In October 2013 “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Doctor President” Yahya Jammeh of Gambia announced the withdrawal of his country from “the British Commonwealth”, claiming that the organization is a “neo-colonial institution”. Barring the Republic of Ireland which withdrew for constitutional reasons, South Africa during the heydays of Apartheid and Zimbabwe in 2003, the trend has been for countries to remain within the warmth of the Commonwealth family. Nigeria was suspended in December 1995, but was reinstated when democracy was restored in May 1999.
Some would argue that Gambia’s withdrawal signals growing disenchantment about the Commonwealth. President Jammeh complained that the organization has allegedly departed from the straight and narrow path; becoming a virtual moral policeman. It is a rather self-serving argument. In 2009 I was the spokesperson for civil society during the Summit of Commonwealth leaders (CHOGM) in Trinidad and Tobago. One of the issues that dominated our discussions was a report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative detailing serious human rights abuses in The Gambia.
I believe the demise of the Commonwealth has been grossly exaggerated. Founded as the ‘British Commonwealth’ by the Treaty of Westminster in 1941, the organization brought together Britain and the older Commonwealth dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand into a club that enabled them to leverage on their common heritage as stepchildren of the defunct British Empire. United by the English language and the jurisprudence of the common law, they were also bound together by ties of trade, diplomacy and finance.
The Commonwealth of Nations as we know it today emerged in its present form in 1965, with the establishment of a modest Secretariat headed by the pioneer Secretary-General, Arnold Smith of Canada. Among the young men recruited during those early years was Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria, who rose by dint of hard work and sheer ability to the exalted position of Secretary-General from 1983 to 1990.
In the 1960s when most of the nations of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific received their independence, accession to the Commonwealth was virtually part of the rites of passage into the global society of nations. Today, the Commonwealth comprises 53 nations. Some are giants such as India and Nigeria while a good number are small island states such as Grenada and Samoa. The vast majority are republican democracies while a few such as Swaziland, Tonga and Brunei Darussalam are constitutional monarchies. Several maintain the Queen as Head of State, notable among them Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a good number of Caribbean island nations. Rwanda and Mozambique – countries that are not former British colonies – have joined the club.
Under the current Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, the Commonwealth is undergoing major reforms to meet the needs of the 21st century. An Eminent Persons Group (EPG) made far-reaching recommendations on how to make it more relevant to the needs of its 2 billion people. These recommendations were distilled into a Charter signed by Queen Elizabeth II in March this year. The new Commonwealth Charter affirms commitment to certain core values, among them human rights, the rule of law, democracy, respect for diversity, non-discrimination and environmental responsibility.
Critics point out that the Commonwealth has not been particularly successful in upholding its core values and standards, notably in the areas of human rights and the rule of law. That may well be so. But it needs to be understood that the Commonwealth works by consensus and seeks to achieve its objectives by persuasion and diplomacy rather than by force or sanctions. It is easily forgotten that the post-Apartheid constitutional settlement in South Africa owes more to the Commonwealth than any other organization, the UN and the African Union included. The Commonwealth provides technical assistance to its member states in such areas as trade and development, judicial reforms, debt and financial management, agriculture and human development. Its programmes in youth and development, sports and education have gained increasing recognition across the world.
The Gambia case is an outlier, given the fact that several countries have deposited their Instruments of application for membership, among them Algeria, Yemen, Timor Leste, Madagascar, Sudan and Israel. At a time of growing disenchantment against the European Union in Britain, important sections of the British power elites are seriously seeking to re-engage with the Commonwealth as the organization of the future. They know they would be better off partnering with some of the fastest growing nations in the world and potentially its biggest market.
As we face a world in tumult, the Commonwealth is the symbol of moderation, civility and solidarity in our cruel and divided world. The Harare Declaration 1991 enunciated the principles peace, liberty, non-racialism and human development as the moral foundation of the Commonwealth. Through the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) and the Good Offices of the Secretary-General, much progress has been made in restoring hope in several troubled countries.
The British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott described democracy as part of the great conversation of mankind. Far from being a finished product, it is a process that requires wisdom, courage and patience. The Commonwealth is not the panacea to all our collective ills. The work of building free societies is the primary responsibility of the citizens of those nations themselves, working with leaders who cherish the ideals of liberty and justice.
The perceived weakness of the Commonwealth is also its strength. Because the organization cannot enforce its will upon its members, it provides a non-threatening atmosphere in which the dialogue of civilizations can be pursued, in which nations large and small – white, brown and black – can sit together at the table of brotherhood.
Going forward, we need a reinvented Commonwealth that focuses on what it does best – leveraging on its comparative. It is important to professionalise the staff body and to make the organization a knowledge institution that pursues its vocation with a deep sense of destiny and purpose. If the Commonwealth did not exist it would have been necessary to invent it.