Chika Ezeanya does not like Africa Union’s new gleaming headquarters in Addis Ababa because he thinks “it is an insult to the AU and to every African that in 2012 a building as symbolic as the AU headquarters is designed, built and maintained by a foreign country.”
On Saturday 28 January 2012, African countries collectively descended to a new low on the global index of state sovereignty, territorial integrity and actual independence of nations. On that day, Jin Qinglin, chair of the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference, was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to commission the new $124m African Union (AU) headquarters built and donated to the continent by China. Termed “China’s gift to Africa”, the edifice was constructed by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation with over 90% Chinese labour.
It is to the discredit of the AU – and therefore to every individual and country within that regional body – that in 2012 a building as symbolic as the AU headquarters is designed, built and maintained by a foreign country, it does not matter which.
The ancient and modern history of the donation of buildings and structures from one nation to another is filled with intrigues and subterfuges, conquests, diplomatic scheming, espionage and counter-espionage, economic manipulations, political statements and dominations.
The construction of the Trojan horse by Odysseus and its “donation” resulted in the Greek conquest of the ancient city of Troy after 10 years of unending skirmishing. In building the Basilica in Rome – termed the “greatest of all churches of Christendom”, contributions from the faithful were emphasised rather than donations from friendly nations.
Even the gift of the Statue of Liberty from France to the United States on the occasion of the latter’s independence was a joint effort, whereby over 120,000 Americans, led by Joseph Pulitzer, contributed funds for the construction of the pedestal in 1885. In a rare glimpse into the matter, Jane C. Loeffler reveals in her book Architecture of Diplomacy the underlying diplomatic manoeuvrings and political ramifications that define the construction of American embassies all over the world. The author says that building an embassy requires “as much diplomacy as design”.
Loeffler enumerates factors seriously considered in the construction of an American embassy building – and they include “world politics, American agendas, architectural politics, cultural considerations, security” and several others.
Common sense dictates that in an era of increasing exploitation of Africa’s natural resources by foreign powers, including China, the AU, rather than the apparent submissiveness signified by accepting the construction of its headquarters by China, should be an organisation advocating for fairness in the relationship that exists between the continent and the global powers.
Should security considerations be included, then the question arises as to how African leaders could hold confidential meetings in a building with no idea about how it has been wired. What guarantee do African governments have that every word uttered in the new headquarters in Addis Ababa is not heard in Beijing?
Culturally, indigenous Bantu culture abhors dependence on others for sustenance. A favorite Swahili proverb of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s was “Mgeni siku mbili; siku ya tatu mpe jembe”, which means: “treat your guest as a guest for two days; on the third day give him a hoe”.
Indigenous African tradition largely abhors dependency of any kind. It is frowned upon for a man not to thatch his rooftops well before the rainy season, or to stay back while others are going to the farm, except when he is bedridden.
Add this to the logic espoused in Architecture of Diplomacy and one reasonably concludes that it is unacceptable for Africans to accept a building from China that will act as the landmark of the continent’s achievements and its aspirations for the future.
Clearly, much indiscretion was exercised by AU officials who went seeking a foreign country to build their new headquarters. The AU has deviated from the ideals of its founding fathers; in the 1960s, Kwame Nkrumah and other great African leaders sought to establish an organisation that would protect the geographical contiguity and territorial integrity of African nations.
Emperor Haile Selassie in his historic 1963 speech stated clearly that the organisation was founded because “Africa has been reborn as a free continent and Africans have been reborn as free men. The blood that was shed and sufferings that were endured are today Africa’s [inspiration] for freedom and unity”.
Contrary to his predecessor’s commitment to the continued freedom of the continent from imperial forces, Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi, on a tour of the facility, boasted of how he and Alpha Konaré lobbied Chinese officials to build the new headquarters and exempted taxes on all Chinese imported construction materials.
Gleeful at the opportunity for African heads of state to indulge in their lifestyles of conspicuous consumption during meetings and summits, an AU spokesman reports that among the several luxuries of the building is a “helicopter landing pad so visiting dignitaries will be flown from the airport”. Of course, the dignitaries will be spared the sight of the slums of Addis Ababa. They will be flown from the airport to the AU building and from there to the Sheraton Addis, reportedly the best of its kind around the world.
While the AU thinks it has gained from China by moving into its new ultra-modern facility, the reality is that the continent has lost tremendously in all matters worthy of reasonable consideration.
The move to reverse the derogatory perception of Africa and Africans by all non-Africans has suffered another major setback. The effect will be the continued political and economic manipulation and domination of the region by the West, and now China, and soon the rest of the non-African world.