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The Commonwealth in the 21st century: Beyond rhetoric

By Femi D. Ojumu
29 June 2022   |   4:20 am
A dynamic multipolar world of established and rising superpowers in the mould of the United Kingdom, Russia, China, India and France, to name a few, invokes the poser as to the proper role of the Commonwealth...

A dynamic multipolar world of established and rising superpowers in the mould of the United Kingdom, Russia, China, India and France, to name a few, invokes the poser as to the proper role of the Commonwealth in the 21st century and its practical relevance to lives of the millions of people therein spread across several continents. What then is the Commonwealth?

Historically, Britain and the Australian, Canadian, Indian, Irish, New Zealand, South African dominions, in 1926 concurred to the principle that they were all members of a community under the British Empire. They owed allegiance to the British monarch, but were not ruled by the empire. Legislative force was accorded to this principle in the Statute of Westminster 1931, an act of Parliament which established inter alia that the self-governing dominions were “autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”

The novelty in the 1931 legislation was that for the first time, the dominions (comprising large European populations) could freely exercise control over their foreign affairs; because they were already in control of their domestic affairs. This was significant in that it would eventually help pave the way for independence in the succeeding decades in countries like India in 1947, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1948; Ghana in 1957, Nigeria in 1960, Sierra Leone in 1961, Uganda in 1962, Kenya in 1963 amongst others. Patently therefore, the Commonwealth began as an organisation of Anglophone countries with shared historical links to the British Empire united by the uncomfortable fact that they were colonised by Britain, also called the United Kingdom, with the English language as the lingua franca, underpinned by strong cultural, educational, economic, trade and sporting links.

Today, the Commonwealth comprises 56 member countries, of approximately 2.5 billion people, in Anglophone and Francophone and other countries, across Africa, Asia, Europe, The Caribbeans/Americas, and the Pacific, with little or no shared political history with what was once called the “mother country”: Britain. Those countries are Botswana, Cameroun, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Swaziland (Eswatini), Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia. They include Bangladesh, Brunei, India, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka; Antigua & Barbuda, Belize, Canada, Dominica, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St Kitts & Nevis, St. Vincent & Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago. In Europe, they encompass the United Kingdom, Cyprus and Malta. In the Pacific region, they include Australia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Cameroun and Mozambique are not Anglophone countries by any logical stretch yet, are proper members of the Commonwealth. Togo and Gabon, both Francophone countries became Commonwealth members at the recently concluded June 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Kigali, Rwanda. Analysts often opine that the Commonwealth is an extension of Britain’s “soft power” on the global arena and point to the fact the UK’s external affairs department is, indeed, called the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office!

A key criterion for membership of the Commonwealth, is that a prospective member country must clearly commit to democracy and democratic processes, including free and fair elections and representative legislatures; the rule of law and independence of the judiciary; good governance, including a well-trained public service and transparent public accounts; and protection of human rights, freedom of expression, and equality of opportunity. Thus, Togo and Gabon, both Francophone countries, became the 55th and 56th Commonwealth members at the recently concluded June 2022, Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali, Rwanda.

That said, is the Commonwealth today a force for positive change in today’s world? Is the organisation a British colonial relic, which has long outlived its usefulness? Can the organisation be said to be a formidable batsman in the contestable crease of the vicissitudes of global geo-politics? How valid is the assertion that the organisation is a unifying catalyst for cultural, developmental, educational and socio-economic exchange amongst nations with a shared British heritage? How should the organisation address inevitable tensions amongst members’ states given competing national interests and the constraining principle of non-interference in domestic policies? Post-Brexit, how should the Commonwealth execute a trade reset with Britain?

Unbundling these, certainly over the years the Commonwealth, has scored tremendous successes traversing the realms of education, capacity building, development, economics, bilateral and multilateral trade, legal education, cultural and sporting links plus, human rights and the rule of law. Noteworthy is how the Commonwealth promptly suspended Nigeria following the summary execution of the human rights activist, the Ogoni-born, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his colleagues, under the military junta of late General Sani Abacha in 1995.

This singular act publicly reinforced the Commonwealth’s commitment to the rule of law. At the time, the debate was whether the organisation was right to suspend Nigeria or whether the proper course of action was expulsion. The latter stance was advocated by no less a person, than Madiba Nelson Mandela, then President of South Africa. The suspension was however justified by the Commonwealth on the pragmatic basis of keeping channels of communication open with the Nigerian military junta, with a view to moderating the latter’s despotic inclinations.

Through collaborations with the International Monetary Organisation, the World bank, Organisation Internationale de Francophonie and other Developmental Financial Institutions, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the administrative arm, supports member countries’ efforts to effectively manage their gearing portfolios through its public debt management programme.

Likewise, Chevening Scholarships enable bright Commonwealth students to undertake fully sponsored post-graduate studies in top UK universities and, upon completion, leveraging their newly acquired skillsets in the development of Britain and/or their home countries, on a win: win basis. In addition, organisations like the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association, aim to sustainably promote the rule of law across the Commonwealth, by ensuring that an independent and an efficient legal profession properly serves its 2.5 billion people.

Commonwealth Games brought and continues to bring people together. For example, cricket fans the world over, are enthused about the annual ashes between Australia and England, test matches between Commonwealth nations across the West Indies, India, New Zealand and, the West African Quadrangular Cricket Series. This unites people, generates substantive domestic revenue streams and creates employment for local people.

The Commonwealth also benefits from development assistance. For example, over the next three years, the UK Government is committing £15 million to support Commonwealth countries in the quest to tackle cybercrime.
Notwithstanding these seminal gains, there are significant strategic and practical questions to ponder. The Commonwealth was perceived as weak in many quarters during the 2018 Windrush scandal. The latter witnessed the wrongful detention, denial of the legal rights and, in at least 80 cases, and the deportation of lawful British residents of Commonwealth ancestry. Although the policy was eventually scrapped by the British Government amidst fierce opposition in Parliament, many commentators were of the view that the Commonwealth could have spoken out against the inherent injustice against lawful residents, without necessarily comprising the organisation’s convention of non-interference in the domestic policy of member states.

There is an arguable case for the Commonwealth subtly confronting despotic regimes. To the extent that the organisation challenged the extremist tendencies of the Nigerian military junta of Sani Abacha in 1995, the emerging poser is why is the Commonwealth silent on the Russia/Ukrainian war of aggression? Put another way, why hasn’t the Commonwealth formulated a resolution proposal to end the impasse? Afterall, the Commonwealth’s commitment to the rule of law, necessarily imposes a positive obligation to adopt a more nuanced, albeit diplomatic stance, in the face of grave injustice.

The 2020 COVID pandemic witnessed the loss of approximately $345 billion in global trade, including $60 billion amongst Commonwealth members states, coupled with the adverse poverty impacts. Plus, in a post-Brexit world, there is no clear strategy of how the Commonwealth could formulate a new economic plan with Britain, and member countries, on the basis of effective and sustainable co-operation and trade alliances, and a market for goods and services across several continents with approximately 2.5 million people, on a mutually beneficial basis.

In the final analysis, the Commonwealth represents a force for good in the 21st Century. Can it build on its past gains? Sure! My recommendations are for the organisation to (1) adopt a nuanced and more innovative stance in global affairs; (2) reset the staid orthodoxy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states in exceptionally justified circumstances of serious breaches to the rule of law and manifest injustice; (3) take meaningful and time-bound actions to support vulnerable and small island developing states (SIDS) at the sharp end of natural disasters and the adverse impacts of climate change; (4) proactively work to boost intra-Commonwealth trade to $2 trillion by 2030, itself a key action stemming from the CHOGM Rwanda 2022 Summit; and (5) work collaboratively with governments and development finance institutions globally to creatively reactivate the economies of the Commonwealth’s least developed countries.
Ojumu is Principal Partner at Balliol Myers LP, a firm of legal practitioners in Lagos, Nigeria.

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