The COMMONWEALTH CONFERENCE, also known as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), came to Africa again last week, this time in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Since the founding of the Commonwealth in 1949, Africa has hosted more conferences than any other continent with Commonwealth countries. With the Kigali event, Africa has hosted no fewer than six times. In 1979 the fifth CHOGM was held in Lusaka, Zambia, while the next in Africa was held in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1991. In 1999 the 16th CHOGM was held in Durban, South Africa and the 18th CHOGM in 2003 in Abuja, Nigeria. In 2007 the 20th meeting took place in Kampala, Uganda. This time, however, Kigali had it. At first glance, the frequency with which the continent has hosted the meetings might suggest its relevance. But whether such conferences have led to a measurable development for the host countries or the continent is questionable. The Commonwealth is a loose federation of 54 countries on all inhabited continents with a total population of 2.4 billion people, almost a third of the world’s population, of which 1.4 billion live in India and 94 percent live in either Asia or Africa.
In Africa alone there are 19 Commonwealth member states, seven of which are landlocked. Over the years, the Commonwealth has gained and lost a number of members. Some of today’s members were never colonized by Britain: two examples in Africa are Rwanda and Mozambique, which became members in 2009 and 1995 respectively. Robert Mugabe took Zimbabwe out in 2003 after its membership was suspended over reports of vote-rigging. A decision has not yet been made on his readmission application from 2018. Pakistan was reinstated four and a half years after being suspended over a 1999 military coup. Much earlier, South Africa, which was one of the founding members, resigned in 1961 after being criticized by Commonwealth members for its apartheid policies. After the fall of the apartheid regime, she became a member again in 1994. The Maldives was the last country to leave the Commonwealth in 2016 but rejoined in 2020. Despite the entries and exits, member countries had a combined GDP of US$13.1 trillion in 2021 and it is estimated that it will reach nearly US$19.5 trillion in 2027, doubling from US$10.4 trillion in ten years US dollars in 2017.
But what does the Commonwealth promise for African member countries today? From a socio-economic point of view, especially in trade relations, the African member countries are known not to have much in common. Altogether, the 19 countries of Africa in the Commonwealth have a combined population of 583.99 million, far exceeding the population of the 27 countries that make up the European Union, which has 447 million people. It’s more of a guess as to whether Africa’s population of over half a billion has turned into a vibrant market, with Botswana, Eswatini, Gambia, Lesotho, Mauritius, Namibia and the Seychelles at 2.35 million, 1.16 million, 2, 42 million, 2.14 million, 1.27 million, 2.54 million, and 0.10 million, respectively. Those with moderately large populations include Rwanda with 12.95 million, Sierra Leone with 7.98 million, Zambia with 18.38 million and Malawi with 19.13 million. Cameroon’s population is still an estimated 26.55 million. Mozambique and Ghana have almost the same population at 31.26 million and 31.07 million respectively. Uganda has registered 45.74 million people, Kenya rising to 53.77 million, while Tanzania and South Africa are shoulder to shoulder with 59.73 million and 59.31 million respectively. The highest of all is Nigeria with a current population estimate of 206.14 million people.
While Britain’s GDP in nominal terms was recently estimated at US$3,108 billion in 2021 according to the IMF, India’s GDP was US$2,946 billion according to the same IMF estimate. Nigeria’s economy, considered the largest in Africa in terms of nominal GDP, was valued at US$446.543 billion, while South Africa’s was US$349.299 billion, Kenya’s US$79.511 billion and Tanzania’s US$51.725 Billions of US dollars have been estimated. Most other economies considered significant each have a GDP of less than US$50 billion. Examples include Ghana at $47.032 billion, Cameroon at $34.006 billion, Uganda at $26.349 billion and Zambia at $25.504 billion. According to some comparisons, the economies of two of the African countries in the Commonwealth are comparatively lower than those of some Caribbean developing small island countries. Gambia is comparatively lower than Grenada in terms of both absolute GDP and GDP per capita. For Grenada, the national nominal GDP of US$1.111 billion and GDP per capita of US$10,360 are higher than Gambia’s US$1.038 billion and GDP per capita of US$1,015. Another example is Fiji with a nominal national GDP of US$5.054 billion and a GDP per capita of US$5,740 compared to Sierra Leone with a national GDP of US$3.897 billion and a GDP per capita from $491.
The British Commonwealth’s relationship with Africa is long-standing and aid contributions remain substantial. Trade in goods between the UK and the continent is marginal, however, with less than 2% of UK exports and just over 2% of imports coming from African countries. It doesn’t appear that Africa is considered significant in trade relations with Britain. The kind of assistance Africa desperately needs to boost investment in infrastructure and links to finance is not coming at an encouraging pace or scale. Over the years, the UK seemed to have been slower to promote trade links across Africa and lagged behind in its trade ties with Africa. But more recently, China’s Belt and Road Initiative seems to have filled some gaps in Africa, pulling many countries away from their traditional trade and development partners. As of June 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron has visited 10 African countries once and seven African countries twice since taking office in 2017. By contrast, British Prime Minister Theresa May visited Africa in August 2018, where she pledged £4 billion (US$5.1 billion) to support African markets. Furthermore, she should have used this visit to serve the strategic interests of both Britain and African countries. But she only visited South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. Of the 55 foreign trips he has made since becoming British Prime Minister in 2019, Boris Johnson has only visited a country in Africa once and that country is Rwanda. He hasn’t even had the larger economies in Africa on his radar since then, and that speaks volumes.
The British Prime Minister’s visit to Africa is of strategic importance. It is one of the ways to achieve developmental benefits on the continent. There are many opportunities in different sectors, particularly for developing skills in innovative technologies such as off-grid solar energy. Vibrant two-way trade between the UK and Africa will be very rewarding, particularly as African companies gain access to the UK market; and as African exports are made more competitive. If the UK had viewed Africa, the second most populous continent in the world, as too important to ignore, it would have nonetheless made its relationship with the continent part of its post-Brexit strategic ally, as part of its goal of “its global Partnerships.” Prior to Brexit, Africa was jettisoned by Britain as its attention focused on the EU market, disrupting the Commonwealth’s relevance to Africa and other countries. How true are the claims that a UK exit from the European Union would create opportunities for the UK to escape the EU’s blatant protectionism and ponderous domestic politics to pursue a more liberal and globalist Commonwealth-based trade agenda? How were some African countries able to access the EU market through the UK before and after Brexit?
In Brexit policy, as in any other form of politics, many plausible arguments have been made. Exit activists had claimed that by joining the European Economic Community (EEC) preferential trade agreements in 1973, Britain had “betrayed our relationship with the Commonwealth”. In the language of Eurosceptic activists, by joining the EEC Britain had turned its back on the world – and particularly on historical friends and partners – and opted for a more continental and less ambitious foreign trade policy. David Davis, Boris Johnson, Daniel Hannan and Fraser Nelson stood out among the Eurosceptics and spoke out loudly before and after the June 2016 referendum on UK membership of the EU. David Davis, in particular, had suggested in 2016 that the EU’s need to balance the interests of 27 member states when negotiating trade deals with external partners “has had devastating consequences for the UK, particularly in relation to trade relations with the Commonwealth. In their arguments, the EU’s cumbersome internal bargaining structures – as well as “protectionist forces in Europe” – according to Boris Johnson – aim to constrain the UK’s ability to forge trade links with the wider world. Talking can be cheap sometimes. Since July 2019 when Boris Johnson became UK Prime Minister and after Brexit almost three years ago, are the EU constraints still there? While the UK was still part of the EU, the African countries of the Commonwealth were intertwined with the EU’s own system of external economic relations under the EU’s system of preferential trade relations in the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group.
But the internal effects could not be denied either, including the indirect severing of the Commonwealth’s direct trade links with the United Kingdom and the gradual erosion of the latter’s influence – albeit diminishing – over Commonwealth countries. Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) negotiations have in most cases failed to meet the EU agenda for full liberalisation. From the perspective of developing countries, the stringent requirements, which can easily be interpreted as non-tariff barriers to trade, pose a major hurdle, particularly the gradation of tariff levels by value-added level, which is designed to subtly discourage African countries and Caribbean and Pacific countries from preventing their export into the EU as they have effectively pushed those countries to the fringes of the global value chain. Or should it be safely concluded that with or without Brexit, Africa will remain a distant economic partner of the UK? Wouldn’t countries like China, Japan and Russia be right in their aggressive push to build economic ties with African countries? Why does Britain seem indifferent to Africa? And when will this attitude change? A better way to prevent the massive influx of migrants or to deport those who continue to enter illegally – as was found earlier this month in the case of illegal immigrants from Rwanda – is to create incentives that create sustainable livelihoods and discourage mass exodus. And that is within the power of the UK if it really wants to.