There’s a trending video from nine years ago. If you watched it casually, you might in fact think that it was done yesterday. It’s a clip of Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, narrating what happened in 2014 when a delegation of African heads of state was asked by the AU to mediate the Libyan crisis at the time.
Museveni’s account of the outcome of the assignment, which has so far not been denied by Nato, was a scandal – an African shame – on steroids. It’s surprising how the incident remained largely unreported until this video resurfaced again recently.
It wasn’t the usual anti-Western trope about colonialism, neo-colonialism or imperialism that caught my attention. It was what appeared, if Museveni were to be believed, to be the brazen, daylight interference of Nato in the peace mission of the African leaders and how they responded to it.
Museveni told a meeting of the Pan-African Parliament in Midrand, South Africa, that a plane conveying six African heads of state to Tripoli, including his own minister who represented him, was asked not to proceed by Nato as the aircraft approached the Libyan airspace on its mission.
“How can African leaders nominated by an African continental body, on African soil, be stopped by Nato from doing their duty?” he asked the parliament, pointing out that even the Mauritanian President, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who was chair of that session of the parliament, was on the trip.
The Ugandan leader described the incident as a classic case of African elite betrayal. As the camera panned the helpless, forlorn look on the faces of the leaders present in the hall, you could almost hear a pin drop.
I don’t know what Museveni might have done if he had been on the plane that day, and he didn’t say either. It however appears improbable to me that a man who has been in bed with the West for decades would have done anything other than what the delegation on that Tripoli mission did: meekly accepted his fate, like the rest, while the plane returned to base. How could Museveni not see that he was a part of the African elite betrayal story?
Helen Epstein wrote in her book, Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda And the War on Terror, that Museveni owes his longevity in power to billions of American dollars that have been used to train and buy equipment for his army and prop up his government. Western aid to Uganda accounts for over 10% of that country’s GDP, and was, in fact, up to 42% of the budget in 2006. To put it politely, Western pipers have always called Uganda’s tune.
Things only began to fall apart between Museveni and his sponsors after the gay rights wars broke out, worsened by his strong-arm tactics against the opposition in that country’s last general election. Not that he suddenly discovered the despicable history of Western colonialism and exploitation in Africa or the treachery of the elite.
Since watching that video of Museveni’s blood boiling over what was apparently a latter-day moment of African epiphany, made after he had been in power for 28 years, I’ve been asking myself if Nato might have asked a plane conveying Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe and Olusegun Obasanjo on that kind of mission to make a mid-air return. Very unlikely.
If the current crop of African leaders had not eaten the sour grapes of betrayal, it is improbable that Nato would treat them with such contempt. So, what would Nato have done if the airplane defied the return-to-base order? Shot down an aircraft carrying six African leaders on an AU peace mission in Africa? Sadly, the mission is a metaphor for the current state of leadership on the continent; they love life too much to dare.
Interestingly, there was not even a word of protest from the AU after the aborted mission, allegedly directed by Nato in name only. The mastermind, obviously, was Barack Obama, the first black American president, who would later unleash perhaps one of the most consequential destabilising forces on the Sahel after the brutal elimination of Muammar Gaddafi. I’m not sure it was a moment that Obama would look back on with pride. Yet, for the AU, too busy with the politics of subservience to care, it was business as usual.
Another African leader has been talking lately, making statements that re-echo memories of Museveni’s bluster. William Ruto, Kenya’s president while addressing the Djibouti parliament in June, said something fairly radical. Why, he asked Djibouti, should that country or any other African country for that matter, conduct bilateral trade among themselves in US dollars?
Although Ruto said he was not opposed to settling accounts for trade with the US in dollars, his statement was the diplomatic equivalent of what should have been the appropriate response of that AU-Libya mission to Nato’s meddling: that the alliance had no business stopping the AU delegation from landing on the soil of an African country which, in any case, was not a member of Nato.
On the face of it, there’s really no reason intra-African trade should be settled in dollars. The EU, perhaps the largest single currency union, conducts intra-European trade in euros. So, why can’t the AU, especially if the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank), the continent’s financial provider, set up a payment and settlement mechanism to facilitate intra-African trade? As tempting as this option may be and in spite of the obvious advantages including reduction of transaction costs among others, the devil is in the detail. Ruto knows.
With 54 countries in Africa, it would be interesting to test a continental payment clearing house that is not even contemplating an optimum currency area – a slightly different system that would have allowed trading in one or more frequently used regional currencies – but is instead thinking of dealing with 42 different currencies on the continent simultaneously.
Given the current disastrously low volume of intra-African trade, which was about 18.2% or $169.7-billion in 2021, a common clearing house is hardly as important as removing the barriers to trade that have stunted the impact of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).
Unnecessary restrictions and obstacles to the movement of people and goods, shambolic customs regulations and border policing – not to mention poor infrastructure and protectionist policies by countries that fear, not always irrationally, that their neighbours are conduits for cheap foreign products – have severely limited trade among African countries and denied citizens prosperity.
These are not problems that can be solved by settling bank notes or making sound bites. Until African countries develop the capacity to go beyond being just primary commodity markets, always looking outside the continent to consume, in excess, what they cannot produce, Ruto’s wishes will remain what they are – wishes.
Does Ruto know, for example, that a number of Francophone countries in West and Central Africa which are part of the CFA franc zone still maintain 50% of their reserves in the French Treasury in Paris? It isn’t a big secret that France torpedoed the attempt by Ecowas to introduce the “eco” as a subregional currency three years ago. How will an African payment settlement system extricate Francophone West Africa from decades of French namby-pamby?
Also, when Britain announced recently, for example, that it was adding Nigeria’s naira to its list of pre-approved currencies, allowing it to provide financing for transactions with Nigerian businesses in the local currency, it was hardly an act of charity. It was, instead, that country’s calculated response to the new reality of its post-Brexit misery.
African leaders may chew the microphone all they want in Midrand, South Africa or in Djibouti. Ruto and his colleagues will soon find, as the six African leaders on that aborted AU mission to Libya found many years ago, that the strong have the weak for lunch.
When vested interests push back against the fancy idea of an African payment and settlement system, as they will, will the mission return to base? DM