The Unfinished History of the Aksum Obelisk Return Struggle. 3
The Beginnings of a Major Movement

By Dr. Richard Pankhurst

We saw last week that Ethiopia's Imperial Parliament demanded the Aksum obelisk's immediate return, but that this demand went unheeded. Now read on:

The Derg Period

After the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974, the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture raised the question of the Aksum obelisk's return, but the issue of restitution floundered in the then situation of famine and civil war. Ethiopia, reduced on account of disaster almost to the humiliating status of an international beggar, was in no position to insist on its legitimate rights in a matter of cultural integrity.

Internationally, the question of the obelisk, however, continued to be a subject of some discussion, and even polemic. The present writer, on his side, raised the issue of the obelisk in several articles, in the 1980s. One of these, entitled "Ethiopia Fights for Its Lost Heritage", appeared in 1985 in the London Africanist journal "Africa Events", while another, entitled "Restitution of Cultural Property: The Case for Ethiopia", was published in the following year in the important UNESCO review "Museum".

A former Italian ambassador to Ethiopia, Signor Pastucci-Righi, on the other hand, informed the Italian public, in "Un profilo del negus", which appeared in 1990 in "Professione Diplomatico", that Ethiopian public opinion "knew nothing" of the obelisk, and "attached no sentimental or cultural, let alone economic value to its return".

This was a claim which we, on our side, had to challenge, and rebut.

Developments in the Italian Press

In the Spring of the following year the time seemed ripe for launching a campaign in the Italian press. The present writer wrote his first article for the widely-read Italian left-wing daily newspaper l'Unita. This publication, which had been founded by the Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci, played an important, and honourable, role in the obelisk story. My first article appeared on 6 April 1991, the fiftieth anniversary of the fall of Fascist-occupied Addis Ababa to Allied troops, and drew attention to the fact the Aksum obelisk, despite Ethiopian requests for its restitution, had not yet been returned. This article led Renato Bruno Imperiali, an old Italian friend of Ethiopia, who had been in the country in his youth, to address a letter to the editor. It appeared on 2 November, and asked why the stele had not in fact been returned to Ethiopia.

The present writer followed this up, with a longer article, specifically addressed to the question of the obelisk. In this article, which was based on my "Presence Africaine" artlicle of 1969, and appeared on 3 December 1991, I described how the obelisk had originally been looted, on Mussolini's personal orders, and urged that Italy should set a good example to the rest of Europe, by returning the historic monument, without delay.

One of those who sympathised with my intervention was the then Ethiopian Minister of Culture, Leuleselassie Temamo, a former student of mine. Acknowledging receipt of his copy of the article, on 17 January 1992, he expressed the hope that it would lead to further cooperation with his Ministry.

A First Demand from Italy

The story of the obelisk had meanwhile entered an important new phase a few weeks earlier. On 28 December 1991 l'Unita, and another Italian newspaper, La Reppublica, reported that three prominent Italians had issued an appeal for the Obelisk's immediate return to Ethiopia. They included Vincenzo Francaviglia, an anti-fascist Italian accademic born in Asmara, whose thinking was later published in the Ethiopian Herald, on 10 July 1996. He was Director of the Rome Institute for Technology Applied to Cultural Heritage. His two other colleagues were Giuseppe Infranca, a member of the Italian National Council for Cultural Heritage, and Alberto Rossi, of the Milan Poletechnic.

The First Ethiopian Petition

News of this three-man Italian appeal, for which we had long waited, prompted us, at the beginning of 1992, to action in Addis Ababa. I gave a press conference on the matter, and, with a few friends, proceeded to organise an Ethiopian petition to match, and, if possible, surpass, the Italian one. Drafted by my wife Rita, our old friend Ato Assefa Gabre-Mariam Tessema, who subsequently collected a large proportion of the signatures, and myself, this petition took note of the fact that Professor Vincenzo Francaviglia, and his two associates, had urged restitution of the obelisk, and continued:

"We recall that Italy has the obligation under Article 37 of the Peace Treaty of 1947 to return to Ethiopia all articles looted after October 3, 1935, the date of the fascist invasion.

"We therefore endorse the request of the three Italian scholars..., and hereby petition for the return of this historic obelisk to its original place".

The petition was rapidly signed by over 500 Ethiopians, headed by a former Prime Minister, Lij Mikael Imru; a former Foreign Minister, Dejazmach Zewde Gabre Sellassie (who had personally been involved in the negotiations with Italy over the obelisk in the immediate post-war period); and numerous leaders of culture. They included Maitre-Artiste Afewerk Tekle, historian Ato Tekle Tsadik Mekuria, playwright Tsegaye Gabre-Medhen, the scholarly banker Ato Tafara Deguefe, numerous deans, directors and teachers at Addis Ababa University, among them the redoubtable Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam., and a number of officials of the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture and Sports Affairs.

The petition, and its increasing number of signatories, received considerable publicity in the Ethiopian press, and enabled us to launch a popular agitation which was to be unique in the country's history. Lists of persons signing the petition were duly published in the Ethiopian press, despatched to the Italian Embassy in Addis Ababa. News of the event was duly announced in the Italian press.

We were in this way beginning to challenge Signor Pastucci-Righi's thesis that Ethiopian public opinion "knew nothing" of the obelisk, and "attached no sentimental or cultural, let alone economic value to its return".

Shortly after this a dedicated Addis Ababa University history teacher, Shifferaw Bekele, organised a supplementary petition on the obelisk. This was signed by numerous Addis Ababa University students. Other petitions were also arranged by our friends abroad, notably by Zewde Haile Mariam in Sweden, by Fikre Tolosa in the United States, and by Hari Chhabra in India, as well as by several Ras Tafarian groups in Britain. Smaller-scale petitions were likewise signed by Addis Ababa University's expatriate staff, and, with the help of Denis Gerard, by the Ethiopian capital's French community. These developments were duly announced to the Ethiopian news and television media, which gave them considerable, and very helpful, coverage.

The Aksum Obelisk Return Committee

It was in the early stages of this agitation that Fitawrari Amede Lemma, veteran of the earlier Ethiopian Parliament's obelisk restitution demand, approached me, through his neighbour my friend Maitre-Artiste Afewerk. Another old friend, Ato Belai Gidey, the popular writer on ancient Ethiopian civilisation, recruited the first members of an Aksum Obelisk Return Committee. The first meeting of the committee was held in my house, far away on the Jimma Road, on 3 February 1992, when Fitawrari was elected our Chairman. All later meetings of the committe (whose work will be discussed in our next installment) were held in the centre of the town, at the prmises of another enthusiastic committee member, Ato Tesfaye Zelellew, the well-known tailor from Aksum.

African Diplomatic Demands

At around this time I began, as we will see next week, an extensive correspondence with scholars, politicians and others outside Ethiopia, requesting them to send us messages of support. These were designed, quite simply to keep the obelisk in the public mind, and to show that restitution had the support, not only of Ethiopians and Italians, but also of most other fair-minded men and women acquainted with the issue.

Among others I approached early in the campaign was my friend, the Nigerian ambassador, Chief Segun Olusola, a poet with whom we had spent many evenings. He enthusiastically asked me to draft a statement, which he duly signed on 11 March, 1992, and was the basis of much later propaganda in the weeks and months which followed. Speaking in the name of the people of Nigeria, it read 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 on the personal orders 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 its 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 sympathise with the Ethiopian people in their just demand for its return.

"We believe that this beautiful and historic monument is important not only for Ethiopia, but for all Africa. It is a creation in which all Africans can take pride..."

Chief Segun Olusola kindly agreed to introduce me to the Ambassador of Zimbabwe. Ambassador T.A.G. Makombe duly issued a similar statement, and, in a private letter to me, wrote, on 18 March, "the cause has my full personal support, as well as that of the Government and people of my country".

Support for the obelisk's return was also voiced by the internationally renowned Egyptian Antiquities Department, which issued a special communique on the subject, on 8 July. This declaration was especially encouraging, as it was made entirely spontaneously, without any urging.

All three statements were widely publicised, through the Ethiopian media, and were much quoted in correspondence with prospective supporters.

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin

The above diplomatic initiative shortly afterwards received the endorsement of the then Traditional Ethiopian Government's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ato Seyoum Mesfin. In an important letter of 7 April: 1992, he wrote:

"Dear Professor Pankhurst,

"I am writing to express the profound appreciation of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia for the effort underway to have the Axum obelisk looted by 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 duly appreciated.

"I can assure you, dear Professor Pankhurst, of the Transitional Government's whole-hearted and continued support for this noble cause".

Support for the obelisk's return was also voiced, on 8 October 1992, in a futher letter from the then Ministry of Culture and Sports Affairs, Leuleselassie Temamo.

The Pastucci-Righi thesis that the Ethiopian public opinion "knew nothing" of the obelisk, and "attached no sentimental or cultural, let alone economic value to its return" had begun to crumble..

Next Week: Approaching Victory.