The 121 countries of the Non-Aligned Movement agree on one thing: It is time to assert their place in a divided world.

A map of the world with cracks in it.

A Risk game board of the world with cracks in it. (Illustration by News Decoder)

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In a world that seems to divide between the superpowers that are China, Europe, Russia and the United States, 120 nations gathered in Uganda this month to demonstrate their independence — 121 with the addition of South Sudan which joined at the conference. Its entry means that the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) now comprises every African nation.

“It was the only African country that was not a member of NAM,” said Ambassador Adonai Ayebare, Uganda’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. “That they are joining now, we are a complete African family in the Non-Aligned Movement.”

The 19th Summit of NAM ran from 15 to 20 January 2024 and drew attention to the challenges and opportunities faced by developing nations worldwide, under the theme “Deepening Cooperation For Shared Global Affluence.”

It marked Uganda’s most significant international event since a meeting of the leaders of the 56 Commonwealth countries in 2007.

As the discussions kicked off, the spotlight swung to Uganda, a country that has recently carved a niche for passing laws that persecute the LGBTQ community. Consequently, the country was eliminated from the African Growth and Opportunity Act — the trade deal which provides duty-free access to the U.S. market for over 6,000 products.

Super powers and self-determination

In reaction, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni noted that the World Bank and U.S. allies used money as bait for Uganda to reverse the controversial law.

Speaking at the NAM Summit, Museveni railed against coercion. “If you say you are a democrat, why not respect the freedoms of everybody?” he said. “Why don’t you seek to influence people by your good example, instead of manipulation, lectures and threats?”

Museveni’s statements boldly diverge from tradition, as he seeks to quell discord with unequivocal denunciations of Europeans as historical ‘bullies.’ He attributes centuries of ‘evil’ in Africa to what he deems the European implementation of misguided ‘idiotic schemes.’

Jonathan Tabalanga, a Ugandan international relations analyst and lecturer, has analyzed Museveni’s stance on global pressures. “The challenge we have with NAM is, can they unanimously have one voice?” Tabalanga said.

He said that most of these conflicts are ideological and emanate from positions divergent from African presidents.

“So what should Uganda do?” Tabalanga said. “It’s a tricky process especially in these diplomatic terms.”

Finding a single vision and voice

Tabalanga believes that dependence on foreign aid has members of NAM chopping logic. “If you want aid from some powers, you limit your position in global politics,” he said.

Samuel Kazibwe, a Ugandan media expert and academician, highlighted historical instances where non-aligned countries exhibited varying degrees of alignment with the superpowers. He questioned the group’s unity and impact.

“From the start, non-aligned countries have had no single vision in practice,” Kazibwe said. “One year after the establishment of NAM, one of the founding fathers, Nehru of India sought alliance with the U.S.A. during the war that pitted India against China. Egypt in the 70s switched from the Soviet Union to the U.S., and many more.”

In contrast, Edward Francis Babu, Uganda’s former minister and a strong member of the ruling party, declared that Africa is on the rise to recognition. He rejected the idea of the futility of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Ugandan lawyer, human rights and social justice campaigner Sarah Birette sees NAM as a group of weak states.

“They are easily ignored, manipulated or coerced,” Birette said. “Their weak economies coupled with bad governance can’t enable them to be taken as a serious group. They are the least contributors towards global GDP and market primary commodities with no value addition.”

Population power

Babu calls that ‘propaganda.’

“When Africa suffered partition in the 1874 Berlin conference, these guys captured all our riches and powers,” Babu said. He referred to the gathering of 14 European nations that resulted in the creation of the African colonies. “They now have all the nuclear arsenal, store all our money in their banks. It makes them think they hold the economy.”

In fact, Museveni told delegates at the summit that the images they see that stereotype Africa as poor and lacking do not represent the whole continent. “We have everything,” Museveni said.

It raised the question of whether non-aligned equates to conflict with the Global North. Joseph Ochieno, a Ugandan writer and Pan-Africanist, disagreed. “Non-alignment doesn’t necessarily mean you have nothing to do with Moscow or Washington or Beijing or London,” he said. “It simply means that you are taking a position and you are not going to be pushed to become a ‘hangman.’”

Babu said it is about independence. “You just have to take an independent position on governance, but cannot refuse to work with the aligned,” he said. “The biggest wheat producer in the world is Russia and the biggest producer of technology and weapons is America. You see what I mean.”

Babu said that NAM has been trying to navigate such powers. “Now it has become clearer that the power of the world is much greater than that of nuclear arsenals,” he said. He believes that if the non-aligned countries — who are often categorised as the Global South — decided to withdraw all their money that is stored in those so-called powers, these powers would risk bankruptcy.

“What would actually happen is immigration would reverse. You’d see Europeans running to Africa, suffering from food scarcity,” he said. “So if put together, NAM countries are wealthier than the aligned ones.”

The power of markets

Babu emphasised the potential diplomatic dividends for Uganda in leading the NAM during its three-year chairmanship. “The purpose of NAM is to lobby and represent developing countries at the UN and other international forums.”

In a similar context, Tabalanga thought that Uganda now had the opportunity to advance the objectives of NAM. “We should show the other NAM members that we are capable of delivering the mandate of the Movement,” Tabalanga said. “We should cooperate and open markets for each other. The NAM community is over 4.4 billion in population, that’s market enough.”

Ochieno said that to create this market, Uganda needs to identify products and services to sell to these countries.

Uganda’s thriving $50 billion economy is already interwoven with the rapid expansion of the $305 billion East African Community. Recognized as the continent’s fastest-growing and most diversified economic bloc, the East African Community’s impact resonates across a population of 300 million people.

But not all is focused on development. Uganda hosts NAM in the most trying times for the conscience of the world as its members navigate positions on the conflict in Gaza.

Babu called on the member nations to support South Africa’s petition to the International Court of Justice against Israel.

Hosting the NAM Summit is not only seen as a diplomatic triumph for Uganda but also as a potential boost to its tourism sector. Ochieno highlighted the positive press and tourism influx the country may experience as a result.

Outside Uganda, the world watches to see how the Non-Aligned Movement navigates the complex challenges faced by its diverse member states, and whether it can truly deepen cooperation for shared global affluence.

Kazibwe cautioned against expecting too much. “We must appreciate that NAM almost died with the collapse of the USSR in 1991,” Kazibwe said. “So what we see in the last 20 years is an attempt at resurrection, and yet no tangible result has come out of this process.”


Three questions to consider:

  1. What is the Non-Aligned Movement?
  2. What are two ways the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement could assert power?
  3. If you were a leader of a small nation, would you think it better to ally with a country like the United States or Russia or try to be independent?
Enock Wanderema

Enock Wanderema graduated in 2022 from Uganda’s Christian University, with a first class degree in Mass Communication and Journalism. He is a regular contributor to Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper and has been an intern in the Kampala office of UN Global Pulse. He loves writing and bringing complex stories to life in the simplest ways.

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