By Alex de Waal
On the afternoon of January 28th, as the African heads of state met inside the new conference center and office complex, I stood with a handful of others in a windy corner of the compound, at the spot where human rights memorial will stand. Now, there is only a block of dark gray marble, inscribed with a few words. Along with a handful of those involved in planning the memorial, I waited while the African heads of state made brief speeches inside to inaugurate the headquarters (Meles Zenawi and Jean Ping both mentioned the significance of the Alem Bekagn site). We were few—the public event in Addis Ababa was last week at the National Theater, and the AU strictly rationed its ground passes during the summit. The schedule was that after the speeches, they would come outside first to unveil a statue of Kwame Nkrumah, and then to walk around to the human rights memorial on the northern side of the compound.
The site is on the crest of a small hill, bare and gently sloping, in the shadow of the office tower, partly a carpark and the approach to the staff entrance to the new building, partly bare earth not yet seeded with grass. Not a single physical remnant of the prison remains.
The ceremonies were, unsurprisingly, delayed. The wind threatened to blow away the white cloth covering the marble block, and made the flame on the torch in front of it flicker. We briefed a few journalists and diplomats who passed by. I remarked on the wind to Andreas Eshete, chair of the memorial’s board. He said that we were standing more or less where relatives would line up to see the prisoners when they came to visit. He added, “Many prisoners had young children and they would shiver in the cold wind.”
The cold wind is the only thing to remind us that this is, indeed, the same place as Alem Bekagn. The memorial stands near the spot where there used to be a wall, against which Mengistu’s soldiers shot sixty ministers from the imperial government in November 1974, and then buried them in shallow graves. Many others died here too.
At 5.30, as the sun was getting low, there was drumming and singing and the statue of Nkrumah was unveiled, on the western side of the new building. Some of the dignitaries left that event and walked over to us. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame was first, then Jacob Zuma of South Africa and President of Benin, Yayi Boni. There were a couple of ambassadors, including the Eritrean Girma Asmerom. Perhaps 25 people in all. The ceremony was supposed to be addressed by the AU Commission Chairperson, Jean Ping, and the commissioners for political affairs and peace and security, but there was no sign of them. So the protocol officer improvised, she asked Andreas to read his statement, and then we stood for a minute’s silence. The three presidents together cut the ribbon and unveiled the memorial, and lit candles – which didn’t stay alight for long in the wind.
It felt like a private funeral. The AU staff had hoped for a grand event, but this smaller gathering, of leaders who chose to attend, was perhaps fitting.