This week, the latest man to lead Ethiopia from this secretive compound opened most of its grounds to the public. The privately funded, $170 million renovation includes a park, a zoo and a museum of the country’s history, with exhibits adorning walls once stained with the blood of prisoners.
The project is emblematic of the leadership of Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s 43-year-old reformist prime minister who on Friday won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in ending the violent standoff with neighboring Eritrea. In office less than two years, he has given people here hope that what was once secret will now be public and what was once authoritarian will become democratic.
Abiy is promising nothing less than a renaissance in Ethiopia. He has scheduled its first free, multiparty elections for next year, released thousands of political prisoners, lifted a ban on opposition parties and pushed for the prosecution of former officials accused of torture. His success in transforming Ethiopia depends on unifying this incredibly diverse country despite persistent ethnic tensions that displaced millions and killed more than a thousand during his first year in office.
“Abiy is trying to create unity, and maybe that can only happen by ignoring certain parts of our history,” said Seyoum Teshome, a writer and political analyst. “But you must magnify the positive things — the common history and common future. If we don’t do that, we will return to the brink of collapse.”
The palace’s new museum, for instance, gives no indication that Menelik II, who is regarded by many as the nation’s founding father, waged what some historians classify as genocides as he conquered the lands he eventually called Abyssinia, which became modern Ethiopia. Instead, a wax figure of the emperor sits on his original wood-carved throne, looking out across the banquet hall where he once hosted feasts, with platters and goblets from the time preserved in cases along the wall.
The lionizing of Menelik has angered some Ethiopians, as have other moves by Abiy as he has tried to move toward democratic elections. Ethiopia is divided politically into nine semiautonomous ethno-linguistic regions, which compete for power at the center. The palace grounds have been renamed Unity Park and feature an impressionist sculpture garden highlighting traditions from each region.
“For decades, this place was been nothing more than a shabby military camp with various offices,” said Tamirat Haile, an Abiy aide who was in charge of the palace renovation. “It was never an inclusive place. Now we have exhibits dedicated to all our different ethnic groups. We are renewing the palace in the name of unity.”
While Abiy has been hailed on the international stage for his apparent dedication to democratic reform, violent clashes in Ethiopia’s countryside have cast doubt on the likelihood — and prudence — of holding elections next year. Around 3 million people were forced from their homes in 2018, the most in any country in the world. And Ethiopia’s economy remains dangerously weak, which has prompted tens of thousands to attempt perilous sea crossings toward Saudi Arabia and Europe in search of better lives.
Although the palace was funded through private donations, some critics have questioned whether it is the best use of money in a country where the average person earns less than $2,000 a year and infrastructure is rudimentary in many places.
“Addis Ababa is a city that has constant electricity and water problems, that doesn’t have efficient public transportation,” said Biruk Terrefe, a PhD student studying the politics of Ethiopia’s infrastructure. “It is growing faster than Beijing or Jakarta. There are a lot of other things this city needs.”
From the palace grounds, visitors can see Addis Ababa’s skyline, cluttered with the gray skeletons of skyscrapers under construction. Among the urban amenities that Addis Ababa lacks are parks, said Maheder Gebremedhin, an architect who hosts a radio show in the city.
“This was a place that no one could go to, and now it will not only be open, it will be a park. It suggests that transparency is the intention of the government,” he said. “There is a certain euphoria about this.”