By Fekade Shewakena
The debate on whether Emperor Hailesilassie’s statue deserves to stand along with that of Kwame Nkrumah in front of the newly inaugurated AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, built by the government of China as a “gift” to the AU, misses a lot of big points. In my view, and I am sure in the views of many observers of Africa, the entire building itself is one giant statue of shame for Africa. Nkrumah is perhaps rolling in his grave, and for all I read and heard about him and about what he wanted Africa to become, I believe he would feel ashamed and may even cry if he were to see his statue housed in there. It is also good that Hailesilassie’s statue doesn’t stand anywhere near this building. Here is why.
First of all, the building is a metaphor for the way most African countries are run. The Chinese handout in Addis Ababa that is going to house the AU is more than a symbol that perpetuates the beggar image that has defined most African countries for a better part of their modern history. Most African countries have decided to achieve development and modernization by substituting working hands and innovative minds with hands stretched toward foreign aid and largess. This Chinese handout symbolizes Africa’s failure and speaks about a leadership that has completely failed to understand that you can’t have your pride and dignity, and a respectable place in the community of nations while living on the handouts of others. Indeed, it is a testament and stark reminder to an increasingly frustrating reality that the leaders of African have given up on any attempt at self reliance.
Just ask why it should be so difficult for 54 African countries to contribute no more than four million dollars each and build this building on their own? Is it the addiction to handouts? You may even ask why any African in position of power and with minimal self respect and knowledge of history could not have wanted the building designed by African architects. You may even wonder why there was no one among these leaders to think such a structure should have an architectural design that is made of a touch of African architecture and culture, say for example, something like a combination of the pyramids of Egypt, the obelisks of Axum, Lalibella, the magnificent libraries of ancient Mali and the numerous beautiful tukuls that dot the African landscape to mention just the few we know well. Imagine how such a product owned and built by Africans could be one huge source of pride and something to show for African ingenuity. For a continent that looses tens of billions of dollars in elicit capital flight and outright theft every year, isn’t two hundred million dollars just peanuts? And don’t this honorable guys ruling Africa read history? Haven’t they read that Africa has been there before and done that? How can you forget that the first things that European colonialists brought to Africa before they began looting the land and enslaving Africans were glittering gifts to local tribal chiefs?
This building is not only a case of what we in Ethiopia call “የሰው ወርቅ አያደምቅ” – which roughly translates as, “you cannot look beautiful by wearing gold jewelry that belongs to other people”. As the history of Africa itself attests, these so called gifts are often down payments for the merciless exploitation of the continent’s natural and human resources. How do we Africans overcome the stereotype that we are incapable of changing our reality while we keep doing this crazy thing of repeating the same thing over and over again even after we have confirmed that it is not working to our advantage?
I hope there is no any idiot out there who thinks the Chinese gave this building to Africa out of compassion for Africans or out of plain generosity or reasons charity. We all know that there are more destitute people inside China than all the destitute people in sub Sahara Africa combined. It is clear that the Chinese leaders are making an investment with sacrifice to help their long term plan, their future. It is now an open secret that the Chinese think of Africa as a solution to their overpopulation and pollution problem and have already gone a long way on that line. In the last decade alone nearly eight hundred thousand Chinese have settled in Africa and China towns are proliferating in many cities in Africa. There are reports that Chinese experts are planning and working to settle some 300 million Chinese in Africa as a solution to their overpopulation related problems.
It appears that the Chinese are applying the advice of a certain racist British named sir Francis Galton who a little more than a hundred years ago, sometime in 1873, wrote that the continent of Africa which he defined as “occupied by lazy, palavering savage people” be taken over and tenanted by what he said were “industrious and order-loving Chinese”. Trends of the last decade or two shows that the Chinese seem to have taken this once despised racist advice to heart. They are working hard to make this a reality and to some extent succeeding. They are working hard and sacrificing to solve their demographic and pollution problems on the backs of Africa. Unless Africans are aware of this fast creeping Chinese takeover now, it would be too late when we wake-up tomorrow. The leaders of Africa who are blinded by their desire to preserve their power and material benefits never seem to care. The new AU building is only one in a series of bribery to Africa’s ruling elite. The Chinese know they will get back their two hundred million dollars in one or two transactions of their cheap toys to Africa and the minerals and lumber they plunder cheaply. At the end of the day it is poor Africans who will stand there holding the bag.
There is also another ugly side to look at when seeing this shameful hall of shame in Addis Ababa. If you uncover the veils and secrecy inside Chinese capitalism, you will see that it is an extremely criminal enterprise. The “gift” standing in Addis Ababa is tainted with blood, tears and sweat of other unfortunate human beings being mercilessly ruled and exploited. It is an open secret that Chinese workers are subjected to slave type labor where in many cases, protest by workers in a factory and demands of workers to be heard takes the form of committing group suicide. To see what kind of blood money the AU building may be tainted by, read this recent New York Times exclusive investigative report about the horrible life of the workers who supply products to the manufacturers of our iPads. After reading the report I could not believe that the ipad I am using is tainted with that horror. Shouldn’t Africans that have suffered merciless exploitation themselves of the kind Chinese workers suffer today be the first to reject any Chinese offer out rightly on grounds that it is a reminder of their own painful history?
I am also disappointed by the muted response of the African elite regarding this shameful “gift” and creepy Chinese takeover of Africa. It appears that we all have given up on Africa, I mean, ourselves. How many cases do we have to be ashamed of about being African? The brutal and savage killings of one another, being ruled by cruel tyrants for decades on end, our poverty in the midst of plenty and perennial beggary for food handout, are killing us already. Should accepting a down payment wrapped as a “gift” while being set up in plain sight for a new round of slavery and plunder be another one?
The leaders of Ethiopia, particularly Ato Meles Zenawi, did us a favor inadvertently by not lobbying to have Hailesilassie statue erected there along with that of Nkrumah. Ethiopians should be happy that Hailesilassie’s statue and through that Ethiopia’s contribution was not erected anywhere near this hall of shame. If the Ethiopian leaders just whispered Hailesilassie’s name, I am sure there will be a unanimous vote by African leaders to honor Hailsilassie and through him Ethiopia by building his statue there. Yes, we can debate the good and bad he did to his own country. But no one, except men with little minds and little sense of history question that he, Hailesilassie, and through him Ethiopia, stood the tallest among the tall when it comes to fighting for the independence of Africa and bringing Africans together. It is one of Ethiopia’s epic images that history will not forget and one that never needs a statue as a reminder. I am happy this image is not tainted with Hailesilassie’s statue in that hall of shame. Now the debate should not be whether Hailesilassie’s statue and though him Ethiopia’s should have been built along with Nkrumah in front of this hall of shame, it should be weather even that of Nkrumah’s should be standing there to adore a symbol of Africa’s shame.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)