WTO Beached at Cancún

Is Uganda in the G-8’s Camp?

Uganda's envoy to the WTO talks in Cancun leaves after the talks collapsed, Sept. 14, 2003
Uganda's special envoy to the WTO talks in Mexico, Yashpal Tandon, speaks with reporters after hearing the talks have collapsed, Sept. 14, 2003 (Photo: AFP/Getty Images).

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 World Trade Organization (WTO) conference in Mexico, was last Friday dismissed as “mischief-making” by two East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) members, as signs grew that the meeting would end with no consensus.

The Sept. 6 letter, a copy of which was obtained by The East African, urged fellow African presidents to disassociate themselves from the position of other developing countries. It called on them to advise their delegations to articulate that the real problems facing African countries—particularly the dumping of goods—arose not so much from the United States and the European Union but from Asian and Latin American countries. The letter added that African countries, the largest bloc in the WTO, should carefully choose whom they partner with, suggesting that Asian and Latin American countries are aligning themselves with Africa just to safeguard their commercial interests. The unsigned letter, reportedly originating from an e-mail address, circulated widely among the East African delegates attending the talks.

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 Mishambi, adding that the language of the letter was American and clearly advanced a U.S. position. Uganda’s official position has been that of the African Union.

The letter surfaced as the United States exhibited frustration with the position taken by developing countries at Cancún and indicated that, as expected by many analysts, agriculture would be the biggest test of the conference. Earlier, the African Union had stated that the conference’s outcome would be judged against the extent to which its demands on agriculture—the base of African economies—were met. The African Parliamentary Group expressed its concern that developing countries “were being forced into negotiating the text on agriculture when they were not fully prepared and the modalities were not clear.”

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

Mishambi said that, by stating that Asian countries were the real culprits in 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.

She cited a case where, earlier this year, the United States offered Zambia free maize when it got wind of a Ugandan deal to sell it to the drought-stricken country. “What saved the day was that Zambia did not want genetically modified maize,” said Mishambi. In another case of out-and-out undercutting, the United States stole a deal to supply soybeans to South Africa from under Uganda’s nose at US$250 a ton, against the East African country’s quotation of $350.

Analysts say that more than at any other meeting, 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 Cancún—not least by books such as Behind the Scenes at the WTO by Fatoumata Jawara and Aileen Kwa. Asked about the “Museveni letter,” Jawara, in Cancún for a launch of the book by Oxfam, quipped: “So which American wrote that letter?”

Kenya’s Trade Minister Mukhisa Kituyi said 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 written the letter, or at least knew about it, as he had in the past been willing to do business with the West where others would not.

In addition to 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 U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, where “gentle pressure” was being brought to bear on them to reconsider some of their positions in exchange for certain inducements.