Exactly 50 years ago this week, Addis Abeba had witnessed a meeting of its kind that was unusual to its history. Close to 2,000 delegates, accompanying 30 heads of state from what were then independent African nations, descended on a city reborn as a political capital of the continent.
Half a century later, history appears to have repeating itself at least in its form. Last week, as it was then, Addis Abeba and its administrators put enormous pressure on Chinese contractors to speed up the completion of the thoroughfare that is Africa Avenue, otherwise known by residents as Bole Road.
The pressure then was on the Italian architect Arturo Mezzedimi, who built the Africa Hall on Menelik II Avenue on a neck breaking time. For there was no banquet in any hotel that could accommodate 2,000 guests, Emperor Hailesellasie had ordered another Italian builder, Mario Buschi, a man who came to Ethiopia during the Italian occupation and had taken the Aksum Obelisk to Rome, which reinstated to Ethiopia few years ago, to restore the Adarash of Menelik up in Arat Kilo, within three months. (Please Continue on page 14)
Buchi, who also built the Ethiopian Parliament on Lorenzo Te’azaz Road within five months, was in fact the only person left inside the Africa Hall when heads of state dispute whether to form the United States of Africa, or leave the utopian project for time and instead form an organization that works for unity, according to Emperor Hailesellasie’s foremost biographer, Angelo Del Boca.
Boca, a young historian at the time known for his stand against Italian Fascism, was here in Addis Abeba when the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was formed on May 22, 1963. The following is his account of event then, published in his book on Emperor Hailesellasie titled, The Negus:
“For the occasion Addis Abeba put on a new face. While an army of whitewashers touched up the buildings along the main thoroughfares, another army of carpenters and laborers threw up palisades to conceal the most poverty-stricken quarters.
“On the afternoon of 22 May 1963, just a few hours before the inauguration of the summit conference of Addis Abeba, I went to Menilek’s Aderash to see where may old friend Buschi had once again succeeded in meeting this new challenge. He’d made it just in the nick of time. The 900 light bulbs illuminating the hall had just arrived by jet from Milan; the army of gardeners, who had somehow conjured an English lawn into being all around the Aderash, were still hard at work. While Buschi explained the various steps of the project, the Emperor made his entrance into the hall, followed by a numerous group of dignitaries, officers, and bodyguards, he was wearing one of his charcoal grey double-breasted suits, with a white handkerchief in the breast pocket. Smiling, he came straight toward us, extended his hand, and completed ‘con tanta perizia’ (with such expertise).
“This was the first time that we had heard Hayla-Sellase speak in our language, and it surprised us all the more because, with foreigners, he customarily spoke French, a language that he had mastered to an impressive degree. With this unusual act, which for a perfectionist like him also entailed a certain amount of risk, he simply wished to express his deep satisfaction and to do so in the language that was dearest to us. While he spoke, I noticed that the Emperor’s beard was speckled with grey and that the patch of discoloration under his left eye had spread and darkened. Hayla-Sellase was 71 years old. His physical decline had begun; but his mind was far from deteriorating, as Jean Lacouture, who was covering the summit conference of Addis Abeba for Le Monde, pointed out:
‘The astonishing intelligence that emanates from this unique individual, the mischievous sensibility that glitters in his golden gaze, clearly hint at a genuine political lucidity.’
“The following day, in the grand auditorium of the Africa Hall, the Emperor fully displayed his mastery of the situation, outshining every other African head of state. Attentive, tireless, and remarkably quick to send brief notes to this or that delegate, he presided over the conference with a fascinating deft authority. In his opening remarks to the summit conference, which he described as “without parallels in history,” the Emperor had delivered one of the most significant speeches of his lifelong carrier as a statement; a moderate speech, but ambitious in terms of its substance:
‘We are meeting here today to lay the basis for African unity. Let us, here and now, agree upon the basic instrument which will constitute the foundation for the future growth in peace and harmony and oneness of this continent [. . .]. This Conference cannot close without having created a single African Charter. We cannot leave here without having created a single African organization possessed of the attributes We have described. If we fail in this, we will have shirked our responsibility to Africa and to the peoples we lead.’
“Certainly, over the course of the summit conference even more daring proposals than his would be heard: the Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah, for instance, passionately and vigorously defended his call for the immediate establishment of a single inter-African government and accompanied his speech with heavy pounding of fists on the conference table:
‘Why must we continue to be the manual laborers of the industrial world, if our continent is the richest land on earth? For centuries Africa has been a milk cow for everyone except us. This must stop! All Africa demands real and immediate unity. If we fail to achieve that unity, our people will condemn us and we will slip into the same abyss that has engulfed Latin America.’
“In the end, Nkrumah would remain in isolation with his utopian project and not even Sekou Toure or Gamal Abdel Nasser would come to his aid. The majority of the heads of state agreed on the need for continental unity, but without setting goals that were either too ambitious or too close in time, and without calling for the establishment of organizations that were either too demanding or too rigid. Above all, they recognized that Africa could not yet think of ceasing all cooperation with the former colonial powers, as much as they might still demand absolute respect for their own national sovereignty.
“Thus, Hayla-Sellase’s approach, which called for a gradual approach and realistic objective, had carried the day. The success of the conference was due to a considerable extent to his suggestions, his calls for prudence and moderation: ‘Let us renounce the futility of vendettas and reprisals,’ he exhorted his audience. ‘Let us rid ourselves of the feelings of hatred that can only undermine our souls and poison our hearts.’
“The last session, which would bring into being the charter of the OAU, was held behind closed doors. Journalists and the general public were sent away, and in the large conference room of the Africa Hall there were now only the 30 African heads of state, with only one eyewitness: the man who had constructed the building, the architect Arturo Mezzedimi, who was there to make sure that all of the building’s equipment continued to run properly.
“He reports that when the charter of the OAU was approved, the heads of state got to their feet and began applauding Hayla-Sellase, the mastermind behind the summit conference:
‘They went on clapping their hands for 10 minutes. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d never seen anything like it. The Emperor, who was also on his feet, enjoyed his triumph but, as always, he maintained complete control. He held his body rigidly, and not a muscle moved in his face.’
“The summit conference of Addis Ababa concluded with banquet hosted by Hayla-Sellase in Menilek’s Aderash. This farewell dinner, too, devised in all its slightest details by the Emperor, also proved to be a minor but authentic masterpiece. In the hall that once hosted the lavish and barbaric banquets of Menilek, there now sat, in dinner jackets, formal dress uniforms, or evening gowns, 2,000 guests, including 30 heads of state, a 100 or so cabinet ministers, a 1,000 delegates, 600 representatives of Ethiopia’s crème de la crème, and 200 observers and journalist.
“Hundreds of green and-gold liveried waiters moved silently and confidently among the tables, which were set with silver place settings and candelabra. The waiters poured French wines. Dishes of international cuisine were alternated with Ethiopian specialties. Black caviar from the Caspian Sea was served by the spoonful, as was foie grass of the Landes.
“In the background, the Imperial Bodyguard Band alternated old Ethiopian marches with waltzes by Strauss and Lehar.
“Around 11 o’clock that night Miriam Makeba made her appearance, in a long, slinky white gown. Suddenly all noise in the banqueting hall came to a halt. Makeba bowed slightly before the Emperor and his guests and began singing a spiritual. All eyes were on her: not only was she a gorgeous woman, not only was hers one of the most beautiful voices that Africa ever produced. She was also a survivor of persecution; a woman who had fled from South Africa’s universe of concentration camps and apartheid. Miriam Makeba was a living witness to the wrongs that Africa had long suffered and she therefore appeared as if transfigured before the eyes of the 2,000 representatives of a free Africa.
“This was the Africa of protest, of heart-breaking songs, of lullabies broken by sobs and tears. This was ‘Mother Africa,’ who knew how to weep, but also how to console. And therefore the emotion that she sparked in the hearts of those present was a mixture of religious veneration and erotic desire, a blend of pity and admiration. The Imperial Bodyguard Band fell silent. Now the only instruments accompanying Miriam Makeba’s voice were the chords of a guitar, a balaphon, and a viola.
“The dinner was by now coming to its end. The waiters were serving vanilla ice cream and champagne. There followed a series of toasts, bows, handshakes, and applauses. The African Nations Anthem was played, ‘at a very moderate and solemn tone.’ Hayla-Sellase spoke briefly in Amharic to thank his guests and to emphasize, once again, the historic significance of the conference.
“After the waiters had served coffee and after-dinner liqueurs, the 30 heads of state were the first to leave the room, in Indian file. The first in line was the athletic Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, holding the Emperor’s hand, while the last to leave was the President of Somalia, Aden Abdullah Osman, somewhat sad and humiliated at having been considered the conference’s party-pooper, because of his territorial claims against Ethiopia.
“With the summit meeting of Addis Ababa, Hayla-Sellase attained the high point of his political career. Not only had he recovered and enhanced his prestige, but he bestrode the African political scene as ‘the great wise man,’ the ‘patriarch of Africa,’ in contrast with other rising stars, such as Nasser, Nkrumah, and Sekou Toure, who were younger and more audacious, but also more reckless.
“In the weeks that followed he was suggested as a likely recipient for the Nobel peace Prize: he was invited to solve the thorniest controversies; and he was given the great honor of establishing in Addis Ababa the permanent headquarters of the OAU.”
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