An Open Letter to the US Ambassador in Addis


A Letter from Professor Richard Pankhurst to the American Ambassador in Addis Ababa

H.E. Ambassador Aurelia E. Brazeal,

Ambassador of the United States,

Addis Ababa,


Your Excellency,

While graciously receiving me at the American Embassy on the question of the Aksum obelisk on 23 February you most kindly agreed to forward a letter on this matter to Washington. Since this letter may be of public concern I trust you will approve of my publishing it in Addis Tribune.

Justice-lovers, in Ethiopia and throughout the world, had hoped for the imminent return of the Aksum obelisk, looted, as Your Excellency will recall, on the personal orders of the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1936, and erected the following year to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of his seizure of power, and hence the suppression of Italian democracy.

This historic monument should have been returned to Ethiopia in accordance with Article 37 of the Italian Peace Treaty with the United Nations signed in 1947, which specified that all loot from Ethiopia should be returned within 18 months. The monument should also have been returned on the basis of the bilateral Ethio-Italian obelisk agreement concluded in 1997, according to which repatriation should have been effected within that year, 1997. 

We are of course now in the year 2004.

The obelisk has in recent months been completely dismantled, and removed, in three pieces, to the Fumicino military airport outside Rome. They are supposedly awaiting repatriation by air. I say "supposedly" because the question of transportation seems to have stalled, apparently because of bureaucracy and cultural insensitivity. Vittorio Scarbi, the sometime Italian Assistant Minister of Culture, has been quoted in the Italian press as observing, "The obelisk will remain at Fumicino airport indefinitely".

This dashes the hopes of many people in Ethiopia and other countries who were led to believe that the United States would come to Ethiopia's rescue by lending a Galaxy military aeroplane - only one out of America's fleet - to transport the looted obelisk from Rome to Aksum. It was at Aksum in June 1996 that close on 15,000 inhabitants - a large proportion of the population of that tiny old city, signed a petition for the monument's return - and where people to this day are praying for its speedy repatriation.

Many of us here in Addis Ababa recall Your Excellency's most eloquent address a few months ago at the Centenary Celebration of American-Ethiopian relations. We had hoped that this historic centenary would be crowned by a U.S. 'plane flying into Aksum, with the long-awaited obelisk.

But now Your Excellency informs us that the aeroplane cannot be spared from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We find it hard to believe this because the flight from Rome to Aksum is normally no more than five hours. The 'plane would therefore scarcely be needed for more than a few days, and, in case of any emergency, could at any time be recalled.

The refusal on the part of the military authorities to make a 'plane available seems to lack the sensitivity which one would expect from the United States. It is, however, no secret that even before the Iraq war the U.S. Defense authorities dismissed  requests for help by previous U.S. Ambassadors to Ethiopia.

Your Excellency explained that the U.S. is engaged in a "war against terrorism".

I would recall that the looting of the obelisk, and hence its presence in Rome today, is a direct result of Fascist Italy's invasion which was in itself an act of terrorism: the use of poison-gas, the shooting of prisoners-of-war in cold blood, the Graziani and Dabra Libanos massacres, etc. Shortly before giving orders for the seizure of the monument, in October 1936, Mussolini telegraphed to Rodolfo Graziani, the Italian Viceroy of Ethiopia, on 5 June 1936, ordering: "All rebels made prisoner should be shot". And on 8 July he repeated: "I authorise Your Excellency systematically to conduct a policy of political terror and extermination". (The Italian original of these and ensuing letters ordering political terror may be consulted in the U.S. National Archives, volume 472). It is against the background of such acts of terrorism that we are currently struggling  on the obelisk issue.

Your Excellency further informed me that before anything could be done U.S. technical experts would have to inspect the pieces of obelisk in Rome as well as the Aksum airstrip - and that this could not be done because the Italian Government has thus far failed to pay for this work.

It is my understanding that before the obelisk was moved the size and weight of the three dismantled parts and the length and quality of the Aksum runway were studied by an Ethiopian as well as an Italian committee of technical experts. The fact that the obelisk was taken to Fumicino airport would seem to indicate that these committees were satisfied that the return of the obelisk by 'plane was feasible.

At our meeting you will recall that Captain David Ozmen went further. He stated that he could not be sure that the Italians were correct in their statement as to the size of the three pieces of obelisk in Rome airport.

Is it not possible for two members of NATO to come to an agreement about paying for this relatively minor work, if it must be done?

Alternatively, would it be beyond the bounds of possibility for the American Ambassador in Rome to have one of his staff verify the measurements in situ?

I would be happy to pay the taxi fare for such a  staff member to drive the relatively short distance to Fumicino airport, and, if necessary, could purchase a tape-measure for him or her.

In conclusion I would note that I raise this matter  of the Aksum obelisk not only in the interest of justice for Ethiopia - and of so many Italian lovers of justice who have long demanded the monument's repatriation, but also for the good name of America. Surely it would be a permanent source of pride and gratification for the American people to point to the obelisk after its return to Aksum, and say, "It was flown back in one of our 'planes!".

Will they, on the contrary be obliged to say, "Though it was the centenary of our friendship between the United States and Ethiopia  we were too busy  - and had insufficient vision - to listen to a poor people's cry for help. Though the greatest, and most technologically advanced, power in the world left them in the lurch".

Trusting that Your Excellency will bring these concerns, which are made in a spirit of friendship, to the attention of the relevant authorities,

I remain, with kind regards,

Yours Sincerely,

Richard Pankhurst


(From Addis Tribune, March 5, 2004)