Africa’s Diplomatic Center of Attention
An inside look at the African Union’s new headquarters and conference center.
Glistening in the Ethiopian sunshine, the new African Union Conference Center and Office Complex is the crowning symbol of Addis Ababa’s growing prominence as Africa’s diplomatic hub. The massive, 52,000-square-meter (560,000-square-foot) facility, described as “a giant spaceship” by the Financial Times, also features an office tower that has become Addis Ababa’s tallest building. Strikingly modern but taking aesthetic cues from various African artistic traditions, the Chinese–built AUCC is an architectural marvel by any global standard.
The elliptical assembly hall building is the centerpiece of the facility, with a gargantuan skylight hovering high above the 2,500-seat auditorium like a giant, luminous cloud.
Behind the massive platform lies a wood-paneled room with dozens of black stuffed-leather armchairs — a waiting area for dignitaries preparing to take the stage. Similar VIP lounges are tucked between the center’s seven conference halls and 31 caucus rooms. The complex also includes a medical clinic, media center, library and catering facilities.
The African Union
The arrival of this structure comes at a time when Africa is in need of a global gathering place. The increasing prominence of the African Union in international affairs, combined with the economic attention Africa is attracting, has increased the demand for Pan-African dialogue, deal making and diplomacy.
The African Union was formed just a decade ago, after the dissolution of its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (established in 1963). Although it has faced many challenges and endured skepticism, the AU has grown to become an influential, multifaceted organization tackling an ambitious agenda of political, social and economic transformation across the continent.
In recent years, the AU has also become more politically active among its member states and is a leading advocate for the promotion of trade and economic integration. Most prominently, the AU has performed a critical role in peacekeeping operations in areas such as Sudan’s Darfur region and Somalia.
All of these activities are coordinated by the African Union Commission — the permanent, Addis Ababa–based secretariat that serves as the AU’s executive body. Dr. Jean Ping, chairman of the AU Commission from April 2008 to July 2012, declares the new complex “absolutely a necessity.” Previously, several of the AU’s major meetings had to be held across town at the United Nations Conference Center.
Indeed, while the AU Commission has been called by the international community to take on an increasing number of tasks, its facilities have struggled to keep up with its myriad functions. The AUCC is the first in a series of three major construction projects that are dramatically changing the face of the AU’s campus in Addis Ababa.
The AUCC was designed and built as a gift from the Chinese government to symbolize China’s support of Africa’s future development. At the inauguration ceremonies in January, Jia Qinglin, a senior Chinese government official, addressed the packed auditorium on behalf of Chinese President Hu Jintao. He announced that it was “a cornerstone” of his country’s foreign policy “to further consolidate and strengthen unity and cooperation between China and Africa and promote common development.”
A new building for the AU’s Peace and Security Department will house a special Pan-African conflict monitoring and prevention center and is expected to be completed in early 2013. The German government is funding its construction, as that country’s leadership has taken a focused interest in supporting African conflict prevention efforts.
In addition, Ethio-Saudi billionaire Mohammed Al-Amoudi is bankrolling a new luxury hotel, located a stone’s throw from the AUCC. The African Union Grand Hotel is slated for completion next year at a cost of US$200 million. In response to Addis Ababa’s chronic shortage of hotel space during AU conferences, the African Union Grand Hotel will feature 130,000 square meters of meeting space and luxury guest rooms, including 58 presidential and ministerial suites.
The AU’s new headquarters was designed by the Architectural Design and Research Institute of Shanghai’s Tongji University. Although the project’s design was conceived in China, the architects strived to create buildings with genuine Pan-African appeal.
The project’s architects also paid close attention to the culture and history of the African Union itself. The office tower’s height of 99.9 meters is meant to commemorate the signing of the Sirte Declaration on September 9, 1999, which established the framework for the formation of the AU. The interior of the AUCC is decorated with a diverse and colorful collection of paintings from across the continent, all donated by the member states of the African Union. Outside, visitors are welcomed by a golden statue of the legendary president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah — considered to be the father of the Pan-African movement.
Additional historical allusions can be seen on the walls of the AUCC’s massive circular lobby, where a series of portraits commemorate founding members of the Organization of African Unity from each of the AU’s geographical regions: Ethiopia’s former emperor, Haile Selassie I (East Africa); legendary independence leader of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), Patrice Lumumba (Central Africa); Egypt’s former president Gamal Abdel Nasser (North Africa); and Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president (West Africa). Nelson Mandela — the only living member of this lineup (Southern Africa) — is also displayed, though he was not a founding member of the Organization of African Unity (as South Africa was under apartheid rule at the time).
Nearly 50 years ago, these and other post-colonial African heads of state gathered in Addis Ababa to herald a new era of Pan-African progress through diplomatic and economic cooperation. Today, Addis Ababa is still the city where the Pan-African diplomatic agenda is set. And for future generations of African leaders, the new AU Conference Center — with its soaring ceilings and futuristic design — will be the place where the future of a continent is shaped.