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Vol 60 No 22

Published 7th November 2019

Fury over ambassador's exit

Critics blame 'neo-colonial' pressures on the African Union for the sacking of its ambassador to the US but its Addis HQ insists they are parting on good terms

A furore has broken out over the dismissal of the African Union's ambassador to the United States, Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao, by AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat. The AU calls it a simple change of personnel after a term of nearly three years but Dr. Chihombori's defenders claim she is being sacked to placate former colonial powers – especially France – outraged by comments about their history in Africa and the continuing extraction of resources from the continent.

Africa Confidential has obtained a report by the AU's Office of Internal Audit claiming the ambassador misused official funds, and was guilty of misrepresentation, raising money on false pretences, and other violations of procurement procedures. It also says she did not observe office hours and bullied AU workers and officials. She denies the procurement allegations in the report. 'If there were breaches of procedure, they were not intentional or fraudulent. I was simply trying to get things done,' she told Africa Confidential.

'The investigation is a sham and a witchhunt,' she says, insisting that enemies in the regional body were out to get her and that the investigation deliberately ignored evidence she presented to it. She also denied abusing staff.

An online petition on www.change.org demanding Dr. Chihombori's reinstatement has attracted over 69,000 signatures since 11 October and the support of Ghana's ex-President Jerry John Rawlings. Dr. Chihombori is married to a Ghanaian and holds Ghanaian as well as US citizenship.

There is no hint of controversy in Moussa Faki's 7 October letter to Dr. Chihombori terminating her contract. He warmly expresses his and the Commission's 'deep appreciation for your constant commitment to African causes and the great contribution you have made' as ambassador to the US.

Dr. Chihombori's defenders are having none of it, however. Ex-President Rawlings spoke for many of them on Twitter on 14 October, 'The dismissal of Arikana Chihombori-Quao… raises serious questions about the independence of the AU. For someone who spoke her mind about the detrimental effects of the colonisation and the huge cost of French control in several parts of Africa, this is an act that can be best described as coming from French-controlled colonised minds. How can this shameful behaviour emanate from us? Woman with all that it takes to galvanise our continent is chopped down by French colonised power mongers good enough to be cleaners or pruning trees at the Elysée Palace. With leaders of this kind, how can this continent ever progress?'

Dr Chihombori regularly speaks in public on the lingering damaging effects of the 1885 Berlin conference which 'carved up' Africa for the European powers, and of France's continuing colonisation of Africa through the terms it demanded from African countries seeking independence in the early 1960s, and also on how natural resource and human migration to the West damage the continent.

A spokesperson for the AU strongly denied that Dr. Chihombori's termination had anything to do with any pronouncements she made or her opinions, saying it was simply 'normal diplomatic practice'. Nor was she dismissed over the allegations in the investigation report. 'Those investigations are ongoing,' the official told Africa Confidential. 'It is part of a process which is not yet complete and on which further action can be expected.'

The official added that the AU was upgrading its engagement with the US government and needed someone in post with more professional diplomatic skills. Dr. Chihombori was appointed by Moussa Faki's predecessor as AU Commission Chair, South Africa's Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to succeed the Tanzanian politician, Amina Salum Ali, who had held the Washington DC post since 2007.

Dr. Chihombori would not answer when Africa Confidential asked if she believed she had been sacked for political reasons. She said there were things she could not say while she was still in post. Her term ends on 1 November. However, she fiercely rejected the contents of the AU internal report, saying she had done nothing wrong.

The investigation, the report said, was prompted by allegations by a 'whistleblower'. The report claims she violated procurement rules, such as failing to submit for tender contracts above $50,000 for approval, and applied funds earmarked for other activities to her own projects, such as a Miss AU Pageant in December 2018. All this she denies. The report recommendations set out reforms the ambassador should undertake and does not suggest any disciplinary action, let alone her removal from office.

Among the report's allegations are that she improperly commissioned a website for her office. She replies that a website had been promised for three years without appearing, so she simply got it organised.

The report says she cancelled a contract for the AU Invest in Africa publication, but she insists there never was a contract to cancel. It also says that a $10,000 donation by Chevron to the AU was not accounted for. Dr. Chihombori counters that the office was not allowed to handle funds and so the money was deposited with a US non-profit organisation called Constituency for Africa, which educates Americans about Africa. CFA confirmed to Africa Confidential that it received the funds, not the AU, and that Chevron's donation is not missing.

Most of the problems Dr. Chihombori encountered, she says, were because the AU ambassador's office 'had done nothing before I came there. The staff did not know how to do anything, because practically nothing had been tried.' Its only two programmes were on the US law, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, and on Africa Day, the annual celebration of the foundation of the Organisation for African Unity, the AU's previous title. These occupied so little time, she says, that the office was sometimes closed for 'weeks at a time'.

The office was understaffed and underqualified, she said. She was assigned an assistant who couldn't speak English whom the AU refused to replace, she says. Staff were no more familiar with the details of AU procurement regulations than she was.

Where the controversy goes from here is anyone's guess, said a pundit familiar with the workings of the AU, adding that the organisation is riven with rivalries and such a controversy is not unusual. The regional body has been trying hard to root out division and present a more united face as it ramps up its diplomacy on peacekeeping in conjunction with the United Nations.

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