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Chinese President to Inaugurate New African Union Headquarters

Chinese President Hu Jintao (file photo)

Chinese President Hu Jintao is expected to visit Addis Ababa this month to inaugurate a new African Union headquarters financed by China and built largely with Chinese labor. The project was launched when Moammar Gadhafi was maneuvering to move Africa's diplomatic capital to Libya.

Official African Union and Ethiopian sources confirm that President Hu will be in Addis Ababa January 28 to open what is being called “China's gift to Africa.” The inauguration ceremony will be held the day before African heads of state hold their January meeting at AU headquarters for the first time.

According to custom, African heads of state meet every January in Addis Ababa. But the summit previously has been held at the city's United Nations conference center because the AU headquarters building was too small.

Construction of new facility began in June 2009, when Addis Ababa's position as Africa's diplomatic capital was in doubt. The city has been home to the continental body since its founding, largely due to the influence of the late Emperor Haile Selassie, who was one of the driving forces behind creation of the Organization of African Unity in 1963.

But in 2009, the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was the AU chairman, and he made no secret of his desire to build a grand new headquarters in his hometown of Sirte. That plan was thwarted, however, when China agreed to pay for a $200 million facility in Addis Ababa. It was built by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation, largely with Chinese labor.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi toured the new facility last week and hailed the close cooperation with China. He revealed that he had lobbied Chinese officials to build the new headquarters, donated land adjacent to the old AU campus, and exempted taxes on all imported construction materials. His remarks were reported by Chinese and Ethiopian state media, which were invited to cover the event.

AU Projects Director Fantahun Hailemikael says the new facility will vastly improve the African Union's institutional capacity.

"Almost 48 years after foundation of the OAU (Organization of African Unity), the African Union is now able to have such a big facility that can fulfill its requirement in terms of office and in terms of conference," he said. "The Chinese government generously has given this facility as a gift to Africa and the African Union."

The complex features a 2,500 seat amphitheater and a helicopter landing pad so visiting dignitaries can be flown in from the airport, eliminating the need for motorcades that tie up traffic. The office tower will become home to 700 of the 1,300 African Union staff members. The other 600 will remain in the old section.

The new facility symbolizes China's growing involvement in Africa, and individually with most of the 54 AU member states.

In 2010, China moved ahead of the United States as Africa's largest trading partner. The Chinese State Council, or Cabinet, reported trade with African nations reached $114 billion in 2010, as compared to $10 billion in 2000.

Industry experts say 70 percent of the continent's oil exports go to China.

The two-day summit of African leaders is likely to be contentious, featuring a battle for the chairmanship of the AU Commission. Current chairman Jean Ping's bid for a second term is being challenged by South African Home Minister and former foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

Veteran AU observers say the race could be close. Heads of state will make the selection by secret ballot on the first day of the summit, January 29.