Gabon and Togo are the first countries to join the Commonwealth since Rwanda in 2009. Similar to Rwanda and Mozambique, they do not have any historical ties to the British empire. The countries officially joined at the concluded 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali, Rwanda.
The physical and population size of the Commonwealth is enormous, it makes up a quarter of the world’s land mass as it includes countries such as Canada, the world’s second-largest country by area, India, and Australia. And one-third of the world’s population is a part of the Commonwealth, which is approx. 2.6 billion people out of 7.9 billion globally.
The association is supposed to help grow economies, boost trade, empower young people, and address climate change, debt, and inequality. It is also meant to deploy experts and observers who offer impartial advice and solutions to national problems. More practically for African nations, the association amplifies their voices to provide additional channels for lobbying major donors and diplomatic players. It also provides a potential framework for resolving disputes between African members.
Despite the intended benefits of the Commonwealth, there have been global discussions on whether the group delivers tangible advantages. Prominent figures, including Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari have been calling for less rhetoric, more action, and a collective approach. He said that the group could act more as a bloc comparable to the European Union, writing in a recent column that the Kigali summit “should be a moment when the potential for our club is reimagined”.
Other difficult issues looming over the Association are calls for reparations from colonial powers, challenges to human rights violations by member states, the inhumane deportation of asylum seekers from Britain, and particular challenges facing small developing states, education, and governance, and the negative impact of regionalism.
Why are Gabon and Togo joining a group that does not meet current expectations?
Togo’s Foreign Minister Robert Dussey said membership would give his country access to the billions of Commonwealth consumers, offer educational and cultural opportunities, and ignite an interest in English among his compatriots.
“Togo’s motivation is to grow our diplomatic, political and economic network by joining the great family of 54 nations… We also wish to forge closer ties with the anglophone world,” he said.
He added that the developing nation can also redefine bilateral relations with the UK outside the European Union in the aftermath of Brexit.
For Gabon, President Ali Bongo said his country was “making history” by joining the group. “Sixty-two years after its Independence, our country is getting ready to breakthrough with a new chapter,” Bongo said in a statement on Twitter. “It’s a world of opportunities for Gabon on the economic, diplomatic & cultural levels.”
Gabon has maintained close ties with Paris for decades, but like other West African countries, it is becoming less reliant on its former ruler.
“It’s clear that we are in a moment of quite a big critique from many francophone countries of the relationship with France,” said Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou of the Overseas Development Institute think tank to Reuters. “There is a clear desire to diversify interlocutors.”
Welcoming the announcement, Commonwealth Secretary-General the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland, QC, said, “The Commonwealth, which began as eight nations in 1949, is growing to 56. Our continued growth, beyond the scope of our history, reflects the advantages of Commonwealth membership and the strength of our association. I am thrilled to see these vibrant countries join the Commonwealth family and dedicate themselves to the values and aspiration of our Charter.”
Whether the two countries will feel any gains from their membership will be seen after a time. But in the meantime, they have both made a bold declaration to France and shifted the axis of their relationship.