Democratic Dilemmas

By Mayall, James | The World Today, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Democratic Dilemmas

Mayall, James, The World Today

The Commonwealth is about to meet for the last time this century. Despite military rule in Pakistan, which has been suspended from the organisation, it is encouraged that two of its members - Nigeria and Sierra Leone - now have civilian governments. But how can the democratisation project be carried into the new millennium and who will be elected to lead it?

SOUTH AFRICA WAS WELCOMED BACK INTO THE COMMONWEALTH at the Auckland summit in 1995. It is fitting, therefore, that the country whose government was the principal target of the organisation's coercive diplomacy during the apartheid era, should itself host the last heads of government meeting of the century in Durban in mid November.

All the more so, as South Africa symbolises the possibility of optimism, despite the gathering storm clouds over so much of the post Cold-War political landscape. However severe its problems, the country has maintained its multiracial democracy through a second general election, and its new President, Thabo Mbeki, can be relied on to use the occasion of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) - as the host invariably does - to play to his domestic and regional audience.

No doubt, he will reiterate his government's commitment to the African Renaissance and the Commonwealth's role in promoting democracy and human rights on which it is based. He will probably also argue that the forces of globalisation should be harnessed to the interests of development of the poorest countries and people.

Many of these themes echo those that dominated the 1997 Edinburgh CHOGM. Indeed, the rhetoric of Mbeki's African Renaissance has a family resemblance to New Labour's Third Way in Britain.


It is a fair bet that the tone of the Durban CHOGM is planned to be upbeat if not triumphalist, to an extent deservedly so. Apart from the survival of South African democracy - itself no mean achievement in a deeply divided society with a horrendous homicide rate - Nigeria at last has an elected President, albeit an ex-General, and Sierra Leone, a civilian government, albeit one that was returned to power by the previous military Nigerian regime and is mired in continuing civil war.

Amongst international organisations, the Commonwealth is also held in the highest regard by the world's smallest and most vulnerable states - the forty-two with populations of 1.5 million or less - twenty-nine of which are Commonwealth members.

More generally, the Commonwealth probably still punches above its weight, as much because of the world-wide networks of Commonwealth professionals - who can be mobilised quickly and relatively cheaply as and when they are needed - as because of the official Commonwealth and its Secretariat.


However, it is the official Commonwealth, and above all the personality and style of the Secretary General, which establishes the public profile of the organisation. The member states remain firmly in charge, but the Secretary General takes their agenda and attempts to mould it into a particular shape.

Since the establishment of the Secretariat in 1965, the office has been held by three men: the Canadian diplomat, Arnold Smith, who presided over the transition of the Commonwealth from a British dominated club, serviced by the Commonwealth Office, into a genuine intemational organisation; the former Guyanan Foreign Minister, Sir Sridath Ramphal, who sought to establish a special role for it as a facilitator and breaker of log jams in North/South relations; and the international civil servant and briefly Nigerian Foreign Minister, Chief Emeka Anyeaoku, who tried to chart a new path for the Commonwealth after the Cold War, as an organisation based on democratic values in fact as well as in name.

In Durban, a fourth Secretary General will be elected. How will he seek to guide the organisation in the new century, as the memories that have shaped its history since 1945 - not only of empire but of the Cold War - become increasingly remote? …

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