Museveni Letter' Threatens Third World Unity at Mexico's WTO Talks

The East African
September 15, 2003

A LETTER with the potential to divide developing countries, purportedly written by President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, to fellow African heads of state prior to the Fifth World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference in Mexico was last Friday dismissed as "mischief making" by two East African Legislative Assembly members as signs grew that the meeting would end with no consensus on the contentious issue of agriculture.

The September 6 letter, a copy of which was obtained by The EastAfrican, urged fellow African presidents to disassociate themselves from the position of other developing countries. It called on them to advise their delegations to the four-day multilateral trade talks to articulate the position that the real problems facing African countries - particularly the dumping of goods - arose not so much from the US and the EU but from Asian and Latin American countries.

"The focus has been primarily on US anti-dumping laws. However, African countries are not dumping products on the US market, and the US is not dumping products in Africa. Africa's biggest challenge is from Asian products that are being dumped on to fledgling African markets and killing domestic industry,'' said the letter.

The letter added that African countries form the largest bloc in the WTO and should carefully choose whom they partner with, suggesting that Asian and Latin American countries align themselves with African countries in major trade pacts just to safeguard their commercial interests.

"Reflexive solidarity with other developing countries is not only unnecessary, but may even be detrimental to our own interests," said the unsigned letter, which was reported to have originated from an e-mail address and circulated widely among the Ugandan and East African Community delegates attending the talks at Mexico's resort town of Cancun. The talks ended on Sunday.

Contacted for comment, EALA member Sheila Kawamara Mishambi said she did not believe the letter had been authored by President Museveni and was possibly meant to make life difficult for Ugandan negotiators at the talks. "It is intended to create cracks within the African bloc and prevent it from linking with other countries in the South," said Ms Mishambi, adding that the language of the letter was American and clearly advancing a US position. Uganda's official position has been that of the African Union.

The letter surfaced as the US exhibited growing frustration with the strong position taken by developing countries at Cancun and sent out a strong indication that, as expected by many analysts, agriculture would be the biggest test of the Cancun Ministerial Conference and that there probably would be no agreement on the issue. Earlier, the African Union had stated that the outcome of the conference would be judged against the extent to which their demands on agriculture - the mainstay of African economies - would be met. The African Parliamentary Group had expressed its concern that developing countries, particularly Africa, "were being forced into negotiating the text on agriculture when they were not fully prepared and the modalities were not clear."

Jane Ocaya, ActionAid Uganda's trade policy specialist, said: "The EU is now more isolated than ever in its call for negotiations on new issues. It must now listen to the voice of developing countries and abandon new issues at Cancun."

It was in this charged atmosphere of increased determination by developing countries to stand their ground on agriculture and other issues and the greater awareness of the tactics employed in past ministerials by the WTO to divide developing countries that the "Museveni letter" appeared, fuelling suspicion that it had been planted on the delegates.

Ms Mishambi said that, by stating that Asian countries were the real culprits when it comes to dumping, the letter was trying to divert attention to "toys and light bulbs" from Taiwan, when in fact the real damage is done by the dumping of food and food aid to depress Africa's core industries, which are agro-based.

"Aid should not be used to subvert trade and we have to adopt means to protect our own economies from dumping, especially that of food aid from America," she said. She cited a case where earlier this year, the US offered Zambia free maize when it got wind of a Ugandan deal to sell the commodity to the drought-stricken country.

"What saved the day was that Zambia did not want GM maize," said Ms Mishambi. In another case of out-and-out undercutting, the US stole a deal to supply soya beans to South Africa from under Uganda's nose at $250 a tonne, against the East African country's quotation of $350.

Another EALA legislator, Irene Ovonji-Odida, said the intimidation, blackmail and manipulation used by the rich countries to manipulate the WTO process not only prevented developing country negotiators from doing what they were supposed to do but also delegitimised and undermined the organisation.

Analysts say that more than any other Ministerial, tactics like the dangling of aid and bilateral deals and bullying used by rich nations to get their own way in the multilateral trade system have been exposed at Cancun - not least by books such as Behind the Scenes at the WTO by Fatoumata Jawara and Aileen Kwa.

Asked about the "Museveni letter," Ms Jawara, who was in Cancun for the second launch of the book by Oxfam, immediately quipped: "So which American wrote that letter?" A Kenyan negotiator familiar with some of the underhand tactics used at WTO talks also said it was plausible that the letter had been planted, citing a similar plot at Doha when a well-timed rumour went round that India had made certain concessions on cotton. This prompted Kenya's then trade minister, Nicholas Biwott to hastily gather his team and urge them - to the fury of India - to do like wise.

Kenya's Trade Minister Mukhisa Kituyi said he had no knowledge of the letter. "I have not seen it and if I had I would have ignored it. The attitude of singling out some countries as enemies is not conducive to multilateral trade talks."

But another Ugandan observer, who declined to be named, said he would not be surprised if President Museveni had indeed authored the letter, or at least knew about it, as he had in the past shown willingness to do business with the West where others would not.

He pointed to a section of the letter that says that the proposed elimination of global textile and apparel quotas by the end of 2004 "is not in the interests of sub-Saharan Africa, as most of these countries already enjoy quota-free access to major Western markets through trade preference schemes such as Agoa," as being in keeping with Museveni's views.

Apart from the letter, there were high-level leaks as we went to press that the Ugandan trade delegation had been having closed-door bilateral meetings with US Trade Representative Robert Zoeliick, where "gentle pressure" was being brought to bear on them to reconsider some of their positions in exchange for certain inducements.

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