The current pandemic has highlighted the shortcomings of African public health infrastructure. Not only has it stretched the health systems of individual states to their limits, and sometimes beyond such limits, but it has also raised questions about the capacity of waging continental responses to infectious diseases and pandemics.
The ongoing situation has accelerated the African Union’s effort to improve its preparedness to respond to such crises by establishing facilities to fight infectious diseases. African Union, therefore, seeks to build the capacity of its Africa Centres for Disease Control. Recently, it has embarked on a mission to build a USD 80 million headquarters for the institution mandated to lead the efforts to control the spread of infectious diseases in the continent.
However, the process has proved increasingly controversial.
This is because the African Union Commission has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China about building the headquarters in Addis Ababa, but representatives of a number of African Union member states claim that they have not been informed about the project. The controversy has raised concerns about the heavy influence of China and Ethiopia on the African Union Commission and the lack of transparency in decision-making. Various member states have called for opposition and reconsideration of the commitment particularly because some other states are seen as better suited to host the Africa Centres for Disease Control headquarters than Ethiopia.
The controversy has drawn in superpower interests as well.
The United States has raised concerns about China’s role in the process. In particular, it has mentioned sensitive data and information protection issues arising from China’s involvement. In 2012, China built and provided computer systems to the African Union headquarters, but five years later it came to light that this had facilitated the direct transmission of African Union’s internal communications to China. American officials have expressed fears that by allowing China to build and support the Africa Centres for Disease Control, the African Union will allow access to sensitive African health and genetic data that China could use to its advantage. The United States is concerned about Ethiopia’s close relationship with China and would seemingly like to see a more developed and better equipped state, and a closer American ally than Ethiopia, to host the Africa Centres for Disease Control headquarters. It, therefore, appears to promote Morocco, with which it maintains excellent relations, as an alternative.
The wrangling over the seat of the Africa Centres for Disease Control can be considered as yet another manifestation of the inflamed relations and increasing competition between the United States and China over influence in Africa. Although this competition may serve the African Union, it cannot afford to strictly take sides. By opting for heavy cooperation with China, the African Union Commission clearly risks deteriorating relations with the United States. The Africa Centres for Disease Control is also likely to be undermined by any worsening of African Union-United States relations due to the increased risk of losing valuable American financial, research, and other operations support.
For further reading: Africa Centres for Disease Control Aloysius Uche Ordu - “The Coming of Age of the Africa Centers for Disease Control” Financial Times - “US Warns over Chinese ‘Spying’ on African Disease Control Centre”
The opinions expressed in this text are solely the author’s point of view and do not bind the Center for International Studies, its Director or any other researcher. Foto by WHO / Regional office for Africa / all rights reserved
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