September 18th marked the official opening of the 67th session of the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly (GA). In the coming weeks, leaders of the international organization’s 193 member states will convene at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, among them the leaders of 50 African countries. Three of these countries—South Africa, Egypt, and Ethiopia—were part of the founding members who gathered in San Francisco in 1945 to sign the Charter at the United Nations Conference on International Organization, giving birth what we now know as the United Nations. The aim, reads the charter document, is essentially to “maintain international peace and security.”
As we know, every year, member state leaders meet at the HQ, providing a forum to discuss issues affecting the global community. This year’s provisional agenda includes a report by the Human Rights Council on the promotion of human rights; one by the the International Court of Justice addressing the promotion of international law and justice; and another on Africa’s development, discussing both the cause of conflict and how to ensure peace and sustainable development.
These are high-level discussions covering broad, important topics. What does it all mean to ordinary citizens? We’ve put together our own “U.N. advisory board” made up of members of the African diaspora living in New York. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be profiling and sharing their views and wish-lists on changes they would like to see their home country.
NAME: Vigil Chime
OCCUPATION: Author / Filmmaker
YEARS IN USA: 34
Like many other African countries, Nigeria joined the United Nations in 1960 after gaining independence, becoming its 99th member. In its maiden address at that year’s General Assembly, Nigerian Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa referred to the meeting as the “supreme conference in the world,” saying if the ideas on which it is based are really accepted, then one would expect every representative, no matter from where he comes, to feel absolutely free to express the mind of the country he represents…”
“Here lies Vigil. African.”
It’s the four words Vigil Chime wants written on her tombstone. It’s indicative of the love she feels for the continent she was born on, and the country she was born in, Nigeria.
Chime was 10 years old when her parents decided to leave their home in Enugu State, Nigeria to move to Houston, Texas—now the state of one of the largest populations of Nigerians in the United States. She describes that time as the start of what was to be more than a decade of loneliness. “Children at school were mean and had expectations of who they thought I should be because I came from Africa,” she says.
It was only after moving to New York in her early twenties that she started to feel more comfortable with her identity. “I started to talk to African vendors I saw on the street. I listened to their stories and felt the need to share them,” she says. She later spent three years filming profiles of the people she met, eventually producing a documentary titled African Life that aired on a local station.
Though she refers to the U.S. as her adopted home, every year she returns to Nigeria with her American-born son. “We go to the village,” she says. “This is Africa to me. No shoes on, running through the sand, no water, no electricity. This [my son] must do. And still he’ll come home and say Africa is a good place.”
When I ask about Nigeria’s role as a U.N. member state, she acknowledges the need to be an active participant, but would rather see Nigeria’s leaders spending more time and money focusing on the plight of Nigerians. “First have free education, first have an efficient health care system, first have roads that doesn’t mean sitting in traffic for hours— then go outside and worry about the international community,” she insists. She’s frustrated by the by what she calls the lack of responsibility shown by the country’s leaders, and wants to seem them being accountable for and to those living in poverty despite the country’s economic growth.
NAME: Mohammed Ademo
BIRTH PLACE: Ethiopia
OCCUPATION: Journalist, Graduate Student
YEARS IN USA: Nine
Journalist Mohammed Ademo left Ethiopia nearly a decade ago. It was more need than choice. Openly critical of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his government, Ademo says “It will be dangerous for me to go back.”
Press freedom remains elusive in Ethiopia. The website he founded, OPride.com, provides news and analysis on Ethiopia and largely the Horn of Africa and has been banned in his home country. Ademo though, remains outspoken as he continues his work from afar, using his website as a way to inform and educate. He’s hopeful change will come, partly through support from international institutions like the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC). “[The HRC] has issued some reports and statements last year on the lack of press freedom in Ethiopia and I hope those initiatives will continue,” he says.
Currently a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Ademo has had the opportunity to interact with many U.N. officials. He acknowledges the contributions made through the organizations peacekeeping missions, humanitarian aid assistance and the promotion of human rights and speaks proudly of Ethiopia’s role. As one of the founding members of the United Nations, the East African country’s involvement is extensive. Ethiopia was part of the Decolonization Committee that sought to help the hundreds of millions still under colonial rule in the late 1940s, which in turn helped drive the African Independence Movement. Ethiopia also served on one of the U.N.’s main organs, the Security Council, in the late 1960s and then from 1989 to 1990. There’s also been on the ground involvement in peacekeeping missions in various parts of the world. Think of the Korean War during the early fifties—Ethiopian troops were there. Congo’s crisis during the sixties—Ethiopian troops were there. So too during post-genocide in Rwanda.
Ademo’s wish is for the U.N. to take more decisive action, saying they often fail to hold member states accountable to adopted conventions. “I think the U.N. has great conventions, great laws on human rights, in press freedom, in religious freedom and I think holding member states accountable to those conventions and great ideals would improve and change peoples perception of the U.N. not just as a body that just sits there and doesn’t do anything,” he says. First on his list would be the current crisis in Syria.