Through the early part of the 2010s 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 that campaign, New Zealand diplomats and government representatives criss-crossed Africa – 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 cheque book but it promised a variety of types of social and economic assistance – agricultural expertise, language training for officials, and educational scholarships amongst them.
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 at present is Ethiopia itself, the heart of the African diplomatic world and where New Zealand’s African ‘footprint’ (South Africa aside) is now most visible.
Over this last weekend many Oromo people - one source estimated two million - gathered at Bishoftu, just outside Addis Ababa, to celebrate Irrechaa, the Oromo thanksgiving festival, 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 over 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 seven percent 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 protestors across Amhara and Oromia states called for political reform and an end to human rights abuses Reuters reported at least 90 individuals shot and killed by security forces as they suppressed the protests. The protests gained global recognition at Rio de Janeiro when Ethiopian marathon silver medallist Feyisa Lelisa, as he reached the finish line, held his hands crossed over his head, a recognized gesture in the current protest.
The Ethiopian government has claimed that opponent 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.