At the losing end
The Gambia is the latest country to withdraw from the Commonwealth on October 3, 2013. Before the New Commonwealth, Ireland had withdrawn its participation in the 1930’s but it was regarded by the Commonwealth as a Commonwealth Member until April 18, 1949 when it declared herself a Republic. Pakistan left on January 30, 1972 in protest at the Commonwealth’s recognition of breakaway Bangladesh, but rejoined on August 2, 1989. Fiji left the Commonwealth in 1987 and 1990, Zimbabwe left on December 7, 2003.The Gambia’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth will make its citizens lose out of many benefits and programs including losing their benefits, rights and privileges accorded to Commonwealth citizens in the United Kingdom and other countries. For example, Commonwealth citizens may not be required to register with the police while living in the UK. Gambians in other Commonwealth countries will lose their right to vote, lose immigration privileges, will not have entry into the British Army based on Commonwealth citizenship, they will not have the right to work in any position in the Commonwealth countries including the Civil Service, Gambian students will not be eligible for Commonwealth Scholarships, and will not be able to serve in most roles in the British Army provided that all other criteria’s are met.
Gambian citizens will lose the benefit of having consular assistance if any country where there is no Gambian Consulate or Embassy, we will not have access to British Emergency Travel Documents and will not participate in the Commonwealth Games and we will now have to get Visa to enter countries in Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and other Commonwealth Nations.
The Gambia’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth is bringing more attention to the countries human rights violations, democracy and governance issues. The Commonwealth is one of the few international organizations in touch with the Government of the Gambia and helping to address the human rights, democracy and governance issues in the tiny West African nation. Even though the Gambia was never suspended from the Commonwealth, countries like Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Fiji were suspended on human rights, democracy and governance issues. The Commonwealth should be firm in taking action against member states and ensure peace and security in its member countries. Countries like the Gambia and Siri Lanka (instead of hosting the summit) should have been suspended from the Commonwealth over human rights issues but on the contrary, the Commonwealth is just trying to keep the organization together. In essence, the Commonwealth should not dodge politically sensitive issues. The Commonwealth’s resistance to speak out shows it has a very low profile. Equally, the Commonwealth should fight for the rights and interest of its member states in the international community and they must remember they are in a century with so many international organizations.
Let’s simply put it this way – The Gambia’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth is because the government does not want to be addressed on human rights, governance and democracy issues; have issues with the United Kingdom and the United States and uses Colonialism and homosexuality as a backdrop to distract Gambians from the realities of livelihood, economic hardship, bad governance and the degrading human rights conditions that exit in the country. It is just a mere threat to other international organizations that the Gambia is part of, that the country can withdraw anytime. The Gambia, knowing that the Commonwealth needs to recreate itself, chooses a weaker international organization to withdraw from. If the Gambia Government so means its rhetoric, it should first withdraw from the United Nations, World Bank and the IMF. I bet they will not. Far from being a ‘neo-colonial institution’ or an ‘animal farm’, the Commonwealth operates on a consensus model and its voluntary membership is predicated primarily on a country’s commitment to upholding shared values and principles, and developing the circumstances of all peoples of the countries of its members.
Gambian citizens have an opportunity not to lose their Commonwealth citizenship with all the rights, benefits and privileges that comes with it. The Gambia’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth was done without the approval of her citizens or the parliament. When Fiji left the Commonwealth in 1987 and 1990, its name was not removed from Schedule 3. This happened because the British Government at the time wished to avoid the consequences of Fijian citizens in the United Kingdom suddenly losing the benefits of Commonwealth citizenship. Gambians can bring this to the attention of the Commonwealth Leadership.
Most other Commonwealth countries have provisions within their own law defining who is and who is not a Commonwealth citizen. Each country is free to determine what special rights, if any, are accorded to non-nationals who are Commonwealth citizens. In general, citizens of the Republic of Ireland and British protected persons, although not Commonwealth citizens are accorded the same rights and privileges as Commonwealth citizens.
The recent withdrawal of The Gambia from the Commonwealth of Nations will not only affect The Gambia but has an impact on the Commonwealth has a whole. It is a call for the Commonwealth of Nations to look at its standing in the international community. The commonwealth is looked at more as a rotary club instead of an international institution. But if one asks, “What are the benefits of being a Commonwealth country or what has my country gained from being part of the Commonwealth?” It becomes highly debatable with most people strongly emphasizing that they have not benefited from this community of 52 nations. On so many forums I came across in my research, people in Commonwealth countries including Nigeria have firmly argued that they as Commonwealth citizens have no benefits.
What does this mean? It means that the Commonwealth of Nations should reinvent itself and start playing a bigger role in influencing global agenda settings. Just like any international organization, the Commonwealth should come up with charters, conventions and protocols that can be adopted by member states and incorporated into the local justice system just like the UN, AU, EU, Arab League or even sub regional organizations like ECOWAS. The Commonwealth should even step up to send Peacekeeping Missions to its member countries in times of conflict and even press sanctions on governments that violate its citizens’ fundamental rights, peace and security in the world. It is time for the Commonwealth of Nations to work towards becoming the Commonwealth Union and create free trade, better public procurement, visa-free travel areas, common foreign-policy and a Commonwealth Court for its members. Even after Rwanda and Mozambique joining, the Commonwealth in the process to taking a U-Turn should allow more countries whether former British Colony or not to join such as Palestine and other countries with interest to join the organization. This will give it a facelift.
The Commonwealth is caught in an existential crisis about its role. The withdrawal of the Gambia and the fight over hosting the summit in Siri Lanka has shown how weak the Commonwealth has become. There is also growing frustration among member states, rich and poor. The big donors – Australia, Britain and Canada – provide about two thirds of funding for the official Commonwealth institutions and are unhappy with the lack of political action. Smaller donors also seem reluctant to pay into a club that delivers relatively little direct benefit.
In reality there is very little benefit these days in membership of this club. In years gone by Commonwealth sanctions against countries like Nigeria and Pakistan mattered to their leaders. Since then, Zimbabwe has withdrawn and the Fijian government doesn’t seem to care about its suspension. Presumably this is why the seasoned diplomats who run the secretariat don’t want to rock the boat too much, lest more countries jump ship. But this will backfire in the long term and public and donor support will dwindle.
According to the Guardian, “the only way the Commonwealth will thrive is to re-assert the moral authority it once had. This may mean more countries withdrawing, but a smaller, more effective Commonwealth is better than one that stays silent simply to keep the club together.”