Wednesday, July 24, 2024
InterviewExpanding Commonwealth “committed to reform” in Africa

Expanding Commonwealth “committed to reform” in Africa

Among the high-profile guests invited to attend this year’s AU summit in Addis Ababa was the Rt Hon. Particia Scotland KC, secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Born in Dominica, a former British colony in the Caribbean, Scotland became the first woman to head the international organization in 2015 following a standout legal career in the UK, where she served as the first woman attorney-general for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Initially founded as the British Commonwealth of Nations a century ago, the intergovernmental organization headed by Scotland boasts 56 members today, with most of them being former British colonies. No less than 21 of these are African nations, and the Commonwealth has grown to represent some 2.5 billion people since its formal reconstitution in 1949.

Although the Commonwealth is a relatively loose organization rooted in British colonialism in which the members have no legal obligations to one another, its membership base has been expanding in recent decades as several African countries have joined despite having no constitutional links to the UK.

Mozambique became the first to do so in 1995, followed by Rwanda in 2009, and Togo and Gabon in 2022. Gabon was partially suspended from the Commonwealth following a military coup in Libreville the following year.

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The Reporter’s Samuel Bogale sat down the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth to gain a better understanding of the organization’s activities, its engagements in Africa, and other related issues. EXCERPTS:


The Reporter: Let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth. What is the Commonwealth all about?

Rt Hon. Scotland: The Commonwealth is now made up of 56 countries covering five regions. There are 21 member states from Africa, who are also members of the African Union. Two new members joined in 2022 in Kigali, Rwanda, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Rwanda is now the Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth. What’s interesting is Rwanda was never part of the British Empire, and most of the new countries that have joined are republics, and they were never part of the British Empire. One of the things that people quite often get confused about is they think that the Commonwealth is the leftover of the British Empire. 

The new Commonwealth was formed in 1949 when eight countries who had been part of the British Empire wished to take the independence, but they still wanted to remain in a familial relationship with the other countries. We now have 36 countries that are republics, and we have four different monarchies that are part of the Commonwealth. What joins us is values and the fact that all of us have similar aspirations. Our countries make up about 2.5 billion people and six percent are under the age of thirty. We have rich countries, poor countries, middle income countries, and least developed countries. 

This eclectic mix of countries is incredibly important because we are in the main bound by the fact that we speak one language. We have a similar parliamentary system of democracy. We have a similar approach to the rule of law, and similar institutions. There’s a level of interoperability between us, that in fact means to do business in the Commonwealth is 21 percent cheaper than doing it with countries outside the Commonwealth. So we grow stronger with the great democratic history in our Commonwealth. We undertake many Commonwealth observation missions of elections to help our countries strengthen their election bodies, to help them reform their laws, and implement practical solutions to difficult problems.

Right now, we are working extremely hard on issues of climate change, and issues on reforming the financial infrastructure because we don’t think it’s fit for the purpose. We are also working on the blue ocean, desertification and the drought that’s happening across our world particularly. Our leaders come together every two years, and they set the agenda and the mandate. So we are growing ever faster, and I think it is growing stronger.

You mentioned there are member nations that were never part of the British Empire. What are the requirements for joining this organization? Do members have to be English-speaking countries?

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Any new country who shares our values can join the Commonwealth. There is a set process on our website, which sets out what you have to do and how you have to do it. It doesn’t matter which language you speak, but all of our meetings are held in English with no translation. So any country can join. Speaking in English in the meetings is something that you have to do, but they don’t have to be English speaking countries. Many of our countries who have joined have had a different history.

It looks like membership is growing. Are there more countries that are in line to join the Commonwealth?

Yes, there are. These approaches are done confidentially, but I can certainly say that there are at least two or three countries from the African continent who are seeking out to join the Commonwealth.

Has there been any interest from the Ethiopian government yet? What are the prospects for Ethiopian membership to the Commonwealth?

No interest from the government as far as I am aware. But it will be a matter which is very much within each country’s gift. Every country makes its own decision. 

The creation or strengthening of country blocs is becoming increasingly common. BRICS in the global south and more traditional organizations such as the G20 and others are good examples. How can the Commonwealth compete with them and guard the interests of its member countries simultaneously?

I think one of the things the Commonwealth has always been particularly strong on is collaboration. Our members have never seen each other in competition with each other. We are in competition with the global problems we jointly face. Climate change is a global problem, which we are going to collaborate together to compete against, because we have beat global warming. We have got to beat climate change. We are coming together to produce things which will help to promote the common good. 

If you think about what we need today, we need a platform which is multilateral, multiregional, multiethnic, multilingual and multi-religious. Somewhere where the richest countries meet, and the poorest countries, some of the most populated countries, and some of the small. I think the Commonwealth is one of the only platforms where every single member is equal. There’s no weighted voting. Everybody is equal. Everybody has a say. What that does is it gives certain strength because you can’t get your way by being bigger, richer and more powerful. All of us have to come to the table with the element of humility because the only way we’re going to get an agreement is by consensus. 

In the Commonwealth, we have Europe and we have the Americas because we have got Canada. We have 21 African states, 12 Caribbean states, 11 Pacific states, and Asian states. When all of us come together, the rest of the two thirds of the world can look at someone in our family who looks like them. Ethiopia can look at the 21 African states.Those 21 African states within our family will be representing what Africa wants. I was thrilled when I went to Ghana’s president’s meeting on the reform of the international financial institutions, and the majority of countries who took the floor were my countries. They are playing a major role in Africa and a major role in the Commonwealth. Many of the things that the African Union are talking about, we too are talking about. 

Speaking of international financial institutions (IFIs), what is the Commonwealth’s stance on reforming the international financial architecture? 

We are absolutely committed to the reform. When I came in as Secretary-General in 2016, one of the first things I said was that we have to get away from the GDP being the only arbiter. We in the Commonwealth have been raising this issue, the need for the reform of the IFIs throughout the whole of my term in office. We believe that change has to happen. The debt that many of our member states are in is insurmountable. Many of our member states are in debt distress and it is unconscionable that countries in such debt distress are made to pay higher rates of interest than those who are very similar to them from different regions. 

Climate justice, debt justice, and the reform of the IFIs is of fundamental importance. The IFIs were created for the post 1945 situation. Those days are gone. This is not a matter of a country simply having fiscal rectitude. You can have as much fiscal rectitude as you like. It won’t stop everything you’ve built, everything you own, everything you have grown from being destroyed by a category 5 hurricane or a cyclone, which takes your roads, your bridges, your houses, your hospitals, your schools and throws them into the sea. 

The hurricane and cyclone take everything you have built, but they leave the debt behind. If they took the buildings, the roads and the debt, it would be okay. But they don’t. So our countries are left with the old debts plus having to borrow more money to build back. You can’t build back in the old way. You have to build back better in order to compensate for the climate disaster that you may have if you don’t go differently. So it’s going to cost you more. That reality is a reality of many countries. 33 of my member states are small, and a number of them are considered to be middle income or high income countries. They get no concessional financing and no concessional loans, which means they have to borrow at the highest possible rate, but they are inherently vulnerable. 

So we believe that there has to be a reassessment and that the IFIs have to reform. I am really happy that in the last year or so, the IFIs and the majority of the global community understand that the current structure isn’t working for anyone and it has to change. 

Yet, they are not doing anything.

Well, they are starting. The thing is we are fighting. That’s the most important thing.

The IFIs are largely controlled by powerful countries that are not members of the Commonwealth. Considering this, does the Commonwealth have the leverage to push for reform in these institutions? 

We have some of the most powerful countries in our family. If we are able to persuade all the members of our family to agree, we then have one third of the world. When one third of the world says something, the rest of the two thirds have to listen. What you have seen historically is that if the Commonwealth can get agreement between our 56 countries, the very rich and the very poor, it quite often is the pathway for others to follow. Because we have the conversation with the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India. So in many ways, we have a very powerful voice, a consolidative voice. If we get an agreeing position for the Commonwealth, then that is a very powerful tool to persuade others to come with us. 

Corruption is one of the things the Commonwealth is working on, and many of your member countries are in Africa, where corruption remains a significant problem. How do you view corruption as the head of the Commonwealth?  

The first thing I say is that corruption is a global problem. It isn’t a problem in one region or one country. If we look at how much money we need to deliver the sustainable development goals and the money we have, the difference between those two figures is the sum equivalent which has been siphoned off globally by corruption. You have to look at where the illicit flows go from and to. Corrupt practices may have happened in one region but they flow to another region, so we believe the only way you can interdict corruption is by interdicting it globally. 

What we have done in the Commonwealth, and it was the first thing I did when I became the Secretary-General, is we held an anti-corruption summit. In fact, one of the lead speakers at the anti-corruption conference was President Muhammadu Buhari (former Nigerian president). I will never forget what he said to the suggestion whether he demands an apology for remarks of Africa being corrupt. He said: “I don’t demand any apology, what I demand is the return of assets.” 

What we have done in the Commonwealth is that we came up with 24 anti-corruption benchmarks, which address both public and private corruption. We are training our member states, we are helping them to reform the legislation. Most importantly, we are interdicting corrupt practices. We have interdicted more corrupt practices in the last six years than ever before, making sure our countries are better able to recover the money which has been illicitly moved from their countries. 

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So you are also working with countries the money is flowing to through corruption? 

Absolutely. We see this as a global problem. It is really important for people to understand that all our countries are affected by it and there are participants usually in many countries who perpetrate it. No one country should feel that they are absolved from addressing this issue. It is going to take every country in the world to do its best to bring this practice to an end. 

A lot is being said behind closed doors about democracy and Africa. Besides observing elections, what do you do with regards to democracy in member states? 

Well, we do a whole systems approach; we don’t just observe the election. We send observers to a country to observe the elections, and then we make recommendations. After the election, we present the report to our member state and we invite them to consider whether they want to have an action plan in which we will then help them to address the difficulties that have been highlighted.

We also will do things like strengthening the electoral bodies, work with them on constitutional and other reform of their legal structure. We work with judges, magistrates, as well as criminal justice systems. We work with community groups, and we work to strengthen women’s participation. We have got the Commonwealth parliamentary association, through which the speakers of Parliament meet. We are able to look at every institution which is responsible for delivering democracy and justice. One of the most important things that we do is strengthen the rule of law.

The main agenda for the African Union summit this year is education. Education is also part of the Commonwealth’s main focus area. What have you discussed with African leaders so far? 

We have been talking about the work that we have done on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and digitalization. If you think about where we are now, our young people have to live in a very new digitized world and it is extremely important for us to look at the needs that they have to engage in the 21st and 22nd centuries as opposed to continuing to educate them in accordance with the 19th century.

In the Commonwealth, we have been looking at how we can accelerate through digitalization and the learning of our young people. We have created this AI consortium with many of the big companies in Silicon Valley to help bridge the gap. We have created legal and learning modules for our policymakers. We had 10,000 scholarships in relation to simply learning to help our young people to learn those skills. So we’re doing a lot on digitalization, a lot on AI, and we are teaching the teachers.

What were your thoughts on the AU summit?  

It’s been a really interesting summit, not least because a number of the things that the AU has been talking about are very similar to the things that we have been talking about. Reform of the IFIs, how to get an education back up on the agenda, what the skill sets are, and many of those things are very similar to those things which we have been talking about in the Commonwealth. That’s not surprising, because 21 of the members of the AU are our members. If you look at the leading speakers, the majority of them came from the 21 countries.  

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