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Obijiofor: The Commonwealth: For better or worse?

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IN the pristine Western Australian city of Perth, Commonwealth heads of government will begin today a three-day meeting as part of their biennial summit. The

IN the pristine Western Australian city of Perth, Commonwealth heads of government will begin today a three-day meeting as part of their biennial summit. The Commonwealth describes itself as “a voluntary association of 54 countries that support each other and work together towards shared goals in democracy and development”. The theme of this year’s gathering is: “Building national resilience, building global resilience”. Unlike the rest of the members, Cameroon and Mozambique are two member countries of the Commonwealth that have no prior language, historical or administrative ties with the organisation.

Opinions are heavily divided on the relevance of the Commonwealth in a largely decolonized and globalised world. For a very long time, some people have expressed irritation at Nigeria’s continued membership of the Commonwealth and wondered whether there are tangible benefits the country derives from its association with the organisation. How, for example, would membership of the Commonwealth assist Nigeria and other lesser developed countries to overcome their trade imbalances with Britain and other western countries or to conquer their huge economic problems at national and international levels? How would a country’s affiliation with the Commonwealth help her to become politically stable? These are legitimate questions that require valid answers.

Some people have argued that, rather than belong to an organisation that is largely founded on shared colonial heritage of member countries, it might be better for Nigeria to establish economic ties with countries with which it shares closer cultural understanding and affinity, and perhaps closer economic philosophy. This suggests that regional economic integration might provide a more effective impetus and direction that Nigeria needs to advance its economy. Examples of existing regional economic groups include the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the European Union (EU).

Defenders of the Commonwealth often contend that benefits of membership cannot always be measured on the basis of economic advantages or in terms of trade deficit and surplus. The Commonwealth Secretariat, the administrative arm of the organisation, states that, in terms of economic development, “The Secretariat aims to strengthen policies and systems that support economic growth in our member countries. We help Commonwealth countries take advantage of opportunities for economic growth and improve their ability to manage their economic development in the long-term.” These are statements of principles that remain largely unfulfilled and are therefore seen as lofty goals.

The Commonwealth also points to other areas in which it offers assistance to member countries. They include the development of democratic institutions, offers of educational aid (e.g. postgraduate scholarship schemes), encouragement of environmentally sustainable growth, promotion of gender equality, peace building through conflict resolution, health education and assistance (e.g. maternal and child health, HIV-AIDS awareness and prevention), promotion of human rights, as well as sport and youth development.

Despite developments in these areas, the Commonwealth is still perceived as a moribund organisation struggling to survive the pressures of internal contradictions. The leaders who attend the summit differ on many issues and view one another with deep suspicion.

Within the Commonwealth, some leaders are seen as more privileged than others, while some others are regarded as disreputable, undemocratic and repressive in terms of the system of government they operate in their countries. Many of the African leaders still carry the baggage of British colonial experience. This is why some of them are regarded as yesterday’s men who still dance to the tunes belched out by their former colonial master rather than aim to achieve the interests of their own people.

The history of the Commonwealth shows that internal bickering has done irreparable damage to the cohesiveness of the organisation. To understand the precarious nature of the politics of the Commonwealth, we must revisit its most recent history. In previous meetings, member countries of the Commonwealth were fragmented along ideological lines, following disagreements over how to handle political problems that erupted either in Fiji or Nigeria or Zimbabwe or Pakistan. For many years, Robert Mugabe was treated as the stubborn and eccentric child of the Commonwealth. The organisation was confronted at two of its meetings in 2002 and 2003 with serious questions about how to handle Mugabe’s intransigence and whether to prolong Zimbabwe’s suspension from the organisation.

In two specific meetings in 2002 in Coolum (Sunshine Coast, Australia) and in 2003 in Abuja, the Commonwealth was preoccupied with the question of what to do in order to restore democracy in Zimbabwe. That question led on many occasions to public spat between former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Robert Mugabe over the nature of land reforms in Zimbabwe. Western member nations of the Commonwealth (such as Britain, Australia and to some extent Canada) pushed strongly for the continued suspension of Zimbabwe from the organisation while African and Caribbean member countries called for negotiations. The image of a united family which some Commonwealth leaders had projected about the organisation had fallen into pieces.

More specifically, when Commonwealth heads of governments met in Abuja between 5 and 8 December 2003, Zimbabwe and Mugabe topped the agenda. The leaders were divided over what to do with Zimbabwe’s pariah status. For example, Australia’s foreign minister at the time (Alexander Downer) and former Prime Minister John Howard had argued, prior to the start of the summit, that it would be inappropriate to invite Mugabe to attend the meeting. They contended that Mugabe’s presence would go against the democratic ideals and spirit of the Commonwealth. In a similar tone, Tony Blair said Mugabe should be isolated from the Commonwealth until he purged himself of his numerous dictatorial policies and practices.

As host, Olusegun Obasanjo was caught between the two opposing camps. If he invited Mugabe, Obasanjo risked upsetting powerful member countries such as Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Yet if he blocked Mugabe from attending the summit, Obasanjo would infuriate African countries who could perceive him as a messenger of the West. Whatever decision Obasanjo took, he was guaranteed to cultivate enemies of sorts among member countries of the Commonwealth. It was not an enviable position for anyone to be in. Today, all the arguments over Zimbabwe seem to have evaporated following the power-sharing deal struck in 2008 between Mugabe and his country’s opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai who now serves as prime minister.

When critics of Nigeria’s membership of the Commonwealth argue that the organisation has invested more time and resources in putting out fires in member countries than it has done in implementing meaningful and openly beneficial projects designed to transform the lives of ordinary people, they seem to have a valid point.

The Commonwealth has repeatedly used suspension and economic sanctions as a weapon to rein in member countries that behave badly. But debate persists as to whether sanctions are an effective diplomatic tool to facilitate desired behaviour change in member countries that infringe on the organisation’s rules. For example, sanctions did not end the culture of coups that started in the Pacific Island nation of Fiji in 1987. Sanctions also did not end the military rule of Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. The man stayed on as president from 2001 till 2008. We should not forget that Nigeria was once exiled by the Commonwealth in 1995 when Sani Abacha’s military government executed playwright and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa on 10 November 1995, along with eight other members of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP).

The threat of sanctions did not restrain Abacha from endorsing the death sentence on Saro-Wiwa and his associates. By ignoring international appeals for clemency, Abacha ensured that Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth and other intergovernmental organisations.

In 1998, India and Pakistan – two member countries of the Commonwealth – antagonised the global community when they conducted nuclear tests. The United States and other western countries expressed outrage over the tests. They imposed economic and military sanctions on the two countries. In just two years, the sanctions were lifted and both countries now enjoy the confidence and friendship of the United States and other western nations.

If the Commonwealth wants to become more relevant in the global community, it must do more for its member countries. It must reach out and assist developing African, Caribbean and Asia-Pacific countries to overcome the challenges that have kept them at the lowest rung of the development ladder. This means the Commonwealth must support practical projects that have positive impacts on the people who reside in those countries. Life is not all about politics at the national level. There are many ways through which the Commonwealth can make a difference in the lives of people who reside in its member countries. These include more assistance in economic development, support for medical care, promotion of democracy, training and exchange of teachers to lift the quality of primary, secondary and university education in member countries, and helping to resolve never-ending conflicts that consume much needed resources.

The situation in Africa is particularly desperate. The continent is going backwards. The leaders have failed their people. The people cannot help themselves either. The cycle of poverty is getting bigger. The civil society is exhausted and timorous. The political class has produced a new breed of greedy leaders. Student union and labour leaders are engaged in the politics that defines the stomach as the easiest way to reach a man’s/woman’s heart. Who will salvage Africa?

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