NZ eagerly courted Africa in its Security Council campaign. Now it must stand up for Africans

A state of emergency has just been declared in Ethiopia amid anti-government protest. The true colours of New Zealand’s diplomatic commitments will be shown in its response to the state crackdown, write Nureddin Abdurahman and Malcolm McKinnon

Through the early part of this decade the New Zealand government carried out a sustained campaign for one of the elected (non-permanent) places on the United Nations Security Council, representing the “Western Europe and others” group of member states. Despite having more limited resources and influence than the two other candidates, Spain and Turkey, New Zealand’s campaign was successful and it was elected in October 2014, along with Spain; Turkey missed out.

In the course of the campaign, New Zealand diplomats and government representatives criss-crossed Africa – a continent delivering 54 votes in the United Nations General Assembly out of 193 – to seek support for the candidacy. New Zealand opened a mission in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, accredited to both the African Union and to Ethiopia itself. New Zealand did not blitz African with an open chequebook but promised a variety of types of social and economic assistance – agricultural expertise, language training for officials, and educational scholarships among them.

Residents of Bishoftu crossed their wrists above their heads as a symbol for the Oromo anti-government protesting movement during the Oromo new year holiday Irreechaa in Bishoftu on October 2, 2016. Several people were killed in a stampede near the Ethiopian capital on October 2 after police fired tear gas at protesters during a religious festival, according to an AFP photographer at the scene. Several thousand people had gathered at a sacred lake to take part in the Irreecha ceremony, in which the Oromo community marks the end of the rainy season, where participants crossed their wrists above their heads, a gesture that has become a symbol of Oromo anti-government protests. The event quickly degenerated, with protesters throwing stones and bottles and security forces responding with baton charges and then tear gas grenades. / AFP / Zacharias ABUBEKER (Photo credit should read ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AFP/Getty Images)

An anti-government protest in Bishoftu during the Oromo new year. Photo: ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AFP/Getty Images

In the nature of such diplomacy New Zealand’s campaigners dealt with African governments not African peoples, but it is the latter who should and indeed must be the ultimate beneficiaries of New Zealand’s rekindled interest in the continent, at a low ebb since the heyday of the anti-apartheid campaign in the 1970s and 1980s. And that interest should be in their political as well as their social and economic well-being.

That is why New Zealand must speak up when the rights and entitlements of ordinary Africans are at risk. Ironically, the one part of the African continent where that is unquestionably the case now is Ethiopia itself, the heart of the African diplomatic world and where New Zealand’s African “footprint” (South Africa aside) is now most visible.

In recent weeks huge numbers of Oromo people – one source estimated two million – gathered at Bishoftu, just outside Addis Ababa, to celebrate Irrechaa, the Oromo thanksgiving festival, where Amhara elders attended alongside Oromo; these are the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia, comprising together perhaps 60 per cent of its 90 million population. Tragically, the event turned sour, with reports of at least 50 and possibly more than 300 people being killed in a stampede, triggered when security forces opened fire.

Since the overthrow of the Derg regime in 1991 the leadership of successive governments of Ethiopia has been dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF); Tigray are estimated to account for no more than 7%  of Ethiopia’s population. In the past year in particular disaffection has mounted on the part of Amhara and Oromo at their lack of political voice. In early August, when protesters across Amhara and Oromia states called for political reform and an end to human rights abuses at least 90 individuals were reported to have been shot and killed by security forces as they suppressed the action. The protests gained global recognition at Rio de Janeiro when Ethiopian Olympic marathon silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa, as he reached the finish line, held his hands crossed over his head, a recognised gesture in the current protest.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21: Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia celebrates as he crosses the line to win silver during the Men's Marathon on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Sambodromo on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Feyisa Lilesa crosses the finish line in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

The Ethiopian government has claimed that opponents of the regime purposely exploited the Bishoftu gathering for political purposes. But those involved in the gathering have claimed government spokespeople tried exactly that tactic themselves by using the platform to address the crowd on political matters, thereby angering many of those present. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the tragic events at Bishoftu, New Zealand must urge the Ethiopian government to respond constructively, not repressively, to the calls from Amharas and Oromo for political reform.

This is classic preventive diplomacy, something New Zealand has called on the Security Council to do more of.

In Syria we are witnessing the painful and tormented unravelling of a minority (Alawite) regime which over generations excluded other communities, notably the Sunni Muslim majority, from politics and government. Ethiopia is a far bigger country than Syria, with a proud history of independence, one which long made it a beacon for the rest of the continent when it was under colonial rule. If Ethiopia unravels, the whole of Africa is at risk.

On 9 September Labour deputy leader Annette King called on the government to speak out “on behalf of Ethiopian men, women, and children, who are being killed, shot, burnt, and imprisoned by the government of Ethiopia”. Both on the Security Council, where New Zealand’s term has three months to run, and in Addis Ababa, in representations to the Ethiopian government and the African Union, New Zealand should voice its concern at recent repression in Ethiopia in the strongest possible terms.

Then we sought the votes of African governments; now we must seek the welfare of African people, which means their political as well as social and economic well-being.

Nureddin Abdurahman is a postgraduate student in international relations at Victoria University, and an Ethiopian of Oromo descent. Malcolm McKinnon is currently teaching in the Political Science and International Relations programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

This post originally appeared at Incline.

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