By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
Recently the National Newspaper Publishers Association (the Black Press) held its 2019 Mid-Winter Training Conference in Orlando, and Her Excellency Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao, the African Union Ambassador to the United States of America, gave a soul-stirring speech about the Berlin Conference and the colonization of Africa. Dr. Chihombori-Quao, appointed in 2016, plays a key role in reinforcing the African Union strategic partnerships with the United States, grounded on shared values and mutual interests. She shared anew and reminded NNPA members and other attendees during a session on “Global Expansion of the Black Press: Advertising and Business Opportunities in the African Diaspora” about the Berlin Conference and the importance of the African Diaspora to unite and possibly return to their roots. The African Diaspora is described as the estimated 170 million people of African origins living outside of Africa.
The Berlin Conference of 1884–85, also known as the Congo Conference (German: Kongokonferenz) or West Africa Conference (Westafrika-Konferenz), regulated European colonization and trade in Africa during the New Imperialism period and coincided with Germany’s sudden emergence as an imperial power. The Berlin Conference is intricate with all the moving pieces but, in essence, this conference broke up parts of Africa into made up names, as opposed to the existence of tribes living in certain areas in Africa.
According to Wikipedia: “The Berlin Conference was Africa’s undoing in more ways than one. The colonial powers superimposed their domains on the African continent. By the time independence returned to Africa in 1950, the realm had acquired a legacy of political fragmentation that could neither be eliminated nor made to operate satisfactorily.” At the time of the conference, 80% of Africa remained under traditional and local control. What ultimately resulted was a hodgepodge of geometric boundaries that divided Africa into 53 irregular countries. The new countries lacked rhyme or reason and divided coherent groups of people and merged together disparate groups who really did not get along.
The so-called “super powers” or colonizers originally haggled over the right to open trade within the Congo and Niger rivers, but eventually gained control over the continent’s interior—all at a disregard about what was going on with the culture and language of the African population.
A total of 14 countries were represented at the Berlin Conference. This included the U.S. However, France, Germany, Great Britain and Portugal remained the major players. Of note is France’s stranglehold to this day, which extracts a colonial tax from much of Western Africa, which includes: Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Togo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
A March 2016 article in The Guardian titled “Story of Cities #5: Benin City, The Mighty Medieval Capital Now Lost Without A Trace” described Benin as follows: “With its mathematical layout and earthworks longer than the Great Wall of China, Benin City was one of the best planned cities in the world when London was a place of ‘thievery and murder.’ So why is nothing left?” The article further stated: “This is the story of a lost medieval city you’ve probably never heard about. Benin City, originally known as Edo, was once the capital of a pre-colonial African empire located in what is now southern Nigeria. The Benin empire was one of the oldest and most highly-developed states in West Africa, dating back to the 11th century. Benin City was also one of the first cities to have a semblance of street lighting. Huge metal lamps, many feet high, were built and placed around the city, especially near the King’s palace. Fueled by palm oil, their burning wicks were lit at night to provide illumination for traffic to and from the palace.”
Although some experts argue about whether the French arrangement is, in fact, a “colonial tax,” according to Dr. Chihombori-Quao, France takes in about $500 billion annually from these holdings. It seems as if an arrangement of this magnitude does much to prohibit any real progress within these 14 countries. According to a 2016 Afrolegends.com piece titled “The 11 Components of the French Colonial Tax in Africa,” 14 African countries are obliged by France, through a colonial pact, to put 85% of their foreign reserve into a French central bank, which is under the French Minister of Finance’s control. They are effectively putting in $500 billion every year to the French treasury. “It is such an evil system even denounced by the European Union, but France is not ready to move from that colonial system.” Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, peace activist, has been attributed as the author of this article.
Dr. Chihombori-Quao noted the effect of this arrangement on the continent of Africa. “The globalization construct of divide and conquer is still alive and well,” she said. “Benin and other small, dependent colonies in Africa and its people were forever defeated and dominated [because of the Berlin Conference].”
The African Union is trying to reverse the effects of the Berlin Conference, by appealing to all people in the African Diaspora to return home and help the continent’s economy and livelihood. Dr. Chihombori-Quao noted that there are more African physicians practicing in the United States than those who practice in Africa. She outlined plans for the Wakanda One Village Project, which will include health care facilities, hotels, industrial homes and shopping centers, among other things. The first Village will be located in land around the Victoria Falls in South Africa, which has been donated by Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Late in 2018, the “Zambian Observer” wrote a piece titled “Zambia and Zimbabwe Offer Land to African Union for First SADC Multi-Billion Dollar Wakanda One Village Project.” Dr. Chihombori-Quao was quoted in this article, and she made similar comments at the NNPA Conference. “The project targets Africans in the Diaspora who want to help build the continent to the level they want it to be. You know, when you talk about a ‘good Africa’ or returning home, many people say ‘Well, [Africa] is not what I’m used to,’ and to that I always tell them, ‘Then build the home you want.” She added: “We don’t even realize we are on autopilot waiting for the white man to build this ‘civilization’ for us. So we are taking our destiny into our own hands and creating something built for and by the people of the African Diaspora.” She described the Village as “a place to which those who left Africa—either by choice or by force—would hopefully want to return.”
Dr. Chihombori-Quao added that there will be a number of events held in the United States this year—400 years after the slave trade began—that will be used to encourage people to come back home. “We are looking at raising at least US$2 billion in the next two years with the first ground breaking set for the end of the year 2020. We are going to build the Africa that we want so those Diasporans who say I cannot go home because home is not what I am used to will make it what they want.”
Dr. Chihombori-Quao also revealed that Kenya and Tanzania have also pledged land for East Africa’s Wakanda One Village Project. Reportedly, there will be one village built in each of the five regions of the Continent.
She finally reminded the NNPA attendees that, “We are all one people. Don’t let an African ever tell an African-American that he is more African. We are all in this Titanic together. Until the children of Africa re-connect with their roots, they can’t thrive anywhere.”
A native of Zimbabwe, Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao emigrated to the United States in 1977. Dr. Chihombori-Quao obtained her medical degree in 1986, spending three years in general surgery in New York and 25 years providing family medicine in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In 2012 she became Chair of the African Union—Diaspora Health Initiative and in 2016 was appointed African Union Ambassador to the United States.
For more information about the African Union, visit au.int.