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.

A story from the last years of the emperor: on one occasion, to prettify the capital for foreign visitors, the police rounded up hundreds of vagrants, among them numerous peasants who had arrived over the previous few days to take their animals to market and were now sleeping on vacant lots and beside the road next to their tethered livestock. Entire families were dumped in Alem Bekagn without any formal charges being brought. Some time later, the police arrested a number of demonstrating students and detained them too, releasing them if they signed good-conduct orders. In prison, the students discovered a forgotten community of peasants who had no idea how to obtain legal representation or whether they had rights at all. Since the authorities didn’t have paperwork for them, the prison officers had decided to keep them inside. Victims of one earlier round-up had been detained for years. Once the students had signed their pledges promising to study hard and keep away from politics, they went out on the streets again with placards announcing ‘poverty is not a crime!’ The peasants were released.

Haile Selassie was deposed in September 1974. At the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum in the centre of Addis Ababa is a photograph of the emperor, slight, dignified and dazed, leaving his palace. At the foot of the steps is a Volkswagen Beetle, flanked by dull-looking men in military uniform. The crowd shouted ‘thief’ as Selassie was driven away in the back seat. He was never seen in public again. Members of his family were arrested, and many of them taken to Alem Bekagn. Two months later, the Provisional Military Administrative Council, known as the Dergue, arrested 60 of his government ministers, took them to Alem Bekagn, shot them and buried them in the prison grounds. The revolution had seemed to start calmly – the capital city was occupied by just half a dozen tanks – yet what followed was horror beyond imagining. The most ruthless of the soldiers, Mengistu Haile Mariam, shot his rivals and embarked on revolution by bloodshed.

The Dergue destroyed a generation of young Ethiopians by execution, torture, imprisonment, exile and, not least, betrayal, as fear turned neighbours into informers and set friends against friends. In Addis Ababa alone more than ten thousand were murdered. Alem Bekagn was the epicentre. The prison grew but was always overcrowded. Uncounted numbers of young men were rounded up and never seen again. Every family in Addis Ababa has a relative who disappeared into the prison system.

Unlike many other prisons in the years of the Dergue, Alem Bekagn kept records of those who were incarcerated and executed there. In the last frantic days before the regime fell, prison administrators burned all the papers they could, but unfortunately for them, most were kept in duplicate. Over the following years these papers formed a large part of the evidence used by Ethiopia’s special prosecutor to seek the convictions of senior officials for murder, torture and, by a quirk of Ethiopian law, genocide.* Among the documents are letters listing the number of traitors and counter-revolutionaries executed, which were then forwarded to superior officers in support of claims for promotion.

When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) swept into Addis Ababa on 28 May 1991, the prison warders abandoned their posts and left the gates unguarded. Hundreds of prisoners ran home to their families; others with nowhere to go stumbled bewildered into the street and then returned to sleep in the only home they knew, unable to make use of their freedom. I visited Alem Bekagn a few weeks later. The EPRDF were busy rounding up military officers and government officials, holding them in the dormitories of the party cadres’ college, with a languid guard on the gate to stop the enraged citizenry breaking in to exact revenge. (Today the buildings provide student accommodation for Addis Ababa University.) Alem Bekagn, now without inmates, was strewn with the detritus of the humanity that had filled it to bursting: damp, lumpy mattresses, messages scrawled on the walls, a cascade of unsorted papers in the warders’ office, a pervasive stench from the latrines. Just before my visit, the bodies of the 60 imperial ministers had been exhumed from the compound and returned to their families. A few months later, the body of the emperor, who died in detention in August 1975 in mysterious circumstances and was buried under a concrete slab in the palace, was also dug up, and the old man at last given a funeral.

Soon the prison was full once again. The EPRDF government preferred to intern political opponents outside the city, and used Alem Bekagn mostly for common criminals. Its gates still gazed grimly across the shallow valley towards the OAU compound, but at least there were no gunshots at dawn and no mortuary processions with fresh corpses wrapped in blankets. After the 2005 elections, the opposition demonstrated against the EPRDF victory, and the government cracked down. Tens of thousands were imprisoned, and the country’s penal facilities strained to the limit. The security services shot dead demonstrators in Mexico Square, within earshot of the AU in its buildings next door to Alem Bekagn. But the African Union, consistent with its history of silence, said nothing.

The proximity of the prison was not a major consideration when African diplomats chose a site for the OAU offices. In Cairo in 1962, Africa’s founding fathers voted only that their headquarters should be in Ethiopia. It was a logical choice: Haile Selassie was a figurehead of African independence who understood both realpolitik and the power of symbolism. A conservative autocrat at home, the emperor was a proponent of African liberation abroad. In the depths of the Cold War, with superpowers and former colonial powers actively polarising African political allegiances, the creation of the OAU in 1963 was no small achievement. The emperor put his well-established diplomatic service to work for the new organisation and helped newly independent governments set up embassies. He provided liberation movements, the ANC among them, with offices and military training. For the OAU offices, he donated a plot of land on high ground in a desirable part of the city, near the university and the palace. But, despite the pleas of its acting secretary general, the young Ethiopian diplomat Kifle Wodajo, the heads of state demanded a completed building which they could move into at once. So the emperor lent them the police training college, a cluster of classrooms, offices, dormitories, and an elegant cafeteria with an S-shaped façade of floor-to-ceiling windows. The college was in a low-lying part of the city between Mexico Square and Pushkin Square, flanked on one side by the garages of the Interior Ministry and on the other by the Akaki Prison.

The old college buildings haven’t been much altered. A Conflict Management Centre was added in the 1990s and ten years ago, as a gift to the newly established AU, Nigeria built a substantial extension which allowed meetings to be held on site for the first time. The AU now had something of the grandeur to which it aspired, but the architect of the Nigerian extension cannot have been familiar with the climate in Addis Ababa. The exterior walls are streaked by rainwater, and the windows, angled for maximum sunlight, create a greenhouse effect, so that staff are forced to prop them open and use electric fans. The second-hand police college has weathered better. The emperor’s architects drew on Art Deco, modernism and traditional Ethiopian royal and church buildings. They also knew how to build to withstand high temperatures and heavy rainfall: projecting eaves afford plenty of shade and keep rain away from the walls. The windows need refurbishment, but otherwise the mid-century buildings have endured well.

One of the founding principles of the OAU was non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, a policy adopted at a time when the independence of African states was precarious. The organisation didn’t put any conditions on membership: states had only to be African and sovereign. Uganda’s Idi Amin, for example, took his turn as chair. At its creation during a summit in Durban in 2002, the African Union promised to change this. Colonial rule and apartheid were in the past, but the lingering shock of the genocide in Rwanda and the excesses of dictatorships across the continent led the new organisation to think in ambitious terms of how it might encourage an African renaissance. Its constitutive act abandoned the earlier doctrine of non-interference, and instead affirmed the principle of constitutionalism and the responsibility to intervene when crimes against humanity or genocide were being committed. Unlike the EU and other regional bodies bound by economic self-interest, the AU was an exercise in sentiment and aspiration – the embodiment of an impulse towards unity.

The high hopes of the independence years were revived, with judicious amnesia. At the founding OAU summit, the Togolese putschist Gnassingbé Eyadéma was debarred because just four months earlier he had murdered Togo’s founding president, Sylvanus Olympio. After nearly 40 years in power Eyadéma was chosen by his peers to be the final chairman of the OAU, and went on to become a founding figure of the AU. A prohibition against membership for states headed by leaders who took power by unconstitutional means was agreed at an OAU summit in 1998, but it was not retroactive: Eyadéma and other assassins such as Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, and men such as Omar al-Bashir of Sudan who overthrew democratic governments, remained full members of the club. In due course they found ways round the AU’s insistence on constitutionalism. When Eyadéma died in 2005, the Togolese army abrogated the constitution and elevated his son Faure Gnassingbé to the presidency. With military backing and the advantages of incumbency, Gnassingbé has gone on to win two elections. Political reform in Africa is slow but elected governments are now the norm.

When the Addis Ababa municipality began work on its new jail and promised to donate the old site to the AU, a group of activists and diplomats – I was one of them – led a campaign to preserve the prison as a memorial museum. In 2004, on the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, the permanent representatives at the AU passed a resolution, making 7 April a day of remembrance in the AU calendar. They also resolved to preserve the octagonal prison building, which took up a fraction of the plot (though situated at its centre), as a human rights memorial museum, dedicated to the victims of the Red Terror and the Rwanda Genocide.

But the prison was still in use: the number of people detained by the authorities had swelled after the 2005 elections. The handover was postponed for a year, then another, then a third. Patrick Mazimhaka, the deputy chairperson of the AU, himself a Rwandese, promised the octagonal building would be kept. For 40 years, the OAU ignored the challenge posed by its accidental location. Not once did it note, let alone condemn, the transgressions of its Ethiopian hosts. The AU’s expansion onto the site of Alem Bekagn was an opportunity to break this long silence. What better way to do so than by preserving the place where so many had been incarcerated and compelling the continent’s leaders to pay their respects to the victims of terror, genocide and repression?

In 2008 the prison was bulldozed. The design chosen by the AU Commission had no space for a memorial. The new conference hall was intended to occupy exactly the same spot as the octagon. The execution yard with its pockmarked wall was to become a car park. The new mayor of Addis Ababa, Kuma Demeksa, a former political prisoner in Alem Bekagn, said that the best thing to do with this monstrous reminder of the past was to flatten it. (He had similar plans for urban redevelopment elsewhere in the city.)

No one made a record of what they were about to demolish. Not even a few photographs. The Chinese foremen and engineers were surely unaware of the history of the site. Even the young Ethiopian labourers may not have known much about it. But the AU did. Its proclamations and aspirations are inspiring; now and again its actions match up. But its default mode is to sidestep any inconvenience with its head held high and its eyes fixed on something newer, bigger and shinier. The new AU complex is a bold effort of imagination and forgetting.

As the date for the opening of the headquarters approaches, growing numbers of staff have expressed their shame and embarrassment. As part of the AU’s Year of Peace and Security in 2010, the plan for a permanent memorial was resurrected. The same coalition of people – inside and outside the AU – reconvened and drew up plans for a memorial to be run by a group that includes human rights organisations, former prisoners and survivors of genocide. The hope is that on 28 January Africa’s leaders will pay their respects to the dead, as a foundation stone is laid. But protocol demands that the incoming chairman of the AU has a leading role. This will probably be the Gambian putschist Yahya Jammeh. Part clown, part strongman, like many African heads of state past and present, Jammeh has threatened to decapitate homosexuals and told the BBC that, God willing, he will rule for a billion years. He is said to be a superstitious man and perhaps he’ll be unnerved by the insistent presence of the dead on the very spot where he makes his inaugural speech.

The African Union Human Rights Memorial was unveiled on 28 January as scheduled, but not as planned. Just three African Presidents attended, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Yayi Boni of Benin – who was chosen as the next President of the AU ahead of rivals including Gambia's Yahya Jammeh.

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