ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Perched under the shadow of a 100-metre tall marble monolith, a short-sleeved Kwame Nkrumah stands with his right hand raised in triumphant pose, his eyes gazing at the heavens.
The bronze statue, unveiled amid pomp and pageantry last month at the opening of the African Union’s new headquarters, immortalized Ghana’s beloved late leader in the heart of Ethiopia’s capital, in a glowing tribute to a trailblazer for African independence.
Some Ethiopians, however, are not impressed. A row has broken out in the Horn of Africa country over why the country’s late emperor Haile Selassie I was not accorded the same tribute, with opposition officials expressing dismay over the snub.
“I am really saddened. It is tragic that such a man has been left out,” said former opposition party chairman Gizachew Shiferaw. “No one deserves more recognition than Haile Selasse when it comes to fighting for the African cause. Not Nkrumah, not anybody else,” he told Reuters.
Some Ethiopians living abroad have also joined the chorus of calls criticizing “His Imperial Majesty‘s” absence.
“He (Haile Selassie) has the legal, moral, historical and diplomatic legitimacy to have his statue erected next to Kwame Nkrumah, we believe,” said a letter written by a group of Ethiopian expatriates to the AU’s deputy chairman Erastus Mwencha.
Haile Selassie I, toppled by a military junta in 1974, was the last emperor of a monarchy that claimed lineage from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and is revered as a messiah by members of the Rastafarian faith, especially in Jamaica.
He died a year after being overthrown, and his body was found decades later beneath a palace lavatory, bearing what forensic experts said were signs he had been murdered.
Like Nkrumah, the diminutive ruler won plaudits during his lifetime for efforts to strengthen unity among Africa’s new states and was influential in the formation of the Organisation of African Unity, predecessor to today’s African Union.
But he is also a polarizing figure. While praising his continental credentials, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has never shied away from criticizing him as a “feudal dictator.”
Government officials say the emperor was authoritarian and his feudal land system sparked cycles of drought that continue to this day.
Opposition members said they suspect a political motive for snubbing him.
“What is the message being sent? Here is a man with the history alongside other Africans and he’s been ignored,” said Beyene Petros of the Medrek opposition group.
Meles, while addressing parliament on the country’s six-month economic performance on Wednesday, defended the decision to erect a statue to Nkrumah, without directly addressing the question of whether Haile Selassie also merited such an honor.
“There is nothing political about the statue,” he told lawmakers. Nkrumah was an “automatic choice” when it came down to picking one statesman as an “African symbol.”
“I think it is even crass and disrespectful to question why a statue has been erected in Kwame Nkrumah’s honor,” he said.
African Union officials have not commented on whether they would consider building another statue in their sprawling Chinese-built complex.
Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Peter Graff