholars who had visited the Horn of Africa at the end of the nineteenth century to get a balanced information on the subject. Here, I will take up the observations made by one of them, Alexander Bulatovich, to counter what Larebo and Borago and others are saying about the


Oromo people, their country and their relations to the Abyssinian state. I chose Bulatovich because of the following reasons.

He was received by Menelik many times in his palace and had lived with or visited many of his well-known generals such as Ras Tesemma Nadew, Ras Wolde Giyorgis, Ras Damissew and many others. Appointed by Menelik he served as an advisor to the army of Ras Wolde Giyorgis as it conquered the south-western territories from Kafa to Lake Rudolf in 1897 and 1898. Ideologically, Bulatovich supported Abyssinian colonialism and promoted Menelik’s interests in Russia and in the rest of Europe. Menelik awarded him a gold shield which Bulatovich calls “an outstanding military distinction, given only on rare occasions.” He was honoured and rewarded lavishly for his services by Ras Wolde Giyorgis. 51 In addition, Bulatovich visited much of the Oromo territory between 1896 and 1898 and witnessed and acknowledged the damage done to the people by the Abyssinian conquest. He stayed at the homes of both ordinary Oromo peasants and the highest Oromo families during his travels in the Oromo country by mule or horseback. He stayed at the palace of Kumsa Moroda the King of Leeqa Naqamtee.52 Above all, Bulatovich’s keen observation can counter Larebo’s denials about Oromo identity, Oromo peoplehood/nationhood an experience under Abyssinian rule. He observed closely the traumatic consequences of the conquest for the Oromo both as individuals and a nation.

The term Oromo

Bulatovich wrote that they “did not only call themselves Ilmaan Oromo but all of them recognize that they belong to an Oromo nation.”53 He noted also that “almost all of them have the same customs, language…and character, despite the difference of faith which exists between Oromo pagan and Oromo Mohammedans.”54 He confirmed what travellers and scholars such as Antoine d’Abbadie, de’Salviac and who had been in Oromoland during the first half of the nineteenth had said.

On Oromo relations to the Abyssinian state

According to Larebo no people or nationality was oppressed in Ethiopian history and that the people were united at the time of the Battle of Adwa. However, Bulatovich has the following to say about both individual and collective traumatic experience among the Oromo under Menelik’s rule at the time when they are said to be united. Eight months after the battle he wrote: “On November 16 [1896], we…spent the night at the home of an Oromo. The family consisted of the host, (the father of whom was killed by Abyssinians during the subjugation), his mother and two wives. … The host apparently, was reconciled with his fate,


but his mother looked on Abyssinians with fear and anger and sat by the fire all night long.”55 War and conquest traumatize its targets in many ways. Needless to explain here that the anger and the fear were expressions of the traumatic experience which the Oromo mother shared with tens of thousands Oromo mothers of her time. Describing an observation he made about two years later on the way to Kafa Bulatovich wrote in January 1898: “And the soldiers’ wives kept pace with their husbands in behaviour. I happened to see how one of them, a small and frail Abyssinian woman, for some offence hit in the face a big strong Oromo, who in response only mournfully lamented: Abyet, Abyet, goftako forgive me, forgive me madam.” The traumatic effects of this kind of treatment seem not to have escaped Bulatovich’s keen eyes and humanistic sensibilities. He wrote “the freedom loving Oromo who did not recognize any authority other than the speed of his horse, the strength of his hand, and the accuracy of his spear, now goes through the hard school of obedience.”56

On destruction of conquest on the Oromo.

Bulatovich stated that “the dreadful killing of more than half of the population during the conquest took away from the Oromo all possibility of thinking about any sort of uprising. He added “Without a doubt, the Oromo, with their at least five million population [in the 1890s], occupying the best land, all speaking one language, could represent a tremendous force if united.”57 Thus, although Bulatovich was servicing Menelik loyally, he did not hesitate to tell the truth about the identity of the conquered peoples and the consequences of the conquest for them. He referred consistently to Abyssinians as conquerors and the Oromo as conquered. We do not see a word about a “united Ethiopia” in both his From Entotto to the River Baro first published in 1897 and With the Armies of Menelik II first published in 1900. Both books give a unique first-hand information about the people and territories of the conquered peoples.

The historical, political and sociological facts which were recorded by Bulatovich then is being denied by Larebo and others today. It is not surprising that Habesha scholars and politician are denying the colonial atrocities committed against the Oromo and the other conquered peoples in the south by their grandfathers. The Habesha elite do not share the trauma of conquest, mutilation, slavery and the humiliation of serfdom with the Oromo. Their historical consciousness is shaped by the myth of “abatochachin yaqanulin ager” (“the country our parents have conquered/colonized for us”). When they think of the past, they envision the glory and victories of their forefathers. The typical Habesha elite basks in this type of utopia and narrates ad infinitum about the grandeur of the Ethiopian empire enjoys an uninterrupted history of three


thousand years (for some even ten thousand years). The victory at Adwa is, but a proof of the empire’s “exceptional” resilience. The paradox is when someone from the south joins them and ridicules Oromo grievances, denigrates Oromo identity and demonizes Oromo activists and scholars who demands justice. It is surprising to hear educated men like Larebo who mimic the Habesha elite, deny the dire circumstances under which the peoples of conquered territories were made to contribute to the Adwa victory were recruited in the conquered territories. He will not acknowledge the post-Adwa persecution and humiliation which the peoples of the colonized territories had suffered in the hands of Abyssinian rulers and landlords. Through consistent denial, he will obliterate the historical memory of the colonized peoples and thereby attempting to bury the trauma of Abyssinia’s colonial conquests.

In conclusion, the Oromo and the Abyssinians were not politically or militarily united when they fought the Italians at Adwa. The Oromo were fighting for their enemy. It was not only the Oromo who were fighting for their enemy at the Battle of Adwa. A third, or 7,100 of the 21,000 men who constitute the Italian forces were Eritreans. They fought for their colonizers too. It should be clear here that subjects and conquerors, masters and slaves, colonizers and the colonized have fought wars side by side throughout history. As I have mentioned in the first part of this article, millions of Indians and Africans fought for the British during WWI and WWII. Millions of Africans also fought for both the British and French in both wars. Colonizers and imperialists have always used the human and material resources of their colonies. They need no unity with their subjects. They own them and their natural resources. Winning victory in a war under one banner and leadership does not convert the peoples of an empire or a multinational polity into one identity and conserve them forever. The peoples of the Soviet Union, which was basically a Russian empire, fought the Nazis in WWII and won a great victory. As we know, that did not bind them to the Union forever or turn them into Russians – they are Ukrainians, Georgians, Kazakhs, etc. today. Adwa did not unite the Abyssinians and the conquered peoples of the south including the Oromo. It strengthened Abyssinian hegemony over them. The Oromo uprising must be seen in that context. Using their contribution to the victory achieved at Adwa to counter the Oromo quest for the right of self-determination is a fallacy.

1James, W. “Preface” in Donham, D. & James, W. (eds.), The Southern Marches of Imperial Ethiopia: Essays in History and Social Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. xiv.

2 Marcus, H. The Life and Times of Menelik II: Ethiopia 1844-1913. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

1975: 140, 73

3 Pankhurs, R. Economic History of Ethiopia, 1800-1935. Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University press, 1968: 102.

4 Berhane-Selassie, T. “Menelik II: Conquest and Consolidation of Southern Provinces”, B.A. Thesis, History Department, Addis Ababa University, 1969.

5 Cited in Prouty, C. Empress Taytu and Menelik II: Ethiopia 1883-1910, Trenton, NJ: The Red Sea Press, 1996

6 Prouty, C. ibid. p. 115


7 De Salviac, M. An Ancient People in the State of Menelik: the Oromo, Great African Nation. Translated into English by Ayalew Kanno. 1901/2006: 354-355

8 Araarsa, Tsegaye, Facebook post on March 1, 2016

9 Hussein, H. & Mohammed Ademo, M. “Ethiopia’s Original Sin”, World Policy Journal, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, World Policy Institute, Fall 2016

10 Plaut, M. “The Africans who fought in WWII, BBC November 9, 2009.

11 Marcus, H. ibid.

12 Tareke, Gebru. Ethiopia: Power and Protest. Lawrenceville, N.J: The Red Sea Press, 1996:40

13 Bairu Tafla, in Asmé, 1905 [1987: 405, fn. 584]

14 Huxley, E. White Man’s Country: Lord Delamere and the Making of Kenya, 1967: 38-9

15Markakis, M. Ethiopia: The Last Frontiers, James Currey, New York, 2011, pp. 3-4.

16 Scherrer, C. “Analysis and Background to the refugee Crisis: The Unsolved Oromo Question”, in Scherrer, C. & Bulcha, M. War Against the Oromo and Mass Exodus FromEthiopia: Voices of Oromo Refugees in Kenya and the Sudan, 2002, p. 27

17Tareke, Gebru, ibid. p. 71

18 Perham, M. (1969). The Government of Ethiopia, London: Faber and Faber, 1969: 294

19 Norberg, V. H. “Swedes as a Pawn in Haile Selassie’s Foreign Policy: 1924-1952”, in Modern Ethiopia, Tubiana, J. (ed.), Rotterdam: A.A. Balkema, 1980:328

20 Caulk. R. “Firearms and Princely Power in Ethiopia in the Nineteenth Century”, Journal of African History, XIII (4)

21 Darkwah, R.H.K. Shewa, Menelik and the Ethiopian Empire 1813-1889, London: Heinemann. 1975: 207.

22 Luckman, R. & Bekele, D. “Foreign Powers and Militarism in the Horn of Africa”, Review of African Economy”, No. 30, 1984.

23 Pankhurst, R. Economic History of Ethiopia, 1800-1935. Addis Ababa, 1968: 21.

24 Darkwah, R.H.K. ibid. pp. 58-9.

25 Bulatovich A. Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes: A Country in Transition, 1896-1898, translated and edited by Richard Seltzer, Lawrenceville, N.J: The Red Sea Press. Two volumes combined in the English translation, 1900/2000: 162

26 Marcus, H. ibid. p.124

27 Cited in Markakis, J. ibid. p. 3.

28 Holcomb, B. & Ibssa, S. (1990). The Invention of Ethiopia: The Making of a Dependent Colonial State in Northeast Africa, Trenton, N.J.: The Red Sea Press.

29 See Darley, H. 1926. Slaves and Ivory: A Record of Adventure and Exploration in the Unknown Sudan, and Among the Abyssinian Slave-Raiders, for a vivid description of slave raiding by the conquerors in these areas in the 1920s.

30 Tekle-Tsadik Mekuriya, The History of Ethiopia: From Emperor Tewodros to Emperor Haile Selassie. In Amharic. Addis Ababa: Berhan ena Selam, Printing Press. 7th Edition, 1961 Eth. C (1968). p. 98.

31 See Dugdale-Pointon, T. Battle of Adwa, 1-2 March 1896,, 19 February 2009. Accessed on 12 March 2017

32 Bulatovich, A. Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes: A Country in Transition, 1896-1898, translated and edited by Richard Seltzer, Lawrenceville, N.J: The Red Sea Press., 1900/2000: 346, 168

33 Cited in Greenfield, R. and Hassan, M. “Interpretation of Oromo Nationality,” Horn of Africa, Vol. 3(3), 1981).

34 Bulatovich, A. ibid, p. 220

35 Nyonyo, Paulos. Menelik II (in Amharic), Addis Ababa: Bole Printing Press, 1991: 35.

36 Cited in Perham, M. ibid p.321.

37Lange, W. Domination and Resistance: Narrative Songs of the Kafa Highlands, East Lansing: Michigan University. 1979

38 Hodson, A. 1927. Seven Years in Southern Abyssinia, London: T. Fisher Unwin Ltd. For the Gimira see Athill, L.F.I. 1920. “Through South-Western Abyssinia to the Nile”, Geographical Journal, Vol. LVI, pp. 355-357.

39 Hodson, A. ibid.

40 Prouty, K. ibid. p. 206.

41 Bahru Zewde, History of Modern Ethiopia: 1855 – 1974. London: James Currey, 1991, p. 93

42 Richard Pankhurst, Economic History of Ethiopia, 1800-1935. Addis Ababa, 1968, pp. 75, 120.

43 Waugh, E. Waugh in Abyssinia, Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1936/1964. P. 24

44 Waugh, E. ibid. p. 26

45 Mekuria Bulcha, “Genocidal Violence in the Making of Nation and State in Ethiopia”, African Sociological Review Vol. 9(2), 2005

46 Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn wrote that the official census taken in 1911 shows that there were a mere 15,130 Herero left out of an original 80,000 and 9,781 Nama out of an original 20,000. 1990, p. 246

47 These were, for example, made on Radio SBS, Australia on November 10, 2016, Ethiopian Satellite TV (ESAT) on January 10 and 29, 2017 on Ethiopia Wetatoch Dimts on January 22, 2017, Aronios Radio on March 22, 2017, etc.

48 Tosh, J. & Lang, S. The Pursuit of History, Pearson – Longman, Fourth Edition, 2006. p. xii

49 Borago, Teshome. “Understanding ethnicity and politics in Ethiopia”, Satenaw, February, 2014, 2016.

50 See Mekuria Bulcha, The Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation, Cape Town: Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society, CASAS, Second Edition, 2016.


51 Bulatovich, ibid. Ras Wolde Giyorgis awarded him “a horse with silver dress; the silver spear of the captive king of Kafa, which he had thrown at the Abyssinians who took him prisoner; and a shield decorated with silver …a gold sabre.”

52 Bulatovich, A., ibid. pp. 29-30

53 Ibid. p. 53.

54 Ibid. p. 65

55 Bulatovich, ibid. p. 12.

56 Bulatovich, A. ibid

57 Ibid. p. 69


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