Building Inclusive Platforms for U.S.-Africa Engagement: Visit by the African Union Ambassador H.E. Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao 

On September 6, 2018, the Boston University African Studies Center and Pardee School of Global Studies welcomed the Ambassador of the African Union to the United States, H.E. Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao, for a discussion of building productive partnerships among the African diaspora, the academic community, and the African Union. The Ambassador was accompanied by her colleague Mr. Tarek ben Youssef. The all-day engagement included meetings with the Pardee School and African Studies Center leadership, presentations and class visits, and one-on-one and group conversations with Boston University scholars and students, as well as members of the African Diaspora.  The day culminated with the Pardee Policy Leaders Forum – an event series bringing senior international policymakers to Boston University for important policy conversations with BU faculty and experts.

The African Union is an intergovernmental organization that seeks to achieve greater unity and solidarity among African countries and Africans, as well as encourage international cooperation and popular participation in governance. It advances collaboration between the diaspora, academic community, and policy makers for mobilizing the African diaspora in support of major U.S.-Africa policy initiatives. The Ambassador’s visit to the BU African Studies Center built on her history of collaboration with the Diaspora Studies Initiative of the ASC that included the 2017 Boston African Diaspora Coalition Roundtable as well as related engagements. These initiatives focused on facilitating joint engagement among diaspora communities in the New England area, and building networking and communication platforms for diaspora involvement in Africa’s economies and societies.

During her visit to Boston University, Ambassador Chihombori-Quao met with Dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies and Professor of International Relations and Earth and Environment Adil Najam, Associate Dean and Professor of International Relations and Political Science William Grimes, as well as had conversations with several Pardee School faculty members, including former director of BU African Studies Center and Professor of Political Science Timothy Longman. “It was an honor to meet Ambassador Chihombori-Quao during her visit to the Pardee School,” said Prof. Grimes. “I was especially impressed by her ideas about the role of the African diaspora in the continent’s economic and political development.”

Director of the Boston University African Studies Center and Professor of Anthropology Fallou Ngom highlighted the value of the Ambassador’s visit to advancing a better understanding of the African diaspora among Boston University students and scholars:  “As we seek to engage the African diaspora in America, the AU Ambassador’s visit was both timely and important.  I was very impressed by both her in-depth understanding of the political history of Africa that explains the roots of many challenges in the continent, and her path-breaking initiatives, especially the Centers of Excellence that could produce sufficiently mentally decolonized Africans capable of laying enduring foundations of a new thriving Africa with its right place in the world geopolitics. It was an honor meeting the Ambassador and her colleague. I am most grateful.“ The AU Ambassador was hosted at the African Studies Center by Dr. Daivi Rodima-Taylor of the Diaspora Studies Initiative, and Dr. Eric Schmidt, Assistant Director of ASC.

In the afternoon, Ambassador Chihombori-Quao delivered a powerful presentation in the class session that included African Studies Center students, faculty, our diaspora partners, as well as Africanist scholars from other area universities – an event jointly organized by the ASC Diaspora Studies Initiative and Professor of Anthropology Parker Shipton. Prof. Shipton emphasized the lively, passionate presence of the Ambassador that extended a friendly and collegial persona to the diverse audience in the room, to much admiration and applause. Commenting on the Ambassador’s extensive experience on the pragmatics of diplomacy, Shipton said: “Combining micro- and macro-scale perspectives in the way the Ambassador did, was something new to just about every one of the mostly seasoned Africanists in the room, as well as to the students. Everyone present was well advised to look back to the history of how the lines on the map of African nations got there: the presumptuous arrogation of powers by the European participants at the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 when the ‘scrambling’ empires did their partitioning as if cutting a cake, with no recorded voices of any African even present.  The Ambassador’s account of the layering of insults and injuries to African humankind in the period since then, with its effects on self-esteem and mutual regard among African people themselves, was a sobering picture in itself.  By contrast, the progress and the hopes she presented for African unification (as well as for African and North American cooperation) were more uplifting — for instance in the official headway she reported as being made toward freeing up the self-directed movement of people within the continent.  Trade agreements discussed made for interesting comparisons with those being attempted, challenged, and revised in the Americas, as well as others in Europe and elsewhere. Her lamenting remarks on the damaging effects of wealth extraction probably resonated for everyone with a cell phone in the pocket containing coltan — to say nothing of the continent’s gold or diamonds.  And I think all the diaspora members in the room probably felt the tug she exerted for returning and building professional capacities. Concerning the question of scale, the Ambassador’s optimism about the potential rise in negotiating power of what may become a more united Africa (as different from, say, the power of Togo or Burundi, when in negotiations, say, with the US, with a provisionally united Europe, or with China) seemed realistic enough — if that unification continues.”

Michèle Sigg, Associate Director of the Dictionary of African Christian Biography, remarked: “African Union Ambassador Dr. Chihombori-Quao came to Boston University on an ambitious mission. Her first goal is to develop and solidify a friendship between the African Union and the United States that she called ‘Africa’s greatest friend.’ The United States was the one western power that did not show up in 1885 at the Berlin conference to acquire a piece of African territory. Her second goal is to reach out to the African diaspora in the States to counteract the ‘brain drain’ that is taking so many highly qualified African doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, and scholars away from Africa where they are sorely needed. She believes that the help of the African diaspora is essential to Africa’s emergence as a unified economy in the near future.”

Other audience members voiced similar sentiments. Mr. Zadi Zokou, a film-maker whose recent documentary BlacknBlack focuses on relationships between African Americans and African immigrants, stated: “As an African from a former French colony, I was aware of the strong control France still holds over my country and its politics and economy. During her final talk, Mrs. Ambassador confirmed what I had noticed, and convinced me of the urgency for us to break the chains that still hold us into colonization.”

Participants also emphasized the value of the activities of the AU Ambassador to diaspora engagement: “For the nascent African Diaspora mobilization efforts, it’s critical to have a central credible entity setting the framework and vision,” said Mr. Emmanuel Owusu of the African Bridge Network. “It’s inspiring to hear the Ambassador Chihombori-Quao at the BU Policy Forum Dinner placing much importance on the value of the African Diaspora in the US as a vital human resource for Africa’s development, and laying out strategies for their mobilization. We look forward to partnering with the Ambassador’s office on our ADEA Initiative to support the African Diaspora who are already engaged in development projects in Africa.”

Inspired and vitalized by the conversations with the AU Ambassador, the Boston University African Studies community is looking forward to new and renewed partnerships towards inclusive engagement with Africa and its Diaspora.

By Daivi Rodima-Taylor