Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Commonwealth at 60

On a landmark day, 60 years ago, the Commonwealth officially came into existence. It was the outcome of an intense deliberation in London which lasted for six days. In attendance at that august meeting were the Heads of Government of Australia, Britain, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, and Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs.

The communiqué issued on April 29, 1949 became known as the London Declaration. It was innovative, bold and pivotal in many respects. The London Declaration marked the beginning of modern Commonwealth. It meant freedom, equality and justice for all its member states.

This was not only in relationship to the titular head of the Commonwealth, but in their pursuit of peace, liberty and progress. Consequently, when George VI died and Queen Elizabeth II took over as the Head of the Commonwealth, the colonial vestiges were no more.

Instead came a partnership based on equality, choice and consensus. That momentous occasion of 60 years ago came full circle last month. It was a celebration marked with pomp and circumstance. But it also provided a platform for sober reflection.

We consider the theme of the celebration, “Serving a new generation” as apt and timely. It is our view that the Commonwealth has come of age. It calls for both retrospection and intropection on how the association has been, and how it can refocus itself for the challenges ahead.

Looking back, from the initial number of eight members, the Commonwealth has grown to a remarkable 53 member states. It is fair to say that the organisation remains more of an intergovernmental body than a political union. It has done well in advocating democratic government among its fold. In this respect, it has done creditably well in suspending recalcitrant member nations for serious and persistent violations. This is in line with the Harare Declaration.

Nigeria once tasted this “bitter pill” under the regime of the late Sani Abacha. Currently, Zimbabwe is on suspension. Better relationship has also been fostered through cooperation in many areas among member states through the Commonwealth Games and regular meetings among Heads of Government within the fold.

However, it is indisputable that much more needs to be done to make the Commonwealth continually relevant and ‘serve a new generation.’ Therefore, it is time for a self-appraisal, in line with the exigencies of the times. Areas that need closer attention include integration and economic cooperation, exchange programmes, technical and educational aids, infrastructural development, science and technology, among others. In recent years, these areas have suffered serious setback particularly due to problems brought about by economic challenges.

The times demand that an organisation such as the Commonwealth should re-invent itself. It is a leadership challenge that it needs to rise up to while keeping in mind its tripod principle of freedom, equality and justice. At the moment, these noble ideals are in dire need of good faith. Nigeria’s President Umaru Yar’Adua recently urged the leadership of the Commonwealth to show more clarity of purpose. It is a valid concern, because any organisation that cannot operate in an atmosphere of goodwill and understanding cannot stand the test of time. Certainly, present times need dynamic and focused leadership.

Today, it is estimated that two billion people live in the Commonwealth, and half of them are under 25 years of age. It then follows that to meaningfully serve this new generation of people, the Commonwealth must change its old ways and design strategies that will meet the yearnings of these people without neglecting the needs of the others. Overall, now is the time for a more forward-looking Commonwealth.