“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” said Winston Churchill – Britain’s Second World War leader. He was talking of how his country’s failure to re-arm after the First World War made a second conflict inevitable. But he could just as easily have been talking about colonialism – something, ironically, this great liberator of Europe believed should have continued in Africa and Asia after WWII was won.
The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was founded in those post war years precisely to protect against a repeat of the colonialist project. As country after country achieved its independence, many joined NAM – including Uganda which joined in 1964, immediately after independence - and the organisation became a powerful voice for freedom in the Cold War world: neither with the capitalist West or the communist East – but a “third pole”, strong and tall.
NAM was a power broker – the “swing votes” at the UN - courted by east and west. It was a force for the formerly oppressed, its sheer existence proof most of the world refused to come down on either side.
Yet, as Churchill opined, countries such as ours may have failed to learn from history. Without a counterforce against colonialism, there is always a chance for it to repeat, just in a different form for a different age.
Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, NAM went to sleep. Meetings became sporadic, and many believed the organisation without a purpose or future.
But it is clear today the battle against colonialism was not completed in those post-War years. What was not defeated was replaced by neo colonialism – the control of countries though independent in name through many means, but namely through the media, money, and debt. NAM’s purpose was far from done.
To be fair to Great Britain, the world’s foremost “old” colonizer, apologies have been given – most recently by King Charles III during a visit to Kenya for his predecessors’ reign of oppression. Today Britain seeks partnerships in the world based on mutual respect, for instance with Uganda the beneficiary of the UK’s new, generous post-Brexit preferential trade scheme, DCTS.
But Britain’s leading former colonial competitor – France – has offered no such equivalent statements of sorrow. Instead, they continue to this day as the world’s leading neo-colonial force.
In west and central Africa France has sucked so-called independent countries dry for decades after colonialism was supposed to have ended, through control of two currencies – the west and central African francs – used by 14 African countries. These nations must deposit at least 50% of their foreign assets in the French Treasury, clearly a way for France to maintain economic dominance over them. So desperate for the independence they have in name but not reality, in the last twelve months country after country in French-speaking Africa have demanded French military, diplomats, and business interests leave.
In other parts of the world France refuses to allow any further independence: in 2021 the last of three independence referenda in the French territory of New Caledonia in the South Pacific was intentionally derailed by security pressure; last year on the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean, the murder last year of an independence leader led to island-wide riots and the injury of 76 police.
French neo-colonial interests even extend to countries never part of their former empire. In the last two years they have derailed a peace process in the south Caucasus in favour of Armenia, a country where they seek arms sales. French diplomats have publicly rebuked Azerbaijan – Armenia’s neighbour – and emboldened the million-strong Armenian diaspora in France to pressure the French National Assembly to pass laws against Azerbaijan while vilifying the country in its media.
In an unlikely coincidence, Azerbaijan is the current chair of NAM. Or, perhaps, it is no coincidence at all. Azerbaijan has sought to win back a quarter of the territory of its country known as Nagorno-Karabakh illegally occupied by Armenian neo-colonialists for three decades and, in a 44-day war in 2020 and then a 24-hour military operation in 2023, this was finally achieved.
For France this was clearly unacceptable, and instead of supporting efforts for peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia it has used its power first to undermine European Union-led peace negotiations from within, dispatching senior French politicians – including the Mayor of Paris – to Nagorno-Karabakh before its liberation to praise Armenian separatist leaders. France even allowed its own citizens of Armenian descent to fight in the 2020 conflict without penalty, in direct refutation of international law.
Standing up against such attempts of geopolitical manipulation is exactly what NAM was created for. Under Azerbaijan’s leadership the group has widely recognised as revived, with international media as far afield as Australia confirming “there is life in the Non-Aligned Movement yet”.
In January 2024 Azerbaijan passes the chairmanship baton to Uganda, at a time when our country is under pressure from neo-colonialist powers who demand our conservative and religious nation rescind AHA - a law written by our own hand for the purposes of child protection and to prohibit the teaching of modern western social mores in our schools. Ugandans should rightly reject neo-colonialist demands on our independent, sovereign country.
NAM is back, and all its members starting with the organization’s new Chair, Uganda, have a duty to ensure that it flourishes. Without a constant international group to stand up against neo-colonialism both western and eastern, the world will be poorer, less safe, and more prone to conflict. Churchill was certainly right on that lesson from history for the modern day.
The author, Jay Arry, is a farmer in Western Uganda