Addis Ababa (AFP) – A palace that once housed Ethiopia’s emperors and also served as a torture site under the communist Derg regime is to open to the public in a controversial government tourism project.
The palace compound in Addis Ababa, which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has rebranded “Unity Park”, was formally launched Thursday and will be open from Friday.
Abiy’s office said on Twitter Thursday that the project “symbolises our ability to come together”.
Backed by the United Arab Emirates, the project cost more than $160 million (145 million euros), Ethiopian officials told reporters at a briefing earlier this week.
Built in the late 1800s by Emperor Menelik II, who founded Addis Ababa, the palace was the residence of Ethiopia’s rulers for more than a century.
Abiy himself does not live there, and it has seen little activity in recent years.
Abiy’s advisers say he has taken a keen interest in transforming the palace into a tourist attraction since coming to power in April 2018 — visiting the site every day in recent weeks to monitor progress.
The government’s “Home-Grown Economic Reform” agenda, unveiled last month, describes tourism as a primary engine of potential job creation.
On Thursday, government officials and the diplomatic corps toured the expansive site before attending a banquet that was expected to draw five regional heads of state and other dignitaries.
The restored rooms feature items like Menelik’s sword and a life-size wax replica of former Emperor Haile Selassie, who lived at the palace and was then detained there after the Derg overthrew him in 1974.
The site also includes a sculpture garden with installations representing Ethiopia’s nine regions, and a zoo is expected to open by the end of the year.
Aklilu Fikresilassie, an Ethiopian employee of the United Nations who attended the launch Thursday, said he was “really fascinated” to set foot inside a place that had been closed to the public his entire life.
“For us it’s like a government house, so now when you enter that palace it tells you that we are getting somehow closer to our leaders,” he said.
Meanwhile, a number of African leader arrived in Ethiopia on Thursday to grace the official inauguration of the newly refurbished Unity Park, found in the restored National Palace, in the heart of Addis Ababa.
Among those leaders are Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, South Sudan President Salva Kiir and Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi.
Ahead of the ceremony, the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s office said the Unity Park “is a manifestation of the MEDEMER idea, inviting us to takes stock of our positive capital from the past (our historical and cultural assets) and build upon it for future generations.”
“Unity Park symbolizes our ability to come together for a common goal and cross the finish line by, creating an exquisite lasting prints of our collective worth,” it added.
While in Addis Ababa, the leaders are also expected to hold bilateral meetings on the sidelines, aimed at boosting regional cooperation among the East African states.