Daily Maverick

SA urged to stop China building Africa disease control centre HQ in Addis Ababa

The African Union Commission headquarters building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Photo: Ecdpm)

The Africa CDC headquarters row has also pulled in the US and has become a regional sideshow to the larger and more public spat between Washington and Beijing over the WHO.

South Africa has been urged to use its clout to stop the African Union Commission pushing ahead with its plans to allow China to build a new $80bn headquarters building for the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) in Addis Ababa – without AU member states’ official approval.

Some member states have expressed concern that the commission has short-circuited proper approval processes in a rush to get the headquarters built. The Africa CDC is leading Africa’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic and diplomats say it is only the distraction of that huge mission which has prevented the building being erected already.

Some countries believe that Morocco, which is also bidding to host the centre, is better equipped technically to support it than Ethiopia. 

But already in early February the AU Commission – the permanent secretariat of the AU, based in Addis Ababa – was announcing that “the cornerstone has already been laid” for the new headquarters building. 

And diplomats in Addis Ababa say the AU Commission has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China approving the project but that member states have officially not been told about it. 

“As member states we have no information on the project,” said one diplomat. 

Another diplomat from the region said, “My gut feeling is: unless credible countries like South Africa stand up to oppose the Chinese and, given their inexhaustible capacity to ‘grease’ hands, the Chinese stand a better chance.”

The Africa CDC headquarters row has also pulled in the US and has become a regional sideshow to the larger and more public spat between Washington and Beijing over the World Health Organisation (WHO). After earlier suspending US funding to the WHO, on the grounds that it had helped China delay the announcement of the coronavirus outbreak, US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Geneva-based body last week.

Diplomatic sources said the US is concerned that if the AU Commission allows China to fund and build the Africa CDC headquarters in Addis Ababa, Beijing will gain control over Africa’s health management.

Washington apparently believes that constructing the building will allow China to install equipment to spy on the Africa CDC, including the harvesting of genomic data about African patients which could be valuable to China in developing future medicines.

The US and others have pointed to what they regard as an ominous precedent, the way China used its construction and equipping of the AU headquarters in Addis in 2012 to manipulate the AU Commission’s computer system to transmit internal AU communications directly to Beijing. This was only discovered in 2017.

Diplomatic sources said they believed that the AUC’s apparent bypassing of proper procedures is a problem for many member states, including South Africa. But they are not sure if Pretoria or any other African states really want to pick a fight with China which has been generous in its donations to Africa of equipment to fight Covid-19, including many test kits and ventilators.

And South Africa’s poor relations with Morocco may discourage it from opposing Ethiopia as the host. 

“For now, the AUC insists it can proceed and I think it will try to,” said one diplomat.

“Delays have been more Covid-related than political. But my sense is that numerous countries, including South Africa, think that’s not appropriate and that the AUC should pause all HQ construction activities pending a new member state decision. 

“I think that’s right because otherwise member states’ freedom to decide on an HQ will be compromised by a fait accompli. And the fait accompli won’t be the best technical option for Africa CDC.”

African diplomats say the last time member states officially discussed the issue of the Africa CDC headquarters was at the meeting of the AU’s executive council – comprising ministers of member states – in February before the last AU summit. 

The ministers did not refer the matter to the heads of state for a decision a few days later, but instead referred it back to officials, “advising that it should follow normal procedures,” one diplomat said. These procedures were that a member state wishing to host the Africa CDC should either circulate a diplomatic note announcing its intention to host, or should announce its intention through the AU’s Specialised Technical Committees.

“And after discussions, a technical process gets followed to assess the country based on defined criteria, following which a report is prepared for discussion by the PRC [the Permanent Representative Committee, comprising ambassadors of member states to the AU], and then moving up to the Executive Council and Assembly.”

Diplomats point out that this was the procedure adopted when Ghana recently won the right to host the secretariat of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement and when Egypt was awarded the hosting of the African Space Agency. 

In the meantime, both Morocco and Cote d’Ivoire have circulated such diplomatic letters among African embassies to the African Union with alternative proposals offering to host the African CDC themselves.

Diplomats say they have initiated a “transparent” process that should lead at the next regular summit to heads of state agreeing on a site selection process which would conclude in February 2022. 

But that’s if the AU Commission does not pull off a fait accompli before then and simply press ahead with construction, as it has shown signs of doing.  

At the AU summit in February this year the AU’s Commissioner for Social Affairs Amira El Fadil, noted that Article 6 of the statute of the Africa CDC Article 6 “says the headquarters of the Africa CDC is going to be hosted in the headquarters of the AU unless the Assembly decides otherwise”.

“There is still room for member states if they want to open the issue again… legally speaking, they can open it. But the process has to go from the bottom of the procedure which is to open this for all 55 members to apply and to show interest if they want to host it. 

“But until today – this is a decision made in 2016 – the headquarters of the Africa CDC is going to be hosted in the headquarters of the African Union. And that’s what we are doing. We have an offer from the government of China to build the headquarters and there is an agreement signed.

“And we have the designs ready, the model is ready, the soil-testing is being done; even laying the cornerstone has all been done, but that doesn’t mean that there is no room for opening this hosting issue again.” 

However, diplomats say that Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy is determined to keep the Africa CDC in Addis Ababa. The Africa CDC offers enormous advantages to its host country since that country stands to be first in line to receive the CDC’s health services. 

Abiy has also worked closely with the Africa CDC and China, particularly the Jack Ma Foundation, to bring large planeloads of equipment to Addis Ababa for distribution to African countries to fight Covid-19. 

Because of the obvious benefits of hosting the centre, South African health scientists lobbied their government hard to bid to host the centre when its establishment was being discussed in 2015-2016. But the then-president, Jacob Zuma, decided to drop South Africa’s campaign after other African countries accused it of hosting more than its fair share of AU institutions. 

US officials say Washington is backing Morocco’s bid to host the centre but has not confirmed this officially. They believe Morocco is better placed technically to host such a sophisticated agency. 

But what is certain is that Washington is dead against China being allowed to build the new headquarters, whether that is based in Addis or elsewhere.

The French journal Africa Intelligence reported last month that Africa CDC director Dr John Nkengasong had been “feverishly” lobbying Beijing on behalf of AU leaders in Addis Ababa not to go ahead with the building and had written to ambassadors of AU member states opposing the project.

Diplomats in Addis Ababa do not believe Nkengasong has written such a letter to ambassadors. But they do believe he is concerned that if Chinese construction of the headquarters begins, the Africa CDC could lose valuable US support.

Apart from more than$20-million in financing to date, Washington has also provided expert technical support mainly by seconding medical advisers and trainers from its own Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.

At the same briefing to journalists before the AU summit in February where AU Social Affairs Commissioner Elfadil spoke, Nkengasong confirmed that the AU Commission had an agreement with China which had committed $80-million to new headquarters of the centre, in construction and equipment. 

He said he had no suspicion about China’s motives and also insisted that “the Africa CDC is not in a bilateral partnership with China… it’s very open to all partnerships.” 

He mentioned specifically the US Centers for Disease Control, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – which was supporting the centre “tremendously” – as well as Japan, which was planning to send scientists to the centre.

The quiet tussle between the US and China over the Africa CDC is being played out against the backdrop of the much louder contest between them over the World Health Organisation (WHO) and about which one of them is doing more to help Africa fight the coronavirus pandemic and other diseases. 

The US has been by far the largest donor to the WHO and in the two-year funding cycle of 2018 to 2019, it gave $893-million to the WHO, according to CNN. 

It said US donations make up 14.67% of all voluntary contributions given globally. The next biggest donor was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a US private organisation, which gave $531-million in the same period.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said US support for Africa’s health was “unrivalled.” It had invested about $60-billion in public health in Africa over just the past two decades, saving many lives, including more than 17 million through its Pepfar initiative to fight AIDS. It had also trained 265,000 healthcare workers.

And it had launched a “massive effort” to help Africa fight Covid-19, including committing more than$170-million as part of the more than $775-million it had pledged to curb the pandemic worldwide. 

Another African echo of that much bigger spat between the US and China over the WHO is the role played by Ethiopia. The director of the WHO, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, is an Ethiopian and many suspect that it was Ethiopia’s closeness to China that was partly behind the WHO’s alleged readiness to accept Beijing’s initial assurance that the coronavirus – which emerged in Wuhan, China – could not be transmitted between humans. 

That acceptance by Tedros of China’s assurances delayed the WHO in properly sounding the alarm to the world about the perils of the virus and allowed it to spread faster than it would otherwise have done, the Trump administration – and some others – believe. DM

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