Commonwealth expansion: Gabon and Togo as new members

On 25 June 2022, the Commonwealth organisation accepted the Togo and Gabon membership, two French-speaking West African countries without historical ties to the UK. This membership may illustrate the French influence decline in Africa.

The Commonwealth, an organisation reflecting British soft power

The Commonwealth is an intergovernmental organisation created in the 20th century following the British decolonisation process. It is composed of 56 member states, almost all of which are former British Empire territories. The member countries now comprise one third of humanity on all continents.

The current head of the Commonwealth is the Queen of England Elizabeth II. Every two years, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meet to discuss about politics, economic and social issues.

The Commonwealth strength lies in the absence of political and administrative control and preferential economic ties. Therefore, member states do not have any obligations to each other. They are united by language, history, culture and values described in the Commonwealth Charter such as democracy and human rights. Thus, the organisation helps its members to deal with common and specific problems. In addition, the Commonwealth aims to encourage social and economic progresses of its members.

The challenge of Commonwealth membership for Togo and Gabon

The development of new economic opportunities is the main challenge of joining the Commonwealth, because of its 2.5 billions consumers market. Moreover, this adherence aims to acquire educational opportunities with the development of English language learning. This is what the Togolese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Robert Dussey, said : “Togo’s membership is motivated by the desire to extend its diplomatic, political and economic network (…) and to get closer to the English-speaking world. It is also about redefining its relations with the United Kingdom following the Brexit. Ali Bongo, President of Gabon, made similar statements on Twitter.

The Togolese and Gabonese populations view this membership very favourably and anticipates considerable academic opportunities. Moreover, both countries aspire to draw democratic practices more founded and to develop human rights on their territory.

Controversial memberships

In a context of debates on the relevance and objectives of the Commonwealth, the admission of Togo and Gabon is perplexing. Indeed, this enlargement raises questions as both countries are governed by a political dynasty and have human rights issues. Gabon has been ruled by the Bongo family for 55 years, with elections marred by violence and allegations of fraud. In parallel, Togo has been ruled by the Gnassingbé family since 1967.

This raises questions about the Commonwealth’s commitment to democracy and good governance, some core values of the Commonwealth Charter adopted in 2012.

Boris Johnson considers the attraction created by the Commonwealth as a very good sign for the organisation survival. However, the one-year accession process of Gabon and Togo lasted encourages controversial opinions.

The decline of the French influence in Africa

Two countries from the French colonial empire are now joining the Commonwealth alongside the former British colonies. A disavowal of the French metropolis is perceptible. Indeed, although Libreville and Lomé are not leaving the International Organisation of the Francophonie, this membership seems to demonstrate that economic relations with France are no longer attractive. Gabonese President Ali Bongo spoke of “the need to belong to another multicultural space in a globalised world”. The Togolese Parliament sees this as a diversification of cooperation relations and a historical-political renewal.

Moreover, the development of English language allows access to the best universities, which could lead to better employability in the future. This notion is fundamental in a continent where 65% of the population is under 20 years old.

This phenomenon translates the better development of countries that came out of the British empire than those of the French empire. For instance, the Rwanda, a French-speaking country, joined the Commonwealth in 2009 and experienced a quick economic development.

Moreover, the France Africa model is perceived on the African side as a French domination model. The autonomy quest explains why Togo and Gabon are increasingly turning to the Commonwealth, as well as China and Russia. This is what Togolese political scientist Mohamed Madi Djabakate said when he claimed that although the decision to join was taken by the government, it is not unpopular with the Togolese, who “gradually see France’s foreign policy as the reason of the country’s stagnation”.

Therefore, the Gabon and Togo accession to the Commonwealth on 25 June 2022 is a huge historical act. It reshuffles cards of the Berlin Conference of 1885 during which great powers divided up their   influence zones in Africa. Today, this event represents the expression of a disavowal of France. It is also the opening of a multitude of development opportunities for the region, which wishes to benefit from globalisation.

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