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

Published by Staff Editor on

Mekuria Bulcha, PhD, Professor


In the first part of this article which was published on March 28, 2017 by Oromia Today and other Oromo websites, I critically assessed the conditions under which the Oromo and the various 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 expose how the victory achieved at Adwa is being used to distort the history of the peoples conquered by Menelik, explore the effect of the victory on the peoples of what is now known as southern Ethiopia. I will also discuss the meaning of the Battle of Adwa for the Oromo and the irrationality of blaming them for a lack of pride in the victory achieved in the war and critique the futile effort of Habesha and non-Habesha scholars and politicians to erase Oromummaa (Oromo identity) and replace it with Ethiopiawinnet (Ethiopian-ness) using Oromo contribution to Ethiopia’s victory at Adwa. As in the first part of the article, the views which are expressed in both Mr. Borago’s articles and Dr. Larebo’s stories about the Oromo and the Battle of Adwa, which were broadcast on different media outlets, are the points of departure also in this second part of the article.

Adwa whets Menelik’s appetite for more territories

One of the results of the Adwa victory was the strengthening of Menelik’s position in the competition with the British over territories on the southern and southwestern peripheries of his expanding empire. Consequently, eight months after Adwa, he sent Ras Wolde Giyorgis in November 1896 to conquer Kafa in the south. At the same time he sent Ras Mekonnen to annex Beneshangul in the west. Fitawrari Habtegiorgis who was sent to the south conquered Borana in 1897. Dajazmach (later Ras) Tesemma was instructed to take possession of lands in the lower Baro (Sobat) River valley and the upper course of the White Nile in 1897. By the time the competition came to an end and border treaties were signed with the British (in 1902 the southern and in 1906 western border), Menelik’s four commanders had conquered and annexed hundreds of thousands square kilometers of new territories to his empire. Thus, as Gebru Tareke, a historian from the north, stated the Abyssinian kingdom not only averted a European colonial occupation at the battle of Adwa but also “increased its size by more than 65 per cent in the wake of the Scramble for Africa” and that “the Ethiopian state attained more or less its present spatial organization during precisely this period.” The battle of Adwa was a turning point not only in Abyssinia’s territorial expansion but also in the lives of millions of people conquered by Menelik in its aftermath. The reports of those who had participated in the conquest and witnessed its consequences or visited the conquered territories a decade or two after the conquest, reveal a perpetration of genocidal killings on unarmed populations.

Genocide and slavery in the aftermath of the Battle of Adwa

In the speech he gave in Dallas on March 18, 2017 Dr. Larebo posits that the Kaficho were among those participated in the Battle of Adwa. That is not true. He was talking about unity where the condition for it was nonexistent. Kafa was not yet part of Menelik’s empire. It became the first target of Menelik’s colonial pursuits in the aftermath of the Battle of Adwa. As mentioned above, Menelik dispatched about 30,000 well-armed fighters under the command of Ras Wolde Giyorgis to conquer the Kingdom of Kafa which defiantly faced them. Overwhelmed and defeated in the first rounds of battles, the Kaficho King Gaki Sherocho resorted to guerrilla warfare. Bulatovich 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.” After nine months of resistance, Gaki Sherocho was wounded, captured and sent to Shawa in chains. In his biography of Menelik Paulos Nyonyo notes that, on the way, Sherocho 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!” Indeed, a relatively prosperous ancient African kingdom was devastated and buried with the royal ring. The proud Gaki Sherocho died twenty years later in 1918 in an Abyssinian prison far away from his land and people. It is said over and over again that Adwa was a victory for all the African and black peoples around the world. Can we also say it was a victory for the Kaficho and their King too? Aren’t they Africans and black? However, had Adwa been a victory for all black peoples, the genocide and slavery described in this article could have not been perpetrated on the Kaficho, the other peoples in today’s south and south-western peripheries of Ethiopia.

Gaki Sherocho, the last King of Kafa, in chains after his defeat in 1897 by forces led by Ras Wolde –Giyorgis. Died in Abyssinian prison in 1918. The victory at Adwa did not protect him and his people from colonialism. (Photograph) (Source: A History of Modern Ethiopia: 1855-1974 by Bahru Zewde, 1991)

Frank de Halpert of the Society Against Slavery in London, who was employed by Haile Selassie and toured Kafa in 1933, estimated that judging by the traces of abandoned villages, the population of Kafa had probably decreased by three quarters as a result of conquest. The demographic collapse was caused by genocide, slave raiding and famine in the aftermath of the war. 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 states, Ethiopia is seldom mentioned in the literature of genocide studies in that context. Ironically, according to Larebo and others the peoples in Ethiopia including the Kaficho were “protected” against European colonialism by Menelik. Indeed, had the Italians been the winners the Kaficho could have not avoided colonialism. But the Italians or the British who were then competing from Kenya and the Sudan with Menelik for territories in the region, could have not committed genocide against them or captured the women and children in mass to make money on the Arab slave market. In short the victory at Adwa had maintained the national pride of the Abyssinian but not that of the Kaficho. It had an immeasurable negative effect on their survival.

Genocide was committed not only 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. Bulatovich, who followed Ras Wolde Giyorgis during his conquest of the territories south of Kafa, writes in his diary-based 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.” 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. According to some sources the Bench of Maji were decimated by more than 90 per cent and the Dizi of Gimira by about 80 percent as the consequence of the conquest. 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. Ras Tesemma, Menelik’s nephew and one of his most trusted generals, 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.” 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 an Ethiopian historian 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.” Giving examples of some of the largest slave owners, the celebrated historian 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. Obviously, the story which Dr. Larebo and his likes are telling the world does not hold much water. Their description of Emperor Menelik as a blameless saint who had fought against slavery and abolished the slave trade is far from truth. The historian Darkwah argued that, notwithstanding the proclamations he produced for diplomatic purposes Menelik was against the abolition of the slave trade.

In 1936, forty years after the Battle of Adwa, the British journalist and author 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.” 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.” In other words, when their atrocious treatment of their African subjects was revealed by liberal minded Belgians and other European observers, 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 material destruction they had caused and the enormity of human lives that were destroyed, these crimes remain largely unknown to the public outside the affected areas even today. Since I have dealt with the subject at length elsewhere, it suffices to note here that the genocide committed by the Abyssinian conquerors in the south was comparable to those which were committed in Congo and Namibia by the Belgians and the Germans respectively. For example, genocide researchers 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” and that what the Germans had committed on them was a genocide. 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 who were reduced by 80 percent and the Dizi 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 wholesale slaughter. This was particularly the case of the Kaficho, Dizi and the Bench who were made invisible and “voiceless” as their leaders were killed and their institutions incapacitated or completely destroyed. For decades after the 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 against them as peoples. One of the fervent denialists is Dr. Larebo. In his many radio and TV interviews, he has repeatedly asserted that, unless it is an “invention of ethnic” politicians and scholars, there has never been any ethnonational oppression in Ethiopia. Claiming authority on Ethiopian history, Larebo 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. To be relevant and useful, the writing of history should be soundly based and avoid serious errors. As a researcher who claims authority on Ethiopia’s history, Larebo should have taken into account at least what had happened to the Kaficho, the Dizi, the Bench and others who were conquered by Menelik in the aftermath of Adwa. Instead, he tries to silence any voice, be it of the Oromo or others, who will challenge the myth about Ethiopia, or criticize the behavior 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.

Does the victory at Adwa have 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 Abyssinians or Ethiopians even when they 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 districts 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 exactly the same. My contention is that the “contribution” which was made by the Oromo to the victory at Adwa was part of the colonial exploitation. Furthermore, for the Oromo, the 121 years which had elapsed since the Battle of Adwa were not years of freedom, but of oppression and exploitation. In other words, the victory at Adwa does not have for the Oromo the emotive appeal it has for the Abyssinian elite. 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 mentioned 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 obliged to fight for Emperor Menelik who was their colonizer. That is why it is irrational to expect the Oromo to be happy or “feel proud” about Adwa or Menelik. In fact, that the Oromo were opposed to both European and Abyssinian colonialism was clearly reflected later on in the formation of the Western Oromo Confederation (WOF) and declaration of independence at the beginning of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1936-1941.

As demonstrated 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 which 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 colonialism is eradicated in the rest of Africa decades ago while the Oromo and the other peoples conquered by Menelik are still suffering under Abyssinian colonial rule today. As a renowned historian has stated “loss of historical awareness is not the prerogative of nations caught up in catastrophe.” Apparently, Larebo, Borago and other commentators are appreciating role the Oromo had played in the victory at Adwa using as a sedative to make us forget the circumstances under which our forefathers participated in the war. As a “sedative”, because the appreciation is expressed combined with disparaging criticisms of the current Oromo uprising. Be that as it may, it will be naïve if today’s Oromo were to celebrate the victory at Adwa as if it were achieved in defense of their own freedom. Furthermore, it will be farcical if they were 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 which the Oromo have been struggling to remove from their shoulders for the last 121 years.

In short, remembering the material contribution which the Oromo had made in the conduct of the war or the role they had played in the victory at Adwa does not heal the harms which the Abyssinian conquest had inflicted on the Oromo. The conflict between the Oromo and the Ethiopian state should be put in a proper historical context in order to reach at a meaningful resolution. 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 a meaningful dialogue. Otherwise, it will not make sense to seek a solution to a problem while ignoring or distorting its cause.

With what I have said above in mind, I would also like to point out that I am aware of the symbolic importance of the victory at Adwa for Africa and peoples of African descent around the world. I am not downplaying that as well as significance of the victory at Adwa by any means. What I am suggesting is that Adwa was not a unique event in the history of black peoples. To say it was unique means: (a) it was a single event, or it had occurred only in one place; and (b) the Ethiopians are the only black people who ever had defeated a white army in a battle. That is to accept the wrong assumption of white supremacists who consider the Adwa victory as accidental; that is to say it did not occur in the past and may not happen in the future. It is to forget the valor and military skills of the Zulu whose forces wiped out an entire British regiment that invaded their land at the Battle of Isandlwana in January 1879. The proposition also overlooks the achievement of anti-slavery and anti-colonial warriors of the Haitian revolution who, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, defeated the French at the Battle of Vertieres in November 1803. The Haitian Republic, which was established in 1804 was the first and the only black state in the Western hemisphere. These are not the only examples of black victories over their white adversaries. When we go farther back in time we come across, among others, the stunning feats of Hannibal and his Carthaginian forces over the mighty armies of the Roman Empire. In short, Adwa is a great victory but not the first and only victory won by an African force over an invading or colonizing European army.

Promoting Ethiopiawinnet by demeaning Oromummaa

A people or a nation can be conquered and forced to live under a foreign domination, but changing their identity is not as easy as conquering them. As mentioned, 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 Borago and Larebo the idea of a separate Oromo identity is a hoax forged by foreign missionaries and extremist Oromo scholars and politicians. 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 often are employed by Ethiopianists to belittle the Oromo struggle as a tribal squabble. They are reluctant to see the ongoing Oromo protest as an expression of a genuine grievance of a people with cultural and national rights. They demonize it as a reflection of ethnic “extremism” contrived by political activists. In his article on Adwa, Borago writes “Oromos need to change this mentality. It is time to restore Ethiopiawinet.” While ascribing a sacred, abstract and primeval nature to Ethiopian identity, “Ethiopiawinnet” as he calls it, Larebo in particular posits crudely that the Oromo are “a collection of tribes” who lack a collective identity, a common culture or collective consciousness as a people. In one of his interviews broadcast by diaspora media outlets he claims, for example, that those Oromos who live in the east do not even understand those who are settled in the west. He talks as if he has not seen at all the waves of Oromo demonstrations that were rocking the Ethiopian regime, or heard the voices of millions of men and women of all ages who were carrying similar placards and singing similar slogans from north to south and from east to west saying in unison “Finfinnee is ours, Sabataa is ours, Buraayyuu is ours, etc.” for more than a year. The reality is that he is ignoring the unity which the demonstrations, the slogans and the voices symbolize. To create a homogenous Ethiopian nation, Larebo is also using unsubstantiated demographic calculation which ignores the official census statistics: he claims that about 80 per cent the present Oromo population are not “real” Oromo but “results” of Oromo intermarriage with different “tribes” and forced assimilation by the Oromo in the past; he means they should not be considered ethnically as Oromo but Ethiopians. In the absence of evidence, one must take this massive “assimilation and intermarriage” as a figment of Larebo’s imagination rather than a demographic reality. However, there are Habesha media outlets and “scholars” that 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.” 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 explicitly for demanding its implementation. What is implied in what Borago calls “the system” is not only the ethnonyms, such as Oromo, Amhara, Somali and Afar that designate the national states within the federal structure, but also the right to use their own languages in administration, in law courts and schools without restrictions 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.

The quote contains the typical language used by many among the 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, or the Oromo language became a medium of instruction in Oromia when he was the Minister of Education. To suggest he had destroyed the Ethiopian educational system in just a year is an overstatement to say the least. Ibsaa left Ethiopia when the OLF withdrew from the Transitional Government 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 the adoption of the Latin-based Qubee for Oromo literacy. The decision was made by Oromo scholars and politicians. The only people, the Oromo, who have the prerogative to reject the decision, were 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 “disintegration”. He tends to ignore 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’s view Ibsaa’s “sin” was putting in place an obstacle to monolingualism which was used as an instrument by the previous Ethiopian regimes to promote Ethiopiawinnet. For Borago the end justifies the means. He does not mind if the non-Amharic-speaking schoolchildren suffer because of the biased system where Amharic was the only medium of instruction as far as Ethiopiwinnet is promoted.

The term Oromo was “invented”, the Oromo people “were not oppressed”

As pointed out above, Larebo claims 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, [tribes] and regions based on language.” The statement reflects an antipathy toward Oromo as a collective identity 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. However, to those who have been listening to Larebo or others who claim that the name Oromo is “invented” by foreigners and Oromo scholars, or say it is an identity which was imposed on the Oromo by the Woyane as implied in Borago’s article, I will take the liberty to ask them to read reports written by travelers and scholars who had visited the Horn of Africa at the end of the nineteenth century and get a balanced information on the subject. Here, I will take up the observations made by Alexander Bulatovich, to counter what Larebo, Borago and others are claiming about the Oromo people, their country and their relationship with the Abyssinian state. Bulatovich, a young cavalry officer in the Russian army, came in 1896 with the Russian Red Cross Mission and was received by Menelik many times in his palace. He 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 and served as an advisor to the army of Ras Wolde Giyorgis when he 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 Europe. Menelik awarded him a gold shield which according to Bulatovich himself is “an outstanding military distinction, given only on rare occasions.” He was honored and rewarded lavishly for his services by Ras Wolde Giyorgis. In spite of his strong support for Menelik’s colonial expansion and his own direct participation in it, Bulatovich wrote objectively about its negative impacts on the conquered peoples. His observations contradict Larebo’s denials about Oromo identity. He also reported about the traumatic consequences of the conquest for the Oromo both as individuals and a nation which Larebo denies. Bulatovich may repeat some of the many myths he heard from his Abyssinian hosts about Abyssinia-cum-Ethiopia, but he recorded objectively what he saw in the south and southwest.

Oromo identity: Bulatovich wrote that the Oromo did not only call themselves Ilmaan Oromo but “all of them recognize that they belong to an Oromo nation.” 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.” Obviously, his statements were based on what he saw while travelling in the Oromo country. They confirm observations which were recorded by travelers and scholars such as Antoine d’Abbadie, de Salviac who had been in Oromoland and lived among the Oromo during the first half of the nineteenth. Incidentally, it important to note here that the Germans heard about a people called Oromo from an Abyssinian monk Abba Gregorius who told the German historian Job Ludolf in 1682. The monk told Ludolf that the Amhara give the “name Gallans” to the people who “call themselves Oromo”. As I have explained elsewhere, the history of the origins of the pejorative term which the Amhara and others were using in the past and Dr. Larebo will use today to mean “Oromo”, was the word “Gallans”. That being the case, I hope Dr. Larebo’s argument that the term Oromo was invented by German missionaries and TPLF politicians need not confuse the public anymore.

Oromo individuals’ experience in the Abyssinian state: According to Larebo no people or nationality was oppressed in Ethiopian history and that the people were united and happy under Menelik. However, Bulatovich’s observations reveal a different story in contradiction to Larebo’s propositions. Eight months after the Battle of Adwa 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.” Needless to explain here that the anger and the fear were expressions of the traumatic experience which the Oromo mother was sharing with tens of thousands of Oromo mothers of her time. The experience of the peoples conquered in the aftermath of Adwa was even worse. An eye-witness report from the 1920s indicates that in Kafa for example, “the old commerce had died out,” and a “traveller would rarely see a Kaffa [sic] native on the tracks, and often when he did, the native would flee.” The explanation for this behaviour given by another European eye-witness during the same period was that, following conquest, “law and order has left this glorious plateau” because of rapacious slave hunting by the conquerors. Here the Abyssinian conquest caused not only mass death but also impinged a traumatic experience on those who survived it. Warner Lange, who collected and analyzed 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.

To go back to Bulatovich, describing an observation he made about the treatment the Oromo were receiving from Menelik’s soldiers Bulatovich stated in January 1898: “And the soldiers’ wives kept pace with their husbands in behavior. 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.” In male dominated societies the humiliation felt by a man treated like that cannot be underestimated. It is interesting to note here that the traumatic effects of this kind of treatment seem not to have escaped Bulatovich’s eyes and 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.” He also said that “Without doubt, the Oromo, with their at least five million population, occupying the best land, all speaking one language, could represent a tremendous force if they united.” The Oromo have shown resistance on many occasions and in many places since Bulatovich wrote these lines. It is plausible to say that today, the Oromo have overcome their lack of unity and will struggle until they close down for good the “hard school of obedience” mentioned by Bulatovich.

On the destruction of conquest on Oromo communities. 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. Thus, although Bulatovich was serving Menelik loyally, he did not hesitate to tell the truth about the identity of the conquered peoples and the consequences of the conquest on them. He referred consistently to the Abyssinians as conquerors and the Oromo as the conquered. In his From Entotto to the River Baro published in 1897 as well as in With the Armies of Menelik II published in 1900, Bulatovich gives first-hand information about the conquered peoples and their territories.

The historical, political and sociological facts which were recorded by Bulatovich then is being denied by Larebo and others today. It is not surprising if the Habesha elite with naftanya family background will deny the fact that colonial atrocities committed against the Oromo and the other conquered peoples in the south by their naftanya grandfathers. They do not share the trauma of conquest, mutilation, slavery and the humiliation of serfdom with the Oromo and the other conquered peoples. 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 grandfathers. By and large, they bask in this type of utopia, narrate ad infinitum stories about the grandeur of the Ethiopian state, and boast about the uninterrupted freedom it has enjoyed for the last three thousand years (according to Larebo even six thousand years). The victory at Adwa is, but a proof of Ethiopia’s “exceptional” resilience as a free state. The paradox is when someone from the south joins them and ridicules Oromo grievances, degrades Oromo identity and demonizes Oromo activists and scholars who demand justice for their people as Larebo for example does.

In conclusion, the Oromo and the Abyssinians were not united politically 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, 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 or make them citizen of the same state 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. As I have mentioned before, it strengthened Abyssinian hegemony over the conquered “others”. The Oromo uprising is an opposition to that hegemony; it is not an anti-peace movement as suggested by the Habesha elite in power and the opposition groups or by Dr. Larebo and Mr. Borago. To question the Oromo, right to identity or counter their quest for self-determination using their contribution to the victory at Adwa is a fallacy. It is a futile attempt that can never create Ethiopian unity. The vilification of Oromo political activists and scholars cannot silence them or stop the nation-wide freedom demand led by them. Dismissing or ignoring the pre- or post-Adwa traumatic experience of the conquered peoples is not a reasonable option for a peaceful coexistence. It is impossible to look forward while ignoring the past. One must acknowledge the past and face up to its painful facts in order to move forward, be it together as citizens in one state or as neighbors in independent states. Mikael Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (“openness”) had this understanding at its core. That is how war was avoided and the prevailing peaceful coexistence of the peoples of the former Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) established after their separation into different independent states and nations.

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Categories: History

1 Comment

qk7OiDdKHiea4 · 2017-06-10 at 04:57

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