Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries, yet it is endowed with many natural and cultural attractions. These include paleontological sites, obelisks, churches, monuments, and palaces as well as a broad mosaic of intangible heritage resources such as ritual and religious ceremonies. Given Ethiopia’s rapid population growth and its need for hard currency to sustain imports of agricultural equipment and medical supplies to realize its sustainable expansion and self-sufficiency, tourism is one of the few economic advantages the country has available to exploit.
However, Ethiopia’s major cultural heritage resources are now endangered and threatened with destruction because of lack of proper repair, upkeep, and protection. Ethiopia has insufficient personnel trained in the curation and conservation of cultural heritage and little funds to pay for the upkeep of its historical heritage, which prevents any efforts towards restoration and conservation efforts. The country’s politicians have little awareness of Ethiopia’s rich heritage resources and the potential income these could bring.
Among Ethiopia’s endangered cultural heritage resources are the Monolithic Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela, the Aksum stelae in northern Ethiopia as well as the Palace of Abba Jiffar, Wollega Museum and other palaces in the south. Despite the shortage of funds, the Ethiopian government has established a team of specialists to investigate the problem and start working to save the stelae from ruin with the support of the Italian government. It has also been reported that the government is preparing to restore the Lalibela Churches, although the source of the funding to do this has not been disclosed. The US government – through the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) – has also promised to support the restoration of Abba Jiffar Palace in tandem with the Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) and the Oromia Culture and Tourism Bureau. As well as restoring the existing tourist sites, new sites are also opening their gates to visitors, including the Palace of Emperor Menelik II in Addis Ababa.
Built by Emperor Haile Selassie I, Maekelawi was a notorious dentation center used by three regimes, including the military and the current regime. Since the collapse of the military regime in 1991, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – an alliance of ethnic-based parties – has ruled Ethiopia. The EPRDF was known for its extreme human rights violations and corruption scandals that included top politicians and army generals which resulted in socio-economic and political marginalization of ordinary Ethiopian citizens. The government brutality repressed any popular unrest and protests but was eventually forced to introduce reform measures beginning in April 2018 that were intended to include all Ethiopians, irrespective of ethnicity, political leanings or ideological orientation. These reforms included the release of political prisoners, an end to torture, the suspension of controversial anti-terrorism laws and the removal of bans on all opposition political parties, including armed militant wings. Diplomatic relationships were reinstated with neighboring Eritrea, with which Ethiopia had been in conflict for roughly twenty years. The reforms included the permanent closure of jails – including the notorious Maekelawi Detention and Interrogation Center located in Addis Ababa, where political dissents, journalists and activists were interrogated and tortured for their perceived political views or their outspoken critical journalism.
A few months later, the Ethiopian government declared that the Maekelawi detention center was to be turned into a museum and gallery, and in September 2019 the gates of the former jail were opened and visitors, including former prisoners, toured in the units reading the graffiti that had been scratched onto the walls of the prison cells. It was a day of sorrow and anger as these former prisoners saw the messages and graffiti left behind my jailmates who had died while serving their sentences. The sense of history preserved led to efforts being made to open the gates of Emperor Menelik’s palace in Addis Ababa to tourists and ordinary Ethiopians for the first time.
While efforts to restore the heritage resources threated by environmental degradation and national poverty, and the opening new tourist sites represent a step in the right direction, the Ethiopian government has recently come under fire for the lack of consistency and clarity in its policy program, including the way heritage resources are handled by officials and the national army. For example, instead of establishing new tourist sites in Addis Ababa, in western Ethiopia the Kumsa Moroda Palace, which consists of more than 10 buildings, and is located in Nakemte, Wollega has been turned into a prison, where several people remain incarcerated as the Ethiopian National Defense Force uses it as an army station. Kumsa Moroda, the King of Wollega, built this palace in the 1870s, and local communities have raised concerns about the misuse use of the region’s heritage, although no local or international media outlet has paid any attention to this alarming situation. This is unfortunate because the historic buildings that make up the palace and its environs were already in a very bad state of repair. Ethiopia needs cultural heritage resources and historic buildings that establish new tourist sites while preserving a record of what has already been destroyed. Turning a potentially historic heritage centre back into a prison represents a deliberately insensitive and culturally destructive step on behalf of a government that in other areas is turning former jails into museums, but the irony appears lost on the government and the military. Meanwhile, in the absence of press coverage, protestors have taken to social media. In his social media post, Oromo poet Leta Kenei Aga, stated:
Muuziyeemii Kumsaa Morodaa kan magaalaa Naqamteetti argamu keessatti namoota baay’eetu yeroo dheeraaf hidhamee jira. Silaa muuziyeemiin bakka dhaloonni deemee seenaa darberraa waa baratu! Addunyaa kana keessaa bakki itti muuziyeemiin mana hidhaa ta’e Oromiyaa qofa!
[In Kumsa Moroda’s Museum, located in Nekemte town, several people are being held, prisoner. A museum is supposed to represent a historical outlet, where the people go to learn about the past. In the entire world, it is only in Oromia where a museum can become a detention center]
In a related interview, a resident of Nekemte town informed me that: “the museum compound is packed with soldiers and detainees from the city and surrounding areas.” A professor at Wollega University’s Nekemte campus commented: “it seems that the new leadership seeks to eradicate the history and memories of the people because of the perceived political views of some members of the community in the region.” Targeting or misusing heritage sites for political reasons is a dangerous act that compares, and every Ethiopian citizen should condemn the actions of its government.
As a member state of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and as host of its Liaison Office, Ethiopia is required to abide by UN codes of conduct, and as such must vacate the palace and restore it to its original purpose.
Ed.’s Note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. The writer can be reached at [email protected].
Contributed by Bula Sirika Wayessa