Commonwealth shocked by Gambia’s abrupt exit
On Wednesday, the Commonwealth of Nations had 54 members. Today, after a tiny African nation announced its withdrawal, it is down to 53. Is this really a blow to the forces of imperialism?
To most people, the Commonwealth of Nations seems like a fairly friendly institution. It promotes democracy and human rights; gives aid and assistance to its members; and, once every four years, it hosts an athletics festival watched all over the world.
But apparently The Gambia does not see the international grouping as quite so benign. On Wednesday afternoon, President Yahya Jammeh surprised the world by suddenly announcing on state television that his nation would withdraw from the Commonwealth for good.
‘The Gambia will never be a member of any neo-colonial institution,’ he said, ‘and will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism.’
Several Commonwealth countries have been suspended for breaching human rights – Pakistan, Nigeria and most recently Fiji – although all except the latter have since been readmitted. But to quit altogether is a rare move: since 1949 only Zimbabwe has left, and even that followed its suspension for President Robert Mugabe’s constant persecution of political opponents.
Some commentators suspect that The Gambia, too, is jumping before it is pushed. Since President Jammeh took control of the tiny West African nation in the coup of 1994, he has ruled with few qualms and a fist of iron. He has labelled homosexuality one of the three biggest threats to the world and claimed he can cure HIV. He has arrested thousands of people for witchcraft and last year executed nine opponents by firing squad.
Few have much sympathy with Jammeh’s tyrannical mysticism or his violent tactics. His attack on the Commonwealth, however, will find at least a little support. Why? Because while it is a loose organisation whose members can leave at any time, the Commonwealth is directly descended from the British Empire, whose power was not so soft.
At the height of its colonial power, the UK ruled over a quarter of the Earth’s land and a fifth of its people. Britain insisted that it was spreading civilisation and the rule of law; but the Empire also treated its non-British subjects as inferiors and suppressed rebellions with unscrupulous force.
The Empire strikes back
The worst extremes of imperialism are in the past. But for some of those who were once ruled from Britain, that is not enough: for once oppressed nations to be truly independent, they say, every trapping of colonialism must be wiped from the Earth – however harmless it seems.
Nonsense, retort the Commonwealth’s more willing members: this grouping of nations might be an imperial inheritance, but only the most benevolent aspects of empire remain. It is simply a community of nations working together for the benefit of each other and the world – only a paranoid fool would object to that.
- Is there any circumstance in which you wouldn’t mind your country being ruled from abroad?
- In 1962, the former US secretary of state Dean Acheson said that ‘Britain has lost an empire but it has not yet found a role’. Is this still true today?
- What does ‘empire’ mean to you? Write down three sentences and then share your answers with the class.
- Make a simple timeline showing the history of the British Empire?
Some People Say...
“History causes nothing but divisions – it’s best not to think about it at all.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Will The Gambia’s exit make any difference to ordinary Commonwealth citizens?
- Gambians will feel some effect: it’s a poor country with a population of just 1.8 million, and both of these features make the technical assistance and scholarships offered by membership particularly useful. Other Commonwealth countries, though, will hardly notice The Gambia’s departure.
- So why should I care?
- Britain’s imperial past is vital to its identity and its standing in the world; former colonies, meanwhile, are left with both British-style institutions, British sports and divisions between descendents of colonisers and colonised. The Commonwealth probably doesn’t have a very powerful bearing on your life, but the legacy of empire may well do.
- When one country exercises power over others, whether by sending people to physically colonise the territory or forcing people to adopt foreign laws and customs, or both. ‘Neo-colonialism’ refers to the idea that European powers are still exercising power over the developing world despite their empires having officially collapsed.
- Pakistan is the second largest country in the Commonwealth, after India. It has actually been suspended from the organisation twice: first in 1999, in the immediate aftermath of General Pervez Musharraf’s coup, and again in 2007 when Musharraf tried to strengthen his powers.
- Robert Mugabe
- Until 1980 Zimbabwe was ruled by white British governors whose black subjects had limited rights. President Mugabe overthrew this system, but soon consolidated his rule into a dictatorship and began to repress dissent in alarming ways. Today he still rules the country, but shares power with his former opponent Morgan Tsvangirai.
- Belief in witches is fairly widespread in some African countries, although there is a lot of variation about what the word means. In some cases witches are believed to cause disease; in others it is a word for a practitioner of traditional medicine. There is still a lot of debate among scholars about how many African beliefs about witchcraft are a European inheritance.