Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
Inscribing Unity into Addis Ababa
Since November 2020, Ethiopia has been the stage for violent struggles for self-governance and sovereignty. Millions of lives have been flung into despair and disarray while war rages on in the region of Tigray; new conflicts are brewing along the nation’s territorial borders and ethnic clashes have now erupted in the Afar, Somali, and Amhara regions following similar incidents earlier this year. It seems almost impossible to stay astride this troubling news, as soon as some semblance of order is restored to one locality, ethnic violence reemerges elsewhere, like more heads sprouting from a hydra’s severed neck.
The capital city itself, Addis Ababa, was not spared from these ripples of unrest. Last July the assassination of popular musician and Oromo civil rights activist, Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, sparked deadly riots and severed the country’s connectivity for over two weeks. Now with the long overdue national elections fast approaching, the city braces itself yet again.
Almost ambivalent to social unrest and pandemic alike, the city’s residents move through a landscape where former regimes cemented their power in stone and cast their legacies in bronze.
Under the current administration’s “Homegrown development” plan, the city stretches ever taller, expanding outwards, swallowing it’s peripheries and lurching into the future, while ageing monuments and architectural relics anchor it to its elusive past and inescapable present.
A young city already erased and re-inscribed over a hundred times, Addis Ababa’s materiality can be read as the discontinuous genealogy of the nation’s polity and a historical consciousness fashioned by a ruling class.
Monuments are architectural objects that wield the power to reify certain legacies and uphold ideologies, while casting shadows over the underrepresented.
They not only become sites for confrontations between activists and apologists, citizens and authorities, but they themselves are characters engaged in a battle with living survivors,unwilling or unable to forget. Monuments in Addis Ababa may appear static and unquestionably permanent, yet through the actions of those who uphold and oppose them, they are endowed with a sort of livingness.
They bear witness to human histories, sustain injuries from vibrations and rust, scrutinize passersby and are lavished with the attention of their expensive upkeep and preservation.
One such monument is the statue of Menelik II, the emperor who founded the chartered city of Addis Ababa upon the plain of Finfine in 1896. This impressive equestrian statue was unveiled during the coronation of his successor, Emperor Haile Selassie I, on November 2nd 1930, at the prominent location of Menelik II square in Piassa.
Celebrated for leading the nation to victory against Fascist Italy at the Battle of Adwa, Emperor Menelik II is an integral part of the nation’s history. Descending from the Solomonic Dynasty, Menelik II’s existence is a testament to Ethiopia’s claim to divinity.
These factors elevate this human monarch to an irreproachable abstract hero, upon whose legacy many contemporary Ethiopians hinge their identity and national pride upon.
However, with a growing number of marginalized people now voicing their grievances and retracing lost histories, the nation is being forced to reckon with the monarch’s violent legacy. During Menelik II’s consolidation of power after the Battle of Adwa, many atrocities were committed against various ethnic groups, and they were forcibly incorporated into the modern Ethiopian social hierarchy. Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was one of many to call for the removal of the Menelik II monument, a daily reminder of the injustices suffered by the Oromo community during the emperor’s reign. Yet, bringing to light these painful truths is often seen as heresy by dominant groups with an almost feverish adoration for this national hero.
This tension was greatly felt during the aftermath of the singer’s assasination when many took to the streets of Addis Ababa in protest in July last year. Demonstrators clashed with security forces as they approached the monument calling for its removal.
In the past however, the large copper statue was removed and buried in an unmarked grave as part of an attempt to erase and terraform Addis Ababa during the Italian Occupation. The monument was later found and resurrected after Ethiopia’s liberation.
Another example of this historic reinscription is the Lion of Judah monument that stands before Addis Ababa’s Railway station, gazing down on Addis Ababa’s City Hall. Located directly south of Menelik square at the end of Churchill road, the gleaming bronze lion stands on a tall, black granite pedestal, commemorating Ehtiopian monarchs through decorative reliefs at its base.
In 1937 the statue was removed, transported and reinstalled in Rome under a monument commemorating fallen Italian soldiers at the Battle of Dogali, thereby re-inscribing its meaning to a narrative sympathetic to the colonial agents. While its place in Addis Ababa was left bare, the monument remained a captor in its Italian context until 1960. On June 15, 1938, the lion stood petrified in Rome, as it became the site for a bloody confrontation between Italian military officers and a young Eritrean named Zerai Derres, who, as a prisoner of war himself, wounded and killed several onlookers with a scimitar in a sudden act of retaliation. Once returned to its position, the DERG, seeking to reinscribe the city with social realism, removed the monument as the Lion of Judah itself was the official guild of the Emperor they overturned in their militaristic coup. Veterans (arbegnoch) of the war appealed to the socialist government, arguing that the statue was instead a symbol of antifascist resistance and succeeded in having it reinstalled.
The nation was forced to rearticulate its path yet again, this time under the authority of the EPRDF, who installed the present day government. The Ethno-Federal parliamentary framework returned varied levels of control to ten semi-autonomous regions, yet the population was still subject to human rights violations during the regime.
Since assuming power in 2018, Prime Minister Abiye Ahmed has been lauded as a beacon of change and progress. As Ethiopia’s first leader of Oromo origin, Ahmed made major reforms in his first year in office, which included negotiating peace with neighbouring Eritrea, releasing political prisoners and allowing opposition members to re-enter the political ecosystem. The Nobel laureate has called for Unity, “medemer”, for all Ethiopians to set aside their differences and rally behind a collective “pan-ethiopian” identity.
Another component to his leadership is his focus on civic engagement and the beautification of the city, which he coined as the “green fingerprint” our generation will leave behind.
Consequently, public parks have become the living monuments to Abiye Ahmed’s legacy. The most notable project is Unity Park (Andenet Park), located on the site of Menelik’s Grand Palace, which was the residence and seat of power for all six political leaders who succeeded him until Dr Abiye’s appointment. Unity Park officially opened to the public for the first time since it was established by Emperor Menelik in 1887, in 2019 in a grand inaugural event, graced by African dignitaries.
The new park, which cost 5 billion birr ($160 million) in funds raised from private donors, takes up 20 hectares out of the 40 hectare compound and includes original royal buildings.
The Prime Minister’s office stated that Unity Park “is a manifestation of the MEDEMER idea, inviting us to take stock of our positive capital from the past (our historical and cultural assets) and build upon it for future generations.”
Thus the administration sought to inscribe their ideologies of unity and synergy into the imperial landscape. With Dr Abiye’s interventions to the existing site, Unity Park becomes a microcosm of the discontinuous histories and social configurations embedded in Addis Ababa’s cityscape.
The buildings, relics of the two emperor’s regimes, were already in dialogue with one another, connected through manicured, English-style gardens. Menelik’s banquet hall epitomises “Addis Ababa Style”, which draws on a mix of Ethiopian vernacular, Indian, and Ottoman architectural features. The Menelik II Complex, built in the late 1800’s, is located just uphill from the banquet hall and is composed of the royal family’s chambers, a banquet hall and a meeting hall.
The most monumental structure onsite is Haile Selassie’s Throne Hall. The building resembles a 19th century Western European palace, a symbol to the emperor’s inclination towards modernization and international recognition. The upper level of the building houses the main exhibition of the park, which consists of multimedia installations and informative displays detailing the country’s cultural past. The stunning interior with its intricate moldings and silken drapes is still haunted by an uncanny presence connected to the imperial monuments in the city.
The building was seized by the DERG regime in 1974. What was once a place of imperial majesty and lavishness became home for meetings between DERG officials, who transformed the basement into a prison and torture site for senior members of the deposed Emperor’s cabinet for eight years. The emperor became a prisoner in his own palace. When he perished, Mengistu Haile Mariam declared the end of the Solomonic Dynasty.
Years after the fall of the DERG, the emperor’s remains were discovered under an unmarked slab. Perhaps in reverence to Ethiopia’s last king, the designers of Unity park have propped up an eerie, life-sized wax figure of the dead emperor on his velvet throne. Visitors (unaware of the darkness that settled in the monumental building) are confronted by this spectre of the past. And with no preamble, one can enter the cellars from an open doorway on the side of the building. The damp, cold space echoes with the overlapping recorded voices of survivors of the temporary prison, which makes for an unnerving experience.
>Thus temporalities are drawn together, grating against the present and awakening the livingness of the site.
The newly branded park features an artificial rocky cave that serves as an enclosure for the endemic black mane lions, a sizable zoo, and a sculpture park of nine pavilions dedicated to the different regional groups of Ethiopia. Each pavilion is meant to encapsulate the cultural identity of the ethnic group it represents. Yet, it begs the question, who was responsible for shaping these identities into sculptural monuments?
Upon first glance, one would immediately recognize the smaller replica of the Beite Giorgis monolithic church in the Amhara pavilion. However, farther along the path, the regional pavilions appear more abstract. Although the structures differ from each other greatly, one motif shared across most of the pavilions is the focus on natural resources, cattle and geological features. As if to avoid any contention over representations of the groups’ histories, practices and lore, the environmental aspect of the pavilions pins identity to nature, arguably a disservice to the human ingenuity of their people. From the large garish peacocks poised at the gates of the compound, to the small white storks poking out of the grass, these additions to the palace grounds seem as trivial as lawn ornaments.
Dr Abiye’s contribution to this landscape would appear decisively a-political, relying on our shared natural terrain to bridge our social divides and fabricate a collective identity.
However, land itself is not neutral; communities have been historically dispossessed and denied access to wealth from national resources. This conscious decision towards neutrality falters against the highly charged context. Thus Unity park serves as a metaphor for this schism.
Throughout modern Ethiopian history and ringing through Addis Ababa’s architectural landscape, is this question of unity.
What is the image of the Ethiopian nation state in our present reality? How does it intend to present itself to the exterior? How can it be claimed by those of us within its boundaries and under its authority? With around 80 ethnolinguistic groups, how can our vast differences be stitched together into one singular Ethiopian identity?
The question returns under each rule. As early as Emperor Tewodros’s campaign to forcibly incorporate the autonomous provinces of Ethiopia into his kingdom, the modern nation’s collective identity has been carved by a centralized authority.
Perhaps as a tactic to govern and modernize the population with more ease, or to establish social hierarchies, leaders have sought to unite their people under a homogenized identity, a monolith of Ethiopianism. It is no wonder that disputes erupt again and again, threatening to tear apart these flimsy harmonies forcibly held together by militaristic force and soft power. So, how can we embrace plurality in Ethiopia and offer a sense of belonging and self-determination to all those who reside under the nation state?
It will be no easy feat to lead Ethiopia towards a more equitable and stable future, and quell present tensions along ethnic lines and classes, however this question of “unity” presents itself as a stasis, a barrier from building any meaningful change and progress.