“The Commonwealth’s battle for relevance” By Kayode Soyinka, Editor-in-Chief, AFRICA TODAY
Where is the Commonwealth these days? The multi-lateral organisation of nations who are bound together by similar colonial past as colonies under British rule has lost its sparkle and it’s rarely heard of these days.
It led the way in the 1970s and 1980s in galvanizing international interest and support for the cause of getting rid of apartheid in South Africa. Its role in forcing Ian Smith in Rhodesia to succumb to majority rule in Zimbabwe, and getting Nelson Mandela out of jail after 27 years was perhaps its biggest achievements.
Since that epic moment when South Africa became free and majority rule was achieved, it is as though the Commonwealth has gone to sleep, not much is heard about it. Those who are close to the organisation are worried about its current state of affairs and some brainstorming has been going on to find out what the problem is and what can be done to bring back its sparkle.
The organisation has a lot of good things it is busy with within its 53-member nations. Perhaps the most famous and enduring is the scholarship scheme for students from member-nations to undertake post-graduate degree courses in institutions within member countries, which has been in existence for many decades. Many citizens who have benefitted from this scholarship scheme have become great and successful men and women in their different countries. Such people can never forget the Commonwealth.
Its biggest headache is lack of enough funding for its programs and the running of the London secretariat at Marlborough House. That has led recently to the downscaling of another vital organ within the group, the Commonwealth Business Council. However, what glues the organisation together more than anything else is its diversity and the different professional groups within the organisation – the Commonwealth of the people, represented by lawyers, doctors, local government officials, journalists, etc. – that come together under its platform to share their common experiences and work together.
It therefore should not be too much of a hard sell to point out the advantages, relevance and good points of the Commonwealth. Other countries such as Cameroon, Rwanda and Mozambique that were not under British colonial rule have found the Commonwealth attractive enough to want to join it.
However, the question is now being asked whether its problem in today’s world is the lack of visionary leadership that will refocus the organisation in such a way that it could find new ways of tackling today’s issues and problems and be as relevant as it used to be. As it is presently, the Commonwealth is a victim of its own past achievements and successes and something innovative must be done to wake it up from its slumber.
What can that be? The organisation no doubt needs a new leadership and the opportunity for change at the top at its London secretariat comes up again when its heads of government meet for their bi-annual summit in November 2015 in Malta.
This summit will attract special interest because it will elect a new secretary-general to take over from Kamalesh Sharma, the present occupier of the post who is from India. Sharma was India’s High Commissioner in the United Kingdom before he became the secretary- general.
The position of the Commonwealth secretary- general is more or less an international civil service job, but it has its attractions and, depending on who the occupier of the post is and what he or she decides to make of the job, it could be a prestigious and well respected job that can be almost as influential as that of the secretary-general of the United Nations.
The Commonwealth secretary-general will be visible on the international circuit. As a representative of 53-member nations, distinct by their diversity, he derives his confidence in the fact that members of the organisation he leads form one-third of the entire membership of the United Nations. These are some of the reasons countries are interested in who becomes the secretary-general of the Commonwealth.
In the next contest, it is interesting to see the countries or regions that have shown interest in putting forward candidates. The Europeans once had their time on the job, and, what is more, it should always be remembered that it is the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, that is the head of the Commonwealth. It is, therefore, ironic that this time, the mother country is also interested in fielding a candidate for the secretary-general position.
If this is true, the way and manner they are going about it will most definitely cause acrimony, if not protests, within the Commonwealth as a whole.
In trying to pave way for either of them, Prime Minister David Cameron has appointed a Commonwealth envoy in the name of David Concar. That appointment would have been hailed as a step in the right direction – Britain has been accused of not showing enough interest in the Commonwealth, preferring its relationship with Europe instead – if not for the fact that one smelt a rat about the true intension of appointing a Commonwealth envoy at this point in time.
It is expected that having in mind to field a candidate for the secretary-general’s post, Concar would be expected to visit Commonwealth capitals to drum up support for the British candidate. Concar was once used to support an African lady from Kenya as candidate for the position of deputy secretary-general for political affairs. The question now being asked is, was this done as a trick to compromise Africa and get it to do a quid pro quo to support Britain when it puts forward one of its own for the secretary-general’s position.
This will be a tough one for Britain because it will be breaking a long established tradition: It cannot have its Queen as the head of the Commonwealth, have London as the headquarters of the Commonwealth and at the same time want to have one of its own as the secretary-general of the Commonwealth. If this happens, we might as well raise our hands up and conclude that Britain owns the Commonwealth and it is Britain we have all come to serve.
The Commonwealth is the only multi-lateral body where developing countries enjoy the freedom to assert themselves and they won’t like to be dictated to and have their policies influenced by some powerful superpower. Baroness Amos and Baroness Scotland have been used by Britain in the past to pressure other countries on the running of their internal affairs.
Therefore, if Britain is allowed to control all the top positions in the Commonwealth – on top of recently just beating a Nigerian to the post of deputy secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in a tightly fought election that unprecedentedly went into the fourth round – the organisation will lose what remains of its attractions to its African, Caribbean, Asian and Pacific members.
The Caribbean also once had its time on the top job when Sir Shridath Ramphal from Guyana was secretary- general. And Africa has had its turn too with Chief Emeka Anyaoku. Ditto, the Pacific. And at present Asia occupies the post with Sharma from India. Where then should the next Commonwealth secretary-general come from in Malta?
There, again, seems to be an interest in Africa, with a candidate, Ms Masire from the southern African country of Botswana likely to be put forward. I am reliably told that Masire, daughter of a former Botswana president, and who once served at Marlborough House as deputy secretary-general, has already been endorsed by member-states from the SADC countries. Whether she will get the nod from the rest of the continent is another matter entirely. Her father, it must be said, is a well-respected former African head of state.
However, there is also interest from the Caribbean. And several countries from the region are jostling to put forward their candidates for the job. The countries that are interested are Antigua and Barbuda, Trinidad and Tobago and Dominica.
However, the problem with the Caribbean is that they are still squabbling among themselves over who to have as their consensus candidate. Sanders is said already to have the backing of his home country of Antigua and Barbuda and six others. But it is still not clear if the two other contestants will step down for him. It surely must be him.
Tewarie of Trinidad, it is understood, has no foreign affairs experience and is not as well known in Commonwealth circles as Sanders who has some progressive views on how to move the organisation forward, which might just be what it now needs to get its sparkle back and be more relevant in today’s world.
As for Baroness Scotland, she should be dropped and kept out of the race entirely because it is not even clear how someone who sits in the British parliament, has served all her life in Britain (she was a former British attorney-general) – she left Dominica since she was two years old – could now come all the way from Westminster to fly the Dominican or Caribbean flag. Or is it that the UK is truly behind her candidature, using a trick to have a Briton as secretary-general by default? It is an interesting campaign going on there.
A decision must be taken quickly because time is not on the side of the Caribbean. If the Caribbean doesn’t decide on time and Africa should decide to unite behind Masire and put her forward as the Africa candidate, this might put the Caribbean chances in jeopardy. It might even brighten Britain’s chances. Who knows? Watch this space.