Reassessing the Commonwealth: Does it Still Serve a Purpose?

The Commonwealth, the successor to the British Empire, lost its importance. For the 56 member states, it is primarily a diplomatic network. Young Africans see little benefit from membership and demand reforms

by Sededin Dedovic
Reassessing the Commonwealth: Does it Still Serve a Purpose?
© Pool / Getty Images

Commonwealth, the successor of the British Empire, has lost its significance. For its 56 member states, it primarily serves as a diplomatic network. Young Africans see little benefit from membership and demand reforms. The modern "Commonwealth nation" is as old as the man leading it: British King Charles III.

The union of sovereign states in its current form has existed for 75 years, but for many young people, this community stemming from the British Empire evidently holds little political utility. For Halil Ibrahim, the Commonwealth organization is active but "not really," as the 32-year-old activist from Accra, the capital of Ghana, tells DW: "They offer scholarships, internships for young professionals from member countries, free online courses." Ibrahim has benefited from some courses.

"But on a political level, it is a useless organization," he says. Even Ejram Jorgbe, a 34-year-old company official from Ghana, doesn't believe in the importance or effectiveness of the Commonwealth, especially for its African members.

The organization claims to facilitate economic partnerships among its members. "However, these partnerships mostly benefit the more developed economies within the community," says Jorgbe to DW, adding that African countries are in the Commonwealth only because of their historical ties to the monarchy.

"It is high time we reassessed our strategies." Of the 56 members, 21 are located in Africa. None of these countries has a British monarch as their head of state. Membership has expanded over the decades to include former colonies that were not British, including Mozambique (1995) and Rwanda (2009).

Gabon and Togo joined as the newest members in 2022. The organization still emphasizes "common values."

Commonwealth leaders attend the first executive session of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Lancaster Hou© Jack Taylor / Getty Images

But according to Philip Murphy, director of the Department of History and Politics at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, there are too many different countries and approaches to achieve a clear consensus on key political issues, whether it's the war in Ukraine or even climate change.

In the member countries of the modern Commonwealth, there are a total of 2.5 billion people, over 60% of whom are under 30 years old. Most of them live in the Global South and mainly come from former British colonies. "It's a relic of the past, but it's a useful diplomatic network, especially the network of High Commissioners in London," emphasizes Murphy.

Access to the British government and the foreign or education ministries of wealthy donor countries of the Commonwealth like Canada and Australia is particularly beneficial for most small members and island states. "The network is important enough to prevent members from leaving the organization or disbanding it, but the Commonwealth is actually very weak, which is related to its history," Murphy points out.

The Commonwealth Secretariat, established in 1965, is not authorized to make political decisions. According to Murphy, it has never had a strong enough mechanism for implementing policies that would compel sovereign members to adhere to Western values such as democracy, human rights, or the rule of law.

Democracy has often been only on paper. Current criticism of the Commonwealth often focuses on its insufficient condemnation of human rights violations in individual members and repressive homophobic laws.

New members are joining

Murphy argues that the Commonwealth successfully operated during the decolonization process of white settler colonies in its former colonies in then-Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa.

It also played a very important role in ensuring a peaceful change of government in South Africa during the 1990s. After that, the organization lost its importance. Alex Vines, director of the Africa Program at the London-based research organization Chatham House, emphasizes that the Commonwealth is not a "dying organization." It is gaining new members, which is not related to the imperial past of the United Kingdom but to interests.

In addition to Angola, Zimbabwe is also on the waiting list for Commonwealth membership. The country was expelled from the community in 2003 due to severe human rights violations during the autocratic presidency of Robert Mugabe.

"This is a fairly rare form of sanction within the community," explains Murphy. Since 2018, that internationally isolated country has been striving to rejoin the Commonwealth. "For strategic reasons," political analyst Gibson Njikadzino from Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, points out.

"It's about reputation. And being a member means having access to cheap markets with low tariffs." On the other hand, young lawyer Fortunate Njamajaro believes it is unnecessary: "Zimbabwe can be an independent country and cooperate with other regional blocs, as well as conclude bilateral agreements that are mutually beneficial. For me, the Commonwealth is colonial heritage with which Zimbabwe does not need to identify."