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The Commonwealth: punching below weight

Michael Holman
3 December 2007

We punch above our weight, claimed Commonwealth leaders who held their biennial heads-of-government summit (CHOGM) in the Ugandan capital Kampala on 23-25 November 2007.

Who did they think they were fooling?

Far from having a disproportionate influence on world affairs, the Commonwealth comes across as a punch-drunk fighter living on past memories and false hopes: not trading blows on center-stage, but shadow-boxing outside the main ring, where the real action is taking place.

The organisation has a lot in its favour. It embraces nearly 2 billion people from fifty-four countries spanning the globe. A shared colonial history and common language are at its foundations, but the acceptance of Rwanda's membership application at Kampala indicates (as did Mozambique's entry in 1995) that these are capable of flexible interpretation. The Commonwealth includes the world's main religions, and its fastest growing economies as well as some of the world's smallest and poorest states. For countries in this last category, it is an invaluable source of expert advice and friendly assistance, covering every subject from how to get external debt relief to how to prevent their banks from being used for money-laundering.

 

Michael Holman was Africa editor of the Financial Times, 1984-2002. He is the author of the novels Last Orders at Harrods: An African Tale Polygon, 2005; republished by Abacus, 2007) and the sequel, Fatboy and the Dancing Ladies (Polygon, 2007)A version of this article was published in the Daily Nation (Nairobi), 2 December 2007

Also by Michael Holman in openDemocracy:

"Welcome to the aid business!" (20 June 2005)

"Africa: celebrity and salvation" (22 October 2006)

"Trees for Africa" (18 December 2006)

"Eugène Marais, The Soul of the White Ant" (19 February 2007)

"Dizzy worms in Zimbabwe" (19 March 2007)But the Commonwealth can be a rough neighborhood, with some tough street-fighters throwing their weight around, making bosses who boast about mixing it with the big boys look foolish. If the Commonwealth is not to drift further into irrelevance, it needs to deal with these thugs and bullies on its block.

It must drop its pretensions, and lower its sights. Above all, this "global club" must stay true to its principles. In short, the Commonwealth needs to become less ambitious and much braver if it is to be more effective.

Gentlemen vs street-fighters

In Kampala, however, it continued to tilt at issues beyond its reach, at the expense of problems it should be confronting. The windy and pompous communiqué issued at the end of the three-day gathering provided little of substance: trade reform is urgently needed; global warming is a very bad thing; the millennium development goals need more work if they are to be achieved; youth is the future; and Pakistan is a "serious violation of the Commonwealth's fundamental political values".

It is the failure to assert these same values that have sapped the association of its international influence, and diminishes its presence on the world stage. And it is a failure that encourages the street-fighters to brawl, knowing that the Commonwealth won't lay a glove on them - as events in the run-up to the summit demonstrated:

Biff! A couple of days before the Kampala conference opened, and as sensitive discussions on Pakistan were getting underway, the Ugandan host - and new Commonwealth chairman - President Yoweri Museveni chose to wear his military uniform when meeting former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi.

 

Bash! Uganda's police and state security officers beat up protesters in Kampala's city centre on the opening day.

 

Bang! Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, expresses his contempt for the Commonwealth which his country left (after a year's suspension was extended) in 2003.

 

Crash! Mugabe will, it seems, attend the European Union-Africa conference in Lisbon on 8-9 December 2007, forcing British prime minister Gordon Brown to put his threat to boycott the meeting into practice.

Wallop! The Commonwealth response on these issues could not have been feebler: not a word was said.

It all could have been very different had Commonwealth leaders not lost their commitment and sense of purpose long before they came to Kampala.

At the previous summit in Malta, in November 2005, they failed to press Museveni by insisting that his harassment of opposition leaders was unacceptable; instead they confirmed Kampala as the venue for the 2007 summit. Meanwhile Zimbabwe was, as it has continued to be, swept under the carpet. There was not single reference to the former member in either the 2005 or 2007 official Commonwealth reports - the country and its problems might not have existed.

 

It does not have to be this way. It was a Commonwealth summit in the Zambian capital of Lusaka in 1979 that laid the foundations for Zimbabwe's independence elections in 1980. And it was in Harare in October 1991 that the Commonwealth recovered its dignity after years of indulging the dictators in its ranks: in the "Harare principles", members reaffirmed their commitment to human rights, good governance and the rule of law.

Also on Zimbabwe's slow collapse in openDemocracy:

Bev Clark, "Mass evictions in Zimbabwe" (12 June 2005)

Andrew Meldrum, "A glimmer of change in Zimbabwe" (7 December 2005)

Wilf Mbanga, "Fear and loathing in Zimbabwe" (3 March 2006)

Andrew Meldrum, "Zimbabwe between past and future" (22 June 2006)

Conor O'Loughlin, "Zimbabwean travails" (12 September 2006)

Wilf Mbanga, "Happy birthday, Robert Mugabe" (21 February 2007)

Stephen Chan, "Farewell, Robert Mugabe" (20 March 2007)

If the association had maintained these values over the years that followed, its credibility would have been sustained. True, some of the most flagrant abusers of the Harare principles were brought to task (such as Fiji and Nigeria), but in the case of the military regime in Abuja, the Commonwealth moved with shameful reluctance. Kampala offered an opportunity to revive the Commonwealth's values. It was not taken.

A lost bout

It might have been otherwise. In an under-reported speech in Wiesbaden, Germany on 4 November 2007, Nigeria's President Umaru Yar'adua delivered one of the strongest condemnations of Robert Mugabe to come from an African leader. "I want to emphasise that what is happening in Zimbabwe is not in conformity with the rule of law. I do not subscribe to this", Yar'adua said.

If the Commonwealth leaders had asked President Yar'adua to speak for it at the Lisbon meeting, delivering the same speech to Robert Mugabe's face, it would have made it easier for Gordon Brown to change his mind and respond to the Nigerian foreign minister's appeal in Kampala: "We need him in Lisbon." Alas, no such thing happened.

The Kampala summit missed another opportunity in relation to the desperate condition of Zimbabwe. The Commonwealth could have seized a practical role in leading and coordinating reconstruction efforts by calling on the world to commit generously in cash and kind to the country's recovery.

Zimbabwe's needs are pressing: fuel for its vehicles, medicine for its clinics and hospitals, books for its schools, buses for transport, and seeds and fertiliser for its farmers.

The promise of such help, which could be on its way within days of the restoration of democracy, would encourage Zimbabwe's citizens in their battle for political change. Indeed, such a promise could conceivably help bring about a return to democracy sooner rather than later (see "Dizzy worms in Zimbabwe", 19 March 2007).

The likelihood, however, is that the Commonwealth has thrown away its chance as it continues to avoid the issue. The tragedy is that this defeat of its principles will not be at the hands of a giant opponent - but humiliation by a small-town bully. Far from punching above its weight, the Commonwealth has shown itself afraid to fight.

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