Commonwealth may change in Africa after Queen Elizabeth’s death

African scholars say dynamics between the UK and a group of mostly former colonies are anchored on outdated principles of association.

King Charles during a procession from Buckingham Palace [File Photo: Daniel Leal/Pool via Reuters]
Britain's King Charles III and Prince William, prince of Wales walk behind the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, during a procession from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster, in London on September 14, 2022 [Daniel Leal/Pool via Reuters]

Lagos, Nigeria – On Monday, Buckingham Palace announced the first state visit to be hosted by King Charles III, who ascended to the throne after the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II last month.

From November 22 to 24, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa – whose three predecessors all visited the UK – will visit the new monarch. That the first state visit is one by a prominent member of the Commonwealth could be of pointed significance as questions arise on the future of the organisation that Charles now leads.

The new king is known to be opinionated on local and global issues, a deviation from the Queen’s stoic diplomatic takes. Before the last meeting of Commonwealth heads of state in Kigali in June, where he represented the queen, local British media reported that Charles called a deal between the UK and Rwanda – with £120 million ($135.3m) up-front payment – to send refugees on asylum there, “appalling”.

Discussion on a range of issues is expected during Ramaphosa’s visit, including trade and investment, but also possibly a new direction for the Commonwealth under Charles’s leadership.

“​​The visit will offer a chance to celebrate our modern-day partnerships delivering prosperity and security for both countries, as well as to set out how we can work together bilaterally and globally to strengthen those links for the future,” the palace statement read.

Indeed, the future of the Commonwealth, a political association of mostly former British colonies, has been a global debate for years, especially in the Caribbean – where the push for republicanism is increasing – and in Africa.

The queen’s death this September has reignited conversations about the multilateral institution seen as one of the legacies of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.

Since then, a number of Africans have been reliving the horrific experiences their kinsmen and neighbours endured under British colonial rule.

Evelyn Wanjiru who grew up in Nyeri, in central Kenya, was named after her grandmother who passed away at 106 in 2009. The matriarch was one of the millions who suffered pain and loss during the Mau Mau uprising between 1952 and 1960 against the British plundering of Kenyan land.

She lost an eye due to torture in concentration camps and it broke her spirit, Wanjiru said. “Any time you asked her what happened to her, she would have this sad face and you would her voice break,” the 31-year-old pastry chef told Al Jazeera.

In Zimbabwe, some older citizens blame the monarchy for botched land reforms there. In 2000, former president Robert Mugabe pursued a constitutional amendment to reallocate, without compensation, land given to white farmers during colonial times, to Black farmers.

Harare blamed London for not fulfilling a pledge to finance part of the former’s plan to purchase some of these lands. It was a deal ratified under the Lancaster House Agreement in 1979 between nationalist movements fighting for independence and authorities in what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

In the early 2000s, economic growth stunted there partly due to the impact of the land reforms and as relations with the UK soured, Zimbabwe’s membership in the Commonwealth was eventually suspended. It exited the fold in 2003. In 2018, it applied to return but has yet to be readmitted.

And the recent change of guard in the UK is now leading to a debate about the continued existence of the body.

An old idea

Founded in 1931, the Commonwealth currently comprises 56 countries representing 2.5 billion people – or one-third of the world’s population. Nearly half the members are African, including Gabon, Rwanda and Togo, which were not colonised by the British.

“The idea of the Commonwealth is an old one, from the early 20th century [fashioned by] some of the greatest scholars of the British empire,” Sithembile Mbete, a senior lecturer at the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria, South Africa told Al Jazeera.

“It is explicitly a way of maintaining the structure of British imperialism, even if the political system of the British imperialism had come to an end,” she said.

Experts say the Commonwealth is directly tied to the former Queen and served to legitimise her reign outside Britain after the independence of former colonies.

In her absence, its future is far from certain, they say. “It is a difficult question whether the Commonwealth will continue and last in her absence,” Mbete said. “I think it will be very difficult for King Charles to put his stamp on the Commonwealth.”

Beyond the debate on the bloc’s lifespan, conversations across Africa are discussing the political utility of the organisation in contemporary times. In 2018, the members agreed to then-Prince Charles becoming the head of the bloc while maintaining the charter’s non-hereditary clause.

The titular position is largely ceremonial but has historical connotations of ownership, experts say.

Political utility

In Kigali, Charles expressed “the depths of personal sorrow” over the slave trade, a contentious topic the bloc has yet to properly address in spite of African scholars and political leaders raising it.

Just a month after the biennial Commonwealth summit, a tweet by Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo calling for reparations went viral on social media.

And African scholars say an age of reckoning has come.

“The Commonwealth of nations can only be relevant going forward if it can start having conversations about the atrocities and global inequalities caused by the monarchy,” Njoki Wamai, assistant professor of International Relations at United States International University-Africa in Nairobi told Al Jazeera.

She added that issues of reparations, trade inequalities, and immigration should be prioritised by the bloc, in order to be reckoned with.

Mbete agrees. “I think the Commonwealth has not been much more than symbolic, the area of actual, tangible cooperation has mostly been around education, sport and culture. It certainly has not resulted in significant economic benefits for the countries that are members of the commonwealth besides Britain,” she said.

But not everyone is on the same page.

Francis Tsegah, a senior fellow at Ghana’s Center for Democratic Government working previously at the country’s Foreign Service, is one of a number of people who believe the body is still relevant in helping Africa confront contemporary challenges.

“The world that we have been seeing for some time is now virtually a global village,” he said. But he says the bloc which is not entirely just symbolic, has to “take away some of the colonial imprints it has been associated with”.

“Beyond the symbolism, there are a lot of people-to-people interactions that go on, that are not normally in the media,” he said.

Its most visible engagement, besides the biennial meeting of heads of states, is the Commonwealth Games held every four years and other youth-centred programmes around education and politics.

Different responses

As the bloc prepares for a new era under King Charles, Africa may not present a united front in future involvements given each country’s peculiar colonial history with Britain, according to Tsegah and Wamai.

A history of large-scale brutal crackdowns on natives and land occupation in countries like Kenya could account for a different view from, say, Nigeria and Ghana, Wamai said.

Back in Nairobi, Wanjiru agrees.

“I just believe there is history between us and them, “ she said. “We cannot bury our heads and say all is well. No, all is not well. We know what happened but how can we move forwards? How can we trust you again?”

Source: Al Jazeera