On October 10, President Yoweri Museveni was in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, for the launch of the “Unity Park”. On the same day, he tweeted this:
“With leaders of Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Djibouti, we joined Prime Minister @AbiyAhmed Ali at the inauguration of the magnificent Unity Park in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
“I congratulate the Prime Minister and the government of Ethiopia for accurately documenting Ethiopia’s history through this park. It is a product of ideological clarity. People without this clarity tend to look at history in a fragmented manner.
“This undertaking will also go a long way into consolidating peace and stability in Ethiopia….”
The President was, like many people, clearly, impressed with Ethiopia’s Unity Park. He did not say he would do something in Uganda. If he were ever to, how might it look like?
Before we explore that, a little bit about the Unity Park. The Unity Park was Emperor Menelik’s palace. It cost an eye-watering $160m, which kicked off debate about whether it was the best way to spend such vast sums of money in a country that, while being Africa’s fastest growing economy, still has some its highest levels of poverty. The project was possible in large part because of the “Abiy magic” that is still swirling around the relatively new reformist prime minister, and the defenders say it was not taxpayers’ money. The $160m was from private donations.
Menelik II, born August 17, 1844 and died on December 12, 1913, was Emperor of Ethiopia from 1889 to his death. He was the most consequential Ethiopian emperor, overseeing the last (controversial) stages of its expansion and setting the foundation for what became modern Ethiopia.
Elsewhere in Africa and the world, he is most renowned for a single act - his historic defeat of the Italians in the Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896. Few African anti-colonial battlefield triumphs were as decisive, and been as celebrated in song, dance, poetry, art, and film, as Menelik’s in Adwa. Since Menelik’s time, Ethiopian leaders, including Abiy’s predeccessor Hailemariam Desalegn, lived in the palace. Abiy was the first not to.
During the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s brutal and disastrous military junta, the Derg, 1977 to 1991, the palace also served as a torture site. Now its grounds have been launched as a massive tourist attraction, but also a unity project. It celebrates the history of Ethiopia’s people.
It features giant portraits of its emperors, including an already much-talked about life-size waxwork of Emperor Haile Selassie. It has photos of leaders murdered by the Derg, and of course political stories and works by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the leading element in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front, among others. By all accounts, it is awesome.
To do a Unity Park, the first thing is that the Uganda government today would need private donors to have sufficient confidence that if they contributed $160m, officials and politicians wouldn’t steal it. Yes, I can hear people falling off their chairs in laughter, but we need to ask; is it possible?
Abiy’s Ethiopia didn’t celebrate Mengistu’s rule, so it would be too much to expect that in Uganda today, a unity park overseen by Museveni’s government would honour Idi Amin or Milton Obote. But the period before and after them would be okay. Or would it?
It would require that life-size wax figures be made of King Kabalega, King Mwanga, or even King Freddie Mutesa. And, more recently, that a giant portrait be made of Yusuf Lule as the founding chairman of the ruling National Resistance Movement. Our unity park would have to give glory to brave protests like the Buganda “Riots” of 1945 and 1949, as among the first generation of revolutionary actions in Uganda.
The protests were against the colonial government’s price controls on the export sales of cotton, and the Asian monopoly over cotton ginning, among others.
There would be a whole cast of figures who made independence possible, including Ignatius Musaazi and Abu Mayanja (since we can’t have Obote and the UPC crowd in these times).
It would require that we reinstate April 11, 1979 – the official day when the combined Ugandan rebel and Tanzanian army forces ousted Amin - as liberation day. The day was scrapped by the NRM government, in part because, well, there can only be one liberation day. And the many Ugandans – and Tanzanians – who gave their lives in that war, would have to be lifted high.
And, needless to say, to convert a place where a government once tortured people into a symbol of healing, you need to make sure that your government isn’t torturing and brutalising people, and that their country is not littered with “safe houses” where the people held there are the most unsafe in the land.
Yes, Uganda too could use a dose of that “ideological clarity”.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3