Articles in this series:
Series: Concerning the Aksum Obelisk
04. The Unfinished History of the Aksum Obelisk Return Struggle
We saw last week that Ethiopian demands for the return of the Aksum obelisk, looted by the Italian Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini in 1937, and not returned in accordance with Article 37 of the Italian Peace Treaty of 1947 with the United Nations, escalated in the Spring of 1993. Now read on:
The Addis Ababa Stadium Speaks
One of the most important events in the obelisk struggle took place, on 28 May, 1992, when the Aksum Obelisk Committee obtained permission to stage a peaceful demonstration in the Addis Ababa Stadium, in the interval in the Ethiopia-Nigeria football match. The demonstration, which, looking back on it, seems a turning point in the campaign, was carried out by Fitawrari Amede Lemma, and members of the Committee, together with two representatives of the Ethiopian Patriots’ Association, Fitawrari Ababayehu Admas and Qenyazmach Biazen Wondwossen, and two of Ethiopia’s best known sportsmen, Marathon winner Captain Miruts Yifter and Major Deratu Tullu, then still at an early stage of her career as a runner.
In the presence of Dr Fekadu Gedamu, the then Vice-President of the Ethiopian Transitional Council, Minister of Culture Ato Leul-Sellassie Temamo, and the Ambassadors of both Nigeria and Sudan, we walked round the entire course of the stadium, carrying brightly coloured placards in Amharic and English, kindly donated by Engineer Tadele Bitul Kebrat, and a wooden model obelisk lent, through his efforts, by the Addis Ababa Handicraft School. One slogan read “Our Obelisk is Our Heritage!”; another, “Let Our Obelisk Come Home!” As our little procession made its way round the field a lengthy statement, giving the entire history of the Obelisk, prepared in advance by the Committee was read aloud by the Stadium loudspeaker. The entire proceedings were seen by televisionviewers throughout the country.
“Let it Return!”
What was the most remarkable was that as we proceeded round the course our message about the obelisk was taken up by the vast crowd which began shouting, repeatedly “Yimeles! Yimeles! :Let it Return Let it Return!”.
Cardboard “Return Our Obelisk” caps, produced by Committee member Tesfaye Zelellew, were first worn at this demonstration, and “Return Our Obelisk” car stickers, purchased by an old friend of mine, Mrs Winthop Boswell of California
International Scholars and Others: Some Personal Reminiscences
On a personal note I may recall that I had by now hit upon the idea of lobbying international scholars of Ethiopian affairs, and others, calling on them to issue, or sign, statements in support of the obelisk’s return. My appeals, which we continued to make throughout the rest of the struggle, evoked a remarkable response. This kept us busy drafting, and then distributing, press statements, which kept the obelisk issue in Ethiopian media attention for over the next five years. These widely reported statements showed the public, both Ethiopian and foreign, that intellectuals throughout the world had a sense of justice, and were not prepared to allow Mussolini’s loot to be forgotten, until it was at long last returned.
Signatories over the years, included many friends, and internationally prominent scholars, with whom I had been professionally in contact over the years. Many of them were fellow historians: Professors Sven Rubenson, Angelo Del Boca, Donald Crummey, John Spencer, David Buxton, Alberto Sbacchi, Said S. Samatar, Viraj Gupta, Haggai Erlich, Richard Greenfield. Peter Garretson, Yuri Kobischanov, with four other Russians, including the redoubtable Maria Rait.
Others sending messages included such social anthropologists as Professors Frederick Gamst, of the United States, and Katsuyoshi Fakui, of Japan, as well as Jack Gottlieb, of Britain, and the President of the International Society for Falasha Studies, Professor Emanuele E. Trevisan Semi, and the Semitist and linguist Dr Roger Schneider. There were also the leading political scientists concerned with Ethiopia, Professors Christopher Clapham and Frederick Halliday; a professor of law, Paul H. Britszke, and such prominent scholars and writers on Africa, as Ali Mazrui, author of many books and films on Africa, and Thomas Pakenham, author of the History of the Scramble for Africa, the well known journalist and publicist Colin Legum, Professor Karen Dalton, and the South African activist and author Hosea Jaffe.
Other signatories included two of the best-known non-Italian historians of Italy, Professors William Deakin, and Denis Mack Smith, as well as a scholars of Ethiopian religion, Dr Kirsten Pedersen, the America archaeologist working on Aksum, Kathryn Bard, the historian of Ethiopian literature, Dr Reidulf Molvaer, and the Swedish philanthropist and philatelist Ivan Adler. Also, the British traveller and author, Wilfred Thesiger; the best-selling writer, Graham Hancock; the former leader of the British House of Commons, Sir Bernard Braine; the producer of the fine film The Lion of Judah, Lutz Becker; the organiser of the African Zion exhibition, Roderick Grierson; Bob Marley’s widow Rita Marley; and the widely-read feminist Germaine Greer.
Italo-Americans, and Ethiopians
The movement for restitution, it is worthy of note, also won the support of prominent Italo-Americans, notably the medical historian Professor Pascal James Imperato, the public relations specialist Ciro Taddeo, and Nick DeMarco, who later staged a hunger-strike for the obelisk’s return.
We were also able to rally the support of prominent Ethiopian scholars abroad. They included, in the United States, Professor Ephraim Isaac, Professor Syum Gabreziabher, Professor Achamele Debela, Dr Getachew Haile, Professor Ashenafi Kebede, who from Tallahassee activated his prestigious Ethiopian Research Council, and many of its supporters, and Dr Kassahun Chekole, publisher of the Red Sea Press; Dr Asfa Wossen Asserate, in Germany; Lij Zewde Haile Mariam, son of Haile Mariam Mammo, the “first patriot of Shewa”, who organised a petition in Sweden, and exjournalist Ato Samuel Ferenji, who mobilised considerable pressure in Canada.
Two Ethiopian publications abroad, the “Ethiopian Review” and the “Ethiopian Commentary”, both gave the obelisk question much publicity (as did “Addis Tribune”, and several other Ethiopian publications, including “Besa”).
Organisations brought into the movement included such varied bodies as the Anglo-Ethiopian Society, in England, which devoted a special issue of its bulletin to the obelisk issue; and the Ethiopian Research Council, in Tallahassee, Florida, which circularised its members on the matter; the Africa Centre, in London; the Ethiopian Holocaust Remembrance Committee, in Chicago; and the Ethiopian Association, in Toronto, Canada.
I also corresponded with two British Members of the European Parliament, Richard Balfe and Margaret Daly, who together raised the obelisk issue in that body, with my own British MP, Glenda Jackson, who raised it with the then Conservative-run British Foreign Office. In reply to Glenda, Baroness Chalker of Wallasey, wrote, rather unhelpful, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office:
“Until it is clear that the Italian and Ethiopian authorities have exhausted all avenues open to them to solve this issue, I doubt that our intervention or that of any other third party would be more effective than the persistence of those currently campaigning for the return of the obelisk”.
Correspondence on the obelisk was also carried out with a Greek MP interested in Ethiopia, Andreas Lentakis, who promised to raise the matter with the authorities in Athens.
Other supporters of the obelisk’s return, among them Professor Pascal James Imperato, Nick DeMarco, and Harry Kahn in the United States, Sylvia Ayling in Britain, and Samuel Ferenji in Canada, likewise corresponded with government officials, and others, in their respective countries.
In response to public demand the Ethiopian Government duly appointed an Inter-Ministerial Committee on the obelisk. It was held under the chairmanship of Dr Kassai Begashaw, of the Ministry of Culture. The proceedings, which were filmed, were addressed among others by members of the Aksum Obelisk Committee. This film has still to be broadcast.