By Phil Bolton
When pressed to explain the discord among the African Union’s 55 member countries, Arikana Chihombori-Quao, its ambassador to the United States, likes to refer to her five children.
“We are a family, but when I look at each child, I see how each is different,” she told Global Atlanta during a visit to the city where she held meetings with officials at the state capital and with entrepreneurs of the local “diaspora.”
She also attended a town hall at the Atlanta University Center. “You can’t paint Africa with a broad brush,” she added for emphasis.
Although she accepts the diversity of the union’s sovereign members, she underscores the obstacles they face in emerging as a coherent union. Yet, at the same time, she underscores the advances that have been achieved, particularly in 2018.
Many of the continent’s problems can be traced to the Berlin Conference in 1885 when European countries created arbitrary borders to put a claim on their colonial possessions, she said during the interview held at the offices in Buckhead of the Thompson Hine LLP law firm on April 23.
These borders are a colonial legacy, she said, that have separated African nationalists who accept the borders and Pan-Africanists such as herself who seek to “melt” the borders in an effort to support a more integrated, economically prosperous continent.
While at Thompson Hine she held a closed door meeting with local businessmen and women interested in doing business in Africa. Already having been at the state capitol earlier in a busy day, she was soon to be on her way to the the town hall meeting.
Originally from Zimbabwe, Dr. Chihombori-Quao is a physician, an entrepreneurial founder of medical clinics throughout Tennessee, and a participant in medical projects on the continent. She came to Atlanta armed with what she considers the historic accomplishments that the African Union passed last year and a mission to persuade the local diaspora community composed of both Africans living in America and African-Americans to engage economically in the continent’s future.
Primary among last year’s accomplishments, she said, is the ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) signed in Kigali, Rwanda, by 44 members of the union’s 55 states and ratified by the required 22 for it to go into effect.
The agreement requires members to remove tariffs from 90 percent of goods, and seeks to create a single continental market for goods and services, with free movement of business persons and investments.
Nigeria, which surpassed South Africa in 2014 as Africa’s largest economy, failed to sign the agreement. Nevertheless, the CFTA, according to Dr. Chihombori Quao, is expected to pave the way for a customs union and substantially boost the members’ gross domestic product.
She also is enthused by the Single African Air Transport Market that the union has been promoting through its Agenda 2063 initiative. The single unified open skies agreement is to provide an impetus to its economic integration agenda by bringing its regions closer together.
Despite her positive outlook for Africa’s future, Dr. Chihombori Quao is a realist and acknowledges that her desire to see the continent’s borders dating back to the Berlin Conference “melt away” won’t be achieved immediately.
Nevertheless she defended her vision for renewed economic growth and social progress, and encouraged African-Americans living in the city to discover their continental roots.
“We have a responsibility to help build and rediscover that the continent is our home,” she said repeatedly. In contrast to Jews living in the United States, who consider Israel their “home,” she said African-Americans don’t have this “anchor.” “We want them to come home. They are Africans. To not know where you come from is a serious problem, but it is baseless.”
Having come to the U.S. from Zimbabwe to further her education and obtain her medical degree, she initially was unaware of the sense of detachment many African-Americans have for the continent.
Now that she has spent more than half her life in America, she has no plans to move back. With her husband, Ghanaian physician, Saban Nii Quao, she has raised a family and opened a successful chain of family medical clinics in Tennessee.
Nor does she seek to have African-Americans move to the continent. Rather part of her mission, she said, is to encourage them to identify with the continent and become knowledgeable about the opportunities it offers commercially and culturally.
In her case, she has fulfilled her desire to remain connected by purchasing the historic Durban Manor Hotel, once a whites-only all-male hotel and club in Durban, South Africa, and by participating in medical missions. Closer to home in Gallatin, Tenn., she bought a former plantation house that has been renamed “Africa House,” which serves as a guest house for African dignitaries and a center for African studies.