Articles in this series:
Series: Concerning the Aksum Obelisk
02. The Unfinished History of the Aksum Obelisk Return Struggle
The historian continues the series relating to the events surrounding the return from Rome of the Aksum Obelisk, looted and transported in 1937. In this edition, Professor Pankhurst reveals an as yet untold display of staunch solidarity with Ethiopia’s right of restitution by Chief Segun Ulusola, the then Ambassador to Ethiopia of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as well as the esteemed emissaries of Zimbabwe, Egypt and others, including prominent Ethiopians and the crowd at Addis Ababa Stadium…
We saw in our previous article that late in the year 1991 three Italian scholars signed a petition for the return to Ethiopia of the great Aksum obelisk looted by the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini; and that a tiny handful of us responded by drafting a supportive Ethiopian petition – which was quickly signed by some five hundred then prominent Ethiopians, including a former Prime Minister as well as many scholars and figures highly respected in the arts.
This petition, which took many people by surprise, received considerable coverage in the Ethiopian press. Now read on:
One of those enthused by our Petition was the then Nigerian Ambassador to Ethiopia, Chief Segun Ulusola, a notable poet and a good friend who used often to invite us to poetry readings at his imposing residence in what was formerly Prince Sahle Selassie’s palace.
Chief Segun, who was deeply conscious of the Benin bronzes looted by the British, agreed to sign a supportive letter – if I would draft it. The text was immediately written, signed and dispatched, on 11 March 1992. It declared in part:
“Deeply conscious of the importance of Africa’s cultural heritage, and of the struggle for its preservation, we extend our support to the people of Ethiopia in their efforts to obtain the return of the ancient Aksum obelisk now in Rome.
“We are aware that the Aksum obelisk was taken from Ethiopia in 1937 at the personal order of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
“We are no less aware that Italy in the Peace Treaty of 1947 with the United Nations agreed, in Article 37, to return, at her own expense, all articles looted from Ethiopia after October 3, 1935.
“The obelisk, as we all know, has not yet been returned in accordance with that international agreement: it stands in Rome today, as in Mussolini’s day, and we sympathize with the Ethiopian people in their just demand for its return.
“We believe that this monument is important not only for Ethiopia, but for all Africa. It is a creation in which all Africans can take pride.”
Chief Segun, who had discussed the matter with other African ambassadors, arranged for me to meet the ambassador of Zimbabwe. Mr T.A.G. Makombe, who willingly agreed to sign a similar statement. In doing so he wrote to me privately, on 18 March, saying that “the cause has my full personal support, as well as that of my Government and the people of my country”.
Further support for the Obelisk’s repatriation was voiced on 8 July in an entirely unsolicited statement from the prestigious Egyptian Antiquities Department – which was doubtless not unmindful of the loot from Egypt over the years.
All three statements duly appeared in the press.
It was at this point that the Ethiopian Government officially entered the campaign. On 7 April, after receiving a copy of Ambassador Makombe’s letter, Ato Seyoum Mesfin, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the then Ethiopian Transitional Government, wrote to me as follows;
“Dear Professor Pankhurst,
“I am writing to express the profound appreciation of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia for the efforts underway to have the Axum obelisk looted by the Italian fascist invaders returned to its rightful owners, the people of Ethiopia.
“Your initiative and the support to this initiative by friendly governments and others is deeply appreciated.
“I can assure you, dear Professor Pankhurst, of the Transitional Government’s whole-hearted and continued support for thus noble cause”.
The Aksum Return Committee was meanwhile preparing for the next dramatic stage of the struggle.
The Committee was composed of less than a dozen members, namely Fitawrari Amede Lemma (Chair), Ato Belai Gidey, Colonel Kalewold Abbai, Abba Bokretsion Wolde Gheorgis, Ato Gessesse Araia, Engineer Tadele Bitul, Ato Mammo Wudneh, Ato Solomon Asfaw, and the present writer.
The Committee’s first and perhaps most notable achievement was the great Addis Ababa Stadium Demonstration which was held on 28 May 1992, in the half-time interval of a football match between Ethiopia and Nigeria. It was arranged that a small group of us, headed by the inspiring figure of our chairman, Fitawrari Amede Lemma, should walk around the field, while the Stadium’s loudspeaker broadcast a specially prepared statement, in Amharic, about the obelisk and our demand for its repatriation. We were accompanied by two representatives of the Ethiopian Patriots Association, Fitawrari Ababayu Admas and Qanyazmach Hazen Wondwossen, and two internationally-known sports-champions Miruts Yifter and Deratu Tullu. We carried tall posters, prepared by one of our members, Engineer Tadele Kebret. They bore such slogans as “The Obelisk is Our Heritage”, and “Let Our Obelisk Come Home!” The Engineer also arranged for the Addis Ababa Handicraft School to lend a smallish wooden copy of the obelisk which was also carried round the Stadium.
As we stepped on the field, wearing our “Return Our Obelisk” paper caps, the vast crowd of football enthusiasts were for a moment mystified – and watched in silence, but by the time we were only a little way around the Stadium the crowd was fully in support, shouting repeatedly, in Amharic. “Let it [the Obelisk] Return. Let it Return!”.
What was no less remarkable was that the television cameras, which had been filming the football match, continued to operate throughout our demonstration. The result was that within a matter of minutes Television-viewers throughout the length and breadth of Ethiopa knew that the Obelisk’s return was actively demanded.
(Originally published in Capital newspaper)