After the death of Queen Elizabeth II, following her 70-year-old reign, the complicated geopolitical and cultural question of the future of the Commonwealth arises. The UK was the most powerful country in the world by the end of the 19th Century, largely because of its colonial empire. The royal family’s position of international privilege and influence comes directly from its colonial history, not, as some would argue, from its extensive portfolio of land and properties, which is only the most visible part of its hidden wealth.
At the height of the British Empire, the island nation ruled a quarter of the world’s population. That was then; this is now. The Commonwealth, with its 56 member nations is home to over 2.4 billion people spread across the globe. While 21 of its members are in Africa, 14 of the Commonwealth realms outside the continent count King Charles III as their head of state, even while his recent ascension to the throne is bringing further question of the relevance of this post-colonial club.
It appears, at least at the writing of this, that the Commonwealth will survive. The apology of then-Prince now King Charles III at the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali, Rwanda may have been of lasting influence. Despite the fact that the British government has slashed foreign aid from 0.7% to 0.5%, Gabon and Togo who don’t share any direct historical ties with the United Kingdom have decided to join the Commonwealth as the 55th and 56th members, respectively — without any need or political pressure to do so. Both are former French colonies that have seen the benefits of Commonwealth membership from their neighbors. Togo is bordered by Ghana – a Commonwealth member and Gabon borders Cameroon, also a Commonwealth member.
While there remain several self-rule campaigns in the offing, the initial anti-Commonwealth centrifugal forces appear to have subsided after a robust public conversation about the competing narratives of Empire. It should be noted that the current strength of the Commonwealth is a direct result of the soft power of the late Queen. For seven decades, the Queen represented stability as well as service in the collective memory of many even while the last seven decades, for former colonies and members of the African diaspora throughout the world, have been turbulent. Strongmen and dictators replaced a generation of patriotic de-colonizers — and some of those strongmen have never left power on the African continent. A part of the fond remembrances of older generations over the death of the Queen — to the consternation of the young — is the fact that she symbolized stability, which allowed for economic growth, during a time of frequent coups and violent government overthrows. As leaders came and went, more often at the point of the gun than through democratic elections, Queen Elizabeth remained a constant figurehead.
The Commonwealth of today is a voluntary cooperation of 56 independent member states, most of whom were once British colonies. The Commonwealth consists of countries from three continents, including some as far flung as India, South Africa and Jamaica. In fact, the pioneer televised Christmas broadcast featuring Queen Elizabeth II — in 1957 — transitioned the dying era of the British Empire into that of the era of Commonwealth. “It has always been easy to hate and destroy,” she said in her address back then. “To build and to cherish is much more difficult. That is why we can take pride in the new Commonwealth we are building.” Immediately thereafter, she mentioned the inclusion of Ghana and Malaysia in joining “our brotherhood” with both countries joining the Commonwealth that same year.
The Commonwealth stressed “free and equal” member states status, a result of the growing decolonalization movement of the twentieth century. And — most important – stability was emphasized. “Following her death, this personal commitment to the Commonwealth has been highlighted as a mark of the generosity of the Queen’s spirit: that her investment in these distant remnants of former British rule held the institution together by sheer force of will,” argues Kojo Koram in an article in The New Republic titled, rather unsubtly, “The Time Is Right for Commonwealth Countries to Ditch the British Empire.”
The Caribbean, it should also be noted, is key to the economic future of the Commonwealth. It is impossible to have a conversation about the Commonwealth and the African Diaspora without mention of the Caribbean. Of the 15 Commonwealth countries that recognize the British monarch as head of state, at least half of them are based in the Caribbean. The so-called “Caribbean Commonwealth,” clearly, is looking for a realignment, or a changing of the previous relationship thus emancipating themselves from the British monarchy. Gaston Browne, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, said he plans a referendum within the next 3 years if he is re-elected on whether to become a republic following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Barbados, though staying in the Commonwealth, removed the Queen as their head of state in 2021, President Sandra Mason now holds that title. Jamaica looks to also be headed in that direction. Bahamian Prime Minister, Phillip Davis, signed the condolence book for Queen Elizabeth II, then announced that his country would hold a referendum to remove King Charles III as his mother’s successor. The move would effectively turn the 39-year-old independent country into a republic. The Bahamas, which became a British colony in 1718, will probably not be the last as the Caribbean component of the Commonwealth is already showing signs of restructuring the terms of their participation. This leads to the question — can the Commonwealth, as it is presently constituted, survive the death of Queen Elizabeth II?
In March, before the Queen’s death, there were calls for reparations in the Bahamas, after it was found out that the former colony actually paid for a Platinum Jubilee Celebration trip by Prince William and Princess Kate. The National Reparations Committee said in a statement at the time: “Why are we footing the bill for the benefit of a regime whose rise to ‘greatness’ was fueled by the extinction, enslavement, colonization, and degradation of the people of this land? Why are we being made to pay again?” St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have thus far remained silent on the visit by the royal couple, but it is seen by most observers as a major political misstep and an unforced error. “The two misjudged and controversial royal tours of the Caribbean this spring revealed an upsurge in republican sentiment across the region. Indeed, in the aftermath of these tours, governments in Belize, Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, and the Bahamas all signaled their hopes to pursue republic status in the future,” writes Grace Carrington on the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Blog.
This past October, Rishi Sunak made history by being voted as the first non-white British Prime Minister. His parents were born and raised in East Africa after his grandparents had migrated from India in search of better opportunities. Prime Minister Sunak, in another historical moment, appointed James Cleverly, whose mother is from Sierra Leone as the first British Foreign Minister of African descent. After the death of his mother, King Charles III hosted South African President, Cyril Rhamaphosa, as the first state visit of his reign. At the Buckingham palace banquet, King Charles opened his speech with the word ”welcome” spoken in seven different South African languages and addressed the UK’s colonial past saying, “while there are elements of that history which provoke profound sorrow, it is essential that we seek to understand them.” “We must acknowledge the wrongs which have shaped our past if we are to unlock the power of our common future.” Foreign Minister Cleverly stated on his vision for Africa’s changing role in UK foreign policy saying, “what it means is having a degree of thoughtfulness and sophistication to our engagement, where we’re engaging on issues of the future. Some of those are things that we talked about already – climate change, energy transition, that kind of stuff, but also things like health collaboration.” “For example, one of the things we are discussing with the delegation from South Africa is pandemic preparedness. And that’s the kind of thing that is going to be increasingly important with countries in Africa.”
The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic was a watershed moment exposing and amplifying social vulnerabilities and health inequalities which were compounded by developed countries failing to ensure that big pharma distributed vaccines equally between countries to ensure the same level of recovery. Nearly 9 million cases and more than 220,000 deaths were recorded in Sub Saharan Africa during the year. South Africa remained the epicenter of the pandemic, in terms of reported cases and deaths.
The Commonwealth will survive, probably even expand. Never underestimate the value of stability and the economic growth it enables in an uncertain world. Some African countries and members of the diaspora will adjust the conditions of their membership with the death of the Queen, one of whose last acts was to celebrate the contributions of the diaspora Commonwealth at Buckingham Palace. Such restructurings are politically quite natural. And history will ultimately stand in judgment as to whether these restructurings of each individual Commonwealth relationship were more or less economically favorable for each member.
It seems, as the old chestnut saying goes, the empire that the sun never sets is holding true but will have to alter its engagement with all peoples of African descent.
Ron Mwangaguhunga is a Brooklyn based writer on media, culture and politics. His work has appeared within Huffington Post, IFC and Tribeca Film Festival, Kenneth Cole AWEARNESS, NY Magazine, Paper Magazine, CBS News.com and National Review online to name a few. He is currently the editor of the Corsair