How Ethio-Mexico Diplomacy Lost Its Icons Carelessly

Under international law, reciprocity is a widely used legal concept in the relations of states. In modern parlance, reciprocity denotes mutual concession of advantage offered in commercial and diplomatic relations by one state to the other and vice versa. It stems from the very nature of civilised behaviour and the psychology of human beings by which a person attempts to repay – in kind, in cash or in another form – compensation that another has provided, particularly in times of deprivation, misery, suffering, trials or tribulations.
Following the brutal Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1935 – being a member and relying on its firm and faithful adherence to the principle of “collective security” – Ethiopia appealed to the League of Nations (now United Nations). Member states imposed sanctions on the aggressor and the victim, which were either useless or inconsequential in safeguarding the victim and preventing an escalating conflict. Immediately, Italy annihilated Ethiopia’s sovereignty, declared its total victory and requested states for the formal recognition of Ethiopia as an Italian Colony.
All but five sovereign states of the world offered international recognition to the Italian control of Ethiopia. Much to their credit, the US, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), New Zealand, Haiti and Mexico refused to grant any recognition to Italy’s usurpation of Ethiopia’s sovereignty and remained faithful to the people and government of Ethiopia until the restoration of independence.
The people and government of Mexico never betrayed fellow Ethiopians and even went much further. They dedicated a place at Mexico City, in memory of independent Ethiopia and named it Plaza de la Ethiopia (Ethiopia Square). This was done in 1935, shortly after Ethiopia’s sovereignty was lost by numerous conspiracies and the unjust decisions made by major colonial powers and their statesmen at the League of Nations. This had been as painful to the Ethiopians as the heinous crimes perpetrated by a fascist army.
As part of his extended official visit to North America, covering the US, Canada and Mexico, Emperor Haileselassie travelled to Mexico in 1954. Here he was warmly welcomed. The royal visit had several reasons.
Apart from the war time solidarity the Mexican people and government had shown to Ethiopia, there was also a need to repay Mexicans favour for Ethiopia’s quest to be unified with the people of Eritrea. It is recalled that when the issue of Eritrea’s future was tabled for the discussion and decision at the United Nations, Mexico – which has always been consistent in its favourable foreign policy toward Ethiopia – demonstrated its unwavering support for the legitimate claim of the unification of the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia.
The visit involved various ceremonies and programs. While making a tour in the capital city, visiting delegates were said to have been surprised to see “a traffic circle plaza de la Etiopia.” Mexico city’s mayor, Theodore M.Vestel, wrote in his book entitled – “The Lion of Judah in the New World” – explained to the visiting delegates that Mexico refused to recognise Italy’s claim to Abyssinia and had named the plaza in honour of His Imperial Majesty’s valiant country. The emperor was quite moved by this gesture and promised to repay this honour. It has been reported that during the visit, a new public school was also opened, bearing the name of Ethiopia, again in honour of the Emperor and Ethiopia.
A few years after his stunning visit, prompted by his promise for a reciprocal gesture, works were commenced by the Ethiopian government to dedicate a place to remember the Mexican people and government in their fight and solidarity to safeguard and defend Ethiopia’s sovereignty. As reported on the front page of its December 21, 1957 issue, the Ethiopian Herald announced that – “Former Maichew Square Renamed Mexico Square By Kentiba” – and graphically narrated the ceremony held for the unveiling of a monument “among the cheerful citizens of the district of Maichew and high school students of that district”.
The paper quoted the dedication address by His Lord Mayor of Addis Abeba, Dejazmatch Zewde Gebresellassie, that “the monument in the square dedicated to the United States of Mexico is in a shape of a giant Saucer embodying a pool of water. On the middle are three canoes decorated with designs in varied characteristic Mexican colours”.
“Superimposed on the top of the canoes, joined together by iron bands, is a spherical brass bowl which serves as the fountain head of the monument. His Imperial Majesty’s initials are embossed on the iron girdles which joins the canoes.”
The guest of honour during the unveiling ceremony, Rudolfo Udigli, envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of the United States of Mexico, underscored in his speech that “the affinities and even differences between countries are like spontaneous natural ties, I would even say blood ties predetermined by superior powers”.
He further recounted the relationship between the two countries and the support provided by his country to Ethiopia during the dark days of the Italian occupation, emphasising that the two countries “although separated by geography are as akin and as close to the hand and the glove and the flesh and the bone. That is the reason why (the then leader of Mexico), on behalf of the Mexican people, designated the Square of Ethiopia to remind every day to our citizens of the existence of a brother country in Africa”.
That was how Mexico Square was named and a monument that stood high in one of the prime sites of Addis Abeba erected. As the icon of reciprocity, it has been facing and greeting, every day and night, for more than half a century, its eldest neighbour – a school building called Tegbareid and the towering younger complex of the Chamber of Commerce, built in 1950 and 1963, respectively.
Indeed, the relationship between Ethiopia and Mexico continued to symbolise a perfect representation of the fundamental principle of reciprocity even in times of great natural calamity and misery that affected both nations as noted by another writer called Robert B. Cialdini, in his book entitled, “Influence”, where he wrote:
“I know of no better illustration of the way reciprocal obligations can reach long and powerfully into the future than the perplexing story of 5,000 dollars of relief aid that was exchanged between Mexico and Ethiopia. In 1985, Ethiopia could justly lay claim to the greatest suffering and privation in the world. Under these circumstances, I would not have been surprised to learn of a relief donation from Mexico to that wrenchingly needy country. I remember my feeling of amazement, though, when a brief newspaper item I was reading insisted that the aid had gone in the opposite direction. Native officials of the Ethiopian Red Cross had decided to send the money to help the victims of that year’s earthquakes in Mexico City”.
The mutual concerns and sympathies both countries displayed to one another’s affected people was truly phenomenal. It transcended the geographical location, ideological differences and polarisation, resulting from the era of the cold war.
However, the principle of reciprocity, which was central in the bilateral diplomatic relations between Mexico and Ethiopia, and deep in the minds of our political leaders during post World War II or even toward the end of the cold war, seems to have been abandoned by the new breeds of political leadership and globalisation, which have been obsessed with issues of development and good governance, more so than pondering over promoting historical and cultural values in both countries. While it is believed that both development and good governance are closely interrelated with priorities that all states would have to be preoccupied with, development and good governance agendas can also be pursued by upholding and maintaining, rather than destroying landmarks that signify the historical and cultural ties of the two nations.
Contrary to the speech of Rudolfo Udigli on the occasion of the unveiling of the Mexico square monument 56 years ago, it appears that contemporary Mexican politicians have either forgotten the significance of historical ties between the two countries or are simply unwilling or unwelcome to have “a brother country in Africa”. This seems to be why the Federal District Government decided, in 2009, to replace and remove the surviving name of Metro Ethiopia, at the underground train station of Line 3, Metro Network of Mexico City, which was deduced from the former Plaza Etiopia, as revealed by a Mexican newspaper – “EL Universal”.
In its issue of March 26, 2009, El Universal confirmed that Metro Ethiopia had been changed and replaced by plaza de la Transparencia (Transparency Square). “Oscar Guerra, president of the federal district public information, noted that the inclusion of the name of Square Transparency help spread the right of access to information they have in the capital and is expected to be appropriate and used by citizens”.
My search on Google Maps, nonetheless, proved that the site is still indicated online as Plaza de la Etiopia/Trancparencia. While one can find a petition initiated by Rastafarians – the all time friends of past and present Ethiopia – on their web site Rasta ITES, for the restoration of the name, there is no indication concerning their success.
In a strikingly similar and possibly analogous act, which seemed to reciprocate what transpired in Mexico City, the wanton destruction of the monument of Mexico Square that symbolised the strong relationship between Ethiopia and Mexico was carried out last September. This outraged all self-respecting citizens of Addis Abeba, and particularly those who wish to see development in the city continue along with safeguarding the city’s historical and cultural relics.
The unveiling ceremony of the Mexico Square monument was unconsidered by the unceremonious and reckless construction workers, who threw the pieces as though useless road side rubbish in front of hundreds of grieving onlookers.
My enquiries regarding this monument have shown that it has been registered by the Research & Heritage Conservation Authority as one of almost 20 monuments and other historical and cultural relics of the city. However, neither the City Administration nor the Authority appears to be interested in rescuing it or removing it to a safe area for proper preservation and possible re-erection. Very disappointingly, the Ministry Foreign Affairs (MoFA), which was an active actor during the erection and unveiling ceremony of the monument, became absolutely silent and complacent.
Over the past two decades, Ethiopians have witnessed the erection and unveiling of numerous monuments in major cities throughout the country. Most are attached mainly with the ideological orientation of the incumbent regime, symbolising the revolutionary generation’s “arduous armed struggle for national liberation and against exploitative successive regimes that had committed enormous brutality and prejudices against nations and nationalities of Ethiopia and in remembrance of fallen martyrs”.
At the same time, since the era of the Dergue, we have also observed changes introduced on names of squares, hospitals, schools and roads, previously named after famous patriots and noted personalities to reflect and fit the spirit of “revolution and change”. So had it been with the removal and destruction of many monuments.
It appears that contemporary history is in the making by the new generation, in disregard or total rejection of the past, perhaps based on the doctrine that Ethiopia is newly recreated. For the time being, however, the Addis Abeba City Administration, the Research & Heritage Conservation Authority and the MoFA are principal culprits that should be responsible for the wanton destruction of the Mexico Square monuments and its historical, cultural and diplomatic relics.

By Yohannes Woldegebriel
Yohannes Woldegebriel is a lawyer. He has served at four different public institutions as prosecutor. He can be reached at

Published on November 24, 2013 [ Vol 14 ,No 708]



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