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The African Union’s vast new headquarters is so glimmering it’s as if an alien vessel has landed in central Addis Ababa. In the grounds of the old, sun bleached au compound, the €235m superstructure makes the organisation’s 1950s office blocks look faded and forlorn – its box-fresh silver, space-age domed roof and slanting grey marble-clad tower slices up into the blue sky like a sharpened knife.

This is aid, China-style. Inside, maple floors, acres of white marble and room-upon-room of sleek Barcelona chairs will provide staff and African heads of state with lavish modern facilities to carry out the business of pan-continental integration. The cantilevered, acoustically balanced spaces are worlds away from the au’s current cramped quarters across the car park where employees work in tiny, airless offices.

On a large granite plaque outside the new centre’s entrance, a red insignia makes very clear who’s paying: The Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China has spent three years working in central Addis Ababa with a legion of 1,200 Chinese and Ethiopian workers. This is the product of Tongji University, the China State Construction Engineering Company and China’s Architecture & Design Research Group. A photomontage entitled “Passionate Commitment” details the construction and shows Chinese workers pouring concrete in torrential rain. Next to them, an English translation from Mandarin declares the project a “miracle of incredible speed and marvellous quality”.

The construction of the Africa Union Conference Center (aucc) has indeed been speedy – the creaky doors and hastily laid polyfiller hint at a last minute rush on the job. But the Chinese benefactors have not scrimped on detail. The new complex is full of symbols venerating pan-Africanism, from the 99.9m-tall dome that references 9 September 1999 (when the discredited Organization of African Unity morphed into the African Union) to a waving, life-size statue of the Ghanaian premier and pioneer of pan-continental unity, Kwame Nkrumah. Throughout the vip salons where chandeliers and Doric marble pillars feature heavily, it’s clear that the designers have catered to the African premiers’ penchant for bling. In the main reception, a gold au crest is flanked by a plaster cast relief of African animals, all crafted by Chinese artists. “This is a Chinese piece of handiwork,” says Ewnetu Ferede, an Ethiopian engineer who worked on the project. “Of course, it was done after a consultation with the au. The plastic palm trees, they were a Chinese decision.”

It’s no secret that nearly all the materials were imported from China. “This is all Chinese veneer,” adds Ferede in the vast 2,500-capacity wooden-clad plenary hall. “This was one of the biggest challenges, getting everything delivered from China in the right quantities and the right time frame. We worked together, so the Ethiopian inspection authority allowed the Chinese to send the items straight here for inspection rather than join the normal queue. It’s been tough, we’ve been working 24-hours a day, but I am so proud of this, for Africa and for Addis. This building gives me a kick every time I see it.”

Above all, the architectural largesse of the building is symbolic of the growing relationship between China and Africa, worth some €112bn a year. “It is symbolic gesture that China has extended to Africa,” says the au projects director, Commissioner Fantahun Haile Michael, who worked with the Chinese since President Hu Jintao signed up to the project at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (Focac) in 2006. “The concept of the design shows that the relationship between Africa and China stands on very strong foundations. It’s also a symbol that Africa is moving towards greater integration – political, economic and cultural. It shows that the future is very bright for Africa.”

But such an extravagant gift, to such a key political multilateral player, has raised concerns about Beijing’s rising influence on the continent. In Addis Ababa, where unemployment is high, the legions of Chinese workers angered locals, even though officials insist the labour force was made up of 50 per cent Ethiopians. In downtown Addis Ababa, residents scowl over their macchiatos when asked about the Chinese presence in the capital, mentioning the Chinese-African children the workforce has left behind.

Here, Sino-scepticism is muted but potent. “I think China is very mindful of the sceptics,” says Ambassador Xie Xiaoyan in the leafy compound of the Chinese “Grass House Embassy” in Addis Ababa’s Old Airport district. “But I would try to repeat that our relationship with African countries is quite different from those in the colonial period. We are trying to create a win-win situation. We are trying to benefit mutually. Our efforts have been sincere and without any political motive. I think this is where China is different; we don’t attach any political conditions to our aid.”

Instead, Xie Xiaoyan claims the au’s new premises are designed to encourage stability and economic growth. “I think this building is part of this philosophy. We want the African Union to get integrated, to get stronger as a whole so it can develop its own economies on the continent,” he says, as he sips green tea.

If the shiny new building is a microcosm of a Sino-African alliance, elsewhere in the AU compound, a rival project presents another allegory. In the hot morning sun, a workforce of Ethiopian builders work under the instruction of German site managers, constructing a new Peace and Security Council (PSC) headquarters for the au’s peacekeeping and operational wing. A wooden plaque with a tricolour of the Bundesrepublik alerts anyone who hasn’t guessed exactly who is in charge.

The Germans’ check shirts, braces and fastidious attention to detail live up to national stereotypes. But here, the only thing that’s imported is the scaffolding; sturdy Austrian-made steel bolts replace the local eucalyptus frames that frequently cause accidents on sites around the capital. “We employ the very highest safety measures,” says Eiler Persson, a project manager and senior architect in charge. “Where Ethiopian standards aren’t high enough, we use German ones. This is an earthquake zone so a lot of effort has gone into making sure this building is resistant to that.” An Ethiopian employee agrees. “You have to be the best to work here,” he tells monocle, adjusting his red hard hat. “If it’s not right, we do it again until it’s perfect.”

In contrast to the Chinese edifice, the German building is clad in indigenous stone. The irregular shaped structure is designed to look like a local rock formation – its outline shelves away like many of the cliff edges in rural Ethiopia. But finding the right quality of stone, like many other things in the German project, has proved laborious. Eiler is surrounded by samples of different hues and his team has spent months trying to source the right type of local hard rock for the job. But he insists the German decision to work with exclusively local materials is part of their philosophy – even if it does drive up costs and delay the project time and again. “The Chinese have done a great job,” reflects Eiler from behind a mountain of elevations and charts in his temporary office next to the construction site. “But the way they did it meant a cheque went from one office in Beijing to another. We haven’t chosen that route.”

On site, micro-management of every detail is evident – one of the chief overseers, Franz Goldman, is in constant consultation with Ethiopian counterparts. But once the building is complete the Germans say they will be hands off. “Our strategy is that Africa is in the driver’s seat when it comes to addressing African security challenges,” says Lieselore Cyrus, the current German ambassador to Ethiopia. “We can assist Africa by providing a vehicle – it is an African task to steer it. The new building is designed to improve working conditions for the Peace and Security Council.”

This concept of an autonomous, agile, efficient psc is embodied in the German design; the Guggenheim New York-style interior hall links a hive of meeting rooms, early warning system facilities and a semi-circular plenary hall where heads of state can make key decisions for the continent.

Historically the psc’s decision making has been patchy at best and its crisis response on the continent has been widely acknowledged to be a failure. In Darfur, the au’s under-funded 7,000-strong mission was ineffective in preventing the Janjaweed massacres, as African leaders pandered to the wishes of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir. au troops from Uganda and Burundi, entered Somalia in 2007, although the force is authorised and financed by the UN.

Structurally, the au’s fortunes look very promising. But just hours after the aucc’s inauguration in January, the organisation hit one of its most troublesome deadlocks in recent history. As the heads of state took their places in the new plenary hall, South Africa threw in a wild card, President Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who announced she would be running for chairman against the incumbent Gabonese-born, Jean Ping. The continental rift was described by Ethiopian press as “an aggressive [South African] attempt to take control of the continent’s body”. The Addis Standard ran with a cover declaring “The auc and its Election Ruin”, chastising Pretoria for forcing its influence and “cracking up the continent for decades to come”.

Fault lines are drawn between Francophone and Anglophone Africa. “We are now in crisis, it’s true,” says the AU commissioner for human resources, science and technology, Jean-Pierre Ezin (from Francophone Benin). “But heads of state are trying to resolve this problem before the June summit. Among 54 states, these division are to be expected.”

In the meantime, Ambassador Ezin has not lost sight of the bigger picture. “Continental integration is a realistic ambition,” he tells monocle, explaining his macro-plans for a pan-African tech-university taking shape in five regions in Africa. “It is the vision of Africans to be fully integrated economically and politically. Many ask, when will we see a United States of Africa? Well, we are working on it seriously. We want to do this by consensus.”

Whether the au’s benefactors are the transparent Germans or the less candid Chinese, the message is clear; it’s over to you. How the German homage to rock-like local stability or the shiny shrine to Chinese clout will influence and shape this goal will remain to be seen.

Back at the Chinese embassy Xie Xiaoyan remembers the opening ceremony with a wistful sigh – with no mention of the rift that overshadowed his grand unveiling. “Did you know we donated a fleet of vip Chinese-made cars to the African heads of state,” he tells monocle as he poses for a photograph next to his nation’s red flag. “I think they looked beautiful. You might know that China is now the number one car-maker in the world. We hope all diplomats will soon be driving Chinese made cars.” At that moment Xie’s ride, a sturdy black German-made Mercedes, is quickly moved out of shot.

Bloody past

The AU’s plenary hall sits on the site of Addis Ababa’s most notorious prison, Alem Bekagn.

It was used by the country’s last Emperor, Haile Selassie then the tyrannical Marxist, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam to incarcerate political prisoners there and survivors were disappointed by the AU’s decision to raze the structure to the ground.

“It is perhaps, rather symbolic that Africa’s continental organisation has now moved to the site of a notorious prison, with only minimum acknowledgement of the significance of its blood-soaked ground,” says Alex de Waal, an executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University and an adviser to the African Union on Sudan. “Most of those involved in a campaign to establish a memorial were upset by the AU’s handling.”

AU explained

The African Union started life in 1963 as the Organization for African Unity (OAU) and established its first headquarters in Addis Ababa. The bloc changed its name to the African Union following the Sirte Declaration in 1999 that strove to accelerate the process of African integration, under the auspices of Muammar Gaddafi.

Since then, 53 states have joined the Union (all the countries of the African continent excluding Morocco which refused due to a dispute over Western Sahara’s membership). As of 2011 the Union’s members comprised a total population of 968 million and had a total GDP of €2.11trn, according to the IMF. The AU has deployed peacekeeping missions in Africa since 2003 when it sent a contingent to Burundi.

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