Ethiopia's twin obelisks

It stands erect like a genetically modified Obelisk. 20 floors of the new African Union (AU) headquarters jar the Addis skyline. Government functionaries, continental civil servants and NGO types mix and mingle, renewing acquaintances, checking when you flew in and when you will fly out.  “We need to talk...can we do lunch...let’s have a bilateral." Hands move in and out of jacket pockets and wallets as we exchange colourful business cards. It's tea break, we stuff ourselves with muffins, Danish pastries and sandwiches.

Ozias Tungwarara's picture

Regional manager with the Africa Regional Office

April 15th, 2012

It stands erect like a genetically modified Obelisk. 20 floors of the new African Union (AU) headquarters jar the Addis skyline. Government functionaries, continental civil servants and NGO types mix and mingle, renewing acquaintances, checking when you flew in and when you will fly out.  “We need to talk...can we do lunch...let’s have a bilateral." Hands move in and out of jacket pockets and wallets as we exchange colourful business cards. It's tea break, we stuff ourselves with muffins, Danish pastries and sandwiches. We need to move back into the Large Hall to figure out the increase in the share value of poverty from US$1 a day to Us$1.25 – a 25% increase, wow!  We are convinced that Africa is the next pole for global growth.

One cannot help but draw parallels with the Obelisk of Axum, the capital of the ancient Axumite kingdom and birthplace of the biblical Queen of Sheba. Situated on the northern edge of present-day Ethiopia, Axum first rose to prominence in the 1st Century AD trading its rich natural resources through its Red Sea port of Adulis. A steady stream of textiles, animals, gold, ivory, precious jewels and spices passed through Adulis on their way to be sold in Arabia, India and throughout the Roman Empire. In the 3rd Century AD, the Persian philosopher Mani described Axum as one of the four greatest kingdoms in the world, along with Rome, China and Persia.

We go back in. With headphones on, we check emails and popular websites on our laptops and i-pads courtesy of the high speed Wi-Fi internet connection that is an impressive feature of this Orient Express, the Us$200 million gift of the Chinese people to the African people. There is no denying that the new AU headquarters is impressive. At night the outside of the dome that is the large hall, explodes into a colourful display that is reminiscent of Disneyland.

My friend Achieng likens it, and I think appropriately so, to a discotheque. For in the Large Hall we waltz lyric around issues of poverty, unemployment, sustainable growth, the demographic dividend (for we are hesitant to say the youth), the MDGs, and we even start talking of the post MDG MDGs. We clap for member states interventions that we have heard little of. The chair of the session, who has been commended by every speaker for the way she has chaired the session and congratulated for being nominated a candidate for the position of World Bank president, announces that on no account is she going to allow the session to go over time as this will be a gross violation of participants’ right to food. To the bellicose howls of laughter from the well fed delegates, we troop out of the hall and into the banqueting hall where a feast fit for the ruling elite has been laid on.

We get animated in the afternoon session convinced that Africa’s time has arrived.

Africa will certainly be a new pole of global growth. There is no denying that African economies have been growing. Growth between 2000 and 2009 averaged 5 per cent per annum compared to 2.5 per cent in the 90s. If it were not for the revolutionary zeal of our Arab brothers and sisters, we would have maintained if not exceeded this level of growth in 2011. European irresponsibility also contributed to our losses because of the continuing Eurozone economic crisis.

But still we must industrialize, beneficiate, add value, diversify from commodity-based economic growth, improve governance, and ensure growth that is inclusive. We commit to establishing an African Institute for remittances – immediately Mauritius and Kenya offer to host.  We need to position ourselves strategically so that we take advantage of China’s engine of growth. We go on and on and soon it’s time for the cocktail and the shuttle ride back to our respective hotels.

We stare through the tinted bus windows, mesmerized by the explosion of construction that characterizes present day Addis – a new Axum. I have tried to find out from what I consider some of the best economic analysts – taxi drivers - where the capital for all this construction is coming from. One boldly stated it was the Chinese. Another said it was from remittances. Yet another who said he was a third year student of law - and indeed had a text book on the front seat of his taxi titled Property and Land Law in Ethiopia - opined that it was the politically connected who had access to cheap capital who were owners of the new buildings coming up.

We alight from the bus. We have arrived at Harmony hotel where we are lodged. The environs around Harmony hotel are less than harmonious. We are accosted by scores of young and old women some with children strapped across their chests, children, people being pushed in wheel chairs, young boys wanting to shine your shoes, sell you gum or Kleenex, all asking for a few Birr. Their faces are etched with a haggardness that haunts forever.

In between the repeated request for help, they make a clicking sound with their tongues that leaves us feeling ashamed of ourselves. But we have been warned by the bus driver that if we are seen giving a “donation” we will be liable for prosecution.

We enter our air conditioned Harmony Hotel. We tune in to CNN and learn that Wade has conceded electoral defeat in Senegal and that the military has taken over in Mali. We don’t know whether to cry or celebrate. Cry my beloved Africa Cry!

About the author(s)

Ozias Tungwarara is the regional manager with the Africa Regional Office of the Open Society Foundations (OSF) network based in Johannesburg.

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