MBut what drives French-speaking countries towards the Commonwealth? The question deserves to be asked as Gabon and Togo, two former French colonies, officially integrate the English-speaking community on June 24, during the summit of heads of state scheduled at the Kigali Center, a superb ultramodern building built the day after Rwanda’s accession to the Commonwealth in 2009.
Africa, with nineteen members, forms the largest contingent of Commonwealth countries, with the specificity of the fact that certain States such as Mozambique, a Portuguese colony, and Rwanda, on the 54e member, are not former British colonies or protectorates. Officially, after their independence, many new African states chose to join the Commonwealth to perpetuate cordial relations with the Crown. And yet the role of the organization and its relevance are increasingly questioned. In certain states such as Barbados, which renounced the status of constitutional monarchy at the end of 2021 to become a republic without leaving the Commonwealth, Jamaica and especially Australia, the debates are lively around the question of eventually abandoning the Crown.
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For Gabon, a strategic turning point
Contrary to these questions, Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba justified this “major geopolitical turning point at the very beginning of the year by the need to belong to another multicultural space in a globalized world”. Rich in oil and uranium, Gabon, two million inhabitants, has long been a key country for France on the continent. Today, France has lost ground economically to investors, mainly Asian, who have taken over strategic sectors. However, the idea of turning to the English-speaking world is not new.
Almost ten years ago, when he came to power in a highly contested election, the Gabonese head of state very quickly turned to new partners while the socialists in power in France distanced themselves . Very inspired by Rwanda, Ali Bongo announced in 2012 the will of the authorities to have English adopted as the second official language of the country. In its impetus, the government had financed the training of teachers to initiate bilingualism from primary school. However, the project did not really develop and today, almost ten years later, the vast majority of Gabonese still do not speak English fluently.
In any case, his approach inspired Togo, a small country in West Africa, for which the accession process went faster. The Togolese Parliament, which gave its approval on April 22 for the last discussions, assures him: “Beyond the old British political heritage, it ensures Togo the international recognition of a historico-political renewal. “While “on the commercial level, membership guarantees a vast external market for the export of Togolese national products. »
Memberships that question
For many analysts, these two memberships appear above all as symbolic and raise questions. “While Togo has a rather original colonial history – first a German protectorate, then jointly occupied by France and the United Kingdom – Gabon has little to do with the British Empire”, underlines the Africa Diary, an African news site based in Tunis. “Anyway, today, these two French-speaking countries have decided to turn to the Commonwealth. If they do not leave the Francophonie, Libreville and Lomé nevertheless send a fairly clear message to Paris: France no longer shines as much as before and they want to open up to the English-speaking world”, can we still read in an analysis published online this week as opened on 26e Commonwealth summit.
The Commonwealth preferred to the Francophonie?
The Commonwealth, with some fifty members and a gigantic market of more than 2.4 billion consumers, seems to have gained in reputation among African states in recent years. The example that is often cited is that of Rwanda, which in 2009 switched to the Commonwealth and has since experienced rapid economic development observed by other States. But the process did not happen overnight, a fierce debate between supporters and opponents of this entry of Rwanda – because of the serious violations of governance and human rights in particular – had postponed the decision for two year. It was without counting on the activism of President Paul Kagame who spared no effort to convince the large English-speaking family to welcome him into its ranks. A convinced Anglophone, the Rwandan head of state had had English adopted as the official language in his country, when he wanted to turn his back on the Francophonie and the French sphere of influence at the time. For other experts, we can cite a few counter-examples such as Cameroon, a member since 2004.
This makes the Ivorian political analyst Sylvain Nguessan say that there is “a myth in French-speaking countries which says that you have to be an Anglo-Saxon country to be able to develop”, he explained at the microphone of our colleagues from the BBC, and “that no French-speaking colony has been able to develop so far, unlike the Anglo-Saxon countries which have been able to take off a little bit”.
On the Togolese side, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Robert Dussey did not fail to underline in the columns of Knowledge News that Togo enjoys a “strong English tradition, given that English is the second foreign language studied in the Togolese education system, but also in exchanges. You should know that the Anglo-Saxon model is very well appreciated by the populations and Togo has strong relations with the English-speaking countries of the region, especially with Ghana (neighboring country) and Nigeria”.
For the two new States that are Gabon and Togo, the main advantage is to be seen on the economic side, even if joining the Commonwealth does not give the right to any direct commercial advantage, Gabon and Togo can hope for potential economic benefits, because Joining the intergovernmental organization means gaining access to a market of 2 billion consumers, and the possibility of entering into bilateral agreements with other members of the community.
A battle between soft power and potential economic fallout
The other aspect is political. For Sylvain Nguessan, some countries “say to themselves that, if they switched to the Commonwealth, they could enjoy a minimum of autonomy” in relation to the Francophonie, perceived as a model of domination to the advantage of France. He considers that “apart from traditional financial aid and scholarships, military cooperation and various aid in terms of military logistics, France exercises an overly restrictive policy on these former colonies which pushes certain States to turn to Russia, China or the Commonwealth”. A soft power that the United Kingdom, which is no longer a member of the European Union, has every interest in maintaining. The nation is developing a new, more independent strategy towards Africa.
However, part of civil society in these two countries has shown its mistrust since the beginning of the process. For her, the problem is not so much the absence of business opportunities, but poor financial governance and corruption. As a reminder, Togo has been ruled for more than 50 years by the same Gnassingbé family, it is the same in Gabon, with Ali Bongo Ondimba who has ruled Gabon with an iron fist since he succeeded his father in 2009. Despite its per capita income of $8,600, one in three out of two million Gabonese lives on less than $1.90 a day. Transparency International’s latest corruption ranking places it 124e out of 180.
The admission of these two states has sparked a debate about how members of the Commonwealth can align themselves with the values of the organization. Indeed, before entering the Commonwealth, one must meet a number of criteria, such as recognizing Queen Elizabeth II as head of the Commonwealth and adhering to the bloc’s charter, which sets out a series of “founding values”, such as democracy, human rights, separation of powers, sustainable development.
It is on this last aspect that Gabon plays its best card with the United Kingdom in particular. Prince Charles is at the initiative of a green fund in favor of the protection of the environment and the circular economy. Gabon as leader of the group of African negotiators supported the United Kingdom at the Glasgow Conference (COP26) on climate change. The voice of this country, which is 90% covered by forests, counts in this area, because it has been committed for a long time, under the leadership of Lee White, its current Gabonese Minister of Water, Forests and the Sea and the Environment , British by birth.
These two countries that are Gabon and Togo are not the only ones who raise questions, if according to the official British version decolonization was carried out peacefully, in reality, it was quite different and that a long time ago weighed in the relations of the Crown with certain countries like Zimbabwe, which was suspended from the Commonwealth for fifteen years, under Robert Mugabe, then a great destroyer of the organization which he regularly accused of imposing Western ideas. Let us also mention The Gambia, a former British colony, whose former President Yahya Jammeh had decided on the unilateral withdrawal of his country from the Commonwealth organization in 2013, on the pretext that Western countries, according to him, condition their aid to The Gambia to gay rights.
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