Dr Lyn Johnstone, Lecturer in International Relations. Royal Holloway University of London – Written evidence (ZAF0041)


Information submitted in a personal capacity based on the author’s own research on the Commonwealth in Africa.


20th April 2020


What are the Commonwealth’s principal areas of activity in Sub-Saharan Africa?

1.        The principal areas of activity in Sub-Saharan Africa involve trade and investment and engagement with development assistance. The Commonwealth Hub and Spokes programme, that ended in 2019, provided trade experts to national ministries and regional trade organisations on the African continent working to increase trade in Africa with the aim of helping national policy-makers to support companies trying to access regional and global markets.


2.      Additionally, the Commonwealth Secretariat, in partnership with the Botswana government and the Association of Anti-Corruption Agencies in Commonwealth Africa, established the Commonwealth Africa Anti-Corruption Centre in 2013. The Centre provides training programmes that cover areas such as practical skills for prevention and control, and monitoring and evaluation.

How do African perspectives on the Commonwealth differ from the UK’s, and how does the history of colonialism affect these?

3.      Political commentary on the Commonwealth in the UK is replete with observations that the organisation is unique. These claims, made largely by Commonwealth Secretary Generals, Conservative politicians, High Commissioners, and a group of keen Commonwealth observers within the academy, attribute the uniqueness of the organisation to its ‘special family’ status. Such attitudes point to the surge in Commonwealth attention by British establishment figures for whom the special ties between Commonwealth states will provide bountiful for the UK once freed from its EU trade agreements post-Brexit.


4.      In comparison, from an African point of view: Most African states followed the direction of Ghana and opted to remain part of the Commonwealth, upon independence, in order to take advantage of the economic and trade opportunities, the transfer of technology, and cultural cooperation that membership brings. The Commonwealth continues to be seen as a convenient club for African states to retain membership and there is a certain fondness for the Queen that appears to be a draw-card for continued membership. Commonwealth leaders often adopt the rhetoric that has followed the organisation since the 1970s, that of the ‘Commonwealth family’. Nevertheless, we ought not kid ourselves that the Commonwealth has any real importance amongst the group of 18 states that make up its African membership. Membership is very much a case of ‘everybody else is doing it, so why shouldn’t we?’. Put simply, the Commonwealth provides some useful trade and development attractions, but since the end of apartheid has lacked any real stand-out relevance in Africa.


5.      While there remains a great deal of respect for the British Monarch across Africa, Commonwealth African states are watching Britain carefully and paying particular attention to the discourse coming from certain political factions in the UK who are advancing a nostalgic idea of Britain’s glorious past. There is a sense that some factions in the UK see the Commonwealth as a continuation of the Empire with member states under Britain’s influence rather than as Britain’s peers. The current British Prime Minister’s comments about Britain deciding whether Zimbabwe will be allowed back into the Commonwealth are particularly revealing in this respect. Britain does not decide whether a state is ‘allowed’ to re-join the Commonwealth. This is a decision made unilaterally by heads of government of all Commonwealth member states providing the state in question can demonstrate that it can/or continues to uphold the principles of the Commonwealth that it espoused when it first joined.


6.      Another particularly worrying aspect among some observers on the African continent is the attitude of the British Prime Minister, who appears to dislike immigrants.[1] African leaders hear echoes of British imperial discourse in the UK’s threats to the European Union and listen to the nostalgia for empire present in Johnson’s speeches. Brexit and the sentiment towards Europeans, as well as the treatment of the Caribbean Windrush generation, leaves some African observers wondering if Britain really has moved on and is able to understand its place as an equal in the Commonwealth.


7.      There have been a number of instances in recent history where African states have cautioned Britain to remember that it is an equal member of the Commonwealth, rather than the head of the organisation. David Cameron provoked ire when he suggested, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Perth, Australia in 2011, that British aid should be linked to respect for LGBTQ+ rights in recipient countries. Cameron’s statement evoked homophobic responses from political and religious leaders in Ghana, Tanzania, and Uganda and stirred up the spectre of colonialism with Britain as imperial power haranguing her former colonies for their backwardness. African perspectives on LGBTQ+ rights are complex, but this does not mean that they are static. Societal attitudes and legal precedents are changing thanks to the hard work and determination of local advocacy groups as well as queer artists across Sub-Saharan Africa. In the run-up to the Perth CHOGM, LGBTQ+ activists had been lobbying for a formal statement aligning LGBTQ+ rights with Commonwealth values calling also for Britain to apologise for the imposition of anti-gay laws on Commonwealth countries during the nineteenth century – something that Theresa May has more recently done. These kinds of apologies and demands, however, have effectively isolated LGBTQ+ Commonwealth Africans who have received an apology, it is felt, long before Britain has apologised for many of its other wrongs committed under the auspices of empire.

What motivated the decision of countries which were not UK colonies to seek to join the Commonwealth? What benefits do they see?

8.      From my extensive research on Rwanda’s accession to the Commonwealth, I understand that the decision to join the organisation was based on a number of factors.[2] By far the most important reason given for Rwanda’s decision to apply for Commonwealth membership was the Commonwealth’s Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC). Rwandan civil society organisations are keen to tap into the wealth of opportunity that the CFTC can bring.


9.      The second important reason given for Rwanda’s accession to the Commonwealth was that the organisation would bring opportunities for Rwandans to develop their English language skills which, in turn, would improve opportunities for Rwandans in education and work, which would have the knock-on effect of improving living standards.


10.  A third reason behind Rwanda’s decision to join the Commonwealth was the organisation’s emphasis on shared values. Rwandans I spoke to while conducting research in the country – civil society workers in particular – were attracted by what they called the ‘moral authority’ of the Commonwealth. This is seen as a two-way partnership. While Rwanda expects to gain from Commonwealth membership in these areas, civil society representatives stress that Rwanda offers its fellow Commonwealth members expertise in post-conflict management and gender equality/gender mainstreaming. The 2020 CHOGM presents a fantastic opportunity for Rwanda to project itself and its Commonwealth membership to the world.


11.  I have been mostly discussing Rwanda here as it has had the biggest impact on the Commonwealth’s shared values and shared history. However, Mozambique also joined the Commonwealth (in 1995) having never been a British colony. The decision to allow Mozambique Commonwealth membership was pushed heavily by the late South African president Nelson Mandela as a ‘unique and special case’ because of the country’s role in supporting anti-apartheid efforts. Mozambique has benefitted from Commonwealth membership particularly in its receipt of support and assistance in the wake of the devastation caused by Cyclone Idai and the flooding that wreaked havoc on the country.

Are other Sub-Saharan African countries considering applying to join the Commonwealth, and if so, why?

12.  This is a perennial question, the answer to which I want to approach in a two-fold way. The first point to understand here is that there tends to be a common narrative coming out of the Commonwealth – from the Secretariat, but also from those we might call ‘keen observers’ of the organisation (i.e. former diplomats, academics and some politicians). This narrative is that countries are evincing an interest in joining the Commonwealth and therefore the organisation must still be relevant. This is often accompanied by the example of Rwanda, that successfully joined the Commonwealth in 2009, along with a short list of states that have toyed with the idea of Commonwealth membership at some point in the last decade, for example: South Sudan and Burundi. Each of these states has, in recent years, been accused by international human rights organisations of having more than questionable approaches to human rights and would, therefore, not be able to demonstrate commitment to Commonwealth values, principles and priorities - the threshold set by the Commonwealth for membership.


13.  The second point, which more directly answers the question at hand, is that there have in fact been a very small handful of African countries that have expressed an interest in joining the Commonwealth. In the case of Burundi, this was largely in connection with the geographical location and regional politics of the East African Community which the Commonwealth is supporting in a programme to stimulate trade in the region. Burundi and South Sudan are currently the only members of the East African Community (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan and Burundi) that are not members of the Commonwealth. Joining the organisation is seen as a move that would bring trade and economic benefits.


14.  There has been some talk about Angola also evincing an interest in Commonwealth membership.[3] The Angolan president has been reported to have observed that Commonwealth membership, and the switch to English as an official language, would bring Angola in line with many of its Commonwealth neighbours in the region.

What do existing Commonwealth member countries in Sub-Saharan Africa see as the benefits of membership? How do they hope that the institution might develop?

15.  The existing members of the African Commonwealth see the organisation as a trade partner, investor and development partner. One major area in which the Commonwealth has had an impact is agriculture. Britain has pushed for agricultural liberalisation within the EU and this has benefitted African farmers and producers.


16.  Another rather attractive benefit of Commonwealth membership is access to higher education opportunities for African students for whom funding options also open up to support their studies abroad. Nevertheless, there is frustration at the difficulty that African students have had in gaining student visas to study in the UK. Even more frustrating, and damaging to relationships between the African Commonwealth and Britain, has been the near impossibility of African colleagues to obtain visas to attend academic conferences in the UK - particularly colleagues from Nigeria, which is likely to be a significant player in trade negotiations with the UK post-Brexit. Nigeria has the largest economy in Africa and, together with South Africa, represents approximately 70 percent of trade in the African Commonwealth.



Please feel free to also include anything else you think we would benefit from understanding.

17.  While there are several factors that come into play that would certainly affect where a country is positioned, there might be something to celebrate in the fact that in the 2020 rankings of places in African to do business, seven countries in the African Commonwealth appeared in the top 10.[4]


18.  The withdrawal of Zimbabwe took a heavy toll on the Commonwealth. Robert Mugabe stirred up a good deal of anti-British sentiment with his accusations of neo-colonialism around the time of Zimbabwe’s withdrawal from the organisation in 2003. President Mnangagwa has blown hot and cold on whether Zimbabwe will attempt to re-join the organisation that it withdrew from in 2003, nevertheless, there was a recent attempt by the Zimbabwean government to re-join the organisation in 2019. Unfortunately, Zimbabwe is not yet able to provide evidence that it is doing enough to show commitment to Commonwealth values, priorities and principles. Zimbabwe remains outside of the Commonwealth and this feels like a wasted opportunity for the organisation to mend some fences in the post-Mugabe era. I am not suggesting that the Commonwealth do anything against the grain of its membership criteria here, only that if the organisation and/or Britain is doing behind the scenes work to assist Zimbabwe in anyway to get back on its feet, the publicisation of these efforts would be a step in the direction of fence building. One of the most frequent discussions that I had with Zimbabwean elites whilst conducting research about the Commonwealth in Zimbabwe in 2015 was the sadness that one person (i.e. Mugabe) had withdrawn from the Commonwealth and the whole country had had to suffer.

Received 20 April 2020


[1] Sechaba Nkosi, 2019, ‘Boris Johnson: Africa and the Commonwealth Beware’, The Globalist, 31 July [Online]. https://www.theglobalist.com/boris-johnson-africa-commonwealth-trade-colonialism/


[2] For further discussion see: Lyn Johnstone, 2019, ‘Rwanda and the Question of Commonwealth Relevance’, The Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Studies 57(3), 303-323. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14662043.2019.1563753

[3] Daniel Mumbere, 2018, ‘Angola to Join Commonwealth, Francophonie’, Africanews, 14 June [Online]. https://www.africanews.com/2018/06/14/angola-to-join-commonwealth-francophonie//

[4] ‘Doing Business 2020: Ranking of the African and Middle Eastern Countries’, Atlas Magazine [Online]. https://www.atlas-mag.net/en/article/doing-business-2019-ranking-of-the-african-and-middle-eastern-countries