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The Commonwealth of Nations in Africa: An Uncertain Future?

Michaela Gyasi-Agyei | Africa Fellow

Flags of the Commonwealth flying in Parliament Square, London. Image credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Wikimedia Commons.

The Commonwealth of Nations spans more than 20 per cent of the world’s landmass and includes approximately 2.5 billion people. Despite this, some have questioned the role of the Commonwealth in modern geopolitics. Africa is the continent with the greatest number of Commonwealth member states, several of which chose to retain their membership after gaining independence from British rule. Other African states have joined the association despite not having historical ties to the United Kingdom (UK). However, with regional blocs and organisations such as BRICS garnering increased attention, the Commonwealth may struggle to remain relevant in Africa unless it articulates a clear vision and enhances the tangible benefits of membership.

Emergence and evolution

The Commonwealth was built on the foundations of the British Empire, with the majority of its members being former colonies. The first iteration of the association, established in 1931, was known as the British Commonwealth of Nations. The 1949 London Declaration created the modern version of the Commonwealth, “a voluntary association of 56 independent and equal countries”. Most leadership positions within the Commonwealth are rotated among members, with the current Commonwealth Chair-in-Office being Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda. However, King Charles III is the association’s official head. Though this role is not hereditary, it has only been held by British monarchs. This symbolically places the UK at the centre of the Commonwealth, fuelling accusations of neocolonialism.

Notwithstanding this, almost half of the Commonwealth’s members are African states. Mozambique, Rwanda, Togo and Gabon chose to join the association within the last few decades, despite never having been part of the British Empire. Even states like The Gambia and South Africa, which cut ties with the association, later decided to reconnect. This lends some support to the view that the Commonwealth has progressed beyond its history. However, the association could make its purpose in the current international order more evident.

Perceived perks

The continued engagement of African states with the Commonwealth indicates that membership is perceived to offer significant benefits. However, it is not apparent that economic growth is a major focus for the association. Though the UK has recently announced a trade agreement with Nigeria, this is the first deal of its kind between the country and an African state, and only nine percent of the UK’s trade is with Commonwealth nations. In contrast, China is Africa’s largest individual trading partner, and other BRICS members have deepened economic ties with African states.

The predominant advantage of Commonwealth membership identified by African countries is access to an international platform which can amplify their voices. Martin Aliker, former Foreign Minister of Uganda, stated that “the beauty of the Commonwealth is that its member states feel that they can approach each other.” Membership theoretically provides greater access to influential states, such as India, which may raise the concerns of African countries in other forums. However, the extent to which Commonwealth membership facilitates diplomatic connections is difficult to discern. Enhancing the tangible benefits of membership would more effectively increase the association’s appeal.

Alternative to Françafrique

A potential driver for Gabon and Togo both joining the Commonwealth in 2022 was their increased tensions with France. Relationships between France and a number of its former colonies in Africa have deteriorated, with citizens expressing dissatisfaction regarding the presence of the French military and the continued use of the CFA Franc as currency. This discontent contributed to recent coups in several former French colonies, including Gabon. Such attitudes are reminiscent of perceptions that France’s direct form of colonial rule in Africa caused greater economic damage than Britain’s more indirect approach. This may have contributed to countries like Togo and Gabon viewing the UK, and by extension the Commonwealth, as a preferable alternative to France.

As Togo and Gabon share borders with former British colonies, joining the Commonwealth may have also been seen as a way to strengthen regional connections and diversify diplomatic relationships beyond Francophone states. However, it is arguable that organisations such as the African Union serve a similar function. African states are also increasingly engaging with BRICS, which now includes South Africa, Ethiopia and Egypt. Comoros, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have reportedly expressed interest in joining the bloc. This could draw more attention towards organisations focused on the Global South, rather than groups perceived as centring Western countries.

A way forward?

The Commonwealth's continued presence in Africa may be upheld by beliefs that it amplifies members’ voices, supports diplomatic engagement, and offers an alternative to reliance on France. However, as other forums gain increased recognition, the Commonwealth should improve the benefits of membership in order to maintain its relevance.

It is imperative that the association clearly demonstrates an understanding of African members’ priorities, including current economic and security issues. This may involve encouraging more mutually beneficial trade deals between Commonwealth member states. Additionally, the Head of Commonwealth role could be reformed to support the visibility of African members. To further dissociate from its controversial roots, the Commonwealth could call for the issuing of formal apologies for colonial rule and advocate for the permanent return of cultural artefacts and ancestral remains. Taking such steps would likely enhance the image of the Commonwealth in the eyes of its members and the wider international community.

As the geopolitical landscape continues to evolve, the Commonwealth and other international associations must demonstrate their ongoing relevance through a forward-thinking approach, or risk becoming obsolete.

Michaela Gyasi-Agyei is the Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She has a Bachelors of Economics/Laws (Honours) from the University of Queensland.


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