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Heritage restitution at a time of intense memory politics in Ethiopia

In January 2024, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed travelled to Italy for the Italy-Africa summit, signaling a re-emergence on the international stage after Ethiopia’s diplomatic isolation following the recent devastating civil war. The visit also held historical resonance; Italy's attempts to colonize Ethiopia—first foiled at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, and later resulting in a five-year occupation in the 1930s—remain embedded in the country’s collective memory as symbols of resilience and defiance. During his visit, PM Abiy Ahmed not only engaged in the summit and accepted an award but also brought back home a piece of Ethiopia's heritage: Tsehay, the nation's first airplane from the 1930s looted by Italian forces. This act of restitution in addition to its relevance to the ever-growing debate on restitution and reparation, tapps into the domestic memory politics of Ethiopia, where the past is in a constant dialogue with the present, shaping and being shaped by the narrative of nationhood and identity politics.


Ethiopia's recent political history is marked by significant transitions, each leaving a distinct mark on collective memory. The shift from the monarchical rule of Emperor Haile Selassie to the socialist-Marxist regime of the Derg in the 1970s, and eventually to a federal republic in early 1990s, can be seen through the memory work of each regime that mirrors shifting political ideologies and aspirations. Monuments have been taken down and erected, institutions and public spaces were named and renamed, education curriculums have been revised, national holidays have been proclaimed and erased, museums and cultural institutions have been built, repurposed, etc. Particularly since the adoption of an ethnic based multi-national federal system in the 1990s, Ethiopia has seen its political discourse and collective memory to increasingly shape and be shaped by identity politics.


Parallel to the intense identity-based tensions and conflicts the country has seen in recent years including armed conflicts that put the country on genocide watch list, there has also been a few noticeable and significant works related to restitution of looted heritages. In 2020 the government set up a heritage restitution committee. In 2021, numerous items taken during the 1868 Maqdala expedition by the British army, including a handwritten Ethiopian Bible, various crosses, an imperial shield, a collection of beakers, an icon, and a mystical scroll, were restituted. In 2023, a sacred Tabot, also seized at Maqdala, along with a strand of hair from Prince Alemayu, Emperor Tewodros II's son, was similarly returned.


Often, discussions about restitution of looted heritage items are linked to global power relations and seen as a corrective to historical injustices. However, there is a significant yet often overlooked dimension of heritage restitution in shaping domestic memory politics. The return of cultural artifacts can serve as a powerful tool for governments to craft their image, enhance prestige, and assert its role as a unifying force amid internal divisions and instability. Ethiopia's efforts to reclaim its heritage are acts of historical rectification in the postcolonial context. They can, however, also be seen as practices that serve different purposes within domestic political dynamics, particularly at a time of political instability and unrest.


In recent years, following the 2018 reform and change, the new government in Ethiopia has engaged in memory work through a campaign of cultural reclamation and refurbishment, even at a time of a devastating civil war, ethnic tensions, and economic instability. The state has invested heavily in the construction of museums, palaces, and tourist destinations, including the extravagant renovation of historical sites. This pursuit of grandeur stands in stark contrast to the political, economic, and humanitarian crises unfolding, pointing to a strategy of branding, prestige, and recognition. The restitution of heritage items becomes emblematic of this approach—serving as a signal of national pride and a testament to the state's commitment to preserving its cultural legacy.


Such efforts, though seemingly paradoxical given the parallel domestic instability, align with the government's agenda to project an image of sovereignty and stability. As the PM’s press secretary pointed out, the recent return of the country’s first airplane ‘is remarkable diplomatic success…monumental in inspiring the generation’.  Restoring heritage artifacts not only counters the narrative of a nation in turmoil but also reasserts Ethiopia's place on the world stage, suggesting that the quest for prestige and a polished image is a priority.


Looted heritage artifacts, in their return, occupy a certain space within the country’s collective memory, resonating deeply with political groups that revere the historical periods and regimes these items represent. Conversely, other groups might view these symbols of the past with indifference or even resentment, perceiving their restitution as a glorification of a history they wish to move beyond.


The state's endeavors to repatriate these artifacts can inadvertently serve as a gesture of appeasement towards those who celebrate their return, potentially shaping political constituencies and state-society relations. Whether intended or not, the act of restitution thus becomes a subtle yet strong tool in the discourse of Ethiopia's identity politics.


In addition to being an act of historical rectification, the return of looted artifacts to Ethiopia can serve as an instrument in domestic memory politics, shaping the country's self-image amid internal and external adversities. The Ethiopian experience underscores a broader lesson: the politics of the past are never static, and the artifacts looted and dislocated can play a pivotal role in shaping the future of national identity.


Fisseha Fantahun Tefera is a PhD candidate in Peace and Development Research at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. He is currently working within the research project ‘Famines as Mass Atrocities: Reconsidering Violence, Memory and Justice in Relation to Hunger’.


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