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Why ‘non-alignment’ is obsolete, costly optical illusion

A truly non-aligned movement cannot emerge if African countries are not determined to politically break or shake off the new shackles of colonial control
19th summit of Non-Aligned Movement

“If ‘non-alignment’ were to mean anything, it would be revolution – through coups and violent struggle. Like Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso’s more recent shakeups, it would mean seeking to command the power to align with whoever we like – and not claiming a duplicitous, double-faced aura of non-alignment while entire economies of African countries are owned by capitalist Euro-America.”


Between 15-20 January, the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) met in Kampala. Despite the abundance of the acronym everywhere on signposts, and innumerable social media posts announcing the event, I would never have been reminded about the existence of this otherwise obsolete institution had it not been for the impending inconvenience Kampalans were being warned about closer to the event. I started working backwards. I specifically recalled a now-muted scandal where the proprietor of Speke Resort Hotel in Munyonyo, the venue for the event had been busted landfilling Lake Victoria to expand the facility ahead of this event. I got angrier especially because I appreciate the obsoleteness of this movement. It is good only for the optics of it. In addition to damaging an eco-system, consider that Uganda invested own money into this facility to host a thing with almost zero significance. (I’ll leave aside the small matter of a week-long inconvenience suffered by businessmen, workers and labourers in Kampala and its suburbs – which translated into immense loss of business for the wananchi). Some government spokespersons in Kampala attempted to pitch “diplomacy dividends” that would come in the form of bolstering Uganda’s tourism, and opportunities for local traders and investors to profit from. But if these were the reasons why (a) there are certainly cheaper and more effective ways of promoting tourism besides the pretensions of non-alignment, and (b) local investors—as has been demonstrated over and over again—cannot thrive in a savagely hostile business environment. But also, why organise a mega event targeting goals such as attracting foreign investors, selling local produce that can be achieved via emails, adverts, YouTubers, and brochures?

I am not suggesting that countries sent delegations to Kampala should not have done so, or that they should not do so often, especially as “former colonies” dealing collectively with the wrath of the exploitative western world. Rather, I am suggesting that the language of non-alignment is not only obsolete but also pretentious and unserious.  As a political project – a movement – NAM’s contestations were crafted within a specific history, a history which is presently obsolete. However, while I appreciate the small benefits, such as tourism money, development of infrastructure ahead of a mega event, meeting under the banner of non-alignment is both intellectually and politically counterproductive, if not embarrassing 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, “former” colonisers look at us and wonder who bewitched us to the point that even our activism is lacking in creativity, in addition to being completely out of touch with reality. I’m still struggling to understand why arguably serious countries such as Tanzania, Morocco, and Algeria, for example, also wasted their time and resources attending or hosting this meeting.  Perhaps they have other strategic calculations.


A context overtaken by events


The ideas around the Non-aligned Movement that emerged out of the Bandung conference in Indonesia in 1955 which would be concretised in the successive conferences, culminated in the initiative to operate outside the two violently contending modes of managing economies. The African/subaltern intelligentsia and political elite of the time, especially the decade 1955-1965, invented themselves outside these contending forces, both of which sought to control them and their resources. (Although, against the violence and egregiousness of capitalist exploitation, we know now that communism would have been a better deal. As government-led resource exploitation and mobilisation led to commendable growth in the first two decades of independence (ca. 1960-1980), communism would have enabled newly independent states more leverage, and potential to grow nationally or at least cultivate a native bourgeoisie – Russian, Malaysian or Chinese style.)

It should be ironical, if not comical, that countries claiming to be non-aligned met in Uganda, which is arguably one of the most capitalistically exploited country in the world.  No country in the world embraced the World Bank and IMF-inspired capitalism (the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s and 1990s) more than Uganda. Kampala is the epitome of extractive capitalism, and the unreserved embrace of neoliberalism. There is nothing non-aligned about Kampala: It is not just the fact that this is an extractive enclave for European, American and now Chinese capitalists, but the ways in which this small country embraced neoliberalism in the late 1980s – and its delusions of a free market – is extremely mindboggling. Led by allegedly Marxist-inspired people, the absolute lack of initiative to cultivate and buffer native entrepreneurship defines Uganda’s leadership, which remains the quintessential colonial emissary. Consider for example that almost all commercial banks in Uganda are in the hands of foreign capitalists charging interest rates averaging 34% from terribly impoverished natives. There is absolute lack of public transport to move the workers to factories and other work stations faster; cooperatives were systematically killed without explanation; native banks are closed without minutes; and all mineral exploitation, even simple electricity distribution, is in the hands of foreign capitalists. What is non-aligned about Uganda?

And the others masquerading as non-aligned? After the collapse of the Soviet Union, with minor exceptions, almost the entire world embraced neoliberalism.  In Africa, the exceptions used to be Libya under Col. Gaddafi, and Ethiopia under Meles Zenawi (both of whom came under immense attack – with Col. Gaddafi’s Libya being bombed back to the stone age). To a degree, bits of Tanzania remained non-aligned even after the Soviet Union collapsed, thanks to Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s commitment. Meanwhile, most of Arab Africa embraced these reforms with reservations, leaving space for natives to grow, by especially offering them a degree of protectionism. But almost the entire African continent, especially black Africa, embraced neoliberalism with wanton abandon or, more accurately, succumbed to the tyranny of the IMF and the World Bank. This effectively meant that they all fell under the US-held, umbrella, throwing any claims of non-alignment through the window.

Elsewhere in the world, notable exceptions that have remained outside the fold of the US include Cuba, Venezuela, Malaysia, North Korea, the Islamic Republics of Iran, and several other East Asian countries that simply refused to embrace neo-liberalism. (The super non-aligned include Russia and China themselves—which would be claimed to identify as communist—who have only managed to retain their independence while practicing communism and capitalism at the same time. Or as the Slavoj Zizek joked in a lecture at the Oxford Union in 2019, they work like capitalists and enjoy like communists).  One would then argue that all through their many meetings after the collapse of the Soviet Union, if these meetings were to mean anything, they would be visiting the still arguably non-aligned Cuba, North Korea, Malaysia, Iran or Russia to take lessons, especially on how to “work like capitalists and enjoy like communists.” Is it surprising that these truly non-Aligned countries which never come to these drama and fanfare are actually more developed than those countries still claiming non-alignment while being unrelentingly exploited by the western capitalist machine.


Non-Alignment ought to be revolution


What would a non-aligned movement look like? It means revolution. It would be a fight through coups and violent struggle especially, and the satanism of capitalism would definitely fight back. It would mean fighting for new independence, like Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso more recently. With most of the countries that sent delegates to Kampala caught in a tight and perpetual debt trap, reliant on fictional aid (losing $24 for every single dollar of aid received), and having to answer to IMF and the WB for any pro-people initiatives, non-alignment is but a delusion. It remains difficult for the so-called non-aligned countries to grow investment funded by local resources, such as through offering subsidies to their businessmen or farmers as happens across the western world. Despite being seated on resources on which the rest of the world depends (such as coffee, cocoa, cobalt, diamond, lithium, gold, etc.), the leaders of these African countries have been convinced that they cannot live without aid from the western world and that they are too poor to develop their own sectors. Under the delusion of free market economics, our economies are dominated by foreign capitalists whose singular objective remains simply to extract. Between 1960 and 2018, the global south lost $152 trillion through unequal exchange. The United States economy being $25 trillion, these are five United States lost to the western world. A truly non-aligned movement cannot emerge if these African countries are not determined to politically break or shake off the new shackles of colonial control, especially debt, and the fiction of free market. Only when all this has happened will one be justified to talk of revolution.

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