Commonwealth: Whose Wealth?

Article excerpt

There has been no shortage of news about the Commonwealth in the past two months. But how does the Commonwealth impact or benefit the ordinary African? In this article, Regina Jere-Malanda analyses the historical, political and economic essence of the Commonwealth, and asks: what is in it for the ordinary citizens of member countries?

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Nyezani is a remote village in the eastern Zambian district of Chadiza. Right opposite it, separated by a narrow gravel road, is the village of Cuimba, which is in Mozambique. Same people, same indigenous language, same culture and same colour; but because of the gravel road, different citizens, different political systems, different histories, different currencies, and different "official" languages. However, the villagers of both Nyezani and Cuimba have something else in common which they do not know about: they are members of the Commonwealth, the Zambians have been for 40 years and the Mozambicans for nearly a decade. But no one in either village, not even their chiefs have heard of the Commonwealth. When it is explained to them that the Commonwealth exists for their benefit, they understandably wonder: in what way?

The usual sanctimonious moralisation of the Commonwealth as a promoter of democracy, human rights and the rule of law is the most hyped reason why the Commonwealth is good for Africans. But is it really?

As the Zimbabwean foreign minister, Stan Mudenge told parliament in Harare on 10 December 2003: "Questions are being asked what benefits we derive from the Commonwealth as Zimbabwe.

My short answer is, materially, not much. In the last couple of years, the benefits to Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation have been rather modest. In the two years before suspension, we contributed [pounds sterling]300,000 to the Fund, and in return we received assistance valued at [pounds sterling]700,000 from various divisions in the [Commonwealth] Secretariat.

"There used to be Commonwealth scholarship programmes and preferential treatment of Commonwealth students in each others' countries. But Mrs Thatcher did away with that scheme. [And] the Commonwealth preferential visa arrangements are as good as dead."

Put simply, the Commonwealth's relevance does not show in people's lives and until this is proven otherwise, the organisation will remain an empty shell to many ordinary citizens of member countries.

Following recent events, the Commonwealth has been championed as an organisation that Africa cannot do without. But among its proponents, there is growing mass amnesia about the Commonwealth's historical baggage.

Officially, the Commonwealth, "is a voluntary association of 53 [54 when Zimbabwe was a member] sovereign states, which work together to achieve international goals. Spread over every continent and ocean, the Commonwealth's 1.7 billion people make up 30% of the world's population".

But the real history of the Commonwealth, should by itself, be a good enough reason to jolt 21st-century Africans into reviewing their membership of an organisation whose roots so starkly remind them of colonial abuse and exploitation.

It is fashionable in the British media and its offshoots in Africa to discredit reports that highlight the role and impact of Britain's imperial devastation of its colonies who today make up the members of the Commonwealth. But the facts are there for all to see!

Even the name itself--Commonwealth--comes with heavy baggage even though the Commonwealth Secretariat says it was influenced by the term, "Commonwealth of Nations" used in a speech in Adelaide in Australia on 18 January 1884 by Lord Rosebery, who later became British prime minister between 1894 and 1895.

In 1926, the Imperial Conference held in London adopted a report by Lord Balfour that defined British "dominions" as: "autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another, united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations. …