British Commonwealth: Rhetoric Versus Reality

-A +A

[Issue Of Principle]

In November, the British Commonwealth will hold its biannual meeting of Heads of State and Government, otherwise known as Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), in Kampala, Uganda.

Ironically, the host president, Yoweri Museveni, has violated virtually all of the stated principles of the Commonwealth, the most important of which are the rule of law, human rights and democratic pluralism.

To host the summit, Ugandan president, Museveni, has devoted the meagre resources of the country to build hotels, buy custom-made vehicles, refurbish roads and hire hundreds of security personnel for the comfort of the dignitaries, while thousands of people languish in concentration camps and prisons and the country at large without health care, clean water, food and proper sanitation.

Three basic questions ought to be asked about CHOGM to raise awareness about the historical function and the practical usefulness of the Commonwealth to the great majority of Africans. A historical understanding of the Commonwealth might also serve an important purpose: arm us with the knowledge to help avoid some of the mistakes of the past.

To begin with, what is the Commonwealth; and whose interests has it historically represented? Second, why does a militarist ruler like Yoweri Museveni mobilize resources to subsidize the comfort of the powerful and wealthy during the summit at a time when most citizens are yearning for human security and fundamental rights? And third, what are some of the criteria used to choose a host country?

To answer the first question, we need to review the history of the Commonwealth. Its existence is mostly a legacy of British colonial imperialism. But because of changing circumstances, it has become a curious institution with chameleon modes of operation. Put plainly, although it might appear anachronistic, it has assumed its current form for pragmatic reasons to realize its objectives in changing circumstances.

The official website of the Commonwealth Secretariat publicizes that the Commonwealth is an association of 53 independent states consulting and cooperating in the common interests of their people. It further states that it works on the basis of principles and declarations.

The first fundamental statement of core values is the Declaration of Commonwealth Principles which was issued at the 1971 summit in Singapore. Among other things, it stresses the need to foster international peace and security; democracy; liberty of the individual and equal rights for all; the importance of eradicating poverty, ignorance and disease; and it opposes all forms of racial discrimination. The Singapore Declaration emphasizes commitment to the inalienable rights of citizens to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which they live.

In the 1991 Harare (Zimbabwe) Commonwealth Declaration, the principles adopted in Singapore were elaborated and explicitly linked to promoting sustainable development.  And at the 2002 CHOGM in Australia, the Singapore principles were further amplified, to reaffirm shared commitment to democracy, the rule of law, good governance, freedom of expression and the promotion of human rights.

To what extent has the Commonwealth been guided by these principles? It is often one thing to state high-sounding principles and it is quite another to translate the principles into practical reality. Before evaluation is made of the extent to which the principles have been adhered to, it is appropriate to provide a historical backdrop to the present Commonwealth.

To understand how the British Commonwealth evolved and to appreciate its dynamic modus vivendi, an appreciation of history is a great asset. Professors Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, two distinguished British scholars, show in their seminal work, Africa and the Victorians: Official Mind of Imperialism, that British approach to Africa was quite consistent for most of the nineteenth century. They conclude that the British establishment always preferred informal control when possible and opted for direct formal intervention only when necessary. By logical extension, the same approach predominated in twentieth century.

The triple abiding objectives of the modus vivendi were and are: to secure geo-strategic territories; to exploit and control trade; and to use the profits of trade to establish a financial hub of the world in London. All three have as their ultimate goal, the insurance of the welfare of British kin and kith.

In fact, the Imperial Commonwealth was originally instituted to achieve two principal and over-lapping objectives. These were: to foster the interests and unity of the British race; and to contain the growth of nationalism among colonized people. In the twentieth century, it first operated under the rubric of “Dominion”. Before the conclusion of World War II and the independence of the Indian subcontinent, its membership consisted of Britain, white South Africa, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

However, in 1948, in the aftermath of the independence of India, Pakistan and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the white club reluctantly admitted the so-called Asian Dominions. With non-white races in the club, the cozy and intimate nature of the meetings changed to ones characterized by politeness. By the mid-1960s, during the era of decolonization of African territories under British rule, Commonwealth meetings became more robust and rather annoying to the original club members.

Although the rules of interaction in the Commonwealth have changed from time to time, the central interests to be served have remained essentially the same. What should be understood and made clear is the distinction between means and ends. The means by which the British Empire was created was generally through demonstration of military might as right. It was sustained through socio-cultural engineering in which imperialism was marketed as benevolence; and the colonized were expected to aspire to acquire, imbibe, hold and promote its artifacts as indices of civilization.

The cultural aspects of the British Commonwealth have often been as perplexing as snares that are well constructed and placed strategically to capture prey. An integral politico-cultural aspect of the British Commonwealth, which the British media have marketed as merely symbolic, but in fact arguably the most potent in the arsenals to effect British ends, is the monarchy.

In the Commonwealth, the Queen, as the representative of the British monarchy, is regarded as the titular and unifying head of the club. In Africa as elsewhere in the world, the Queen is more often than not treated with reverence and curious adulation. Yet the Queen is more than simply a ceremonial head; she in fact serves a very vital purpose.

In order to gain some insights into the critical function the Queen serves in the Commonwealth, we might learn by analogy from an unlikely source who wrote about the role of the monarchy in the political set-up of Britain in late nineteenth century.

Walter Bagehot, an English journalist of aristocratic background, published in 1867 a book titled The English Constitution. In it, he examined closely how public business was in fact transacted, as distinguished from the way in which its transaction was officially described. He found out that in fact the monarchy together with the aristocracy in the House of Lords, with their mystique, provided an important dignified façade of constitutional rule in England.  It was this dignified role of the monarchy, exhibited in theatrical pageantry, which dazzled the population into semi-filial identity with, mystical reverence of, and habit of obedience to, the ruling class.

Is the role of the Queen in the Commonwealth different from the one portrayed by Walter Bagehot? We should draw broad lessons from his instructive conclusions. In particular, we should appreciate the symbolic and “dignified” role of the Queen in the Commonwealth, which is to dazzle if not mystify the people. It is fair to summarize that the more things seem to change, the more they remain the same. Or rather, they remain the same under different guises.

Thus next month, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kampala, it should be expected that the Queen will be entertained with pulsating African dances and the legendry African hospitality. She will likely also be treated more or less as a demi-goddess. While the people who dance and celebrate the occasion might temporarily forget their abject conditions of poverty and oppression under the militarist dictatorship, the business of the Commonwealth will be done efficiently by both visible and invisible hands, largely to foster powerful interests.

To be sure, a number of African elites will play their assigned role obediently in the well- choreographed drama. The president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, will give the cues and provide the lead and then bask in the glow of CHOGM, which he will most likely construe as international vote of confidence in his administration. This should be understandable, given his dismal record in the area of democratic pluralism and the rule of law at home. He needs to compensate for what he lacks internally, with external approval, complemented by the military.

From a rational perspective, therefore, the skewed priorities by President Museveni can be explained, though not endorsed. They are intended to win and assure external support from forces to which he has mortgaged the interests and future of the country. It is the external support, not the will of Ugandans, which has become the lifeblood of Museveni’s administration. The truth is that no country in Africa has received more foreign support, whether in terms of financial resources, diplomatic backing, or BBC propaganda, than Uganda under Yoweri Museveni. The quid pro quo formula between Museveni and the Old Dominion is as old as politics. Certainly, Museveni knows that he cannot alienate the forces that keep him in power. Thus he has accordingly shown more loyalty to his foreign backers than to Ugandans. They in turn have chosen to reward him for his fealty with the privilege to host the CHOGM.

The privilege is, however, dubious. For politically conscious Ugandans and progressive Africans, the CHOGM in Kampala is more or less a sore historical reminder of what happened during the Singapore CHOGM in 1971.

Although the principles adopted in Singapore are laudable and are supposed to anchor the Commonwealth, they are also emblematic of the hydra chameleon nature of the Commonwealth. This is so because while the Declaration was being adopted in 1971, the British government under Edward Heath was working to subvert the principles, by overthrowing through military means one of the Declaration’s champions and the democratically elected president of Uganda at the time, Milton Obote. In his place, agents of the British government and other foreign forces installed the military dictator, Idi Amin, whom they praised as a gentle giant and who set in train a reign of terror, which the Museveni regime learnt from and perfected.

Milton Obote was overthrown with the assistance of British agents because he asserted his independence and refused to be a conduit for British interests to the exclusion of the welfare of Africans. It was in Singapore that Milton Obote took the then British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, to task for the lack of robust action against Ian Smith’s contempt for the democratic rights of Africans in Zimbabwe, as legally symbolized in his Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, and for the British plan to sell arms to apartheid South Africa at a time when the Black majority were systematically denied fundamental rights.

It might seem confusing to the politically and historically naïve that Obote was overthrown for standing up for what were formally accepted as the principles of the Commonwealth. A reference to the Robinson and Gallagher thesis, cited above, should help solve what seems a puzzle. The truth is that the rhetorical principles of the Commonwealth, designed for public relations, have often been at variance with the action of the Commonwealth, which is still driven by the old idea of the British Dominion.

It was Obote’s challenge of Britain on issues of Pan-African significance that drew the ire of the “mother country”, which resulted in his ouster from power in Uganda. A half a decade before, the great champion of Pan-Africanism, Kwame Nkrumah, had been demonized and ousted from power for similar reasons and in a manner not different from the overthrow of Obote.

This leads to the third question posed above: what criteria are used to select a host country. It is apparent that symbolic geographical rotation is one criterion. Beyond this, it seems that an essential criterion is good standing with the Old Dominion rather than fidelity to the principles for which the Commonwealth is retailed to stand for. This is a conclusion arrived at from analysis of the practice of the Commonwealth. How else can Uganda hosting CHOGM in November be explained, when the current regime has violated practically all of the principles enunciated in Singapore, elaborated in Harare, Zimbabwe and amplified in Australia?

It must be remembered that the hosting of CHOGM by Uganda was confirmed in Malta about two years ago, at the very time when Museveni was showing total contempt for the rule of law and principles of democracy. In fact, during the period, Museveni did not only trump up charges and lock up the leading opposition leader in the country, Dr. Kizza Besigye, but also used his secret police to intimidate the judiciary. He also changed the constitution of the country to permit him to be in power virtually for life. Moreover, at the time, Transparency International Index showed that corruption among the ruling elites had reached epidemic proportions.

These were in addition to the fact that Museveni authorized Uganda’s military forces to invade, occupy and plunder the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in blatant violation of the UN Charter, international humanitarian and human rights laws. Indeed, in December 2005, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled against Uganda for contravention of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and ordered it to pay damages of $6-10 billion to the DRC for illegal invasion of the DRC.

In light of Museveni’s record of violating the principles of the Commonwealth and the Charter of the United Nations, how should Africans construe the vote of confidence given him to host the CHOGM summit in Kampala? For most reasonable people, it must mean that the Commonwealth takes African welfare and interests as expendable; and that it uses the principles of the Organization simply for public relations.

All of these remind us that as CHOGM draws closer, it should be understood that the British Commonwealth is not simply a relic of history but also an institution that assumes many different guises to advance various interests. However, whatever view we might have about its historical role, the Commonwealth would be of practical relevance to African people if its operations are informed by rights-based principles to advance the causes of social justice, the rule of law, human rights and democratic pluralism.

As a general rule, the credibility and usefulness of the Commonwealth have often been severely undermined when ethical principles were or are compromised for the sake of raw power politics and strategic advantage. To redeem itself, the Commonwealth should learn from the African Union (AU), which twice denied the president of the Sudan the privilege to host the AU Summit because of the violations of human rights in the country.

The Commonwealth would therefore be better served by applying uniformly to all its members the principles adopted in Singapore, and refined in Harare and Australia. 

A good beginning might be for CHOGM in November to demonstrate courage and speak up against the violations of its stated principles by the host president, Yoweri Museveni. Otherwise, what might seem like the Commonwealth’s penchant to make a mockery of its avowed principles should be taken as deliberate strategy to foster conditions and support individuals keen to keep Africans in permanent servitude. 

Given the sacrifices Africans made and continue to make in the struggles to improve their lot by throwing off the yoke of formal imperialism, it is not unreasonable to demand for an organization that reflects the interests of the great majority of Africans and also responds to the aspirations for the enhancement of their human dignity and self-worth.

Black Star News columnist Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu is UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, Executive-Director of the UConn-ANC Partnership and Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. His column appears bi-weekly online and in the newspaper.


To comment or to subscribe to or advertise in New York’s leading Pan African weekly investigative newspaper, or to send us a news tip, please call (212) 481-7745 or send a note to

Also visit out sister publications Harlem Business News and The Groove music magazine at

"Speaking Truth To Power."

Also Check Out...

Small Business 2020
Small Business Struggles Don’t
Trump Patriotic Education
We need peace education, not Nazi-
Gwen Berry
Color Of Change Supports Gwen
M4BL on Justice Ginsburg Death:
Ruth Ginsburg
AFT: Justice Ginsburg was “
Icon Building Botswana
Africa’s Diamond Capital Invests