Development has to get the consent of the governed, or it fails to meet its goals. The European model of progress, based on renewal, raising the quality of life and transforming existing neighbourhoods into modern centres, helps to retain the cultural and historical heritage that people care about, writes AMBESSAW ASSEGUED(email@example.com).
The line of people waiting for a bus to Sarrisin Arada Giorgis are talking about the newly restored and now unveiled equestrian statue of Emperor Menelik II. The work, costing five million Birr, has been going on for months and has been the subject of much speculation and debate, because the activities around the statue took place in full public view.
The original form of the statue, designed by the German architect Hertel Spengel, is copper. What was revealed last week is some kind of garish, metallic-gold apparition that resembles a huge Chinese-made plastic doll. Someone has painted golden colours over the rich, green patina of the copper statue – obliterating the distinctive colour and enduring beauty that the metal gives monuments like the Statue of Liberty in New York.
Not by any sober account, nor by any charitable allowance made to this childish spectre, could we claim that Menelik’s statue has been restored. The tragedy is that ownership of our own history and heritage has been pilfered and put under assault by ill-informed and ill-conceived decisions.
Whole-scale mismanagement of our monuments is underway throughout the country. A catastrophic but relevant example of this is what is happening at the old St. George Cathedral in front of Menelik’s copper figure on a horse.
The exquisitely designed and masterfully built octagonal outer stonewalls of Arada Giorgischurch have been knocked down and demolished to make way for tasteless concrete edifices constructed without consideration to heritage, history or even aesthetics.
On the western side, the church authorities have ploughed over the historic cemetery and turned it into a car lot. To the north, sections of the historic homes of the monks, priests and their families that originally settled in the area, Gedam Sefer, have been demolished and replaced by poorly and insipidly designed commercial buildings.
The destruction of cultural heritage is taking place across the country, even on the campus of the Addis Abeba University at Sidist Kilo, where the university is constructing new buildings.
Tragically, this bastion of enlightenment and high culture has disregarded its responsibilities as the custodian of the imperial endowment of Emperor Haile Selassie, who gave the university his palace, Genete Leul.
The southern grand entrance of the decorative palace, the lavishly designed and detailed neoclassical architecture built with elaborate ironworks, lamps and crafted masonry have been completely compromised by concrete structures that are going up right in front of it. To the side, the eastern stonewalls and decorated iron fences are wholly maligned and abused by new buildings that are being erected close to the wall.
The work is designed without any allowance made to create clearances between the new buildings and the historic masonry and ironwork or to protect it from damage caused by construction debris and waste raining on top of it.
There is also the venerable palace of Kumsa Moroda in Nekemte, some 320km northwest of Addis Abeba. Kumsa’s palace, the last hereditary ruler of Wellega, underwent an unmeritable restoration at a cost of six million Birr several years ago. The problem is that the palace has very little to show for the restoration work it underwent.
Terrestrial termites were left to flourish and eat away at the hand-hewn wooden floors, posts and ornate railings. And the gorgeous stonewalls were white-washed, for good measure, as if to convince the public that restoration has taken place.
How can the authorities declare a whitewashed wall and pest-ridden historic monument restored? How can they brazenly display a copper statue that has been gaudily spray-painted with golden colors? How can they permit the destruction of historic stonewalls and call it progress or declare the plowing over of cemeteries, the demolishing of historic neighborhoods and the obliteration of unique architectural styles a development?
The development and maturity of a city is entirely tied to its history, culture, heritage, monuments and the stories that flourish in its neighbourhoods. Citizens should not be expected to blindly follow the edicts of city and government officials – as happens in the Chinese model – where progress is related to a philosophy of endless “demolishing and building” because that is the communist country’s yardstick of development.
There are other models of development, including the democratic European one that we once adhered to. The European model of progress is based on renewals, lifting and transforming existing neighbourhoods into modern centres, and allowing sustainable progress to take root. This model of progress and development is better suited to the Ethiopian temperament.
Good governance occurs when the governed are made part of the decision-making processes. Government officials should not take it for granted that the public does not notice their actions, and that when something goes amiss, they will not be held accountable.
The public does not simply ignore or pass over government actions with a shrug of the shoulders. Actions and policies are discussed, debated and argued over by the public around the coffee shops, offices and homes. More so now under the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) opened political spaces.
The line of people waiting for the Sarrisbus have noticed the activities of workers as they scurry around the equestrian statue of Menelik II over the last few months. People in the neighbourhoods have noticed and talked about the blue tarp that first went up around the monument.
They wondered out loud when the entire contraption of blue-plastic canvas and Eucalyptus lumber was dismantled and hauled off, ostensibly to accommodate the celebrations of the Victory of Adwa.
When the contraptions return after the festivities, and when the wind and rain caused havoc to the plastic coverings, tearing it to shreds and leaving it fluttering in the air, an amused visitor to the city comments, “it looks like a ghost ship lost at sea, with its tattered and torn sails drooping and flailing.”
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