Non-aligned movement must fight today's neo-colonialism

Kenyan detainees after a state of emergency was declared to contain the Mau Mau uprising. [File, Standard]

“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 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 the country achieved independence, many joined NAM – including Kenya which joined in 1964, a year after its own Uhuru - 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”.

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.

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” coloniser, an expression of “deepest regret” has been given, most recently by King Charles III’s State Visit to Kenya last month. It was less than the outright apology some had hoped for - but it is progress.

And what Britain may be lacking in words, it is at least making up for in actions: Kenya is the beneficiary – the first in Africa - of a unique Economic Partnership Agreement with Kenya based on mutual respect, in addition to benefit from 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 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 per cent of their foreign assets in the French Treasury, clearly a way for France to maintain economic dominance over them.

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 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 – a country also under pressure from neo-colonialist powers who demand this conservative country rescind a law on child protection so modern western social mores can be taught in their schools. The Ugandans reject this – and Kenya should also reject these neo-colonialist demands on her neighbour.

NAM is back, and all its members including Kenya have a duty to – and benefit from – ensuring 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.

The writer is a Pro-Non Allied Movement analyst