The arrival of Ghanaian great Kwame Nkrumah in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa
40 years after his death has been met with notable local resistance.
Ethiopians are signing a petition demanding that a statue of the pan-Africanist leader which was recently unveiled outside the new African Union headquarters be joined by one of the late emperor Haile Selassie or removed.
As well as the signatures, a group of Ethiopian elders, opposition politicians and scholars have written to the AU Commission voicing their disappointment at its decision to "ignore" the deposed emperor.
The golden statue of Nkrumah was erected to commemorate his founding role in the Organisation of African Unity, the AU’s predecessor.
The late Ethiopian monarch’s supporters have argued that their man, who became internationally famous for his resistance against the Italians under Mussolini, was a longer-standing supporter of African liberation than Ghana’s founding president.
“It is Haile Selassie who is described by African leaders as the father of Africa not Nkrumah,” said Yacob Hailemariam, an opposition politician who has spoken out against the choice of the Ghanaian.
The campaign has, however, infuriated Ethiopia’s current leader Meles Zenawi who said it was “crass” to question Nkrumah’s choice as an African symbol and has repeatedly denounced Selassie, who died in 1975, as a “feudal dictator”.
“It is only Nkrumah who is remembered whenever we talk about pan Africanism,” Mr Meles told local media. “It is a shame not to accept his role.”
The AU confirmed that it had received a letter signed by prominent Ethiopians, many of them living abroad, but declined to comment. The protest letter says that Selassie who ruled Ethiopia for 40 years had “the legal, moral, historical and diplomatic legitimacy to have his statue erected next to Kwame Nkrumah.”
The inauguration of the new headquarters in Addis Ababa was meant to underline Ethiopia and Africa’s burgeoning friendship with China which funded the $200m construction. However, the summit served to remind the outside world of the AU’s reliance on foreign funding and on its propensity for squabbling as Cameroon’s Jean Ping and South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma fought each other to a draw over the leadership of the 54-nation club.
The revelation that the AU relies for two-thirds of its funding on Western donors and that many members had both failed to pay their dues or fulfil their aid promises made during last year’s Horn of Africa famine, dampened the occasion. The empty coffers reminded many observers that the main patron of pan-Africanism in recent years was the deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi who was killed last year.
The statue row has enabled Ethiopia’s downtrodden opposition to rally support and opposition blogs have started to refer to the AU’s new 100 metre tall marble home as the “sarcophagus of Africa”.
Under Prime Minister Meles, who backtracked on his promise to leave office and ran again at the last election, the country has become increasingly authoritarian, imprisoning opposition leaders, curtailing non-governmental organisations and harassing political opponents.
The two competing African champions might have found the whole row quite strange as they were close supporters of each other’s causes before the emperor was deposed by the Derg coup leaders in 1974.