An Irrelevant Commonwealth


Two weeks ago, the Gambia pulled out of the Commonwealth saying it would no longer be a member of an organisation that represents an extension of colonialism. Ten years ago, Zimbabwe also pulled out of the club of mostly former British colonies, citing more or less the same reasons as the Gambia has pointed out.

In addition, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe said the Commonwealth was riddled with racism as it suspended the country from its counsels a year after the government in Harare had embarked on its revolutionary fast-track land reform programme that has corrected tenure inequalities brought by 90 years of direct colonialism.

A decade later, the Gambia has followed suit in its relations with the grouping of former colonies.

In a statement on its state television, the Gambian government said: “The government has withdrawn its membership of the British Commonwealth and decided that the Gambia will never be a member of any neo-colonial institution and will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism.”

When the Zimbabwean government pulled out it had been suspended from the grouping on allegations of undermining democracy and human rights.

The then Department of Information and Publicity disputed this assertion, instead indicating in a statement that: “This is pure racism we fought against to regain our political Independence and we cannot be expected to accept blatant racism to prevent us from regaining our economic Independence.”

The pullout by the Gambia and Zimbabwe bear similarities as the two governments have fallen foul with Britain with the former colonial master accusing the two countries of mis-governance and “undermining democracy”.

The Gambia’s President, Yayha Jammeh, has always accused Britain of neo-colonial tendencies that have resulted in the withdrawal of aid and was one of the vocal critics of Britain’s proposals to tie “aid” to acceptance of homosexuality in his country.

Zimbabwe too was accused of being dictatorial after it repossessed land held by some 6 000 white farmers and redistributed it to around 300 000 black families.

Britain, under Tony Blair’s Premiership, reneged on its obligations under the Lancaster House Conference in 1979 (the ceasefire talks to end the war between settler forces and nationalists) to fund land reforms in the country.

This prompted the Zimbabwe government to compulsorily acquire the white-held land without compensation.

When Zimbabwe pulled out of the Commonwealth, some quarters thought the action was too drastic. But in real terms, the country has not lost much from not being a member of the grouping and has in fact built up its dignity by dissociating itself from a grouping of former British colonies.

And now the Gambia has taken the same route and this brings to the fore the relevance – or rather lack of it- of the Commonwealth in the light of the quest by countries in the developing world that suffered under colonialism to regain control of their resources and assert themselves as truly independent nations.

Lecturer in International Relations at Bindura University of Science Education in Zimbabwe, Bowden Mbanje says the issue is better understood if one revisits the origins of the Commonwealth. “The group was created at the time of decolonisation and one can say it was an attempt by Britain to retain influence even when it no longer had direct control over them.

“Before the decolonisation process Britain appointed governors in most of its colonies, had access to their resources and so the creation of the Commonwealth was meant to retain that control in those independent states,” Mbanje outlines.

Mbanje says it is no coincidence that the Queen of the United Kingdom is the head of the Commonwealth.

“The monarchy is the symbol of the British empire so in a way that group is an attempt to perpetuate that empire even though it has declined they still long for the domination they used to have,” he adds.

The Commonwealth was founded in 1931 but acquired its modern shape after 1949 as former British colonies and protectorates started to achieve self-government and varying degrees of independence.

Before 1949 it was called the British Commonwealth but dropped the word “British” from its name and the allegiance to the crown from its statute and other independent nations joined.

Mbanje says the reference to the “British Commonwealth” in the withdrawal statement by the Gambia was indicative as it showed that the UK still had a lot of influence on the activities of the group.

During the times of the British Empire, the UK allowed some special rules for trade with its colonies. These rules made things from the colonies cheaper in the UK and also encouraged the colonies to buy goods made in the UK. According to Mbanje it is this status quo that the British seek to maintain through the Commonwealth, creating advantageous trade conditions for itself.

October 2013
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