Coronavirus and Black Lives Matter is a double revolution that opens a possibility for Africa to change its relationship with the west

Yash Tandon

In his youth, Professor Yash Tandon was a presidential adviser to Uganda’s government soon after the country’s political independence. Because president Milton Obote tried to change the economic structure of the country in order to achieve real independence, as the first president of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah advocated, a coup d’etat broke out which lead to the bloody regime of the dictator Idi Amin Dada between 1971 and 1979.

Throughout a long career standing by the humble of the earth in such countries as Zimbabwe and Tanzania and learning from them, Tandon has also been the founder-chair of SEATINI (Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute), an organisation which aims at helping African countries to get negotiate more effectively in neocolonial international institutions.

Tandon has also written a number of books, like Ending Aid Dependence and Trade is War. Back in Uganda, Tandon agreed to talk with journalist Alex Anfruns about different issues like his work as an intellectual, the balance sheet of the West’s development cooperation aid programs in Africa, the 60th anniversary of African independence, the risks related to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic but also the opportunities it may offer to strengthen African sovereignty.


Anfruns (AA): First of all I would like you to comment in the context of Africa facing the Covid-19 pandemic. Could you explain the situation in Uganda and the approach to preventing the spread of the coronavirus that has been taken there?

Tandon (YT): It’s amazing that there have been many cases, but nobody has died in Uganda. In Nigeria, in Senegal, in South Africa, lots of people have died. But in Uganda not a single person! President Museveni was a guerrilla fighter. For him it is guerrilla war again! Actually the Ugandan government started the lockdown very early, even before Britain started it. Probably it was one of the fastest countries in Africa to do so.

AA: I have read that Uganda had “only 2 hand sanitiser factories in March. It currently has over 107 factories that produce hand sanitisers”.

YT: I must say for my country that we have been able to contain the spread. However, this virus mutates. And if it mutates, then we might have another outbreak, like they are having in China. Right now it looks okay, the government has started opening up shops and so on. But it cares about what might happen in months to come. There are other countries where they have a more difficult situation like Rwanda and Kenya where some people have died. And in countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa, a lot of people have died. So I am not sure how long we’ll be secure in Uganda.

Economic Partnership Agreements

AA: You have been strongly involved behind the scenes of negotiations leading to Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) between the EU and Africa. Would you say that this initiative really aimed at helping Africa’s economy?

YT: Yes, it was and still is aimed at getting Africa out of its bondage with Europe. However, to be very frank with you, it is going to be a difficult battle. And that’s because Africa never really became independent. When Asian countries got independence from Europe, they didn’t sign any economic partnership agreement with Europe, no. But in Africa, Francophone countries are neocolonized by France and Britain did the same with English speaking countries. So 60 years down the road, we in Africa are still not independent. We were forced to sign Economic Partnership Agreements with Europe.

AA:  How do you explain that failure?

YT: I have been very much involved in this struggle via the organisation that I founded in 1997 called SEATINI, and later in Geneva where I was the executive director of the South Centre, which is a kind of United Nations of the countries of the global South. We provide technical analysis and advise our own governments on negotiating properly to protect our interests. At SEATINI we are self-sustaining, we do counselling work and we get paid for that and so on. So SEATINI is probably the only organisation in Africa that is addressing these issues and really prepared for them. The problem, however, is at the very highest political level. We are able to train our negotiators at the lower and middle levels of our bureaucracy. They know how to fight, especially the people with whom we work in Geneva. They are very good, they know how to argue. The problem is in our capitals, at the political level, at the top. Because at the top people get phone calls from Europe, from America: “Sign this agreement or else we stop aid!” The whole of Africa is subjected to this kind of pressure, even South Africa! South Africa doesn’t need aid at all because of its resources. But its political leadership is corrupt, and is allied with European and American corporate empires to exploit the resources and people of South Africa.

Neoliberal ideology

AA: In the 1960s, the UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) debates had a key role in the balance between superpowers and ‘third world’ countries, but you say that “‘the main questions that were raised in those debates have disappeared in the World Trade Organization”. What are the reasons for this development?

YT: In the early years of UNCTAD, the unity of the countries of the global South (then called the “third world”) was strong. They were advocating a New International Economic Order (NIEO). They were able to introduce some new issues into UNCTAD’s agenda. UNCTAD was created in 1964. The WTO was created much later – in 1995. But in the meantime, in the middle of the 1970s, the global system was opened up to neo-liberal ideology – which, among other things, advocated privatisation, the end of state enterprises, and elimination of trade barriers like tariffs and import quotas. This became the agenda of the WTO. And this then penetrated the agenda of the UNCTAD. Since then UNCTAD has become subservient to the WTO. In my book Trade is War I show how this happened: the new issues that were introduced by the G77 countries were systematically removed from UNCTAD.

AA: Yes, in ‘Trade is War’ you compare the two agendas: how the WTO replaced UNCTAD issues with new ones [such as] intellectual property, telecoms, GMOs… etc.

YT: Under WTO Agreement, decisions have to be taken ‘on the basis of unanimity, so everybody has to agree’. Meaning that if they don’t agree it shouldn’t be imposed on you. But the big powers twisted it: they now have small meetings in what are called ‘green rooms’ in which the bigger countries in Europe, America, Japan, Germany and a few large countries from the global South – such as China, India and Brazil – are invited. They take decisions that are then binding on the entire membership. If small countries like Uganda refuse to abide by these decisions they are subjected to sanctions. So the WTO has become for us a weapon of destruction.

Intellectual property

AA: Let’s look back to your work alongside rural communities. You have had intensive experience in agricultural work in Zimbabwe, having observed the impact of multinationals that make a business out of biodiversity. In Trade is War you talk about the importance of intellectual property, which according to the mainstream vision is needed for development. But you say the opposite is true! Can you explain to us a bit?

YT: I started the chapter on intellectual property by saying that “knowledge has to be free”. If you have an apple and you eat it, that’s gone. But when you share knowledge, you benefit everybody – nobody loses. Knowledge has always been free through all past civilisations, for four or five thousand years. When capitalism came, that’s when it turned knowledge into private property. So now we have this ‘intellectual property’ that has become the monopoly of the person who discovers something new. He patents it in their own or their corporation’s name. That becomes ‘property of the person or the corporation’! And we have to pay royalties in order to access knowledge – that should have been free. Private property is the basis of the capitalist system. However, intellectual property became part of the global system only in the last 50 years or so. Before that, every country was able to industrialise by copying technology from other countries. The United States did that with England, and then came Europe including Switzerland and others. They all copied knowledge and then patented it. Now Switzerland is one of the biggest manufacturers of pharmaceutical products using stolen knowledge (even from African countries) which the companies have patented. The very country that stole other people’s knowledge has now monopolised it! I have been fighting against patents since I was working in the South Center. What I was advocating is what I have learned in Zimbabwe. There I worked in the rural areas, and I found that most of the traditional African medicines come from trees – bark, bushes and roots. I worked for about 23 years in the villages with peasants in Zimbabwe – they have lot of knowledge. I used to see representatives from pharmaceutical companies wearing white uniforms come down and take samples of crops, of the bark of the trees, and also human blood and sputum and saliva. That knowledge they have been taking from Africa, then they turn it into medicines, they patent them and sell back us to exorbitant prices ! We were fighting against that in Zimbabwe. A Swiss company came to Zimbabwe, had an office at the University with support of the government. But I fought them! I told the Government that ‘these people are stealing our knowledge and I can give you concrete examples of how they steal our knowledge’. So that project was closed. It’s a very difficult fight. Even China is now patenting its knowledge because it’s part of the capitalist system!

AA: How were those Zimbabwean rural communities able to resist the negative effects of ‘development’ policies ?

YT: I worked on this in the Zambezi Valley for years. I worked with ‘spirit mediums’. When the Europeans came to Africa, they called them ‘witch doctors’. They are not ‘witch doctors’. They have an enormous amount of knowledge. They helped me to understand things. I helped them to put this into an official language to persuade the government that we must use people’s traditional knowledge. With my help – because I could contact the local council and the government, which the spirit mediums could not – we were able to stop the use of fertilisers in the farms of Zambezi Valley. Unfortunately, what we could not stop is the use of hybrid seeds, against our wishes. The reason why we couldn’t do that was because the agriculture extension workers were all educated to modernised agriculture and in the use of patented hybrid seeds. The ‘spirit mediums’ could explain scientifically why these seeds and fertilisers go deep into the soil and suck out the humus from the soil. The more you use it, the more fertilisers you need, the more water you need, the more patented seeds you need. It’s a vicious circle that goes round and round, deeper and deeper. Unfortunately we didn’t win the battle because the government decided to modernise agriculture. That’s one reason among others why I am against aid: my second book is titled Ending Aid Dependence. We have a very difficult time. We in Africa are suffering the most by a system imposed on us, which ironically is using knowledge taken from us. They turn this into private property and then they exploit us. I doubt that we can get support from outside, it’s very difficult. There has to be a revolution, no question about it.

Development aid

AA: In your book you have said that “Development aid is the biggest danger to Africa. It deprives it of independent economic policies.” We could compare it to the past where the socialist countries had a different approach on development aid between them and African countries, which was more based on exchange and cooperation. So what are the lessons that we can learn from the last decades of Western ‘development aid’? Are there any results?

YT: China could industrialise itself because it got free knowledge from the Soviet Union at that time – in the 1950s. The Soviet Union didn’t use patents, they supplied knowledge free. It also supplied knowledge to India, so the first motor cars built in India were built from the models of the Soviet Union. I am afraid that era has gone. Russia is no longer the old Soviet Union. China is not Maoist China, it’s a country that is becoming capitalist in its own way: “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”. However, Chinese capitalism is different because China never colonised any country. They have land stretching far from Beijing, it’s always been land-based, never crossing the oceans. The oceanic colonialism came only with the Europeans. The Chinese have a different approach – like the One Belt One Road system. Could the Chinese become an imperialist country? I don’t know. But for the time being, they are friends of Africa. When investments come from Europe or America, they want profit immediately – say within six months to at most two years. Therefore, Western investors never build any infrastructure like roads, railways, bridges, etc. No, they don’t. When the Chinese come, they make long term investments in infrastructure, agriculture, etc. Some of these are 100% grants. And because we in Africa are facing difficulties now because of the coronavirus, the Chinese have said ‘We forgive all the debts for Africa’. But we don’t have the same kind of treatment from the European countries or from America. The Chinese even with their capitalist orientation are treating us differently, but we don’t know for the future. We are going into a very different era now, a postcolonialist era, and this is going to change the rules of the game – fundamentally I think.

African cooperation

AA: According to you, which are the economic areas that African cooperation should take as a priority within the framework of a regional inter-African organisation, in order to get stronger?

YT: It’s a difficult question. I will tell you why. East Africa comprises of five countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. Four of these countries are LDC’s (‘Less developed countries’) and they have duty-free, quota-free access to the European market. Kenya is not an LDC country, although the standard of living in Kenya is not very different from Uganda. But Kenya is being forced to sign the Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union. That’s divide and rule! In Kenya the Government favours the rich farmers at the cost of the poor farmers. The richest amongst them grow flowers to export to Europe. Flowers are a water intensive product. When I went to Naivasha in Kenya, I saw what was happening. The Naivasha Lake was drying. Big corporations from Europe and a couple of rich families in Kenya including the President’s family are using water from the lake to grow, for example, roses to export to Europe. And poor fishermen can’t fish anymore because the Lake can no longer sustain fish. Peasants have smallholdings but they are taken away from them. These are just a few examples.The small peasants have taken the rich farmers to court and they won the case! But as to application, nothing. Because the rich control the state. So your question is very difficult. When I say that we need a revolution, I am not talking about it in a wild-eyed way. We need to change the total system so that people are in power from below, not from the top. That is a long battle for us in Africa. At least in Latin America you have the example of Cuba, followed by Venezuela, even in Brazil at the time of Lula. There the people are fighting a position of domination by the USA. But in Africa they follow the capitalist way like India and China, exporting products to other countries. Africa is in the middle: it’s neither going to be capitalist properly itself, because it is owned by foreigners, nor it is able to follow the path of Venezuela, Cuba and other Latin American countries that fight against the empire. Our ruling classes are compromised. But as I said, there are two things happening, and hopefully it’s a geopolitical shift globally. One is that the coronavirus is really changing the arithmetic of production and distribution. And the other one that is happening amazingly is the Black Lives Matter movement.

Pandemic impact

AA: So what do you think about the perspective of the global pandemic situation and its impact on African economies?

YT: I am now a bit hopeful because of it. The coronavirus is a double edged weapon, it is bad for people of course. If they get it, they are potentially at risk of dying… But the coronavirus has also stopped international trade. It’s wonderful that we can’t get imports from Europe or America. I am happy that the government here, in the case of Uganda, has taken up the challenge. I am working with the government and one of the things I am working is on ISI (import substitution industries) with local added value. I spend a lot of my time looking into that. We must begin with agriculture. Take cotton and textiles, for example. We had eight vertically integrated mills – from cotton to lint, to yarn and then clothing… and they have all disappeared ! As I wrote in my book, we must begin with cotton and textiles. All the industrialised countries began with that: America, Britain, Japan, France… I hope my recommendation will be taken seriously by the government and I hope both the minister of agriculture and the minister of industry will join hands. I am also recruiting other people from academia to do research. I am hoping to persuade the government to subsidise growing cotton, and then ginning [treatment of raw cotton] and fabric and clothing. It’s a long process I know, but we have to start somewhere, and the coronavirus has given us an opportunity. I am happy that I am here.

Black Lives Matter

AA: You also mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement…

YT: Yes, the other thing that has happened recently is the murder of George Floyd. The fascist elements amongst the Americans have been killing Black people all these decades. Martin Luther King was assassinated after he spoke about freedom for Africans. This time is different! The people are now mobilised not only in America, but in the whole world, even in the UK, even in Asia, everywhere. This is the moment for radical transformation! Two things are happening: the coronavirus and Black Lives Matter. They are really changing things. In Africa people are destroying colonial statues! And just this week, even Oxford University decided to remove the statue of Rhodes! I wrote about this five years ago when I was in Oxford. I think the world is changing, European civilisation is collapsing. America is in a major crisis and they don’t know where they are going. Trump is confusing everybody. Among the big countries China is the only one that is containing the coronavirus. India is in bad shape. Because I’m thinking positively, I think this double revolution, namely the Black Lives Matter and the coronavirus pandemic, can help release us from empire. These two revolutions are opening the possibility for us to begin to change things in our relationship with the West. And here I must say that China is helpful. As I said earlier, China puts its money into infrastructure development. So we welcome Chinese help, although we should negotiate with them properly, as I explained in another book. We are looking at another world emerging. The old civilisation is collapsing in front of us.


AA: We can see clearly that there is a problem with this model of government, that keeps on discriminating very strongly and in many different ways against Afro-descendant people in countries like France. Even through the distance and the generations, it seems like the Black Lives Matter movement reveals a strong link between those struggles that are taking place in old empires by the African diaspora all over the world, and the larger PanAfrican movement. It is, like you said, an opportunity to reconnect with colonial history and to realise the new ways colonialism has adopted to stay alive. Do you agree?

YT: Yes, that’s great, I agree. Africa is the only continent where people are very conscious of themselves as Africans. Latin America has a similarity, but they are not as united in spirit. The African spirit is very strong, although we are divided and ruled by the West  – as I have explained in the case of Kenya. I am hopeful that because of what happened to this man George Floyd in the USA, and this renewal of African consciousness globally, that African identity will assert itself, both in Africa and in another countries as well. I am a member of a movement called ‘PanAfrican Freedom Movement’ (PAFM), that tries to bring Africans together, both those in the African continent and Africans in the diaspora, Afro-descendant people in America and in the rest of the world. Although most of the discussion is based on a very strong spiritual and fraternal relationship, and although the material reality is very different, I am hopeful that this dream will be realised. And once that happens, then we can translate our ideas into practical programs on the ground.

AA: Nkrumah said that the way towards sovereignty and self reliance may be long…

YT: Yes, he said so. Although we got political independence, we still don’t have economic independence. That’s why Nkrumah’s book Africa must Unite is very important. He had said that the first thing to do is to get political independence. Now we have that. Now we have to work on economic independence. Nyerere [former president of Tanzania Julius Nyerere] said the same thing. But whereas Nkrumah wanted immediate African Unity, Nyerere advocated an interim phase of uniting Africa regionally first. I think the time has come. The collapse of the Euro-American Empire, the end of neo-liberalism following the financial crisis of 2007/8, and now the coronavirus pandemic, and the ‘African Lives Matter’ movement that is now globalised. We have before us a new world that is emerging – if we have eyes to see and the spirit to grasp it. So yes, the spirits of Nkrumah and Nyerere live on. And so do the spirits of Leopold Senghor, Samora Machel, Nelson Mandela, and of the three of our leaders who were murdered in cold blood – Patrice Lumumba, Steve Biko and Thomas Sankara. It’s still a long journey. And while I am getting old now, I am hopeful that our younger generation will move Africa ahead.

Featured image via YouTube – tmali Institute

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