I have chosen for this column, on the sixth anniversary of my writing weekly for BusinessDay, to provide another canter round the fifty years of African unity. My last piece concentrated on comparing the history of the two organisations – the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the African Union (AU). Let me now offer another angle, stimulated by a talk given for the Royal African Society by Alex de Waal, who is with the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, but has strong links in civil society, having worked with the late great Tajudeen Abdul Raheem at Justice Africa, where he still operates. His series of visual illustrations from Addis Ababa brought the whole fiftieth anniversary to life in a way I have not found when researching reports to establish what went on at the celebrations.
The first arresting contrast was between the picture of the shabby old building that was a former Police College building that housed the OAU from its beginnings and the glittering new structure complete with domes, meeting hall and tower block that has been built as a gift from the Peoples Republic of China at a cost of about $200m. One of his shots was of an inaugural plaque with texts in both English and Chinese (one wonders what happened to the OAU’s other official languages of French, Portuguese and Arabic?).
The old building had been added to by a more modern but still modest structure in the 1980s, but what really struck home were the pictures of the former Kerchele Central prison which was also next door and whose site now houses the new. This was known, says de Waal, as Alem Bekagne (“say farewell to the world”), a structure which had housed thousands of prisoners rounded up in the period of the Italian occupation following the attempted assassination of General Graziani in 1937, an event followed by the indiscriminate killing of up to 30,000 Ethiopian civilians, as well as 1,500 summarily executed. The saying is attributed to him, “‘Il Duce’ will have Ethiopia with or without the Ethiopians”. He had already been known as the butcher of Fezzan for the thousands killed during the suppression of the Senussi revolt when he had been military commander in Libya in the 1920s. De Waal, with typical wryness, mentioned that there is still in Rome a statue honouring Graziani, although he was a “war criminal”.
It would have been good to have conserved a small part of that prison (one of the slides was of a watchtower) like some of the cells in Broad Street Prison in Lagos have been conserved in the Freedom Park (written about more than once in this column). Unfortunately, the Chinese bulldozers removed the whole structure. What has been commemorated, however, are the lost episodes from Ethiopian history.
He told us how, after a lot of pressure and lobbying, a memorial to the victims of human rights abuses came to be erected in 2012. De Waal’s talk noted that human rights had not figured in either the OAU or AU Charters, although the AU marked an evolution on the question of “territorial integrity and sovereignty”, which has been such a key part of the OAU Charter. In Article 4 of the AU Charter there is a provision giving the “right to intervene” in the event of “grave circumstances” such as “war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity”.
This spoke for the traumatic experience of the Rwanda genocide of 1994, which happened by the cruel irony of history in the same month as the OAU’s greatest triumph, the election in South Africa which brought into existence a truly democratic and non-racial government under President Mandela. This marked the completion of the total liberation of the continent sought by Kwame Nkrumah whose golden-painted statue justly has a central place in the new HQ. The OAU Liberation Committee set up in 1963 and located in Dar es Salaam had spearheaded that liberation. De Waal rightly commented that many newly independent states had made substantial sacrifices for that liberation to take place.
The human rights memorial mentions the victims of apartheid, the Rwanda genocide and those in Ethiopia in 1937 and 1977 a reference to the height of the ‘red terror’ under the brutal dictator Haile Mengistu. For de Waal’s talk included a picture of Haile Selassie speaking at the League of Nations in 1937. This was in recognition of the former emperor’s role as the crucial founding father of the OAU, although he was probably killed in 1975 in Alem Bekagne. I had the impression that de Waal clearly feels that by now Selassie’s pan-African role should be acknowledged. But are there not other victims who should also be recorded on the memorial? I have run out of space for names, but De Waal did mention one or two former chairmen of the OAU who ought, perhaps, to feature in a villains’ gallery.