The news of Gambia’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth has focused a spotlight on the role of the 54-member grouping and its relevance in a world dominated by economic blocs.
Gambia announced in a statement on state television on 2 October that it was leaving because the government had decided it “will never be a member of any neo-colonial institution and will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism.”
No further reason for the decision was given. The UK Foreign Office has said the decision to withdraw is something to “very much regret”.
Michael Lake, director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, which exists to promote the organisation’s value and values, said: “Gambia’s abrupt departure from the Commonwealth will be a loss felt by both its people and the wider Commonwealth network.”
The status and influence of the Commonwealth has undoubtedly been undermined in recent years by the growth of powerful economic and political blocs such as the European Union and the African Union.
Unlike the EU, it does not operate through a system of supranational institutions, nor does it act in international affairs as a bloc. Its supporters argue that the Commonwealth’s strength lies in its function as an adjunct to other existing treaties and alliances that member countries have.
The Commonwealth is based on a grouping of equals that share a common language and heritage. Michael Lake, Royal Commonwealth Society
But Michael Lake told Channel 4 News the organisation also has a practical value.
“The fact is that member countries of the Commonwealth outperform in relation to non-member states – they do better, particularly when you look at the 50 per cent who are small states and islands.
“They have most to get from the Commonwealth because it’s based on a grouping of equals that share a common language and heritage, a similar approach to regulation and law.”
If this is the case, then how to explain Gambia’s decision to leave an association that aspires to promote human rights and economic development, in the process weakening its ties to wealthy countries such as the UK, whose visitors account for 40 per cent of Gambia’s tourism-derived GDP?
Andy Weir, deputy editor of Africa Confidential, believes there is a political dimension to the latest move.
“I would speculate that somebody in the Commonwealth has made some sort of demarche to Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, on his human rights situation, and he may have decided to get his retaliation first,” he told Channel 4 News.
“He’s already under pressure from Britain and the EU on human rights.
“He’s an out-and-out populist, even though he runs what’s not normally called a democracy. This may be an attempt to keep himself in the headlines.”
Last week Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, told the United Nations General Assembly that gay people were a threat to human existence and criticised other countries for regarding homosexuality as a human right.
“Those who promote homosexuality want to put an end of human existence,” he told world leaders. “It is becoming an epidemic, and we Muslims and Africans will fight to end this behaviour.”
An updated travel advisory on the UK government’s website, dated 3 October 2013, states –
“Following political disagreement between the government of the Gambia and the European Union about the deterioration of human rights in the Gambia, there has been an increase in political tension which may lead to unannounced demonstrations in Banjul and other parts of the country.”
The country, a small strip of territory on Africa’s west coast surrounded by Senegal, joined the Commonwealth in 1965 after gaining independence from the UK.