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In the canteen at the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian women eat beef and injera flat bread with their hands while delegations of African diplomats drink triple macchiatos at the modish wooden bar. Bureaucrats in multi-coloured wax-cloth headdresses argue noisily and birds perch on the grand crystal chandeliers above.

This is the Brussels of Africa, the continent’s administrative power-hub, just without the drab suits. Addis Ababa is a city full of diplomats, civil servants and visiting dignitaries. It’s one of the most embassy populated capital cities in the world. Like Washington DC, it’s a city that oozes power. Armoured black ­Mercedes cruise in and out of the AU’s headquarters, their sunglass-sporting ­security staff stalk the perimeters. However, despite its administrative ­credentials, Addis is an oddball city, a shambolic mix of shantytowns, embassy compounds and speculative developments flanked by mountains. Ethiopia’s tumultuous past is etched into the landscape; the art-deco vestiges of Mussolini’s occupation (from 1936 to 1941) and Emperor Haile Selassie’s 1960s futurism punctuate the metropolis.

Unlike Brussels, Addis has a gutsy identity. Ethiopia was the only African nation to successfully resist colonisation, (the Italians fled leaving a trail of coffee machines and pasta recipes in their wake) and the city has an independent, sometimes arrogant, spirit.

Addis has been the seat of pan-African power since the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the precursor to the AU, was founded here in 1963 with ­Selassie at the helm. But in the fractious AU (which is divided about whether or not to create a United States of Africa) there are still factions who question whether Addis is up to the job of being Africa’s diplomatic epicentre.

In the past, other African leaders have made a bid for headquarter status, particularly Ghana. “Today the power struggle is between north and south,” says Myles Wickstead, a former British ambassador to Ethiopia who is now an adviser to the Africa unit at the Association of Commonwealth Universities in London. “I think the Libyans would like to see a power base in the north. South Africa would never put up with it.”

It’s clear Ethiopia is keen to cement its headquarter status for good. On a construction site beyond the existing AU building, the huge steel girders of a new HQ rise up out of the ochre-coloured earth. In this spot, the Chinese government has committed to building a new home for the AU that will include an outdoor theatre and a domed chamber to ­accommodate the annual summit. “The AU has outgrown its headquarters. At the moment it is a bit handicapped in its ­capability,” says the Chinese ambassador, Gu Xiaojie. “This is a huge project. China attaches great importance to its ­cooperation with the African Union, it is the most powerful inter-governmental ­organisation on the continent.”

The Chinese are not, insists Xiaojie, gaining any influence from the venture. It’s strictly a gift. Although African stability and an efficient AU are in everyone’s interests, he explains. “When African countries strengthen their capacities, [they] will be in a position to conduct business with international partners, China included.” China is not the only international player helping the AU. On the other side of town, the German embassy is poised to start work on a new headquarters for the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC), an elected committee formed in 2003 to deal with conflict situations on the continent. “This is an expression of our commitment to Africa,” says the German ambassador, Dr Claas Knoop. “This is an award-winning model by the German architects Hascher Jehle. It will be a highly specialised operational facility with a situations centre, a base for the early warning system and a headquarters for the Peace Support Operations Division including the new military police.”

But unlike the super-sized glass ­Chinese project, which will provide the AU with much-needed floor space, the eco-­efficient stone-clad German facility is part of a holistic overhaul of the PSC. Along with a multi-mullion euro cash injection from the EU and the US, the building is part of a plan to strengthen Africa’s peacekeeping capabilities and launch a permanent African security force. “We want this to be a symbol of strength,” says Stefan Helming, director of Deutsche German Technical Cooperation (GTZ).

As foreign donors create structures for their visions of a functioning AU, Addis’ civic powers are also crafting the city in the image of Africa’s diplomatic capital. An increasing diplomatic presence (coupled with Ethiopia’s double-digit growth in GDP for the last five years) is propelling a development boom in the city. Addis is a city in transition – in the street, shepherds drive their goats past slick modern buildings and vast concrete frames surrounded by frail eucalyptus scaffolding. One government adviser told Monocle that the Ethopian government’s aim is to build enough four and five-star hotels to accommodate the delegates from all 53 African nations who were due to attend the AU summit in January. Yet destitute street children still scamper between the luxury cars. The new $130m (€86m) Bole International airport is a glistening glass edifice opened in 2003 as phase one of a airports development plan set to run until 2017. With its 3,800m runway, Bole is an emerging aviation hub that’s one of the main pilot training and plane maintenance centres in Africa. Ethiopian Airlines is similarly ambitious and has placed a $1.3bn order for 10 Boeing 787 Dreamliners – set to be the first such fleet in Africa.

At the imposing City Hall, the new mayor, Kuma Demeksa, has a master plan in the works. “There is a cross-city east-west rail link proposed and a scheme to open and restore the defunct railway station which links Addis to Djibouti,” says the German architect Michael Maivald, who is embedded in City Hall as part of a GTZ initiative. Maivald is also overseeing the creation of an electronic database that will map the city. “They have no system of addressing. Ambulances frequently get lost. A visiting ­musician died recently while he was trying to find a hospital.”

Clearly the chaotic charm of the city has its downsides. But Maivald is enthused by the mayor’s progressive use of technology: “It’s very sophisticated work. [Our database] is now one terabyte large and the size of a truck battery,” says Maivald who has spent the past few years working on the project with a team of 28 surveyors, recording some 3,000 streets.

An estimated 82 per cent of the city’s population live in unplanned neighbourhoods and his efforts to signpost the anonymous roads has been far from easy. “The naming process has become very political. This was really a discussion for not months, but years. The only new streets are named after the 53 AU members.” Clearly the AU is the one body here that can break a bureaucratic deadlock.

If Addis is to achieve its dream of pre-eminence in Africa, it has to offer more than technological savvy and a slew of expensive buildings. Addis’s real allure as a continental capital lies in its strong African identity. At the seams of this diplo-driven boom, there are some vital currents of indigenous enterprise emerging. One artist, Elias Sime, has spent the past eight years hand-crafting a structure using the local vernacular; mud. The result is an all-encompassing anthropological artwork that Sime and the curator, Meskerem Assegued, opened in October as the Zoma Contemporary Art Center to host film screenings and events.

Another champion of clay is Helsinki-trained architect Fasil Giorghis. The practice, which employs four ­architects, is behind some of the city’s most innovative architecture. “Something like 70 per cent of houses in Ethiopia are made of clay,” he tells Monocle over lunch in a vaulted modernist café he has just completed. “But architects and society consider it sub-standard. I try and use it in my buildings as much as possible.” He adds, “Africa must start using our local materials. Addis is an African capital, it’s not Dubai.”

Inside Addis’s many verdant compounds, embassies are pioneering a distinctly African form of modernism. As the city grows in stature, diplomatic missions are investing considerable sums in new embassies. The South African embassy, which opened late last year, has an abstract façade fashioned into a Kalahari bushmen motif. The theatrical statement, which overlooks one of the main drags in central Addis, is an assertion of South Africa’s vital presence in the AU.

At the award-winning Dutch embassy, the architect Dick van Gameren has drawn on Ethiopian architectural traditions. His ochre-red concrete structure is excavated from the side of a hill, a technique used in the famous 13th century churches found in the northern town of Lalibela. “There’s something of the essence of the Ethiopian rock churches, that’s part of the philosophy,” says the Dutch ambassador, Hans Blankenberg, who believes that the €5m building is a symbol of the Dutch diplomatic commitment to the AU and Ethiopia. “We’re here for keeps; it’s concrete!” he says.

Back at the African Union Commission, construction concepts are macro in scale. “Corridors of transportation are high priority now,” says Egypt-born Elham Mahmoud Ahmed Ibrahim, the AU’s commissioner for infrastructure and energy, sweeping her hand across a map of Africa on the wall of her office. “We are working together on a transport master plan called PIDA, which will be ­implemented by 2030. We need a north-south corridor. It’s not an easy task [for the AU].” Ibrahim is adamant that the new AU facility is necessary, if only for the space. “We are a growing entity. At the beginning, the AU was small but now we are responsible for implementing policy.”

The AU chief, Jean Ping, agrees. “This new building is a symbol that people are taking us very seriously,” claims Ping, the former foreign minister of Gabon. “If the Germans decide to build something for peace and security it means we are doing our job.” While many sceptics think the AU needs more than a flashy HQ before it is effective, diplomats hope their grand architectural visions will rub off. A conundrum of cause and effect, if ever there was one.

The other Ethiopia

Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country, home to an estimated 85 million people, of whom only 17 per cent are urban dwellers. Outside Addis there is an overwhelming dependence on pastoral and agro-pastoral practices sustained by two main rains, the “belg” in spring and the “kiremt”, which usually begins in July. This leaves Ethiopia’s food security vulnerable to erratic regional microclimates. Last year’s drought has caused crop failure and food crises in several areas. A spike in food prices has only compounded the problem. The World Food Programme says 6.2 million people are currently threatened by hunger and malnutrition and require urgent assistance. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s regime has set up a food reserve and has an ambitious scheme to relocate 2.2 million people to more fertile areas of the country. But the spectre of the 1985 famine that killed 1 million people still haunts the country, its politicians and the world.

The alternatives: three cities that could rival Addis Ababa

Cape Town

South Africa

Africa’s economic fulcrum, South Africa has aspired to pan-continental power in the past: Johannesburg is home to the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, or NEPAD, (an agency founded in 2001 to fight poverty and promote development). Cape Town’s cosmopolitan culture and pleasant malaria-free climate mean the city has all the makings of a modern diplomatic capital.

Tripoli

Libya

On a recent visit to the UN in New York, Colonel Gaddafi suggested relocating that organisation to somewhere more “comfortable” – so why not move the AU too? The self-appointed “king of the traditional kings of Africa” has grand plans for the AU, including a common currency.

Accra

Ghana

The country was a pioneer of pan-African power when it gained independence in 1957 and although Ghana lost its grip in the late 1960s (when once visionary president Kwame Nkrumah descended into despotism) more recently the country has become the darling of the western powers. Barack Obama has hailed Ghana’s democratic society and he used Accra to make his keynote “strong men” speech to Africa last July. The Kofi connection might also help matters.

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