Abeto Menelik-Sahle Maryam of Ethiopia is a name that tingles every Ethiopian at the sound of its name. A great warrior who resisted bribery and didn’t sell his homeland for cheap. His resistance against the European colonizers’ invasion in Africa made Ethiopia the only African country that boasts of self-independent without been colonized.
Menelik, born in 1844 to King Haile Menekot, the then governor of the Ethiopian province of Shew, who died during a war against the Nugus (The Emperor of Ethiopia). The death of Menelik’s father made him a captive alongside Tewodros II and was raised by the Nugus as a son.
Menelik’s attempt to wipe out the new Nugus, Yohannes II by forging an alliance with the Egyptians and the French failed. This led to his submission to the Negus, by pledging his loyalty to the Emperor with head bowed and stone on the back of his neck to signify his submission. It was only this action that made the Emperor recognize him as the governor of Shewa.
After Yohanne’s death, Menelik built his army, expanded territories, and imposed his authority as Emperor to the disadvantage of Yohanne’s heir, Mehesha. Menelik was proclaimed King Menelik II on March 25, 1889.
The emerged King forged a healthy tie with the Italians when they both signed an ill-famed treaty of Wichale (Ucciali) on May 2, 1889. The treaty included Italy’s end of the bargain to provide a much-needed loan to Ethiopia. The deal also included Ethiopia’s recognition of Italy’s claim over the neighboring coastal colony of Eritrea. He also named Addis Ababa as the capital.
The Italians, who believed that Menelik was another subordinate, made him sign two treaties; one in Aramaic, which would enable him to communicate with other foreign countries in Italian diplomacy, and the second in Italian, to make him in de facto, submit Ethiopia under Italian colonial government. The discrepancy of the Italians eventually came to light. Menilek first repudiated the treaty’s ambiguous Article XVII in September 1890 and then, in September 1893, repudiated the treaty altogether. Menilek, curious of the Italian troops in the neighboring colony of Eritrea, began preparing to attack any attempt by the Italians to superimpose dominion militarily, which they initiated by early 1895.
The Italians were soaked in the thought that he would be intimidated by the time he realized their ploy. But to their amazement, he would not be bought over with a bribe of two million weapons. Rather, he demanded that his government be constituted to be equal with that of the Europeans. Because according to him, he was a religious man (Christian) among pagan Africans. Unfortunately, his reason was not bought.
Italian successes at the beginning of the campaign were outstanding but wasted, and large Ethiopian armies were threatening the Italian outposts at the end of 1895. The Italian governor of Eritrea which was then a colony, underestimating Menelik and his armies who he referred to as savages, gathered 20,000 men, laid in ambush for Menelik and his men in Adwa.
Menilek’s forces, which numbered more than 100,000, were well armed with a sophisticated arsenal. Menilek, however, shrewdly downplayed this military strength by leaking false rumors indicating a much smaller number of troops under his command and by spreading reports that there was widespread discord among his forces.
While the rumor was ongoing, Menelik had captured 1,000 men of the Italian army, requesting for the reopening of the Wichale treaty before their freedom. The Italian authority felt insulted, they then ordered Oreste Baratieri to attack Menelik II’s camp. Africans had a custom of communicating military orders through drums. This made the Italians wonder, as they couldn’t understand how people played music under such a situation. This led to the famous battle of Adwa on May 1st, 1896.
Confused by the mode of communication, Baratieri’s men split into two, and the Negus and his troops ambushed and attacked them. Despite the obstacles, with guns, the Italians were winning. This made the Negus think of retreating the next morning. But compelled by his officers, he instead sent for a 25,000 man backup who fought with such ferocity.
The numbers of Italian army who were killed are estimated to have been over 6,000, of whom slightly more than half were Italian; the remainder were askari forces (African troops hired and trained by the Europeans). Also, between 3,000 to 4,000 of those fighting under Italian command were taken captives by the Ethiopians. Perhaps as many as 70 percents of Italy’s soldiers were thus killed or captured. More than 5,000 Ethiopian troops were killed and 8,000 injured during the war—a number greater than Italy’s losses, but a small percentage of all Ethiopian forces.
Menelik thereon expanded his boundaries, conquering lands under British protectorate after he amended the Wichale treaty to his advantage. Not long, the world had recognized Menelik II as the Negus of Ethiopia.
Menilek’s victory over the Italians gave him enormous credibility with the European powers, bolstered his vision at home, and provided the Ethiopian kingdom with a period of peace in which it was able to extend and flourish; compared to most of the rest of the African continent at that time, which was embroiled in colonial conflicts. Various treaties concluded with Italy, France, and Great Britain in the years up to 1908 fixed the borders of Ethiopia with the neighboring territories ruled by the European powers.
Howbeit, Menelik II was aging. This made him name his grand-son Iyasu as his heir, instituting a ministerial government to stand in his stead in 1907. Iyasu was then a minor, so Empress Taytu exercised power in his place. In 1910, the clergy and the government overthrew Empress Taytu through a coup, giving the power back to Iyasu in 1911. In 1913, King Menelik II died at the age of 69.
Menelik remains one of the greatest legends of all time in Africa that ever lived. It is because of this African warrior that Ethiopia is named the oldest independent nation in the world.