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Pan-Africanism and the Affective Charges of the African Union Building in Addis Ababa

by Daniel Mulugeta

Figure: A view of the AU building from inside the commission’s compound (Photo: author).

The African Union Commission (AUC) headquarters, which includes a conference centre and a 20-story office complex, is one of the most prominent political buildings in Addis Ababa.

It was fully funded, designed, built, and furnished by China as a gift to Africa. At the time of its competition in 2002, it was seen by African leaders to represent ‘Africa’s Renaissance’, a vision of rejuvenation for the continent that is rising like a phoenix from the ashes of poverty and conflict.

The office complex itself, reaching a height of 99.9m, commemorates the founding date of the African Union (AU) on 9 September 1999. But how is it perceived, accessed and used by the public, diplomats and the AU’s own civil servants? What sorts of pan-African identifications, if any, does it provoke in people?

I address these questions in my recently published article, where I pay particular attention to the manner in which the divergent expressions of pan-African identifications can be understood by exploring engagements between Addis Ababa residents and the AU built environment. The article argues that dynamic engagement with objects such as the AU building provokes intense feelings that shape the sentiments of pan-African belonging.

Building on anthropological literature on materiality and analytical frameworks that illuminate the sensorial and performative qualities of objects, the article approaches the AU built environment as an ‘affective space’ essential to our experience and understanding of a shared sense of belonging, as well as immense feelings of distance and un-belonging.

Affect here refers to activities that entail significant emotional and sensual engagement to a particular location, through which a person can impart meaning to material objects. The article suggests that in engaging with the building, the sensorial qualities of it affect people, leading them to associate these affects and material objects to wider identifications with the idea of pan-Africanism.

This article begins with an analysis of sensory impressions of the outer appearance and architectural forms of the built space, and then meanders through its inner structures to describe how these assemble affective intensities around the notion of pan-Africanism. In particular, it concentrates on the experiences of Addis Ababa residents and AU officials who express divergent sentiments and visions of pan-Africanism.

The article particularly shows that the architectural identity of the AU building allows residents of Addis Ababa, architects, diplomats and academics to debate and develop different visions of what pan Africanism is and should be.

Those who work for and are high-ranking officials in the AU bureaucracy largely expressed emotions of comfort and feeling of ‘being at home’, while low-ranking officials expressed sentiments of indifference, and shame at receiving architecture as a gift from a foreign country.

To most of my informants outside the compound (Addis Ababa residents), the AU built space represented an image of an organisation at odds with the idea of an Africa that is independent. The article furthermore shows that, to most of Addis Ababa residents, the building functioned as a powerful affective site that brings sentiments of alienation from the AU but also emotions of loss of, and longing for, an accurate and ‘authentic’ representation of pan-Africanism in architectural and building forms.

The article concludes that reading the AU built environment through the lens of affect makes visible the ways in which built spaces are more than an assortment of passive objects. It helps to demonstrate that built spaces also play a crucial role as affective mediums that shape sentiments of belonging and un-belonging.

This blog is based on an article recently published in the Journal of African Cultural Studies: Daniel Mulugeta. 2021. Pan-Africanism and the Affective Charges of the African Union Building in Addis Ababa, Journal of African Cultural Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13696815.2021.1884971


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