The return to Ethiopia of historic objects stolen by fascist Italy reminds us of the imperialist crimes that scar Africa’s past, writes John McLuckie
An extraordinary event has taken place in one of Africa’s most significant historic sites.
On Monday 25 April, the third and final section of an ancient granite obelisk was returned to Axum — Ethiopia’s one-time capital. It had stood in Rome since 1937, when it was taken there by the troops of Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator.
The celebrations marking the return were a powerful expression of national delight that a wrong had, at last, been righted.
Many thousands of people waited eagerly on Axum’s streets from early morning until the giant plane carrying the final piece of a plundered treasure landed.
The Axum obelisk is not only valuable for its antiquity (it may be as much as 2,000 years old) or its unparalleled artistic quality.
Its primary value lies as a symbol of national and religious identity. Although the burial markers of Axum, of which this obelisk is one, predate the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, they are a powerful symbol of the religious and historic lineage of the Ethiopian people.
Axum is of profound importance for the identity of a people and the returned obelisk belongs in that place at least as much as Stonehenge belongs in its place or the Pantheon belongs in Rome.
Mussolini’s imperialist ambitions were played out ruthlessly and violently in Ethiopia.
Were it not for the courageous and tireless efforts of the British socialist and women’s rights campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst to keep the events in the Western public eye, this appalling episode in Europe’s fascist past may have gone unnoticed by many.
The barbarism of the theft of the obelisk was the barbarism of one nation demonstrating its subjugation of another by the theft of its very identity.
It was a deliberate and humiliating act of a violent and expansionist regime. For this reason, the return of the obelisk is a way of stating that the pretensions of Western militarist dominance have no place in our world.
Before relaxing into complacency about the undoing of an unmistakable crime of international significance, it is worth reflecting on Britain’s own culpability in the theft of Ethiopian national identity.
British institutions such as the British Museum, British Library and Windsor Castle still house the plunder of a previous imperialist escapade — the British siege of Magdala.
This took place in 1868 when an expeditionary force of 30,000 laid waste to the stronghold of the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros after removing thousands of sacred texts and other items of the greatest religious significance.
This was another deliberate and humiliating act of a violent and expansionist regime (see description below, left). But it is not too late to undo this wrong too.
Repeated calls from the Ethiopian church, government and academic institutions, not to mention citizens and friends from around the world, have fallen on deaf ears.
The British institutions maintain a neo-imperialist stance in relation to this loot. They contend they have a role in guarding the world’s cultural inheritance.
The Association for the Return of the Magdala Ethiopian Treasures (Afromet) regards this as an unacceptable arrogance and calls for the repatriation of a nation’s heritage.
It asks, “Is it acceptable to tolerate a world in which the domination of the powerful goes unquestioned under the genteel veneer of a cultural service to nations who are deemed incapable of looking after their own property? The British government might consider taking a leaf out of the Italians’ book and end the injustice of decades.”
John McLuckie is chair of Afromet UK. For more go to www.afromet.org