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Justin Trudeau in Ethiopia for African Union meeting

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided to bring some star power from the sports world to his game plane in Africa this week, as he pursues support for a seat for Canada on the powerful United Nations Security Council.

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Trudeau arrived in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa Friday night, where he will attend a weekend session of the African Union. It’s a chance for Trudeau to meet directly with several of the 54 African leaders, whose votes at the June vote at the UN will be critical to Canada’s success.

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He is travelling with three of his cabinet ministers but the celebrity element goes to Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri, who Trudeau invited to join the delegation. Ujiri was raised in Nigeria, and played professional basketball in Europe before becoming a player scout and executive in the NBA.

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Ujiri, whose foundation Giants of Africa uses basketball as a means to educate and enrich the lives of African youth, was planning to travel to the continent to promote his own work, but he joined the Canadian trip after Trudeau asked him to come.

“I have relationships with leaders here and anyway we can help, anyway I can help, it’s a big part of making the world better,” Ujiri said.

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He said he has already had several conversations with Trudeau and with Ahmed Hussen, the federal minister for families, children and social development, about how he can use his work as an ambassador for sport to help. Hussen is also on the trip.

Ujiri flew to Ethiopia with Trudeau Friday and is participating in official events with Trudeau in both Addis Ababa and later in the week in Senegal. Ujiri was among those on hand with Trudeau for his initial meet-and-greet with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Friday.

Abiy and several of Ethiopia’s key cabinet ministers and diplomats met Trudeau at the airport, where an official welcome ceremony included an honour guard, a dance performance and a red carpet.

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This is Trudeau’s third visit to Africa as prime minister, but his first time in Ethiopia. He told Abiy in a brief conversation at the airport that he had intended to attend the African Union last year but wasn’t able to. Abiy assured him this time was a better time.

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The African Union is headquartered in Addis Ababa, which has become one of the biggest diplomatic cities in the world. Ethiopia is also a fast-growing economy, with per capita GDP soaring 189 per cent between 2000 and 2018. Trudeau praised Abiy’s work to bring about reforms.

The theme for this year’s summit is Silencing the Guns, as Africa works to reduce violence and conflict and promote economic growth and prosperity. Abiy himself just won the Nobel Peace Prize in part for his work to strike a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea, that finally solidified a deal backed by the United Nations 20 years ago that had never been implemented.

Alice Musabende, who is completing her doctorate in international relations focusing on Africa, said for the African Union, peace and security are the biggest priority. Canada has been largely absent from those discussions, she said, while the European Union and the Americans are more involved.

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“There is a lot of funding going in, there are a lot of missions,” she said. “Most of the funding comes from the EU, a lot of help comes from the UN but also from the United States. The problem is Canada is nowhere to be found in these discussions.”

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Hussen said he feels like Canada has engaged well with Africa over the last four years. Hussen, who moved to Canada as a refugee from Somalia, said he visited the continent nine times in his previous role as immigration minister. He pointed to a number of programs to aid African immigration, particularly students from Senegal and Morocco, who want to study in Canada.

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African students tend to be denied visas to study in Canada more often than those from most other countries. Hussen said the government is adding more visa application centres and introducing new services to help students, and has reduced processing times for applications in many offices.

“We attracted a record number of students from Africa,” he said.

Trudeau will have an official sit down with Abiy Saturday.

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Africa has 54 of the 193 total votes that will decide the Security Council’s non-permanent seats in June. Canada is in the running against Norway and Ireland for two spots at the table, each lasting for two years.

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Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg is also set to be at the African Union meeting this weekend. Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited the continent in January, including a stop to visit Abiy in Ethiopia.

Trudeau is spending three days in Ethiopia, and will travel to Senegal and Munich, Germany before returning to Canada next week.

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