On Heroes and Monuments: A Reflection on Discontinuity
By: Seleshi Yaleh
Several images, most of them well-known and etched in the public’s memory, one of them private and a minor footnote in the annals of history, came to my mind when I thought of the ferocity with which different Ethiopian regimes and generations attempted to stamp out the symbols and icons of their immediate predecessors.
A few years ago, I visited Lij Iyasu Mikael’s former residence in Addis Abeba, located near the Sidist Kilo campus, immediately adjacent to Algawrash Gibi. Emperor Haile Selassie bequeathed his erstwhile rival’s elegant pre-war two-story villa to His Holiness Abuna Qerillos, the Egyptian born Ethiopian Patriarch. Before I stepped into the house, I was examining the grand entrance and the imposing front doors when I detected—covered under several coats of thick white paint—the Emperor’s monogram, emblazoned on the lower panels of the iron doors. Ironic aside #1: The residence of Lij Iyasu, the heir suspected of being a Moslem, was given to the then head of the Ethiopian Church.
In one of the several black and white documentaries about the Italo-Ethiopian war and the five-year Occupation, one particular scene, unlike most of the other images filmed in broad daylight, stands out: the toppling of Emperor Menelik’s equestrian statue, now located between St. George’s Church and the new municipality building. Fearful of provoking a revolt [or a riot, depending on the narrator’s point of view] the Italian colonial administrators made sure that the act was executed in the middle of the night. Ironic aside #2: During his 1930 coronation festivities, Emperor Haile Selassie inaugurated Emperor Menelik’s equestrian statue while some time later he had the front doors of Lij Iyasu [grandson of Emperor Menelik, uncle of Empress Menen, and cousin of Emperor Haile Selassie] branded with his monogram.
When Colonel Mengistu’s junta assumed power, it toppled Emperor Haile Selassie’s statue (this time around in broad daylight) in the Piazza, near Cinema Empire. Later, the regime tracked down and melted the Emperor’s monograms scattered around the city. Fortunately, for us, inheritors of the botched histories of all of our predecessors, the junta was rather incompetent and unsystematic in its zeal. It ripped out the Emperor’s monograms that linked the three decorative concrete leaves inside the Mexico Square fountain. However, it pried only a few of the Emperor’s monograms out of the metal fence surrounding Emperor Menelik’s Palace (why Emperor Haile Selassie felt the need to have his monogram stamped on the fence of Emperor Menelik’s Palace is of course another matter). Ironic aside #3: the only monograms of Emperor Haile Selassie that were safe from the Derg’s fervent fire torch were the ones emblazoned on the front doors of Lij Iyasu’s former residence, shrouded in diplomatic immunity, deep inside the Egyptian Embassy compound.
Colonel Mengistu’s regime also changed the name of Mesfina Harar street, a road named after Prince Makonnen, the Duke of Harrar, the Emperor’s second son to Dejazmach Belaye Zelleke Street. The latter, a renowned member of the resistance in Gojjam during the Italian Occupation later plotted against Emperor Haile Selassie and was hung.
When the EPRDF came to power, it, in its turn, toppled Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin’s colossal statue, formerly flanked with Africa Hall and Jubilee Palace. The present government also white washed the slogans that Colonel Mengistu’s regime had smeared throughout the country and—as we live in a sloganeering age—painted its own slogans.
One can understand the need for successive regimes—and, by extension, the generations from which they emerge—to carve out identities separate from their predecessors. However, does it follow that newly installed regimes annihilate symbolic vestiges of their predecessors in order to define themselves?
Let me make something clear: I am not a fan of V.I. Lenin. However, monuments—occasionally blemishes in the cityscape—are important testaments of a period. For example, Lenin’s statue would have reminded present and future generations of the time in our history when a regime/a generation felt the need to import a role model (deity?) all the way from the Soviet Union to wedge it between the official residence of the Ethiopian head of state (Jubilee Palace) and the elected seat of the continent (Africa Hall). The presence of Lenin’s statue could have possibly reminded present and future governments of the folly of installing yet another foreign role model—perhaps, an interactive statue of Bill Gates—on the crumbling and empty pedestal of the first Soviet leader.
What I find surprising is that those in power have no difficulty celebrating heroes from foreign lands but rarely confer similar honors to their fellow citizens. A case in point: the Philatelic Department of the Ethiopian Postal Service. This agency has been issuing stamps—except for a six-year interruption during and immediately following the Italian Occupation—regularly since 1894. Numerous foreign dignitaries, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Shah of Iran, Queen Elizabeth II, V.I. Lenin, and Mother Theresa have graced many an Ethiopian stamp. Apart from Afework Tekle’s Spiritual Leaders, a set of six stamps featuring Abuna Salama, Abuna Aregawi, Abuna Tekle Haimanot, Kidus Yared and the philosopher Zara Yacob, issued way back in January 3, 1964 [ ! ], I cannot think of any other set (on the average five to six sets of stamps are issued every year) that singles out and features Ethiopian heroes (unless of course they are present and past heads of state, and that, in my book, counts as flexing muscle and not celebration).
Instead of rushing to destroy existing monuments or re-naming old ones, how about honoring our unsung heroes by building a new library after Ato Haddis Alemayehu, a teachers’ college after Weizero. Senedu Gebru, a stadium after Ato Haile Gebreselassie, a music conservatory after Weizero Asnakech Worku, a small business loan bank for women entrepreneurs after Weizero Ketslea Belachew, a concert hall after Ato Tilahun Gessese, a scientific research institute after Dr. Aklilu Lemma, a theatre after Ato Kebede Mikael, a medical school after Hakim Worqeneh Eshete, a public policy institute after Sister Jember Teferra, an actor’s conservatory after Ato Wegayehu Negatu, a pilot training college after Captain Alemayehu, a cinema complex after Ato Haile Gerima, a sports training center after W/z Fatuma Roba, an arts school after Ato Skunder Bhogassian…and these names are just from the top of my head (by the way, I am Addis Abebawi, so the selected individuals are predominantly from the capital. Nominations are eagerly accepted from all corners of the realm).
If rulers were reluctant about demolishing all traces of their predecessors; if rulers were confident about sharing the limelight with the heroes of the day; if rulers were wise enough to reward and honor indigenous accomplishment and achievement…their monuments, I am sure, would shine and sparkle for millennia.