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The Battle of Adwa to Present: Navigating Ethiopia’s Internal Divisions

Here are the thoughts I recently shared on The Habesha:

  1. The Path of Human History is circular.
  2. Einstein’s definition of insanity – repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
  3. Win-Win is the only strategy that human beings have used to make progress in a predictable way.

Our ancestors, and now we ourselves have experienced March 2nd, 128 times since the Victorious Battle of Adwa, the most memorable event which told the world about the bravery, commitment, intellectual superiority, resilience, and pride of Ethiopians as they destroyed the military of one of the most powerful nations which invaded Ethiopia! That DNA is very much alive, and every anniversary of that Battle reminds Ethiopians what they are capable of – beating all odds and outliving destructive forces, whether internal or external!

Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity is demonstrated by the hostile and destructive behavior of the various Ethiopian ethnic groups against each other! Within an ethnic group, clans fight against each other to claim land, access to resources, domination, etc.; today, ethnic groups fight against each other to claim independence or subjugation of others. We have seen this play out as Tigray sought to continue the domination or separating itself from Ethiopia. Now there is a perennial conflict in Oromia and between Oromos and Amharas with deaths of young and vulnerable people and destruction of properties on daily basis. To a lesser extent this goes on between other ethnic groups as well. At different levels of severity these conflicts have plagued Ethiopian communities for millennia, and despite repeated failures to gain long term satisfaction from these hostilities, the conflicts go on and this is because of the myopic We-win/You-lose strategies! Win-Win strategy is generally seen as anathema, especially when it comes to inter-ethnic relationships! So, at the time when the rest of the world, and especially the rest of Africa are looking for the leadership of Ethiopia based on her victory against the colonizers of the last two centuries, today Ethiopia finds itself sliding backwards!

The success or failure of a nation largely depends on the qualities of its leadership and their ability to win the trust and loyalty of the citizenry! The comparison of the qualities of the leaderships of Ethiopia during the Battle of Adwa (128 years ago) and today give us a unique opportunity to dissect their characteristics to explain why Emperor Menelik II was able to beat one of the most powerful nations in the world, bring the population together and build a unified Ethiopia under a difficult and challenging environment, and why PM Abyi Ahmed Ali, with all the resources and opportunities available to him is presiding over Ethiopia which, by many accounts, is at the cusp of  disintegration!

The world did not have the scientific classifications of personality characteristics during Emperor Menelik’s era, but going through his accomplishments one appreciates the fact that he was visionary, fearless, innovative, had adaptability, and confidence! Furthermore, he was compassionate and respectful even to those who did not agree with him, focused on achieving his goal of uniting Ethiopia. Those were the qualities which helped him unite the leadership the various regions of today’s Ethiopia, optimize their limited resources, use their knowledge of the territory, strategize the assault on the Italian forces, and wipe them out. After that decisive victory against the Italians, Ethiopia won the respect of other European nations notably France and Britain. He was able to let the bygones be bygones and re-establish productive relationship even with Italy on his own terms. He modernized Ethiopia with the construction of infrastructure, built Addis Ababa as Ethiopia’s capital, established postal system, Banks, facilitated building of Addis-Djibouti railway line on his own terms. In other words, he used his God-given intelligence and resources to achieve what was, at the time, considered impossible and built a united Ethiopia which has survived all sorts of challenges to this day.

On the other hand, PM Abyi has the personality characteristics of an extravert, intuitive, thinker and perceiving. On paper it sounds he inherently has similar qualities as Emperor Menelik II, but he certainly lacks the ability to translate them to meaningful, positive results. Examples of his failures and wrong-headedness is not only threatening the survival of Ethiopia but threatens the stability of the region! Examples of his failures: He started off with restoration of normal relationship with Eritrea which earned him the Nobel Prize. It is obvious that he expected Isias Afewerki would be so thankful that he would give him all he wanted. When he could not get free access to the Red Sea, he threatened to gain that access even if it meant waging war against Eritrea! So, with one public statement he destroyed any hope of peaceful coexistence with Eritrea! Then he turned to what he thought was a much easier path by signing the MoU with the leadership of Somaliland, totally ignoring the international law which prohibits the recognition of an illegitimate separatist entity within a nation! That placed Somalia on a war footing, now he his scrambling across the region discussing his next move with neighboring countries to defuse the tension he created in the first place, instead of leading Ethiopia in its celebration of the Battle of Adwa!

Emperor Menelik’s indelible legacy was bringing the leadership of the various regions to build wider and stronger Ethiopia. We cannot blame him for the wrongs which the various regional rulers practiced before he came to power, including the rampant slavery that had been practiced! He was against slavery because of the horrible impact it had on people and also because it was stain on Ethiopia as a backward nation, as seen by the rest of the world. Through imperial decrees he tried to abolish slavery in Ethiopia without success, but he laid the groundwork which finally succeeded in 1942, many years after his death. His legacy should have been the guide for future generations to build on, by bringing people together to build a strong, peaceful nation, region, Africa, and the world. But instead, under the leadership of PM Abyi, using what he learned from the divisive TPLF mentors, while talking about One-Ethiopia, he appears to be supporting ethic-based hegemony which had, and continues causing chaos all over Ethiopia!

As I mentioned earlier, Emperor Menelik had great qualities as a successful leader – he was visionary, fearless, innovative, had adaptability, and confident. But he was also compassionate and had empathy, which enabled him to understand and respond to the needs of his citizens in a considerate fashion. His humanity and  his ability to separate personal feelings from his national duty was demonstrated in his response to Emperor Tewodros’ suicide during the Battle of Magdala. After invading Shewa and installing his choice of leadership on the region, Tewodros captured Menelik and brought him up as his adopted son, later making him his son-in-law by getting his daughter marry Menelik. But Menelik ran away and re-established himself as the Negus of Shewa. After the death of Emperor Tewodros II, Menelik threw a 3-day celebration in Shewa – he brought together Christians, Muslims, and people from all ethnic groups to mark their freedom from oppression! When a surprised questioner asked why he celebrated the death of the man you brought him up as his son, his reply was that he would go into the forest and cry for him, alone! That was a man who separated his personal feelings and love for Tewodros from his duty as the King of Shewa! In the end, he accomplished what Emperor Tewodros dreamed and fought for – the expansion of Ethiopia as a sovereign country!

In Ethiopia today, people are dying because of ever escalating inter- and intra-ethnic conflicts, especially in Amhara and Oromia regions. Though the war has subsided in Tigray, famine and starvation are wiping out the population. A responsible leader who cares about his nation would do everything possible to prevent such disasters or, at least, minimize the escalation to the maximum possible extent by using all the resources possible. Standing with the victims of war and famine and sharing their pain is the least a responsible leader should do to show compassion, empathy, and support! Sadly, it appears performing such duties is probably seen as weakness by the likes of PM Abyi. He does not even seem to appreciate the consequence of such abdication of his duty! Unfortunately, the chicken is coming home to roost, and if he really cares about the citizens of Ethiopia and people whom he supposedly represents, it is time to actively engage in a smooth transition from his administration to that of National Unity with representation from all Ethiopian regions. That way, hopefully Ethiopia will use the lessons learned to date, and forge a meaningful path forward! I say this for the simple reason that when a crisis reaches the point of no-return, it becomes self-perpetuating, and there is nothing which anybody can do to reverse it! Unfortunately, when that happens chaos escalates, lives are destroyed, properties are destroyed, those who have the means run out of the country to seek shelter somewhere else! It then takes a long, long time for the Nation to recover before it becomes strong enough to repeat the cycle of violence and self-destruction!

PM Abyi has a very critical role to play to prevent the disintegration of Ethiopia. As I mentioned in my earlier posting – “The Visionary Leadership…..” he has the DNA of a great leader, but lacks the appropriate background to give him the experience needed to effectively apply those potentials and principles for the benefit of all. Being visionary is one thing but being able to achieve the desired result is quite another! One needs to understand there are obstacles to the realization of one’s vision because there may be other views opposing the vision and these need to be handled with patience and respect! There may be no resources to achieve the desired goal, hence, finding those resources becomes critical to accomplish the task! Without the experience of such challenges and overcoming them in the right environment under experienced guidance, one tends to get confused and get lost! That is how the inexperienced leader finds himself jumping from one thing to another to solve the problem, and in the process creating new problems. Those who watch these events unfold in front of them conclude the leader is incompetent and not trustworthy. Sadly, that is how most knowledgeable people view PM Abyi’s performance although they may still have respect for his efforts. Reversal of such views become very difficult or impossible as the national situation deteriorates!

PM Abyi has made so many mistakes, and I have mentioned only a few of them. But we expect that he has learned a lot from his costly mistakes! Ethiopia being in the desperate she is now, cannot afford the repeat of the same mistakes again. This is where Abyi can be very helpful going forward, not as the leader of Ethiopia but as an experienced advisor to the Administration of National Unity, an entity that should take over the leadership of Ethiopia and formulate principles of sound governance and implement the necessary actions to address the errors of the past, and lay the foundation including the revision of the constitution, so that the repeat of previous errors will be avoided. I say this because I believe PM Abyi has done all he did so far in the sincere belief that it was the right thing to do for Ethiopia. But today even he must accept how far off the path to orderly governance the country has gone. In the article “Ethiopia’s Renaissance – Cradle of Mankind”, posted on The Habesha on August 23, 2023, I shared my views about how the transition from the previous administration should be conducted. The article was originally published on September 7, 2018, about 4 months since MP Abyi took power! I think the article is even more relevant today than when I first published it nearly 6 years ago! If serious consideration was given to the article and at least some advice from there was adopted, we would have avoided the serious instability the country is in today!

Every Ethiopian, whether you are Afar, Amhara, Oromo, Somali Tigrayan, etc., should really look at the history of Ethiopia as described above, and ask yourself “What am I doing to prevent the disintegration of Mother Ethiopia and her neighbors?”


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