Takwa Zebulon of the African Union addresses former presidents Thabo Mbeki (South Africa) and Pierre Buyoya (Burundi) before the AUHRM foundation stone. Left to right, front row, Abdul Mohammed, Buyoya, Mbeki, Mukoni Ratshitanga, and Alex de Waal Smith. (AU headquarters, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 30, 2012).

The AU’s glossy new headquarters conceals the site’s notorious past as an execution chamber and burial ground for dissidents, vagrants and criminals

The concrete skeleton of the new African Union (AU) headquarters tower rises like a blade against the Addis Ababa skyline. The Chinese contractors have been working fast since the ground was broken two years ago. By September 2010, the crescent zenith of the skyscraper office block had been framed, and the curved ribs of the roof of the conference centre were reaching together. Nearby, the foundations for a new hotel were being laid.

The UN headquarters in New York is modernism’s ur-design for international organisations. Le Corbusier placed a matchbox office building against the shallow dome of the General Assembly auditorium. Across town in Addis Ababa, there is a minor-key version of the same contrast at the Economic Commission for Africa, where Africa Hall stands at the head of a flight of steps, its gently concave façade and shallow dome reprising the Art Deco theme of the city’s best 20th century architecture, overlooked by the gently convex headquarters offices behind. Africa Hall was where the founding conference of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was held in 1963, and a mural celebrates the event, with the images of all the founding fathers present. Behind, in the atrium, is a vast stained-glass window representing Africa’s hopes at the time of independence. There is a black-and- white photo of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, in front of this window, taken a year before Mandela’s arrest and incarceration.

The new AU HQ shows no deference to any of this. The architect’s drawings show corporate modernism on the Chinese model. The roof of the conference hall resembles a calabash, but there are no other visual tributes to the continent where it is located. It is brashly self-confident, a sculptural form in glass and aluminium. The markers of human scale in a big building — window frames and doors — are lacking.

The new building completely overshadows its predecessor. In 1963, when the OAU was established, Emperor Haile Selassie donated a large plot of land near Sidist Kilo, close to the university on a high (and more desirable) location of Addis Ababa, where the new organisation could design and build its headquarters. But, against the pleading of its acting secretary-general, the young diplomat Kifle Wodajo, the heads of state resolved in moving at once into a completed building. The emperor loaned them the police training college, a cluster of classrooms, offices and dormitories, with an elegant cafeteria. It was situated in a low-lying part of the city between Mexico Square and Pushkin Square, flanked on one side by the garages of the Ministry of Interior and on the other by the central prison. This ad hoc solution became the OAU’s locus for the entirety of its thirty-nine-year life span, and was inherited by the African Union when it was established as the successor organisation in 2002. It is perhaps appropriate that for nearly 50 years, Africa’s continental organisation has been camping in a partly refurbished imperial police college.

Not much has happened to the physical fabric of the buildings over the years. The Conflict Management Centre was added, with its claustrophobic offices overlooking the “operations centre”, a round, partly glass-walled space envisaged as a place for emergency meetings for dispatching rapid response teams to the continent’s hot spots. (I have never seen it put to this use.) As a gift to the newly established AU, Nigeria donated and built a more substantial extension including offices for the chairperson, deputy chairperson and the eight commissioners, plus a conference hall that serves as the meeting place for the Peace and Security Council. The Nigerian building provided the AU with a hint of the grandeur to which it aspired, but the architect cannot have been familiar with the Addis Ababa climate. The exterior walls are already streaked by the rainwater that pours down them, and the windows, angled so as to catch the maximum sunlight, create a greenhouse effect inside the offices and meeting rooms.

The second-hand police college has weathered much better. The emperor’s architects drew from Art Deco, from modernism and from the decorative details of traditional Ethiopian royal and church buildings. They also knew how to build to resist the heat and rainfall — projecting eaves to cast big shadows and keep rainfall away from the walls and strong vertical lines and rough-moulded concrete so that water streaking doesn’t show. The windows need some refurbishment, that is all. The fifty-year-old buildings look in better shape today than the newly built.

In an era when all the UN’s offices, even UNICEF’s, are ringed like fortresses with concrete slabs to prevent close approach by vehicle, and where the visitor passes through a process not dissimilar to US immigration, entry to the AU is refreshingly casual. Cars are briefly inspected and the guest on foot only needs to yield an ID card to get in.

The entrance to the AU compound lies at its highest, north-east corner. The land slopes to the south toward a small river, and to the east toward an alleyway. On the other side of the alley, across a small stream, lies a plot of land that slopes upward so that those living and working in the buildings on one side could, if they chose, observe the other each day. On towers at each corner of this matching plot, now the construction site for the new AU building, stern guards kept watch, pointing their guns inward to the inmates of Addis Ababa’s central prison. For 45 years, the entire lifetime of the OAU and the first half-decade of its successor, the silent twin of the African diplomatic compound was colloquially known as Alem Bekagn, “farewell to the world”.

One story from the waning years of the emperor’s rule was that in order   to prettify the capital for foreign visitors, the police rounded up hundreds of vagrants from the streets, among them many peasants who had arrived in the city over the previous few days to take their animals to market and who had slept on vacant lots and roadsides to keep an eye on their livestock. Without any papers or charge sheets, these people, including entire families, were dumped in Alem Bekagn. Months later, the police arrested student demonstrators and incarcerated them too, pending release after they signed good conduct orders. The students discovered an entire forgotten village of peasants and tramps, who had no idea of how they could obtain legal representation, or indeed didn’t know if they had rights at all. Because the prison authorities had no paperwork for them, they took the simple option of keeping them inside. Some had been there for years. The university students were horrified, and once they had dutifully signed their pledges to study hard and keep away from politics, they painted placards with the message “poverty is not a crime!” and were back on the streets protesting at the injustice inflicted on their fellow inmates. It worked — the peasants were released, but were of course destitute.

Alem Bekagn was built by the Italians after they conquered Ethiopia in 1935. It was a squat octagonal building with two tiers of cells opening onto a courtyard. Prisoners, exercising or doing their laundry in the courtyard, could see only the sky. Former prisoners and their family members recall being allowed one visit each week, when the prisoners, usually shackled, were led out to the fence outside the building gate, but within the compound, where their wives and children were lined up behind another fence, about four feet away. Messages had to be shouted over the din, and food could be passed across.

There are different stories about how Alem Bekagn earned its name. But all agree that it was the citadel of oppression for successive Ethiopian dictatorships — fascist-colonial, imperial, communist.

It was at Alem Bekagn in 1937 that the fascist governor of Ethiopia, General Rodolfo Graziani, detained and executed the cream of the country’s intelligentsia in retribution for an attempt on his life. The Yekatit 12 massacre ranged far across Ethiopia and its social landscape, as the colonisers killed monks, aristocrats and educated nationalists. The murder of an estimated 30,000 people is commemorated by an obelisk on the Sidist Kilo roundabout, with bas-reliefs representing the atrocity.

After the restoration of Emperor Haile Selassie in World War II, it was in Alem Bekagn that political dissidents, mutineers and revolutionaries were detained. Within its walls, the students who led the Eritrean nationalist movement, the Tigrayan rebellion, and the Ethiopian revolution itself, conducted their debates and seminars. Haile Selassie’s students dreamed of a new Ethiopia and, in passing through Alem Bekagn, grew in determination to make their imaginings real.

Haile Selassie was deposed in September 1974. Two months later the Provisional Military Administrative Committee, known as the Dergue, detained 61 ministers from the previous imperial government, took them to Alem Bekagn, and then summarily executed them and buried them on the prison grounds. For a revolution that had begun without violence, with the capital city occupied by just half a dozen tanks and the emperor driven quietly away in the backseat of a Volkswagen Beetle, this was the moment at which the aspirations of a new dawn began to darken. What followed was a horror beyond imagining. During the Red Terror of 1977-78, a generation of young Ethiopians was destroyed by execution, torture, imprisonment and exile. In Addis Ababa alone more than 10,000 were murdered. Alem Bekagn was the epicentre. Thousands upon thousands passed through its gates. The prison by now had expanded: as well as the colonial octagon with its blue facade and severe stonework, huge barns were built where prisoners slept on mattresses squashed together in tiers, under corrugated iron roofs. The revolution ate its own children with an apparently insatiable appetite for blood.

Every middle class family in Addis Ababa has a relative who passed into the central prison and did not come out alive. The first wave was students, those who had dreamed of Utopia. Eritrean nationalists, and Somali and Oromo separatists, and many others were incarcerated along with student radicals, feudal landowners, merchants accused of profiteering, and anyone else suspected of being an enemy of the Dergue. The second wave included those who had backed the military regime, including the architects of universal literacy and of land reform — the abolition of feudalism and “land to the tiller”. Alem Bekagn did not quite live down to its name. Hundreds, possibly thousands, were executed there or died of illness or the wounds of torture, the records of their incarceration and execution meticulously kept in duplicate by the prison’s authorities. These records formed a large part of the evidence used by the special prosecutor to seek the convictions of senior officials for murder and torture. Other prisoners were released, often after spending years without charge. One escaped and fled across the alleyway to the OAU compound seeking refuge, from where he was handed back. Members of the royal family, including Princess Tenagnework, spent 15 years inside Alem Bekagn, until they were released following an international campaign.

When the guerrilla army of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) swept into Addis Ababa on 28 May, 1991, the prison guards abandoned their posts and left the gates unguarded. Hundreds of prisoners ran home to their families; others with nowhere to go stumbled bewildered into the streets and then returned to sleep in the only place they knew, free but unable to make use of their freedom.

I visited Alem Bekagn a few weeks later. The incoming government had turned the tables on the former oppressors, rounding them up and imprisoning military officers and government officials in the dormitories of the party college, with a guard on the gate to stop the enraged citizenry breaking in to exact personal revenge. (Those buildings are now student accommodation for Addis Ababa University, overlooking the Goethe Institut and the Kifle Wodajo Memorial Center for Peace, Human Rights and Democracy.) But Alem Bekagn was empty of human life, though filled with the detritus of the humanity that had filled it to bursting until that tumultuous day when the regime changed. The sodden mattresses were there, the messages scrawled on the walls, a cascade of unsorted papers in the warder’s office, and the stench from the latrines. I was struck by how small it was. How could such a tiny building, such a cramped courtyard, have contained so much suffering, such momentous misery? Alem Bekagn felt like a remnant of history, but still breathing.

Just before I had my tour, the bodies of the 60 ministers were exhumed from their anonymous graves in the prison compound and returned to their families. The unmarked grave of the murdered Emperor Haile Selassie, buried in the palace beneath Mengistu Haile Mariam’s rooms, was also dug up and the old man was given a proper funeral at last.

I proposed to the interim president, Meles Zenawi, that the prison be preserved as an educational museum and memorial. He thought it was an excellent idea but said the government had more pressing concerns. Among those concerns was the lack of a prison for common criminals — and after a few months’ abandonment, the central prison resumed its function. For a while, at least, it didn’t house political prisoners. Its gates still gazed grimly across the shallow valley to the OAU compound, but at least there were no gunshots at dawn and no mortuary processions with blanket-wrapped fresh corpses.

Each time I went to the OAU compound, I paused for a moment’s silence opposite the squat face of Alem Bekagn, wondering if the place itself could express the weight of the human suffering that had taken place there. When the Nigerian AU building was complete, its official entrance (and above it, the foyer of the Peace and Security Council) was precisely opposite the gate of no return, and I wondered what these two buildings might say to each other.

When the AU was created in 2002, the Addis Ababa municipality donated the land of Alem Bekagn to the AU to expand its compound, promising to hand it over as soon as a new central prison was completed outside the city perimeter. This was a reprieve for the idea of turning the prison into a memorial. Over the decade, the EPRDF’s commitment to ending impunity had faded. The special prosecutor, tasked with bringing the Dergue officials to court for their crimes, was working with exceptional slowness, and the trials — or lack of them — were becoming an embarrassment. They were overshadowed by the EPRDF’s own deteriorating record on human rights. But the new detainees, especially the thousands rounded up in the wake of the violence following the 2005 election, were scattered in prison camps across rural Ethiopia, no longer concentrated in the central prison.

The AU, by contrast, was the freshest embodiment of Africa’s aspirations for a new start. The AU’s constitutive act abandoned the old principle that whatever happened inside a country’s boundaries was strictly an internal affair, and entrenched principles of constitutionalism and the responsibility to intervene in the affairs of an African state in the case of crimes against humanity or genocide.

The New Partnership for Africa’s Development, bringing together the dream of an African Renaissance from the pen of President Thabo Mbeki and a promise of vastly expanded development aid from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, pointed to a new dawn for Africa. The AU is unlike other regional unions, such as the EU, bound together by solid economic self-interest. I wrote an article in which I described the AU as an aspirational union — the embodiment of an impulse toward unity. An aspiration, but a genuine and worthwhile one. I immediately revived my idea for a memorial museum. In April 2004, on the 10th anniversary commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda, the Council of Permanent Representatives (ambassadors) to the AU passed a resolution, sponsored by Rwanda, deciding to do just that: to preserve the octagonal building (which took up just a small part of the land, though located precisely in its centre) as a human rights memorial, dedicated in the first instance to the victims of the Red Terror and the Rwanda Genocide. In a public event on the evening of 7 April, Rwanda’s Genocide Memorial Day, the founding secretary- general of the OAU, Ato Kifle Wodajo, made the announcement. It was his last speaking engagement: that night he was taken ill, and a few days later flew to South Africa for hospital treatment, where he died.

But the prison was still in use, and the handover to the AU was postponed by one year, then another, then a third. The deputy chairperson of the AU, Patrick Mazimhaka, himself a Rwandese, promised to enact the commitment at the right time.

For 40 years, the African continental organisation had chosen to overlook the challenge posed by its physical location. In its rush to occupy a permanent structure, it was obliged to modify, minimally, a campus for imperial police cadets. Not once over these decades did the OAU note, let alone condemn, the transgressions of its Ethiopian hosts. The AU’s expansion to occupy the blood-soaked ground that was the innermost circle of Ethiopia’s terror was an opportunity to lay to rest this obscene silence. What better way than to preserve the physical fabric of incarceration and repression, at the very centre of Africa’s intergovernmental organisation, and so to compel the continent’s leaders to pay their respects to the victims of terror, genocide and repression?

In 2008, the prison was summarily bulldozed. The design adopted by the AU Commission for its new headquarters had no space for it. The Chinese government offered to pay for the new building and provided a contractor. The new conference hall was designed to occupy precisely the spot. The new mayor of Addis Ababa, Kuma Demeksa, a former political prisoner in Alem Bekagn, remarked that the best thing to do with this monstrous reminder of the past was to eradicate it and build something new and inspiring in its place. (He had similar plans for urban replanning in other parts of the city.) While the AU Commission simply forgot its solemn resolution, the head of the city wanted deliberately to erase the memory.

Neither the municipality, nor the AU, nor the contractor even made a photographic record of what they were about to destroy. The Chinese foremen and engineers excavating the foundations of the AU tower and hall were surely unaware of what they were doing. The young Ethiopian labourers might not even have known about the history of the site they were digging up — it is precisely to educate a public that might otherwise be oblivious that memorials are built.

Such forgetfulness is at once casual and deeply ingrained in the modus operandi of the OAU-AU. Its proclamations and aspirations are principled and inspiring, and intermittently its actions match up. But its habitual mode is to ignore the inconvenient, be indifferent to shame, and to sketch something newer, bigger and shinier without reference to the foundations on which it is building.

Among the African heads of state who solemnly promised to banish unconstitutional seizure of power from the continent, and those who took power by such means from Africa’s chambers, were an array of putschists and killers. The list is too long to recount. Among them was Blaise Campaoré, who murdered his friend and mentor, Thomas Sankara, to become president of Burkina Faso. Also there was President Omar al-Bashir, who overthrew   an elected government to pre-empt a peace deal, imprisoned its democratic leaders and fought vicious wars in all corners of Sudan. The doyen of the club is Gnassingbé Eyadéma. The Togolese putschist holds the distinction of having been debarred from the founding conference of the OAU at Africa Hall because he had assassinated Togo’s  founding president,  Sylvanus Olympio, just four months earlier. After nearly 40 years in power, he won the accolade of his peers by being chosen as chairman of the OAU, then becoming in due course a founding father of the African

Union. Constructing a gleaming, outsize skyscraper and conference centre on the unacknowledged foundations of a fascist prison, subsequently pressed into service for repression of both right and left, is perhaps more symbolically appropriate than the leaders of Africa would care to acknowledge.

The new AU complex is a bold effort of imagination and forgetting. I wonder how many of the heads of state and government who speak at the podium in the new conference hall will choose to mention the prior use of the spot on which they stand. I wonder how many of the delegates in the room will be troubled by the spirits of those who bade farewell to the world on this ground. Absolute rulers are often paranoid, sometimes superstitious — perhaps they will be suitably unnerved.

A measure of solace is that the amnesia will not be total. As part of its year of peace and security, the AU Commission agreed that there will be a permanent memorial to the victims of human rights abuses and genocide in the new headquarters, and that survivors’ organisations from the Red Terror and Rwanda, and memorial museums from South Africa, Senegal and Ghana, among others, will be involved in the planning. Among the proposals are a memorial garden in the place where Haile Selassie’s ministers were executed; a visual archive of those who perished in Alem Bekagn; and a revolving exhibition provided, in turn, by human rights museums and centres across the African continent. Let us hope that Africa’s leaders will be humble enough to pause at the displays in the new headquarters’ foyer and be reminded of their responsibilities.

This article first appeared as “Imagining and forgetting” in the 2011 issue of Imagine Africa, an initiative of the Pirogue Collective, edited by Breyten Breytenbach. It is reprinted with the permission of Alex De Waal Smith and the Gorée Institute imprint, Island Position.

Website | + posts