Human Rights and the African Union: Memory and Forgetting
When the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was created in 1963, the Emperor Haile Selassie granted it land near Addis Ababa university. But the Africa’s leaders were in a rush and didn’t want to wait to construct their headquarters from scratch so they asked for the OAU secretariat to move into a ready-made set of buildings. They were given the police training college, and have been there ever since. Right next door to the college was located the city’s central prison. Built by the Italians during their brief colonial occupation (1936-41), it was colloquially known as Alem Bekagn—"farewell to the world." During the Italian period, many Ethiopians who passed through its squat, square portal never saw the outside world again. When exercising in the small octagonal courtyard, surrounded by two tiers of cells, all they could see of the rest of the world was the sky. Hundreds of Ethiopia’s educated and social elite were killed there in what was called the "Graziani massacre" after the Italian military governor of the day. In Haile Selassie’s time—before and after the creation of the OAU—Alem Bekagn continued to house political prisoners, the great majority of whom did actually see the world outside after their spells in prison.
During the revolutionary period and the rule of the Dergue—the Provisional Military Administrative Committee headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, from 1974-91—Alem Bekagn’s name became grimly appropriate. In the first days of the revolution, sixty ministers were killed just outside the prison’s front gate. In the days of the Red Terror, it was the site of countless extrajudicial executions. Thousands of political prisoners, and people merely suspected of harboring opposition sentiments, were crammed into the old prison and an expanding cluster of jerry-built barns in the compound. Alem Bekagn was the epicenter of Ethiopia’s ruthless experiment in totalitarian rule. The building itself—low and ugly—was physically far smaller than its huge imprint on the psyche of a generation of Ethiopians.
The OAU’s compound and Alem Bekagn slope together so that each is clearly visible to the other. For seventeen years, the OAU staff, ambassadors and visiting dignitaries could see the prisoners exercising daily in the compound opposite. Sometimes early-arriving OAU staff would be disturbed by the sound of executions. The organization never said anything. Once a prisoner escaped and climbed into the OAU’s diplomatically-protected enclave. He was promptly handed back.
When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front took power in May 1991, it opened the prison doors and took possession of the comprehensive archive of prison documents, including execution warrants, which would help form the basis for the efforts of the Special Prosecutor to arraign members of the Dergue on charges ranging from murder to genocide. (By a quirk of the Ethiopian penal code, the crime of genocide includes the intent to eliminate political groups as well as ethnic, religious and racial ones, and so those responsible for the politically-motivated massacres during the Red Terror could be tried for genocide. Last year, the former head of state, Mengistu Haile Mariam was convicted in absentia of genocide. The quirk arose because Ethiopia was one of the first countries to ratify the Genocide Convention and in the rush to incorporate the statute into domestic law Ethiopian lawyers worked from the penultimate text presented to the UN member countries, which included this provision.) The prison itself remained in use while the government constructed a new central prison outside Addis Ababa, and in 2004 the land was donated to the African Union.
The African Union was established in 2002, hopes were high that it was ushering in a new era of democracy and human rights. The AU’s constitutive act is a forward looking and liberal document. For example, it provides for intervention in the affairs of member states in the case of humanitarian emergency of mass violations of human rights. Governments that come to power through unconstitutional means are not permitted to be members—and the AU has spoken out against several coups and demanded a swift restoration of democracy. Half of the AU commissioners must be women. There is to be a pan-African parliament.
As the AU prepared to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, a number of groups came together to support the idea of a permanent genocide memorial at the heart of the AU itself. These included the Rwandese government and survivors’ organizations, Ethiopia’s committee to memorialize the Red Terror, Addis Ababa university, the Pan African Movement, and African human rights organizations including Justice Africa. The central idea: turn the prison building of Alem Bekagn, which occupied just a small part of the land newly donated to the AU, into a memorial museum. Preserve some of the cells; use the building to house the archive of the Dergue’s human rights abuses; create memorials to the victims of the Rwanda genocide and other grievous human rights violations; establish links with the prison museums at Robben Island in South Africa and Gorée Island in Senegal (which commemorates the slave trade) and genocide memorials in Rwanda; hold conferences and events to study and learn from past abuses; and create a center where a the next generation of Ethiopians and Africans can learn about the violations of the past, so as not to repeat them in the future. The spot where the sixty ministers were executed and buried was to become a garden for reflection. Some former prisoners and relatives of Red Terror victims first proposed that the prison be razed to the ground—they wanted to eliminate their bitter memories—but quickly embraced the idea that it should instead become a symbol of human rights and "never again."
On the tenth anniversary of the genocide, April 7, 2004, the African ambassadors to the AU passed a resolution, introduced by Ethiopia and Rwanda, to do exactly this. In his last public appearance before his untimely death, the first secretary general of the OAU, Ato Kifle Wodajo, one of Africa’s most respected statesmen and elders, welcomed this decision. Addis Ababa’s mayor did likewise.
At the time, the AU had not actually taken possession of the prison, which remained occupied by prisoners because the city’s new central prison was not yet complete. But the Chairperson, Alpha Oumer Konaré, promised that the project would be inaugurated before he left office.
But the idea languished within the AU. The Chinese government offered money and contractors to build a conference center and offices for the AU on the site, and senior AU officials became caught up in planning this. After the 2005 elections in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa got a new mayor. A few months ago the bulldozers and demolition teams destroyed the building within a single day. There was no ceremony.
Is the African Union so forgetful of its solemn resolution passed just three years ago? Has it lost its commitment to memorialize the victims of genocide and mass atrocity? Have the governments of Ethiopia and Rwanda—co-sponsors of the plan—forgotten the moving speeches they made that day? Is the municipality of Addis Ababa so concerned with building modern infrastructure, often in partnership with China, that it is neglecting the soul of its city?
The destruction of Alem Bekagn was less a deliberate act of forgetting than a symptom of a forgetful and casual approach to building Africa’s continental institution.
Alem Bekagn is gone. No tears should be shed for this building itself. But the idea of a permanent memorial to the victims of genocide and human rights violations should not be lost. The AU should now act on the promise it made in 2004 and create such a memorial at the very center of the AU Commission.