The Commonwealth must reform to seize its moment

A new African secretary-general in October could fire up India and restore influence to the ‘ready-made bloc’ – but it needs a reboot, writes Helen Fitzwilliam.

The World Today
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Helen Fitzwilliam

Journalist and filmmaker

‘I don’t get the sense the Commonwealth means much to African youth,’ says Kenyan John Githongo, publisher of the political online magazine The Elephant, adding that now Queen Elizabeth has gone its relevance may decline further.

He believes young people on the continent are enthused by Pan-African consciousness and sceptical of western intentions. This leaves little time for the Commonwealth of nations, which they see as a colonial hangover.

Yet in Samoa in October at its biennial heads-of-government meeting, a new secretary-general will be elected, and it is expected to be Africa’s turn. Candidates must apply by March. The club’s champions believe this would be an ideal time to give the institution a rekindled sense of purpose to reflect the new realities of the 21st century.

The diversity and geopolitical reach of its 56 members, which make up a third of the world’s population and more than a quarter of the UN’s membership, are considered to be a strength of the Commonwealth. Some officials point to what they see as its potential to address global challenges if it acts together.

The Commonwealth’s counterview

At a time when China and Russia are challenging the US-led world order in the Global South, the Commonwealth can offer a counterview and a space for dialogue on global issues without the distraction of superpower rivalries.

For low-income African countries and small states, which make up more than half of the membership, the Commonwealth is a useful network. It gives them a world platform to amplify their concerns, particularly on climate change, since many are islands at risk of flooding.

Harshan Kumarasingham, an expert in Commonwealth history at the University of Edinburgh, explains the cost of joining is low but the benefits can be high. At the heads-of-government meeting, each member has a seat at the table: ‘Admittedly it’s a very big table but they are given a voice,’ he says.

Mutual assistance is an important consideration. Guyana, the world’s newest petrostate is being supported by the Commonwealth in its dispute with Venezuela over the oil-rich Essequibo region. Two former French colonies, Togo and Gabon, hope to boost access to development aid by joining the world’s biggest anglophone bloc.

Reform of the Commonwealth must come from the Global South membership – above all India, which has been detached.

 

However, Arif Lalani, a former Canadian diplomat and Commonwealth official argues that it needs a new ‘strategic narrative for the times’, which will entice bigger post-colonial members – India, Malaysia and South Africa for instance – to be more involved. He believes the forum could have more diplomatic muscle, but that requires reform and political will.

Some analysts feel the Secretariat, which supports the membership, ‘lacks an engine’. Reforms suggested by foreign ministers have yet to be pushed through and member states want more accountability from the Secretariat. ‘What it needs is fresh leadership and sustained political attention,’ Lalani adds.

The club has been a global diplomatic force before, when it shamed South Africa into ending apartheid. But it was easy to unite members over such a signature cause.

Ralph Goodale, Canada’s high commissioner to the Commonwealth, says today each of the 56 countries has its own priorities. ‘The biggest challenge is developing consensus around the central focus,’ he said. Funds are limited so the club needs to concentrate on key issues.

An African secretary-general playing a more prominent role could make it more palatable for India to engage.

Chietigj Bajpaee, senior research fellow for South Asia, Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House

Experts agree that reform must come from the Global South membership – above all India, which has been somewhat detached. Narendra Modi, its Hindu-nationalist prime minister, has not attended a heads-of-government meeting since 2018 although he has sent ministers.

India’s global importance is increasing, as the West sees it as a counterweight to China, despite criticism of its stance on Russia and creeping authoritarianism. At the G20 conference in Delhi last year, the African Union was brought into the fold. It allowed Modi to cast himself as the Global South’s leader, reflecting developing countries’ demands for more growth without the imposition of western values.

‘An African secretary-general at the Commonwealth playing a more prominent role could make it more palatable for India to engage,’ says Chietigj Bajpaee, a senior research fellow for South Asia at Chatham House.

One of India’s leading strategists, Raja Mohan, a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore, says that while New Delhi used to ignore the Commonwealth, this is no longer the case. ‘There is considerable interest in the strategic significance of the organization in the Modi government but translating that into practical outcomes has been hard,’ he said.

A ready-made bloc

Attempts were made to build greater cooperation between London and New Delhi on reorienting the Commonwealth before the 2022 Kigali heads-of-government meeting, but ‘they got stymied’. New Delhi, Mohan says, sees the Commonwealth as a ready-made bloc, including many strategically placed nations where a rising India could expand its engagement for mutual benefit.

It’s the Commonwealth’s time, but it’s not ready.

Arif Lalani, former Canadian official to the Commonwealth

Digital innovation could be a framework for more Commonwealth cooperation, suggests Bajpaee, since India wants to export its digital public infrastructure model to Africa in what is being called a software-driven equivalent of China’s Belt and Road Initiative to counter Beijing’s influence there. But it will be hard to compete with China’s deeper pockets.

India recently agreed to partner with Guyana to exploit its offshore oil. Denis Chabrol of the Demerara Waves news website in the South American country says the two former British colonies are long-standing Commonwealth partners and share similar values.

‘There has been investment and strong business relationships that pre-date the oil discoveries due to our shared history,’ he added. Thousands of Indians were brought to Guyana as indentured labourers to work on sugar plantations.

Overall, India’s involvement is seen by some experts as the key to moving the Commonwealth forward and a new paradigm could be forged with New Delhi, says Mohan, if it is based on three aims: it must be a natural platform for expanding India’s influence as a rising global player; a place to revitalize Britain’s international role; and a forum for Delhi and London to pursue common strategic objectives to counter the growing challenges from Russia and China in the member states. This could be thrashed out at the heads-of-government meeting.

Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmed says he expects reform to be ‘high on the agenda’ in Samoa, but exactly what those reforms will be is still to be discussed. The Commonwealth did not respond to requests for comment.

Lalani is still hopeful the value of this unique grouping will be realized. ‘It’s the Commonwealth’s time, but it’s not ready,’ he said.