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Washington, DC – It has been almost six months since Arikana Chihombori-Quao was appointed African Union’s ambassador to the United States.
Chihombori-Quao, a former medical doctor, served as the Chair of the African Union-African Diaspora Health Initiative (AU-ADHI) between 2012-2016, became the second representative for the continental bloc in the US capital.
The African Union (AU), originally the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) until 2002, met in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, last month to discuss solutions to a range of problems spanning from youth unemployment to HIV to cleaner energy. The AU is often accused of being a “talkshop” – critics say that most policies or plans to emerge from such discussions are rarely implemented.
Chihombori-Quao’s tenure as ambassador to the US coincides with a purported shift in US foreign policy. US President Donald Trump has already hinted at tremendous budget cuts to aid and development projects on the continent, while the so-called “Muslim ban” affects three African countries. There has also been a rise in deportations of African immigrants.
Chihombori-Quao spoke to Al Jazeera about representing Africa at a time of uncertainty in US policy with the African continent.
Al Jazeera: What is your mandate as AU ambassador to the United States?
Arikana Chihombori-Quao: My mandate is to promote Africa in the Americas and more importantly, to mobilise the African diaspora – meaning all people of African descent living outside of Africa.
We at the AU understand that for the continent to move forward it will need its people in the diaspora. The brain drain from migration has caused Africa to suffer a lot. Mobilising the diaspora and encouraging involvement in the development of Africa is key to our mandate.
Al Jazeera: There has been an increase in hate crimes in the United States. Are you concerned about what it means for the diaspora?
Chihombori-Quao: It is a concern. And with my understanding of the dynamic of hate crimes, it is usually based on ignorance. The Americans need to know who we are. Africa must be brought into their faces.
Decisions are being made at Congress on Africa by people who know nothing about the continent. Part of my mandate is to be the face of Africa here and change that.
Al Jazeera: What about deportations of illegal African immigrants from the US? Does the AU have a duty to get involved?
Chihombori-Quao: We have our own borders. We have no right to dictate to a sovereign nation what they can or cannot do.
Al Jazeera: US President Donald Trump has plans to reduce aid to Africa. Is this seen as a problem for the AU?
Chihombori-Quao: What bothers me is the realisation that the richest continent on Earth is the poorest. Our raw materials leaving Africa creates employment for the world and we consume the things we send out.
Things are being stolen out of Africa and we need to stop the drain. But we are very capable to take care of ourselves. I am confident that the continued collaboration and more regional and continental trade will show us a new Africa.
With everything else that other governments are implementing, we don’t have a choice. We have everything we need. Everybody knows this.
Al Jazeera: If aid ends abruptly, how will people receive assistance, including emergency medicines?
Chihombori-Quao: Studies show that the assistance going into Africa from the diaspora is more than any aid.
Africans are capable of looking after themselves.
Al Jazeera: Is this an opportunity for the AU to look towards solving its own problems?
Chihombori-Quao: There are many issues pushing people out of the continent. There is still interference from outside. How does the AU deal with looking inward as well as at the outside interference?
The problems affecting Africa today have been in the making for centuries. The legacy of colonialism is alive and well. Rules, laws and treaties enacted long before independence that still exist today.
The process of untangling some of those issues is not as easy as one might think. Migration and the reasons and issues regarding conflict are not of Africa’s making.
They are created for us by others of special interest for a purpose. Ghanaians would joke when the discovery of oil was made a while back: “When will the coup happen?” they’d ask.
Wars in Africa are created. In Liberia, a young boy on the news had more ammunition on him than clothes. Who gave him all that ammunition but not a pair of shoes? People don’t think.
They jump in and blame the governments when these ammunitions are coming from outside of the continent. There is an agenda. Some [leaders] get used and then get taken to the Hague. The depth of the problems in Africa are based on the strength of outside forces.
Al Jazeera: Is it not the case that arms and ammunition come to Africa because African countries buy them? The AU is seen as a body which protects heads of state and not ordinary people.
Chihombori-Quao: The AU is a young union. The office here only opened in 2007. It has been a process.
Unlike the truly independent members of the EU, we have had to dig ourselves out of a very deep ditch to get to where we are today.
But we are in a much better space now.
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has been tasked with leading the reform at the AU.
The AU launched Agenda 2063 as the aspirations of the AU. They are the yardstick with which African leaders measure themselves and their progress.
Twice a year, they meet and grade themselves. I’ve sat in meetings where each African leader gave themselves failing grades. The leaders are accepting their own failures and committing to do better.
That is new. They have a platform now and guidelines to conform to.
Al Jazeera: Colonisation has left the continent at a disadvantage. Yet there appears to be a new type of colonisation taking place on behalf of China. What is the position of the AU on this?
Chihombori-Quao: Regarding China, there is concern.
China used sheer economics to get a stronghold on the continent.
China came in generously with funding, but now leaders are realising this needs to slow down. We are slowing down on Chinese products and the transition is getting there.
Al Jazeera: There is a much confidence about mobility on the continent with the launch of an African passport how will this policy be implemented within the continent?
Chihombori-Quao: We are relaxing the borders that are not ours.
We want our original continent back.
We are protecting African borders, not those imposed on us. The manner in which these borders were created were to divide tribes.
Al Jazeera: How does this affect places like South Africa for instances, where there is a sense of exceptionalism and xenophobia towards other African nationals?
Chihombori-Quao: That’s a totally different problem. This goes along the same lines as divide and conquer and superiority.
South Africans are suffering from mental borders. We have created mental borders as the result of mental colonisation.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @AzadEssa