SOAS students in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, April 2019

Words by Aashika Doshi and Melanie Mylvaganam

Last month, SOAS history was made as CISD online and campus students came together to participate in the very first study tour to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

As with all CISD study tours, this trip was full of many firsts for us as a small, but diverse group. For some of us it was the first time visiting Ethiopia, while for a couple of us it was our first time on the continent.

As aspiring diplomats we were extremely grateful to be accompanied by Nick Westcott, Director of the Royal African Society and former UK Ambassador, whose influence opened doors to many invaluable networking opportunities, including with several Ambassadors and Deputy Ambassadors to the African Union (AU).

One of the highlights of the trip was our SCRAP panel event. Represented were Dr Nicholas Westcott; Dr Olamide Samuel, SCRAP Project Coordinator; Dr Dan Plesch, Director, CISD; and Melanie Mylvaganam, CISD MA student, who presented the department’s Strategic Concept for the Removal of Arms and Proliferation, in Africa for the first time.

A humbling experience was meeting our fellow diplomacy students at the School of Diplomacy & International Relations, Ethiopian Civil Service University. Like us, these students are pursuing a diplomatic career at an interesting time in history – one where connections and a mutual desire to come together is becoming increasingly important.

Perhaps the most memorable session of the week was our sit-down with the Foreign Minister herself. We were overwhelmed that Ms Hirut Zemene was kind enough to keep her appointment with a group of students, on what was clearly a very eventful day for regional politics with the arrest and removal from power of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, unfolding during our meeting!

Another first was explained to us by the AU, in the process of attempting to create the very first unified passport for the African continent, to promote internal and external freedom of movement. As H.E. Albert Muchanga, African Union Trade Commissioner explained, the design of the passport includes elements of the nationalities of each individual country.

In line with this, our tea break at the African Union consisted of national favourites around the continent; mine was a puff puff, which I was told originated from Nigeria. These small sentiments not only made us feel welcome but helped us understand and appreciate even more the Ethiopian history and heritage about which we were learning so much over the week.

In the afternoon we were privileged to meet with the T&I Commissioner in charge of the Continental Free Trade Area, who had an optimistic certainty regarding negotiations. However there was a noticeable disconnect to the perspectives that were presented to us earlier that morning around the same issues by the Commissioners Senior Industrial Adviser Frank Mugyenyi. It was clear through Agenda 2063 that Addis officials were acutely aware of how much development needs to take place on the continent as a whole. But, more importantly, that making change needs to be done in the right way to ensure the potential it has is not lost in the economic race to the top.

It is impossible to reflect on our time in Addis without appreciating the incredible staff and academics’ unique support that helped to make the trip what it was. In particular, Fadil Elobeid’s practical experience around Addis was invaluable, while Nick’s extensive knowledge about the continent and Ethiopia allowed us to feed our curiosity to extraordinary levels.  

Our week in Addis was full of contrasts and comparisons, experiences and reflections. We are keenly aware of the privilege it was to meet and learn from as many senior officials and diplomats as we did who were keen to nurture our curiosities and treated us as the next generation of colleagues. As one might expect from any SOAS student, we were almost equally glad to be immersed, however briefly, in a city that is in many ways a gateway to Africa for the diplomatic community, and to a region of the Global South. Simultaneously, the poverty gap we saw was stark and heart-breaking; made uncomfortably personal by the periodic knocking of begging women and children on our van doors at traffic stops.

However, regardless of the challenges foreseen, the optimism and determination for positive change could not be extinguished. It became apparent to me that this was an intrinsic part of Africa’s plans to move forward. Every single institution and person that we met welcomed us with unparalleled warmth and kindness – willing to answer all our questions and eager to teach us about past, present and future days in the hope of working together to enable such ambitious plans.

“The one who is mistaken is the one who does nothing.” Ethiopian proverb

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