Ethiopia has lost many ancient cultural heritages and treasures to plundering and looting, and it is common to find ancient Ethiopian artefacts in various western museums. Although there have been initiatives to facilitate the return of these stolen heritages in the past, the outcomes have not been pleasing.
Recently, Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum said the quickest way for Ethiopia to get back its artefacts from the V&A would be through a long term loan, referring to items stolen from Mekdela by British forces in 1868. The displayed treasures include a gold crown, a gold chalice and a royal wedding costume, among others. Ethiopia launched a formal restitution claim to have the treasures returned in 2007.
Government officials and scholars have voiced their apprehension, echoing that the return of historical treasures should not be up for discussion. Yonas Desta, Director General of Ethiopian Heritage Authority has been one of the most outspoken figures in the negotiations emphasizing that any treasure is only meaningful to the owner, not to the looter.
Yonas has been actively participating in heritage conservation and management since 2010, when, during his time as a director at the then-Ministry of Trade and Industry, he conducted a study about heritage management in Ethiopia. Former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, offered him a chance to lead the then-Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH). EBR’s Samson Berhane sat down with him to discuss his firm position towards the country’s lost treasures, heritage management and their contribution to the economy.
EBR: In response to recent remarks by Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, who suggested a long-term loan of the Maqdala artifacts, you said that the government is not willing to accept the offer. Have you considered the country’s capability, or incapability, to care for the artefacts, if they are returned?
Yonas: In principle, treasures or books can be regarded as heritage artefacts when they are in the place where the history has occurred, irrespective of the country’s situation. So, whether or not Ethiopia has the potential and the resources to handle its artefacts doesn’t matter. Any heritage is meaningful to the owner, not to the looter. Moreover, accepting the British proposal may set the wrong precedent. All in all, the director of the Museum has the right to make any statement about the loan of the treasures. By the same token, Ethiopia can also reject any proposal that it perceives as immoral.
Ethiopia’s treasures, whether in England or anywhere else, are the heritage of Ethiopians. Of course, international conventions, to which Ethiopia is a signatory, have been put into place taking such injustices into account. This includes the 1970 convention enacted to fight against the illegal movement of historical artefacts. Under these conventions, we will keep trying to get the artefacts back.
The British government is prohibited from returning items looted during both the pre- and post-colonial era by law. Have there been attempts to lobby for a change in that law?
The government has been exerting all efforts to return the looted treasures, including forming a committee in 2007, which included figures such as Endrias Eshete (Prof) and the late Richard Pankhurst (Prof), as well as people with connections with the two countries to return artefacts taken after the death of Emperor Tewodros II at the battle of Meqdela. But it has not been effective, primarily because the law, bureaucracy and procedure were tedious. There was even a time when the English government said that they didn’t have the items.
To make things worse, almost all of the looted treasures are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is situated near Buckingham palace. It displays heritages that have attachments with British history. Therefore, it would be naïve to look at the director’s speech as an individual opinion, even though the British government hasn’t sent an official proposal.
Many countries have made similar efforts to return their artefacts from Britain, such as India, which has repeatedly lobbied for the return of many artefacts, including a diamond worth USD 130 million, which was once the world’s largest. However, much of this work has borne no fruit. What makes Ethiopia different?
Actually, the issue will be determined by the negotiations between Ethiopia and Britain, irrespective of other countries’ experiences. With regards to taking other countries’ experiences into consideration, I believe that there is no government in Africa that is as concerned about its heritage artefacts as Ethiopia, so Ethiopia can be at the forefront of that movement.
Ever since the separation of church and state during the Dergue regime, the outward flow of illicit religious heritages, like for instance, Tabot, replicas of the Tablet of Laws found in Ethiopian churches, has grown astonishingly. What measures are being taken to stem the flow?
Regrettably, that is a reality in our country. It is common to see Tabots and other religious artefacts sold on the international market. There are two ways to protect heritage artefacts; either at the source, or at the gateway. We have a Memorandum of Understanding with the Federal Police Commission and Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority to prevent the illegal movement of heritage artefacts in such areas.
It is difficult to strengthen the relationship between the church and state in one day. It will develop through time. We have some cooperation in areas like computerization of heritage registration. However, most of the registration of religious artefacts is done on the basis of trust. We register what they tell us they have.
Although this makes tracing the heritages difficult, we have no choice but to accept. In Ethiopia, there are more than 37,000 churches and a similar number of Tabots, if not double. Congregants are not even allowed to see such objects, let alone government officials or experts. Only selected priests are allowed to enter the inner sanctum where the Tabot is kept. This makes moveable heritages in religious institutions vulnerable to illegal trafficking.
Other religious heritage under threat are the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela. What preservation activities are being currently undertaken?
We executed a rehabilitation pilot project in Lalibela for six years. In June 2016, we examined the rehabilitation projects already undertaken on two churches and discovered that were some errors made in the 1950s which need to be corrected. Then we came up with an intervention to repair the most damaged part of the rock-hewn church. Structural repairs as well as other preservations were made during the project, but these are only temporary solutions.
Former Minister of Culture and Tourism, Hirut Woldemariam, said that preserving Lalibela would cost more than two billion birr. She even suggested that the public should contribute some of the costs as there was a budget shortage. That does not seem fair to the public who pay taxes to the government to handle such issues.
The Minister’s speech was intended to show the severity of the damage at Lalibela. Even if we had the money at that time, we could not have started the project because we didn’t have the proper methodology yet.
Right now, we are setting up the methodology for the rehabilitation project. Its approval depends on the recommendations of UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites. After that, we will know how long it will take. But the maintenance will definitely be done in such a way that ensures it will last.
Muslim heritages have been neglected during preservation efforts. Many of the artefacts are in the hands of private individuals, and many have been lost.
We work in collaboration with all religions and religious institutions, including the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council. We support them by providing expertise and resources to supplement their capabilities for research and archeology in the areas where the heritages are located. We also publish a document that lists these Muslim heritage areas. Site development and inspection are being done. One visible example is Al-Nejashi Mosque, which is as old as the Islamic faith. Although it has been neglected in the past, with the help of Turkey, the Mosque has now been revived as a well-known tourist destination.
The country doesn’t have a defined plan to protect cultural heritages, even though clear targets have been outlined for many other sub-sectors. Does this show a lack of government attention and commitment?
It is not as simple as setting a plan when it comes to the heritage sub-sector. The reverse might be true in other sub-sectors because it is easy to set a target, for example to increase the existing manufacturing companies to a certain level. In the same manner, knowing the heritages that we possess is important to design any plan or direction. Unfortunately, we don’t have that. In what world can we plan to refurbish or reconstruct without knowing where the heritage is? Yet, it would not be wrong to conclude that less attention is given to the preservation of heritages.
Does this mean there is no legal and policy framework to manage heritages in Ethiopia?
There is a cultural policy that was introduced in 1998. It was revised two years ago. This policy has a detailed plan of action and directions with regards to heritage management and preservation.
So why do you think there is ongoing damage to cultural heritage sites, like the recent demolition of the two residences of Ras Abebe Aregay in Addis Ababa?
Once a law is enacted, it is open to anyone’s interpretation. The legal interpretation related to heritages is very controversial. Various institutions might collide with each other while performing their duty. This was the main reason behind the demolition of Ras Abebe’s residences.
Despite global recognition, the towns or cities in Ethiopia where tangible and non-tangible heritages have been registered by UNESCO have not yet seen any significant gains. It seems like the registering the heritages served to gain political legitimacy for the government and to build the country’s image.
That is right. Actually, the reverse would have been surprising. Any rational tourist would want to visit places with better infrastructure and facilities. One of the criteria for the registration of heritages is their potential to attract tourists, but potential is not enough. The places where the heritages are located don’t have proper toilets, guest houses or clinics, which makes visiting them undesirable and expensive. So for an individual tourist, it is cheaper to visit New York City twice, instead of visiting the landscape at Konso or other tourist attraction sites in Ethiopia.
If we take the experiences of other countries such as Thailand, tourists are able to find clinics or other services next to the heritage site. Actually, there are countries that offer the best medical service around heritage sites rather than anywhere else.
But some heritage sites like Lalibela bring thousands of dollars into the country every day. Is it difficult to build infrastructure and facilities using the gains reaped so far?
Lalibela is a good example of what I was saying before. Four years ago, we constructed 11 toilets around the churches. But, when I went to visit the churches last month, none of them was functioning. It shows that we are at a critical stage.
If these factors are the major reasons for the low contribution of heritages to the economy, why doesn’t the government allow the private sector to be involved in heritage management?
That is what the country needs right now. A strategy is needed to allow the private sector invest in heritage management responsibly. But I have doubts about the readiness of the private sector. We have a private sector that tends to plead for help from the government, instead of standing on its own. The Ethiopian Tourism Organization, whose primary targets are tourism destination development and marketing, was formed to help the private sector flourish in the tourism industry, including the heritage sub-sector, but this didn’t go beyond the paperwork. Private sector engagement has not implemented so far. There are many countries all around the world with few heritages, but benefit much more.
So no heritage sites have been given to private sector management?
To be frank, there are no heritages under the government’s management either. The majority of the tangible heritages are under the management of churches and mosques. Private sector involvement can improve the situation. For instance, private entities that set up their businesses near heritage sites should contribute a certain percentage of their profits to the refurbishment and upkeep of heritage sites, since they get business from it too. We unfortunately live in a country where social corporate responsibility is considered a luxury.
Everyone points the finger at the government, but the government has its own priorities. It’s understandable that heritages are not as crucial as issues like reducing poverty or feeding people affected by drought. Thus, businesses that benefit from heritages should be at the forefront of the rehabilitation process.
There are some controversial monuments and statues. For instance, The Aanolee memorial monument, which was erected as a tribute to the Arsi Oromos who claimed to be victims of Emperor Menelik’s imperial expansion, is criticized for being an obstacle to unity. What is the Authority’s take on this?
It is the people who make history, and build monuments and statues. The federal government doesn’t build monuments by its own will. The Heritage Management Authority has never given authorization to anyone to construct a statue. That is not its mandate; instead that power lies with regional cabinets and councils elected by the public. If a statue fulfills the criteria to be considered a heritage of the country, the Authority will make every effort to preserve it for the next generation. In the case of controversial monument, it happens because there wasn’t a majority vote or consensus. There is nothing more crucial than the public’s interest. EBR