The Commonwealth in the 21st Century: Beyond Rhetoric | The Guardian Nigeria News
A vibrant multipolar world of established and rising superpowers in the mold of the UK, Russia, China, India and France, to name a few, invoke the poser as to the role appropriateness of the Commonwealth in the 21st century and its practical relevance to the lives of millions of people spread across several continents. So what is the Commonwealth?
Historically, Britain and the Australian, Canadian, Indian, Irish, New Zealand and South African Dominions, in 1926, agreed on 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 given to this principle in the Statute of Westminster 1931, an Act of Parliament which established among other things that the self-governing dominions were “self-governing communities within the British Empire, of equal status, in no way subordinate to each other in any case”. aspect of their internal 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 of the 1931 legislation was that, for the first time, the dominions (including large European populations) could freely exercise control over their foreign affairs; because they already controlled their internal affairs. This was significant in that it would eventually help pave the way to independence in later 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 among others. Clearly, therefore, the Commonwealth began as an organization of English-speaking countries sharing historical ties with the British Empire, united by the uncomfortable fact of having been colonized by Great Britain, also called the United Kingdom, with the language English as a lingua franca, underpinned by strong cultural, educational, economic, commercial and sporting ties.
Today, the Commonwealth comprises 56 member countries, of approximately 2.5 billion people, in English and French speaking countries and other countries, across Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean/ Americas and the Pacific, with little or no shared political history with what was once called the “mother country”: Britain. These countries are Botswana, Cameroon, 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 and Barbuda, Belize, Canada, Dominica, Guyana, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago. In Europe, they include 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.
Cameroon and Mozambique are not yet English-speaking countries, they are full members of the Commonwealth. Togo and Gabon, both French-speaking countries, became members of the Commonwealth at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) which recently concluded in June 2022 in Kigali, Rwanda. Analysts often believe that the Commonwealth is an extension of British ‘soft power’ on the world stage and point to the fact that the UK’s external affairs department is indeed called the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office!
A key criteria for Commonwealth membership is that a prospective member country must have a clear commitment to democracy and democratic processes, including free and fair elections and representative legislatures; the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary; good governance, including a well-trained civil service and transparent public accounts; and the protection of human rights, freedom of expression and equal opportunity. Thus, Togo and Gabon, both French-speaking countries, became the 55th and 56th members of the Commonwealth during the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in June 2022 in Kigali, Rwanda.
That said, is the Commonwealth today a force for positive change in today’s world? Is the organization a British colonial relic, which has long since lost its usefulness? Can we say that the organization is a formidable drummer in the questionable fold of the vicissitudes of global geopolitics? How valid is the claim that the organization is a unifying catalyst for cultural, developmental, educational and socio-economic exchange between nations with a common British heritage? How should the organization address the inevitable tensions between member states given competing national interests and the binding principle of non-interference in domestic politics? After Brexit, how should the Commonwealth execute a trade reset with Britain?
Unbundling these, certainly over the years, the Commonwealth has had tremendous success in education, capacity building, development, economics, bilateral and multilateral trade, legal education, cultural and sporting links plus, human rights and the rule of law. It should be noted that the Commonwealth promptly suspended Nigeria following the summary execution of human rights activist, born Ogoni, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his colleagues, under the military junta of the 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 organization was right to suspend Nigeria or whether the right course of action was expulsion. This latter position was championed by none other than Madiba Nelson Mandela, then President of South Africa. The suspension was, however, justified by the Commonwealth on the pragmatic basis of maintaining open channels of communication with the Nigerian military junta, with a view to moderating the latter’s despotic tendencies.
Through collaborations with the International Monetary Organization, the World Bank, the International Organization of La Francophonie and other development financial institutions, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the administrative arm, supports the efforts of member countries to effectively manage their debt portfolios through its public debt management program.
Equally, Chevening scholarships enable brilliant Commonwealth students to undertake fully sponsored postgraduate study at top UK universities and, on completion, put their newly acquired skills to use in Britain’s development and / or their country of origin, on a win-win basis. In addition, organizations such as the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association aim to sustainably promote the rule of law across the Commonwealth, ensuring that an independent and effective legal profession properly serves its 2.5 billion people.
The Commonwealth Games have brought people together and continue to bring them together. For example, cricket fans around the world are excited about the annual ashes between Australia and England, the test matches between Commonwealth nations across the West Indies, India, New Zealand and the series of West African quadrangle cricket. It unites people, generates substantial domestic revenue streams and creates jobs for local people.
The Commonwealth also benefits from development aid. For example, over the next three years, the UK government will commit £15 million to support Commonwealth countries in their fight against cybercrime.
These seminal gains notwithstanding, there are important strategic and practical questions to ponder. The Commonwealth was seen as weak in many quarters during the 2018 Windrush scandal. The latter witnessed the wrongful detention, denial of legal rights and, in at least 80 cases, deportation of legitimate British residents from Commonwealth ancestry. Although the policy was eventually abandoned by the British government amid fierce opposition in Parliament, many commentators were of the view that the Commonwealth could have spoken out against the inherent injustice against legal residents, without necessarily understanding the convention of non-interference of the organization in the internal life. policy of member states.
There is an arguable case for the Commonwealth to subtly confront despotic regimes. Inasmuch as the organization challenged the extremist tendencies of the Nigerian military junta of Sani Abacha in 1995, the emerging pose is why is the Commonwealth silent on the Russian-Ukrainian war of aggression? In other words, why did the Commonwealth not come up with a motion for a resolution to break the deadlock? After all, the Commonwealth’s commitment to the rule of law necessarily imposes a positive obligation to take a more nuanced, albeit diplomatic, position in the face of grave injustice.
The 2020 COVID pandemic has resulted in the loss of approximately $345 billion in global trade, including $60 billion between Commonwealth member states, as well as the negative effects on poverty. Moreover, in a post-Brexit world, there is no clear strategy on how the Commonwealth could formulate a new economic plan with Britain and member countries, based on cooperation and dialogue. effective and sustainable trade alliances, and a market for goods. and services across multiple 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 he build on his past earnings? Sure! My recommendations are that the organization (1) take a nuanced and more innovative stance in global affairs; (2) reestablish the stilted orthodoxy of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states in exceptionally justified circumstances of serious violations of the rule of law and manifest injustice; (3) take meaningful and time-bound measures to support vulnerable Small Island Developing States (SIDS) most affected by natural disasters and the adverse effects of climate change; (4) work proactively to grow intra-Commonwealth trade to $2 trillion by 2030, in 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 Commonwealth Least Developed Countries.
Ojumu is a senior partner at Balliol Myers LP, a law firm in Lagos, Nigeria.