The Unfinished History of the Aksum Obelisk Return Struggle. 2
The Italo-Ethiopian Agreement of 1956: the Obelisk Issue which Could Not be Put to Rest

By Dr. Richard Pankhurst

We saw last week that post-war Italy, still influenced by its Fascist legacy, displayed strong resistance to honouring its commitments under the Peace Treaty signed with the United Nations in 1947. That Treaty in particular specified, in Article 37, that all loot taken from Ethiopia by Italy after 3 October 1935, i.e. the date of Fascist Italy's invasion, should be returned within 18 months. We saw further that Italian Governments in the post-war period (unlike that of the present) prevaricated shamelessly. Now read on:

The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs realised, particularly after the resumption of diplomatic relations with Ethiopia, that it could not indefinitely evade Article 37 of the Peace Treaty. The Italian Government accordingly subjected the Ethiopian Government to considerable pressure to accept a new agreement, which, while paying lip-service to the obelisk being Ethiopian property, would in fact ensure that it would be retained permanently in Rome.

The 1956 Italo-Ethiopian Agreement, and its Obelisk Appendix

Instead of honouring its obligation under the Peace Treaty - by actually returning the obelisk - the Italian Government pressurised the Ethiopian Government, in 1956, into signing an entirely new agreement, the Italo-Ethiopian Agreement of 5 March of that year. This document relegated the question of the obelisk to an appendix, Appendix C. This stated that the Italian Government undertook to transport the monument as far as Naples, but did not specify who was responsible for taking it the rest of the way to Ethiopia. The new agreement thus ran entirely contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the Peace Treaty. The latter agreement had specified, it will be recalled, that all loot should be returned to Ethiopia, not just moved from one part of Italy to another.

This Appendix was essentially dishonourable. Transportation of the stele merely as far as Naples would have been no act of restitution, as obligated in the Treaty, for it would have imposed on Ethiopia, the victim of entirely unprovoked aggression as well as one of the world's poorest countries, the considerable expense of shipping back its own property, which the fascist invader had stolen. One can scarcely imagine a more brazen piece of effrontery: the thief expecting the victim to pay for the return of the property it had stolen!

The Ethiopian side nevertheless drew some comfort from the fact that Italy, in the Appendix, expressly recognised that the obelisk was "subject to restitution to Ethiopia", and that it could "be freely and without charge or hindrance exported from Italy on such vessel as the Imperial Ethiopian Government may choose".

The principle of the agreement was, however, a violation of the Peace Treaty, and was something like this: "I stole your property. I will not return it to you, but I recognise that it belongs to you, and I will graciously move it from my sitting room to my kitchen. Of course you cannot afford to carry it away: That's just too bad!"

Professor John Spencer

The terms of Appendix, when it eventually became known, not surprisingly, shocked many Ethiopians, and friends of Ethiopia.

One of those dismayed by the surrender of the Ethiopian position was none other than Professor John H. Spencer, the then American advisor to the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Long afterwards, in a private letter of 15 November 1992 to the present writer, he wrote of his "long-standing resentment", on the matter, "against the Palace", and continues:

"After difficult negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference for the return of the Obelisk, other treasures and archives, it made a deal with Italy behind our backs to allow the obelisk to remain in Rome in front of the FAO. I still remain so incensed that I find it difficult to join the demand for a return that Ethiopia has already forfeited".

We, for our part, I should state, refused to recognise the validity of Appendix C. We regarded the Aksum obelisk as part of Ethiopia's inalienable property, belonging to Ethiopia's past, present and future. We considered that the 1956 Treaty was imposed on Ethiopia illegitimately, and that it was essentially an "Unequal Treaty" imposed on Ethiopia by its poverty, and by Italy's affluence. The Treaty seemed to us just as much an "UnequalTreaty" as if it had been imposed, as in the old days, by gunboats or Maxim-guns. We felt that as such it was an unacceptable Treaty, and one that had to be overthrown.

For the first years of our agitation we did not in fact mention the 1956 Treaty at all. We appealed to Italy, and the world, only on the basis of the Peace Treaty of 1947. We held this latter treaty to be the basic document, the more so in that it had been signed by the United Nations as a whole. We felt that the question was as such one in which the world community should be involved. It is for this reason that we only now, belatedly, for the first time publish Professor Spencer's words, pertinent as they then were, and indeed still are.

Despite his initial reluctance at becoming involved, we should at once add that Professor Spencer gallantly responded to our request that he join the Obelisk Return movement. A few weeks later he issued a strong statement, condemning Italy's illegitimate retention of the obelisk, and demanding its immediate restitution to Ethiopia!

The Ethiopian Parliamentary Reaction

Italy's failure to return the obelisk, and the unsatisfactory terminology of Appendix C, inevitably also angered many patriotic Ethiopians.

In 1968-9, Ethiopia's Imperial Parliament, reacting almost in despair, and with a sense of outrage, passed a strongly- worded resolution on the obelisk issue. This statement declared that since it was "undesirable to delay, let alone to neglect, the return of the monument of the history and honour of the country... members agree that all steps should be taken for the immediate return of the obelisk... The Parliament agrees that pressure should be applied [on Italy], by refusing permits to persons coming to the country, by suspension of trade, and as a last resort by breaking off diplomatic relations. The Parliament agrees that until the return of the obelisk... Italy should not be given the honour of a visit by His Imperial Majesty".

This resolution went, for the time being at least, unheeded, but expressed a pentup feeling of indignation over the obelisk, which should never have been ignored.

Fitawrari Amede Lemma

It was significant that one of the Senators of that time, Fitawrari Amede Lemma, who had moved the above resolution, lived on to champion the cause of the obelisk's restitution to Ethiopia, in a very different political climate, a quarter of a century or so later.

Personal Note

On a personal note I recall that I was at around this time working on a study of the Italian fascist occupation. This led me to write an article entitled "Ethiopia and the Loot of the Italian Invasion: 1935-1936". This work, which discussed the history of the obelisk, as well as other Ethiopian looted objects, many of them on Mussolini's personal orders, appeared in the Francophone Africanist publication "Presence Africaine" in the last quarter of 1969.

Not long after that I discussed the matter with my dear friend, Ato Berhanu Tessema, then an Ethiopian Senator. He told me of the resolution then recently passed by the Ethiopian Parliament, the text of which, in accordance with then customary practice, was not widely available. However, he provided me with a copy of the text, and translated into English for me. I was thus able to publish this as a Postscript to a revised version of my article. This was in fact , as far as I know, the only place where the resolution was ever reproduced for the public at large.

"Old Stones"

My second article was entitled "Old Stones: The Loot of Ethiopian Antiquities during the Italian Invasion of 1935-6". It appeared in: "Dialogue", the organ of the Ethiopian University-Teachers' Association, on March 1970. The work owed the first part of its title to an Italian, Francesco Perotti, who, commenting on the retention of the obelisk in Rome, had declared, in self-satisfied vein, "We Italians like old stones". My article picked up his observation, and concluded:

"We wonder whether there are not Ethiopians too who 'like old stones', especially one fashioned by their fore-fathers and stolen from them as a result of a brutal poison-gas invasion which shocked the world?"

Little more, however, could be done at that time. I nevertheless seized the occasion to insert a short sentence on the obelisk in the article on "Ethiopia", which appeared in "Africa, South of the Sahara", the "Europa" yearbook, which was widely consulted in diplomatic and journalistic circles in Britain, and elsewhere. Originally appearing in the volume, I believe, for 1971, the passage on the obelisk continued to be reproduced in later volumes for many years, until the article was finally considered by the publishers as out of date. The relevant sentence, designed to keep the obelisk issue before the public, recalled that, during the Fascist occupation of Ethiopia, "several national monuments were removed, including one of the ancient obelisks of Aksum which was taken to Rome where it stands to this day".

There the matter rested, as we shall see Next Week until after the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974.