Remember Alem Bekagn

Alex de Waal in Addis Ababa

The new headquarters of the African Union have been built on the site of Addis Ababa’s former central prison, officially called Akaki, but known in Ethiopia as Alem Bekagn, or ‘farewell to the world’, and the site of detentions and massacres, from the Italian occupation of 1936 to the Red Terror of 1977-78. More people may have been tortured and executed in other Ethiopian prisons, but Alem Bekagn was the emblematic site. On 28 January the African Union will inaugurate its new headquarters. The conference hall, where Africa’s heads of state will meet, is built where the old prison building stood for 70 years. The ring of seats at the centre of the chamber will echo the two tiers of cells that faced the prison’s central courtyard. The gleaming hallways, lined with meeting rooms and offices, curve around what was the exercise yard. A new hotel is rising on the site of the sprawling barns where prisoners slept, their damp and flea-infested mattresses squeezed together on wooden platforms. When the AU summit convenes, the heads of state will attend a brief ceremony where a bullet-marked wall once stood, and unveil the foundation stone of a memorial – its form yet to be decided – to those who suffered and died in Alem Bekagn, and to the victims of human rights violations throughout Africa, including the Rwandese Tutsis.

Akaki Prison

The African Union did not deliberate much about taking over the site of Alem Bekagn, and there was no public debate. The Organisation of African Unity and its successor the AU have been based next door to the prison since the OAU was founded in 1963. Ten years ago the Addis Ababa municipality decided it wanted a more modern prison outside the city, and offered the land to the AU as soon as the old jail was taken out of service. The new AU complex was designed, financed and built by China, and Hu Jintao will join his African counterparts at the opening summit. This routine real estate transaction signals China’s rising influence on the continent.

When the ground was flattened, it disturbed some ghosts. Akaki was Ethiopia’s first purpose-built prison. It was probably commissioned by the Empress Zewditu, completed in 1923-24 and expanded a decade later. It was a two-storey octagonal building of 57 cells built around a courtyard. Each cell was designed for between ten and 20 prisoners. It was an imposing citadel built of stone with a grey-blue stucco guardhouse. Apart from the first-floor windows over the gate, which belonged to the prison offices, the outside walls were bare and unpunctured. Guards stood on the roof, and in later years two machine guns pointed into the courtyard.

Inside, prisoners exercising or doing their laundry in the cobbled courtyard could see only the sky (one folk explanation for Alem Bekagn’s name). The compound included a church, another, wider yard and staff accommodation. Former inmates remember the overcrowding and damp, the alternation between bitter cold and stifling heat. When there was a round-up of dissidents or vagrants, prisoners had to sleep on the veranda or under plastic sheets in the courtyard. Inmates had to provide their own mattresses, which were cut down to 50 centimetres wide. As the prison population grew over the decades, barns made of wood and corrugated tin were erected outside the octagon. Family members were allowed one visit each week, when the prisoners would be led out to the fence beyond the gate, where their wives and children were lined up behind another fence, about four feet away. Messages were shouted, and food and medicines passed across.

The prison became notorious in 1937, when the Italian governor of Ethiopia, General Rodolfo Graziani, executed the cream of the country’s intelligentsia in retribution for an attempt on his life. An estimated thirty thousand Ethiopians – monks, aristocrats, nationalists – died in the Yekatit 12 massacre, named for the date in the Ethiopian calendar when it took place. The Emperor Haile Selassie kept the prison open when he was restored to power after the Italian defeat in 1941. Over the next 30 years, thousands of political dissidents, mutinous army officers and revolutionaries were incarcerated within its walls. The students who led the Eritrean nationalist movement, the Tigrayan and Oromo rebellions, and the Ethiopian revolution itself, conducted debates and seminars inside. They had dreamed of a new Ethiopia, and a spell in Alem Bekagn hardened their resolve.

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[*] Haile Selassie was an enthusiastic and early signatory to United Nations covenants, and his lawyers incorporated the 1948 Genocide Convention into the domestic penal code, using a preliminary draft that included the categories ‘national, racial, ethnic, religious or political group’. The Genocide Convention as adopted internationally excluded ‘political’ groups, but their inclusion in Ethiopian law enabled prosecutors to seek and obtain convictions for genocide on the basis of mass targeted political killing.