External Affairs

Under Shadow of Attacks on African Students, Envoys Attend MEA-Organised Africa Day Event

Their decision to attend came as a result of the foreign ministry’s frantic damage control efforts.

ICCR Director General C. Rajasekhar, ICCR president Lokesh Chandra, former Foreign Secretary, Shashank , Dean of Group of African Heads of Mission Alem Tsehaye Woldemariam observe silence for Congolese student Masonda Ketada Olivier who was beaten to death by a group of men in Delhi last week, during the Africa Day Celebration at ICCR in New Delhi on Thursday. Credit: PTI

ICCR Director General C. Rajasekhar, ICCR president Lokesh Chandra, former Foreign Secretary, Shashank , Dean of Group of African Heads of Mission Alem Tsehaye Woldemariam observe silence for Congolese student Masonda Ketada Olivier who was beaten to death by a group of men in Delhi last week, during the Africa Day Celebration at ICCR in New Delhi on Thursday. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: One by one, the Mercedes and BMW cars glided in front of the marigold doorway inside Azad Bhawan in central Delhi, the occupants alighting into the warm Thursday afternoon and averting a potential diplomatic loss of face for India.

African heads of missions arrived to attend the Africa Day event organised by the foreign ministry’s cultural wing, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), after their ‘request’ to postpone the event over the murder of Congolese student Masonda Ketada Oliver led to frantic damage-control efforts by the Ministry of External Affairs on Wednesday.

As sources had indicated to The Wire on Wednesday night, the African envoys agreed to join the MEA-organised function with the formal endorsement by a meeting of the Group of African Heads of Mission late morning.

The second statement to be issued this week by Eritrean Ambassador A.T. Woldemariam, dean of the Group of African Heads of Mission, said that the decision to attend the inaugural ceremony of the ICCR event, including the panel discussion, came after the Indian government “demonstrated a positive and warm disposition,” as well as a “strong, public condemnation of the killing of Mr Olivier”

The statement stressed that the “earlier decision to request a postponement does and should not have been construed as a boycott”. The May 24 press release from the African group had asked for a postponement of the ICCR function as the African community was in a “state of mourning in memory of the slain African students in the past few years, including Mr Olivier”.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had taken to Twitter on Wednesday morning to lead the damage control, with Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh chairing an urgent meeting in the afternoon.

The African group reiterated that African students in India “constitute the essential pillars” of the building of diplomatic relationships. Earlier this week, the African envoys had claimed to have “little option” but to recommend to their capitals to stop sending new students to India.

In their latest statement, the African ambassadors said they “took very seriously the firm assurances by the Government of India in its determination to ensure that India continues to serve as a safe, secure and friendly destination for Africa students”.

Not surprisingly, the issue of African students facing discrimination in frequent incidents across India was raised by nearly by all the ambassadors who spoke at the panel discussion.

The bluntest words were from the acting high commissioner of Nigeria, Sola Enikanolaiye. “Ideas like partnership, brotherhood, friendship and solidarity will continue to ring hollow as long as Africans feel generally unsafe in streets and campuses of India,” he asserted.

“Racism against black Africans in India is a major concern. Ugly incidents like what we consider barbaric attacks on Africans, murder in cold blood have met with outrage. Recent incidents in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi last week – are part several instances in last three years like in Goa – give cause for very serious concern for safety of Africa youth in your great country,” Eninkanolaiye said.

While stressing on the need to bring the perpetrators to “speedy justice,” he also underlined for the Indian police to be more sensitive. “In many complaints, police were called, but they took forever to arrive”.

The veteran Nigerian diplomat asked provocatively, “Do Africans, black Africans, have any great future in this country beyond education and acquisition of skills. Would it to not be best for them to acquire these skills and move on.. I am afraid, I don’t have the answer”.

Former Indian ambassador Virender Singh, who has spent nearly 14 years in Africa on diplomatic postings, also felt that this relationship of educational ties between Africa and India cannot be vitiated. “One of the defining features of post-colonial India-African ties has been emphasis on Human Resources Development and Capacity development. India is not flush with cash reserves. Nobody is expecting India to put money on table,” he said.

ICCR Director General C. Rajashekar pointed out that one of the key demands of the African countries – to issue student visas co-terminus with the period of their course – may soon be approved by the home ministry.

The minister of state later dropped in to inaugurate an exhibition and cultural function, and also acknowledged the most immediate concerns of the African envoys. “I deeply condemn the brutal killing of the young Oliver in a fit of crime and anger. It has shocked all of us. It has saddened us. We sympathise with Oliver’s family. And condemn this type of heinous crime. Hope this never happens again,” he said.

Ghanaian High Commissioner Samuel Panyin Yalley read out a poem dedicated to the slain student – “hear my cry, Africa”.

Meanwhile, a few kilometres away, foreign ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup had to face questions about the handling of the death of the Congolese student.

“Certainly, I will not deny…. The fact that African heads of missions were forced to issue a statement shows that there was depth of concern on their part,” he said.

Swarup admitted that there had been a backlash against Indians in Congo, with shops attacks and gunshots fired at Indians “possibly in reaction to the murder of the Congolese student in Delhi”.

The Wire had reported that the attacks against Indian shops began from Monday, but that the situation had improved after the assurances given by the Congolese government.

Swarup said a note verbale was issued to Congo’s foreign ministry with a copy to the Ministry of Interior and the police authorities to ensure safety of Indians in Congo. Nearly 10,000 Indians live in Congo.

Speaking to The Wire over phone from Kinshasa, an Indian businessman said that all markets had been closed down on Thursday due to large opposition rallies against the government. “There were no incidents today as we had shut down our shops in anticipation of the rallies. The city had closed down. We will get an idea if situation is normal by tomorrow morning,” he said.