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:
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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.