Why Gabon and Togo asked to join the Commonwealth

By Georges Dougueli

Posted on Friday, 24 June 2022 08:51
Flags representing Commonwealth countries outside the Kigali Convention Centre, which is hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, June 20-25, 2022. © JEAN BIZIMANA/REUTERS

Gabon and Togo will be officially admitted to the organisation on 24 June, a move with potential economic benefits for both countries.

At first glance, Togo and Gabon do not have much in common with the Commonwealth, an organisation which already has 54 members and was initially intended to bring together countries that have pledged allegiance to the British crown. On Friday 24 June, however, these two historically French-speaking countries will officially join the group at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), held this year in Rwanda, which joined in 2009.

The former Belgian colony, also historically French-speaking but nevertheless ruled by a predominantly English-speaking elite, is not the only member state that has never known British colonisation. Before it, Mozambique – a former Portuguese colony – got the ball rolling by obtaining its admission in 1995, to everyone’s surprise.

Cultural rapprochement

The Commonwealth has an attraction for the former territories of the French colonial empire. Some twenty of its members are African and the continent is, geographically, the best represented area within it. As early as 2012, during a trip to Rwanda, Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba expressed his wish to make English the second official language of his country, following the example of Paul Kagame. Alain-Claude Bilie By Nze, the government spokesman at the time, explained: “Why don’t we take inspiration from such an experience to see how Gabon, a French-speaking country, can in the next few years decide to introduce English as a necessary working language […] and then later see how English could become a second language?”

In Togo, this rapprochement with the Anglophone world has been in the pipeline since 2014. The process accelerated in recent weeks, when the National Assembly authorised the government to complete the accession process, seen as a form of reconciliation with history. Although Togo was a German colony until the First World War, its territory was divided after the German defeat between the British, in its western part (which would then be integrated into the Gold Coast, now Ghana), and the French. “Integrating the Commonwealth will help bring us closer to our own people who have become Ghanaians,” said Robert Dussey, Togo’s foreign affairs minister.

‘Geopolitical turning point’

For Lomé as for Libreville, integration into the Commonwealth also offers diplomatic and – above all – economic prospects. The Commonwealth may not offer customs facilities, but it is a market of over two billion consumers. And Togo and Gabon are looking to diversify their commercial partnerships (the former, for example, is hoping to strengthen its economic ties with Ghana).

For his part, the Gabonese president has already said that his country’s membership represents a “major geopolitical turning point”, while reaffirming his attachment to the Francophone world. To gain acceptance to the bloc, Gabon has highlighted its commitment to the environment and sustainable development as well as its recent reforms on gender equality.

The list of countries knocking on the organisation’s door could include other states such as Algeria (which has just introduced the teaching of English from primary school), Israel and Yemen. Member countries of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie – OIF – (International Francophone Organisation), which includes countries that are not really French-speaking, such as Romania and Vietnam, could follow in the footsteps of Gabon, Togo and the eleven members that the two organisations already have in common. The subject is open to debate in Morocco but, for the moment, no official membership request has been made.

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