NAM offers us chance to shine, push Uganda’s agenda – Amb. Ayebare

Ambassador Adonia Ayebare. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

First conceived at the Afro-Asia Bandung Conference held in Indonesia in 1955, the Non Alignment Movement (NAM) came to fruition in 1961 at Belgrade Conference orchestrated by then Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, and India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Today NAM is an alliance of 120 states and serves as a platform to push the agenda of developing countries as Uganda’s permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Adonia Ayebare told Daily Monitor’s writes Frederic Musisi.

NAM’s initial driving forces were decolonisation and neutrality in the US-USSR grudge match, none of which is into play today. What does the alliance represent then?

The name is, of course, for historical reasons but the Bundung principles on which NAM was founded are still relevant. The view, then, was that members shouldn’t ally with either superpower but rather focus on development. But now among NAM, you have fast-developing countries, nuclear powers, so in short the principles of solidarity, good relations among states, still stand. We have also since invented a term called strategic non-alignment; it doesn’t mean you are neutral, but rather work with everybody that serves the interests of developing countries—from peacebuilding to safeguarding our independence. Initially, NAM became irrelevant in the 1990s and 2000s as the Cold War went down but now developing countries really want to work together—it is like the Bundung principles were written yesterday.

The votes in 2021 and 2022 to reprimand Russia over its invasion of Ukraine sort of brought those principles to the test. Many developing countries called out Russia but when it came to voting they were tongue-tied ostensibly due to pressure from the West. Isn’t this argument lame?

Actually, that brought NAM discussions back to the table because these are contending issues; there are two sides. We are not oblivious to what is going on but by taking sides, do you help the situation? I don’t want to be cynical: these are wars that affected developing countries but we have nothing to do with them in terms of being actors. Taking sides would only draw us into the conflict so that is why we are still of the view that this is a conflict that can be solved amicably. In the case of Uganda, our Constitution is clear—that Uganda we pursue a non-aligned foreign policy.

In all votes, Uganda voted to abstain but here you are underlining neutrality. Dictionary-wise they mean different things but in the prism of NAM what’s the difference?

When we abstained during the first vote, we were few countries but during subsequent votes, the number of abstaining countries increased. Countries realise that we are alive to the situation and we call for the ending of this conflict but this is how we are going to do this, especially by avoiding the pressures that take away our sovereignty. So we are not being neutral in the way but also because when you vote yes you are directly taking sides. One of the things that can come from taking sides is unpredictability but in our case, we are not, in all votes on Russia and Middle East. That is why we were given the chairmanship of NAM: they don’t just choose any country. So we have built our reputation as a principled country.

Hasn’t it dawned on the developing—NAM—states yet that this war is another West/Russia grudge match and fence-sitting doesn’t matter? Russia had its legitimate reasons and acted unilaterally because international norms have come to be selectively applied. But now we are seeing the other side busy cashing in big on arms sales to Ukraine.

Actually, Africa has got involved, and Uganda is among the core states to be involved with the Brazzaville system led by former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and his team. The idea is that if Africa wants to project its power around the world we cannot remain passive participants, and African views were presented to both Russian and Ukrainian delegations. Of course, cynics might say, ooh, who are you; you have many problems of your own so get lost, but that sent a strong signal that we have a role to play because when such conflicts break out we get affected but also when we have issues in our own turf we are always reminded to solve them through peaceful means. But if you take sides you even lose the credibility to offer a solution.

Sixty years ago when NAM was founded, Africa and Asia had a supply of visionary leaders that daringly led anti-colonial/imperialist struggles, stood up against the West and can be argued espoused what NAM stood for. The crop of leaders we’ve seen from the mid-1980s are power-hungry chauvinists, and some ever doing bidding of foreign interests. Could that explain NAM’s hibernation?

Those are your own words, but what I can say is that leaders are really for their time. When you look at leaders like Kwame Nkurumah, Julius Nyerere, and many in their generation, they really responded to issues of nation-building and independence in the era of the Cold War. The leaders that came after, and of today face[d] totally different challenges. We can debate democracy and governance, and whatnot the entire day, but you don’t take stability for granted; recall at some point West Africa was a model for democracy in Africa, but what is happening today? Stability and economic development are very important aspects, and they are not mutually exclusive. Actually, NAM has avoided delving into the internal affairs of countries but when you look at the outcome document of NAM countries mention what they are doing and others oppose them, so it is not that NAM is about rubberstamping. So, the leaders you call self-seekers are perhaps focused on other areas just like the leaders that came before them were focused on fighting colonialism and surviving the Cold War.

After the first NAM summit in 1961 during which Tito, Nasser and Nehru swore not to go East nor West, Nehru turned to US when the Sino-India war broke out in 1962 while his successor Indira Ghandi turned to USSR; Egypt dumped USSR for US in the 1970s until today, etc.  President Museveni is on record waxing lyrical of how Moscow is Africa’s truest ally since they don’t remind him about his long stay in power. Doesn’t that defeat the whole logic?

Yeah….you know the Cold War was really a difficult period for developing countries. Remember in the 1960s most countries had just attained independence and there were all these pressures that were intense and you were forced to take sides. There was one country, Tanzania, which shrugged off all pressures; in Ghana Kwame Nkurumah fell victim to a coup sponsored by one of the sides; you know what happened to Patrice Lumumba in Zaire, etc: that period was quite fragile and complex. But now the dynamics in the developing South are different. You have blocks like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that represent $3.6trillion dollars of world GDP projecting power: member states like Vietnam have a strategic relationship with the US and China. So the developing south has changed; not the one you are describing that was vulnerable. We can defend our interests while relating with these powers in a multipolar world. So there are advantages of remaining in NAM but in a restructured way to remain responsive to prevailing global dynamics but also maintain cohesiveness.

 Founders of the Non-Aligned Movement: Then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, former Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, former Indonesian President Sukarno and thenYugoslav President Josip Broz Tito during a conference that resulted in the formation of NAM in 1961 in Belgrade, the capital of then Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. PHOTO/COURTESY OF ARCHIVES OF YUGOSLAVIA

To what extent is that redefinition manifesting? -I mean you have this raging Israel-Palestine conflict and everyone is watching the horror and terror, and Palestine is one of NAM members but the silence of the global south speaks volumes.

No, no….they are not quiet in a way. I mean, what is going on is terrible on both sides. I mean, one of the principles of NAM is to defend the interests of Palestine: to ensure that it is an independent state. NAM is the only organisation with a standing ministerial committee on Palestine, which takes place during every summit and Uganda ascribes to a two-state solution, and that is a principled position of many NAM countries, and we will continue advocating for that even at the summit in Kampala.

Towards the collapse of USSR in the mid-1980s Washington floated the Reagan Doctrine, which detailed financial and military support against communist states in the global south. 30years+ on after the USSR fell, the global south is under bondage of Western hegemony and states such as Eritrea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran are vilified. Don’t you think NAM is irrelevant in light of this?

We have been through the worst: we have been through colonialism and that ended, then a phase of civil wars and political instability, which is also ending in many parts.  What you have now is domination by other means, and that is why assemblies like NAM are important and when we meet we keep on repeating the need for solidarity—you have mentioned the trials of Cuba and Venezuela— to call for non-interference in affairs of other countries, which is a core NAM principle. We are also against unilateral coercive economic measures like the embargo on Cuba, the sanctions on Venezuela and Iran. NAM has been consistent, and our voices find themselves into UN processes. As a caucusing tool, it’s important but you are also right in a way that it doesn’t have teeth but you’ll be surprised that when NAM is meeting the US and its EU allies are in corridors because they know that the messages that come out reverberate and there is always consensus: we are diverse but always have consensus on the core principles.

Are they unifying factors in any way?

Oh yeah, they cut across. We disagree on so many things but on the core principles such as territorial integrity, non-interference, independence, these are unifying factors. Countries don’t like other countries to be bullied because who knows who is next; look at Zimbabwe, for years NAM stood in solidarity with them during the wave of sanctions, and they were getting support from member states. Venezuela has been supplying cheap fuel to some countries when in need. For as long as there is an avenue where we can express solidarity and support each other is important.

Just like in the case of the African Union there is growing disillusionment that inasmuch it rejects bullying by the West it is always quiet when countries are derailing. You mention Zimbabwe but who didn’t see how ZANU-PF slid into madness; the recent spate of coups in West Africa was a long-term build-up of discontent; the deficiency in good governance. How and when do you draw the line?

The institutions that bring countries together are really complex processes. That is why NAM is deliberately not institutionalised; it doesn’t have a secretariat nor headquarters. The idea was, as a forum where countries are in charge of their affairs, make it simple and easy. You can’t compare it with the AU which is built like the UN: the AU’s charter is quite intrusive in affairs of member states, and of course, it is informed by the African experience but the jury is out on whether that was a good model and that is why it raises a lot of eyebrows when dealing with issues like coups. Coups are internal mechanisms and some are popular; how do you deal with such? But NAM is different and countries cannot be expelled over this and that such as coups. In instances like wars, countries will pronounce themselves against the matter for internal processes for as long as there is consensus that is perceived to be the business of member countries. NAM also doesn’t want to be like Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in that an attack on one is an attack on all; it is expressing solidarity within the means. Despite its dysfunction, it has persisted. Inter-state relations are not easy; countries don’t like to be told what to do; they don’t like strong institutions that constrain action.

There are growing calls by especially China and Russia for inclusive multilateralism, which some fear is bad news for the global order. Is NAM in support of this?

Absolutely…during the meetings in Kampala—at the Summits of the Future, there is a session on global governance. For instance, calls for the General Assembly (the parliament of the whole world) being involved in case there is paralysis in the Security Council, which has primary responsibility over global security—when the Permanent five; China, Russia, US, France, and UK—have deadlocked over several issues like Ukraine. There is an article in the Uniting for Peace Charter that was used during the Suez Canal crisis; when France and the UK invaded Egypt, the US got angry because they were blindsided on attack on the canal, which is a shipping artery in global trade so they bypassed the Security Council and went to the General Assembly and got a resolution that stopped the war. So there are conversations about the potential of the General Assembly, and G77 and NAM will look at it critically; I can’t really speak for them but it is a very attractive proposal that is up for deliberation.

NAM has neither a constitution nor secretariat, isn’t that a problem for a chairing country?

No, no, there’s actually a working document— called the Cartagena document (adopted at the NAM summit held in Colombia in 1995)—and it details rules of procedure of how our decisions are made and arrived at; for lack of a better word, it is our bible. So to chair/coordinate you have to know these rules. Whoever is representing Uganda has to know the contents of that document otherwise any slight mistake might cause problems.

How ready is Uganda to chair NAM and G77 out of the Mission in New York given the government’s chronic underfunding of foreign service and the mediocrity and incompetence with which  public servants approach things, and won’t that have a bearing?

Bearing—yes, and no. Money and resources are important but what is more important is having a plan. What has helped us is we have known we are chairing NAM and G-77 for the past one year, and what I have personally done is benchmark on what previous chairing countries have done. What I learnt is that quantity doesn’t but the quality of personnel matters. Have an agile staff and also as a leader be on top of the issues and you’ll succeed. What also helps me is that I have been around.

Ambassador Ayebare’s opinion on Uganda’s oeadiness to host NAM

How ready is Uganda to chair NAM and G77 out of the Mission in New York given the government’s chronic underfunding of foreign service and the mediocrity and incompetence with which public servants approach things, and won’t that have a bearing?

Bearing—yes, and no. Money and resources are important but what is more important is having a plan. What has helped us is we have known we are chairing NAM and G-77 for the past one year, and what I have personally done is benchmark on what previous chairing countries have done. What I learnt is that quantity doesn’t but the quality of personnel matters. Have an agile staff and also as a leader be on top of the issues and you’ll succeed. What also helps me is that I have been around.