Media and civil society at the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa face a stark choice: avoid criticizing Ethiopia, or risk being denied access to the continental body. SIMON ALLISON reports on how the Ethiopian government uses its role as gatekeeper to the AU to keep journalists, researchers and activists in check.

By Simon Allison |

Addis Ababa―The African Union headquarters, 24-storeys of clean lines and soaring glass, is Addis Ababa’s tallest building. It looks all wrong in the context of its dusty, low-rise surroundings (although increasingly less so, as the city develops furiously around it). It’s almost like it was accidentally transplanted from Shanghai or Beijing, which, in a way, it was – China paid for and built it. But there’s no question that it belongs. The building is Africa’s diplomatic center, and Addis is the continent’s diplomatic capital. There’s nowhere else it could be.

The city’s starring role in continental politics began in 1963, when Ethiopia brokered a truce between two rival African blocs with different ideas of what a continental body should look like. The breakthrough conference in 1963, where the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was declared, took place in Addis Ababa, and it was only natural that the new institution should establish its headquarters there too.

Not that there wasn’t a fight. Togo spent $120 million – that was half its annual budget at the time – on a lavish new hotel and conference center in Lomé, complete with 52 presidential villas, in an effort to persuade the OAU to move its headquarters. The bid failed, and the complex turned into a ludicrously expensive white elephant, abandoned and left derelict for decades.

Togo’s attempt to steal Addis Ababa’s thunder was only crazy because it failed. Had it worked, the investment would have looked like a small price to pay. As Ethiopia well knows, the benefits – both financial and political – far outweigh any costs associated with hosting the AU.

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