Chekwube Nzomiwu argues that the Commonwealth is of little benefit to Nigeria

The death of Queen Elizabeth II, the longest serving UK monarch at her Balmoral Castle in Scotland on Thursday, created a mood of solemnity in her kingdom and around the world.  Since the Royal Family announced her death, thousands of mourners have been trooping to the Buckingham Palace in London to pay their last respect to the revered monarch who died at the age of 96. Also, tributes poured in from world leaders including US President, Joe Biden, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, President Emmanuel Macron of France, and Canadian and Indian Prime Ministers, Justin Trudeau and Narendra Modi, respectively.

Two days before her death, Queen Elizabeth appointed Liz Truss to take over from Boris Johnson as the new British Prime Minister. Truss who incidentally once championed the abolition of the monarchy, became Prime Minister after her election as the Leader of the ruling Conservative Party. In her tribute, Truss described the Queen as the “rock on which Great Britain was built”, whose death is a “huge shock” to the country and the world. She praised the deceased monarch’s “extraordinary” achievements during her 70 years on the throne, saying her sense of duty had been a “personal inspiration” to her and to other Britons. 

One of the greatest legacies of the late monarch is the Commonwealth, which is a group of states that includes the United Kingdom.  The association was originally created as the British Commonwealth of Nations through the Balfour Declaration at the 1926 Imperial Conference and formalised by the British through the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The 1941 London Declaration modernised the association, establishing member states as free and equal.

Until her death, Queen Elizabeth was the Head of the Commonwealth. She assumed the leadership on mounting the throne in 1952 at the age of 26. She nurtured it from an initial association of 12 states to 56 -member states. Apart from the developed countries of UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, poor countries of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean countries constitute the majority of the membership.

It is important to point out that members have no legal or formal obligation to one another. The things holding them together are shared traditions, institutions and experiences as well as economic self-interest. Each member country sends an emissary known as High Commissioner to member countries. Actions taken by the Commonwealth are based on consultation between members through correspondence. The Headship of the Commonwealth is ceremonial.

At the heart of the association are three intergovernmental organisations – The Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth of Learning. The Secretariat supports member states to achieve the aims of the association. Nigeria’s Emeka Anyaoku was once the Secretary General. The Commonwealth Foundation supports people’s participation in democracy and development while the Commonwealth of Learning promotes open learning and distance education. The Commonwealth Headquarters is in London.

The leaders of the member countries meet every two years for Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), hosted by different member countries on a rotating basis. Since 1971, a total of 25 meetings have been held, with the most recent being in Rwanda in 2022.

Nigeria joined the Commonwealth on being granted independence by the UK on October 1, 1960. The news of the death of the Queen reminded me of the heated arguments we had during our days as undergraduate students of Political Science about the benefits of Nigeria’s membership of the Commonwealth. I think that this debate has become more germane today than ever.

Some of us, who were against Nigeria’s membership of the association, saw it as an outdated legacy of the British which had outlived its usefulness, if it had any in the first place, beyond bolstering Britain’s influence and that of the monarchy in global affairs. I could remember that a few years ago the United States under the presidency of Donald Trump, indicated interest to join the Commonwealth as an associate member, but till date, Uncle Sam’s country has not taken any action in this direction, despite its historical links with UK.

Ironically, in the past two decades, only poor African countries (even without ties to Britain) joined the group. Mozambique, a former Portuguese Colony joined in 1995. Rwanda joined in 2005. Rwanda and Burundi were part of German Colonial Empire in East Africa before they were allocated to Belgium as trust territories after World War I. Gabon and Togo, the latest entrants, joined the Commonwealth in June this year at the 25th CHOGM in Rwanda. Both Gabon and Togo are former French colonies. 

Those opposed to Nigeria’s membership of the association also argued that the economic benefits are not very much. It is a fact today that Commonwealth states top the list of countries most indebted to China. Last year, The Telegraph, a newspaper based in UK reported a story on “How Beijing’s billions are buying up the Commonwealth.” The Chinese debtor countries are mostly in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Nigeria currently owes China over $3.67 billion.

Furthermore, Commonwealth membership confers no trade privileges or advantages on its members. There is no free trade between the member countries. Until Brexit, the United Kingdom supported high European tariffs which adversely affected economic growth in most third world countries. Not much has changed after Brexit. Trade barriers still exist between United Kingdom and Nigeria, although commitments had been made by the former to remove such barriers.

I saw Nigeria’s lukewarm Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama bragging before the media about the “personal” relationship between President Buhari and King Charles III who succeeded his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. However, the assumption of the throne by King Charles is not of course a guarantee that he will assume the Head of Commonwealth, since it is not hereditary. It is equally not a guarantee that Britain will change its trade policy with Nigeria to make it mutually beneficial to both countries.

Last month, UK announced a tariff-free trade scheme with Nigeria that will cut price tariffs on hundreds of everyday products exported into the country from 2023. The announcement came after two years when then British Prime Minister, Theresa May, while on a visit to Nigeria in 2018, hinted about a new deal and economic partnership between both countries.

Again, critics of the Commonwealth also wondered why it has continued to avoid the issue of payment of reparation to colonised countries. While I was writing the piece, my attention was drawn to the uproar caused in the social media by the deleted tweet of the Nigerian don, Prof. Uju Anya who wrote on her twitter page, “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is dying. May her pain be excruciating.” Whilst I don’t subscribe to the use of bile language in public space, I think the point has been made. Another dissenting opinion came from the fiery leader of Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in South-Africa Julius Malema who likened sympathy for the British Royal family to celebrating colonialism.

Recall that in his seminal book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”, Walter Rodney, the great Guyanese historian, political activist and academic, after detailing the impact of slavery and colonialism on the history of international capitalism, made a strong case that African “mal-development” had nothing with its geography, but a direct product of imperial extraction from the continent, which continues up till date in form of neo-colonialism. Rodney was killed in a car bomb in Georgetown, the capital and largest city in Guyana.

I could remember the early 90s when Chief M.K.O Abiola championed the cause for the compensation of Africa for slavery and colonisation in the continent and even promised to make it a cardinal programme of his administration while campaigning as the Presidential Candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) for the June 12, 1993 election. The then Military President, Ibrahim Babangida annulled that election, widely believed to have been won by MKO. The rest is history. However, some people believe that the entire saga was a western conspiracy against Abiola.      

Critics of the Commonwealth have also wondered the essence of Nigeria belonging to an association that owes no military obligation to members. Even the sub-regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) renders military support to members when necessary.   For instance, Nigerian troops were part of the peace keeping force, Economic Community of West African Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), which restored peace to West African countries that fought bitter civil wars, such as Liberia and Sierra Leone. For several years now, Nigeria has been facing several security challenges including terrorism, banditry and kidnapping. Thousands of lives have been lost. Over two million people have been displaced internally.

Nigeria’s only support in fighting Boko Haram in the North East is the Multinational Joint Task Force, comprising military units from Nigeria and neighbours, Benin, Cameroun, Chad and Niger. The Commonwealth stands aloof, showing no empathy to Nigerian people. The last time Prince Charles (now King) came to Nigeria in 2018, he only visited Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and Lagos, which houses many British investments. In May this year, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres came to Nigeria and Maiduguri, the theatre of Boko Haram insurgency, was his first port of call. While in Maiduguri, he praised Borno State Governor, Babagana Umara Zulum for addressing the root cause of terrorism.     

It has equally been argued that Commonwealth lacks purpose and a central agenda. Its members always pursue self-interest when it conflicts with group interest. Take for instance the issue of learning. It is true that periodically an insignificant number of Nigerians benefit from Commonwealth scholarships that let foreign students with leadership qualities study at universities in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, the United Kingdom gets a large chunk of the $1 trillion that Nigerians (especially those with access to government coffers) spend annually on education tourism abroad.

The Commonwealth has also been criticised for not having an international legal body. They profess high ideas but fail to live up to it. We often hear that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association works to support good governance, democracy and human rights. Nigeria and South Africa belong to the association, yet, both countries have poor human rights records. Nigerians have continued to suffer xenophobic attacks in South Africa in spite of the existence of a Nigerian High Commission in the host country. With the exception of the Ken Saro Wiwa case when the Commonwealth belatedly suspended Nigeria for human rights violation, I cannot remember any other occasion it took such a decision, despite preponderance of cases of human rights violation in the country.

I could remember that midway into the first tenure of President Buhari, Nigerian government announced that it would trim Nigeria’s membership of over 310 international organisations and associated financial obligations to safeguard the nation from possible financial embarrassment. The announcement was made by the then Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun while addressing the media after one of the weekly Federal Executive Council (FEC) meetings at the Presidential Villa, Abuja. At that time the annual financial commitment of Nigeria to those organisations stood at $70 million. Such a humongous amount could solve most of the lingering problems in our tertiary education sector. The government committee recommended that Nigeria should exit 90 international organisations and retain membership of 220. Two years later, Nigeria’s membership of global groups rose to 324.

There is very little hope that anything can be done now by an administration fast approaching its twilight. I think this issue should top the agenda of the incoming administration. For me, participating in the Commonwealth Games is not enough to justify our membership. Nigerian athletes can compete in more prestigious Olympic Games, All African Games and World Athletics Championship. If Britain could exit the European Union, I don’t see the reason why Nigeria should remain in the Commonwealth.

Nzomiwu writes from Awka, Anambra State

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