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Architecture as a gift in Sino-Africa relations

by Daniel Mulugeta

As part of the African Statehood Architecture (ASA) research project, I have been conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Addis Ababa, Abuja and Johannesburg to understand the interface between regionalism and architecture. In my interactions with a wide range of actors, including residents, academics and diplomats, one of the topics that has cropped up quite frequently has been the issue of China’s architectural gifts to Africa. In this blog, I seek to explore this theme from my research and attempt draw out the link that is perceived by my informants to exist between the gift of architecture, dependency and loss of African agency.

Over the past few decades, China has indeed been assiduously pursuing expansion of its soft power in Africa by constructing numerous cultural centres, parliamentary buildings and other headquarters in major African cities. China funded, built and furnished the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa in 2012 at a cost of US$200m. China is also building parliament buildings in Zimbabwe, Congo, Malawi, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Gabon and Sierra Leone. China has also agreed to build new headquarters buildings for The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja, Nigeria and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

All of these buildings have been presented as gifts to the African people, and are capsulated in the idiom of ‘win–win’ cooperation. The key object of this ‘new-type of international relations’[i] has been ‘recipient-led aid’ that allows Africa access to expertise, skill and capital free from donor normative agendas and stringent conditions concerning corruption and human-rights that has traditionally been attached to Western aid.

For African leaders, the merits of architectural gifts thus lie in the manner of the giving, which is thought to be voluntary as opposed to neo-colonial, rather than in the style or form of the object gifted or the political and cultural repercussions of the giving. The giving of architectural gifts is, for China, a way of cultivating closer relations based on trust. The gift of architecture is thus ostensibly underpinned by acts of good will aimed at building strong Sino-Africa relations on a voluntary basis and in keeping with the dignity and status of two equal and fully independent sovereign entities.

In the eyes of many people living and working in Addis Ababa and Abjua, however, Chinese-funded buildings are merely concrete expressions of the continuation of Africa’s longstanding dependency on external resources. Many people I spoke to in Addis Ababa reject the idea that architecture has been a gift at all. They, in fact, recognise the gesture of gift-giving as a power-laden process that mirrors dependency and asymmetric power relations. Anthropologists working on the topic point out that gift-giving creates a relationship of obligation. From this perspective, gift-giving establishes the reputation of China as a benevolent actor and diminishes Africa as a passive recipient of generosity. However, gift-giving is also reciprocal.

China Aid plaque affixed to the AU HQ © Daniel Mulugeta

Whilst such gift-giving by the Chinese government is usually done without expectation of equivalent return, it opens the door for greater Chinese intervention in Africa. This is clearly evident in the allegation that China literally ‘built backdoors into African Union’s headquarters for spying’.[ii] African Union officials accused China of transferring data from computers in the Chinese-built and furnished headquarters to Chinese servers every night for five years.[iii] The overall popular perception is that given the growth of the Chinese economic and political presence in Africa, deliberations at parliaments and regional organisations are bound to be of great interest to China.

Some diplomats in my study however stressed that the technical side of the Chinese gifts outweigh the risk. They argue that Chinese government projects generate tremendous technological capability and important knowledge and skill foundations in Africa. However, although accurate data are hard to find, from the stories that my informants have told me, and anecdotal evidence from people involved in construction projects, in most projects, Chinese staff hold almost all highly skilled positions and a significant proportion of non-skilled positions. Hence, most projects contribute very little in the way of skills transfer that would enable an African workforce independently to upkeep gifted buildings or construct similar projects.

Another takeaway from my study has been the fact that preconstruction consultation and commissioning processes are usually rushed and shrouded with secrecy, and they involve little participation from local stakeholders. The numerous controversies that dogged the latest Chinese government plan to build an US$80m headquarters for the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Ethiopia is a case in point. The AU and China have been accused of short-circuiting proper approval procedures and cutting member states off from consultation processes in a rush to get the headquarters built in Addis Ababa.[iv]

The planned Africa CDC headquarters has also provoked strong opposition from the US. The US described Chinese intention to build Africa CDC as ‘a threat to Africa’ that will facilitate Chinese intrusion and theft of important ‘genomic data’.[v] The US-China fight over ‘rights to build’[vi] Africa CDC can be seen as a symptom of a broader trend in regurgitated cold-war style super power rivalry that diminishes Africa into a mere ideological battleground.

And most of all, to a cross-section people I interacted with in Addis Ababa, Abuja and Johannesburg, the idea of architectural gifts flies in the face of the pan-African efforts to break cycles of dependence on donor resources to fund African initiatives. When the AU was rebranded in 2002, it was envisioned as a cornerstone for continental unity and as an engine for regional projects of political and economic integration. It was designed to shed the past and foster ‘African solutions to African problems’ by promoting self-reliance.

In an ironic twist, African leaders choose to accept the Chinese gift of architecture to host the new AU commission. Completed in 2002, the building is largely seen more as a marker of the superiority of China than an iconic landmark of continental unity. Instead of promoting the vision of pan-Africanism, most people including some AU diplomats argue gifted buildings stand in the way of AU’s vision of upholding the principle of self-reliance.

The AU HQ building in Addis Ababa © Daniel Mulugeta

Significantly, to my informants, Chinese-funded buildings exhibit no characteristics of ‘African space’ and architecture. They reflect an eclectic amalgamation of a variety of architectural styles or a more generic global corporate style. Their designs have thus been described negatively as having alien qualities. Most visitors of the AU I spoke to, for example, used single adjectives to describe the building as ‘strange,’ ‘alien,’ and ‘imported’. Despite the attempt to link its more generic global corporate style to local conditions by striving to be sensitive to the equatorial climate through the use of decorative sun-shading and landscape settings in a ‘tropical’ idiom, the building is wholly identified with the giver i.e. China, rather than with Africa.

The dome of the AU assembly hall © Daniel Mulugeta

For some people what has become more prominent in the physical structure of the building is the inefficiency of the recipient. The dome of the AU assembly hall, for example, has been described as an ‘inverted beggars’ bowl.’[vii] Others relate the building with a pan-African elite whose main feature is not African values or traditional culture but capitalist consumption. The received building thus simultaneously stands as a testimony to AU’s inability to live up to its ideals and popular expectations.

To conclude, there is no doubt that Chinese government architectural gifts contribute to African growth but they also spur fears of political and cultural dominance. Most people in Ethiopia and Nigeria are wary of attempts to link China’s architectural gifts to altruistic and disinterested donation. Architectural gifts are double-edged sword. Although they may appear benevolent, they are actually seen as interested and robbing Africa off autonomy. To a large number of people, to be given a gift is to lose some measure of agency.

[i] [ii] [iii] [iv] [v] [vi] [vii]


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