Baroness Patricia Scotland: The Sixth Secretary General of the Commonwealth

By Dr Eva Namusoke, Postdoctoral Research Officer, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

After months of campaigning in the quiet corners of diplomatic offices, online on social media and in speeches from Gaborone to Valletta, the Commonwealth heads of government voted on the 27th November, and Baroness Patricia Scotland will be the next Commonwealth Secretary General. Baroness Scotland, born in Dominica and raised in the UK, will be the first woman to take on the position in a historic moment that has dominated press on her election. The election – held in a closed session – was particularly close, ran over an hour late, and required three rounds of voting before the unanimous decision in favour of Baroness Scotland was made.

L-R: Outgoing Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma, Baroness Patricia Scotland, Prime Minister of Malta Joseph Muscat. Copyright – Shane P. Watts Photography

In the days before the 2015 CHOGM began in Malta, four summits showcased the work of increasingly vocal groups within the Commonwealth. While the Commonwealth Business Forum focused on promoting trade between member states and beyond, it was the Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF), the Commonwealth Youth Forum (CYF), and the Commonwealth Women’s Forum (CWF) where boundaries were pushed and the potential for the 65 year old organisation was clearest. At the CPF one key theme was the promotion of LGBTI rights with the forum hosting the first LGBTI session at a Commonwealth summit. This is a particularly pressing issue for a Commonwealth where 40 of the 54 member states criminalise same-sex sexual behaviour; these 40 states make up more than half of the total number of countries globally where same-sex sexual behaviour is illegal.[1] While the Commonwealth Heads of Government Leaders’ Statement on the conclusion of the CHOGM mentioned the leaders’ commitments to addressing issues including terrorism, sustainable development, migration and climate change, the advancement of rights for LGBTI individuals was conspicuously – though perhaps unsurprisingly – absent. Soon after her election, Baroness Scotland stated that this would be one of her priorities in her first two years in leadership.

Ahead of the Secretary General election, the CPF was granted a dialogue with the 3 candidates, allowing leaders in civil society to engage with candidates for the first time in Commonwealth history. In a development that surely signalled an understanding of the calls for greater transparency in the election, the event was live-streamed. The three candidates presented their visions for the Commonwealth and were asked questions by individuals representing a range of civil society organisations across the member states. Masire-Mwamba, Sir Ronald and Baroness Scotland fielded questions on the pressing issues of the day, specifically climate change, gender equality, LGBTI rights and the rights of indigenous peoples. Masire-Mwamba emphasised the important role that can be played by civil society, Baroness Scotland referred to her work in UK government and Sir Ronald described his efforts in the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group.

The fact that the summit included a Commonwealth Women’s Forum this year is another new development. The CWF provided an opportunity for female leaders in the Commonwealth to express their frustrations and hopes for the organisation with the keynote given by UN Women Deputy Executive Director, Lakshmi Puri, and supported by Head of Gender at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Amelia Kinahoi-Siamomua. In a document presented to the CHOGM, the CWF called for legally enforced quotas and reserved seats for women, part of a bid to increase representation, with one key declaration: “no decision should be made at any political level without women in the room.” This was a particularly pointed comment addressed at an overwhelmingly male CHOGM where only 3 of the 53 individuals eligible to vote for the next Secretary General were women. With the election of Baroness Scotland, it appears that there will – at the very highest level – be at least one woman in the room.

So what next for the incoming leader of an organisation that has been struggling to maintain its relevance in a world increasingly made up of powerful regional and international organisations? The first task for Baroness Scotland, as with previous secretary generals, will be to take stock, learn from her predecessor and possibly hire new personnel. One of Sir Sonny’s (Secretary General 1975-1990) earliest decisions was following on from his predecessor Arnold Smith’s work and sending a team – including future Secretary General Chief Emeka – to Mozambique to discuss Commonwealth assistance to the country’s move towards independence. For Chief Emeka Anyaoku (1990-2000), his term was preceded by a 6 month retreat, and one of his earliest tasks was encouraging African states to honour the 1991 Harare Declaration. In contrast, his successor Sir Don McKinnon (2000-2008) had an uncomfortable start to his term with Chief Emeka deciding to vacate his office months after the termination of his contract. Chief Emeka and Sir Don did, however, spend the week before Sir Don took office meeting every day to discuss the role of Secretary General. Eighteen months into his term, in the aftermath of September 11th, Sir Don was forced to cancel the upcoming CHOGM and react to the pressures of the international ‘War on Terror’. The impression from these three former secretary generals is that each leader approached the position with ideas about the future of the organisation, that each had to first build or build on personal relationships with Commonwealth leaders, and that their work was driven by the particular historical moment in which they lived.

One important issue for Baroness Scotland will be balancing her Dominican and British identity. As The Independent noted, Baroness Scotland is the first UK citizen to hold the post of Secretary General. While Baroness Scotland stressed her Dominican, Antiguan and African heritage and called herself ‘a child of the Commonwealth,’ her life spent in the UK, and work in the British government spanning almost 20 years will likely affect how she approaches her role as leader of the Commonwealth. The Minister of Foreign Affairs for Antigua and Barbuda, Charles Fernandez, discussed the voting process at the 2015 CHOGM with Antigua’s Observer media. Sir Ronald apparently had the lowest number of votes after the first round, leaving Baroness Scotland and Masire-Mwamba in the running. According to Fernandez, Antigua backed the Caribbean candidate in the second round: ‘We went up against Africa on one hand, and the other (voting) bloc of the Europeans. As you know, Baroness Scotland is a member of the English Parliament. They openly lobbied very heavily for her.’ Furthermore, according to Fernandez, Baroness Scotland had the support of the Pacific nations and Australia and this, combined with Malta and Cyprus’ support, secured her victory. The most salient point of Fernandez’ statement is the reference to Baroness Scotland’s position in the British Parliament. Prime Minister David Cameron had not publically shown support for her, and Baroness Scotland herself had emphasised her Caribbean roots in her campaign; however the contention of the Antiguan minister is that it was ultimately her European, specifically British, political connections that led to her election.

Baroness Scotland’s election  doesn’t mean a return to the “British Commonwealth” as one particularly incensed Caribbean media source reported, but her ties to Great Britain may come into question if she takes a stand on the issues where there is strong disagreement between member states, none more so than LGBTI rights. Baroness Scotland is clearly aware of these difficulties, and stated in her first press conference: “Human rights and development go hand in hand. We will walk with and work with our partners to help everyone appreciate human dignity.” Whatever her first move as Secretary General, her stance on polemic issues or her legacy as a leader, Baroness Scotland is keen to recognise the important moment of her election; her final words immediately after her election: “I am incredibly proud to be the first woman Secretary General.”

[1] Corinne Lennox and Matthew Waites ,‘Human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity in the Commonwealth: from history and law to developing activism and transnational dialogues’ in Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in The Commonwealth: Struggles for Decriminalisation and Change,  Corinne Lennox and Matthew Waites (eds.), (London, 2013) p. 1-6. http://commonwealth.sas.ac.uk/publications/house-publications/lgbt-rights-commonwealth

Copyright – Shane P. Watts Photography

Copyright – Shane P. Watts Photography

What Brexit means for the Commonwealth

By Sue Onslow, Senior Research Fellow, ICwS

Facundo Arrizabalga/EPA

Facundo Arrizabalga/EPA

By voting to leave the European Union, Britain’s future relationship with its fellow Commonwealth members has assumed both a greater significance and a greater degree of uncertainty.

Before the poll, the uniform message from the other leaders of the 53-member association had been a desire for Britain to remain a member of the EU. To the Commonwealth, Britain was a powerful and privileged member within the EU trading bloc, with considerable opportunities for diplomatic leverage in broader Commonwealth interests.

But unlike their political leaders, Commonwealth citizens in Britain who were entitled to vote in the referendum (the approximate number varied between 890,000 and 960,000) were by no means a monolithic bloc supporting the Remain camp.

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The Commonwealth and Brexit

 By Dr Eva Namusoke, Postdoctoral Research Officer, ICWS, Commonwealth Oral History Project

The campaign ahead of the EU referendum on Thursday 23rd June has been bitterly fought by both the Remain and Leave camps, with rhetoric and statistics bombarded at voters on a daily basis from politicians, business leaders and celebrities. Amidst the ongoing discussion concerning the future of the UK’s place in or outside of the European Union, the role of the Commonwealth, and of eligible Commonwealth voters in the UK has provided an interesting dimension.

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Nigerian corruption and crime – a fantastically corrupt culture or the result of a particular history?

By Professor Keith Somerville, Senior Research Fellow, ICWS

Fantastically-corrupt-comment-by-David-Cameron

‘Fantastically corrupt’. Prime Minister Cameron discussing Nigeria with HM The Queen, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Speaker of the House of Commons

 

Just before May’s anti-corruption summit in London, British prime Minister David Cameron, made his now infamous public gaffe when he boasted to the Queen in a rather a silly, schoolboyish way that, “We’ve got some leaders of some fantastically corrupt countries coming to Britain… Nigeria and Afghanistan, possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world”.   The rudeness and stupidity of the remarks, made in front of TV cameras, apart it was also inaccurate.  Nigeria justifiably has a reputation for corruption and criminal networks, but it is by no means one of the two most corrupt countries in the world, Somalia and North Korea hold that distinction, according to Transparency International.  Nigeria also ranks as less corrupt as key British and American ally in the war against Islamists in East Africa, Kenya – Kenya is ranked 139 out of 167 countries and Nigeria 136.

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Africa’s rising middle class: time to sort out fact from fiction

  By Professor Henning Melber, Senior Research Fellow, ICWS

Image credit: Botschaft-Madagaskar

Since the turn of the century the middle classes of the global South have taken centre stage in economic policy circles. Animated by diversification of some countries’ economies, a handful of economists from international agencies and think-tanks began a discourse that then entered African and development studies.

This in turn led to calls for policies to be redirected. Countries were urged to strengthen their middle classes. The leading proponents were the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) followed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The OECD’s view is evident in its Global Development Perspectives 2012 report and the UNDP’s in its 2013 Human Development Report.

The main economists behind this push included World Bank chief economist Martin Ravallion, his former colleague, William Easterly, Nancy Birdsall from the Centre for Global Development in Washington, and Homi Kharas from the OECD Development Centre.

They define middle class as a group of people with a minimum of anything from US$2 to $10 monetary income/expenditure a day.

But such a reduced approach misses much of what is required for a proper analysis of a class – its character, and its positioning in and impact on society. Rather, the discovery of the middle class was linked to its anticipated role in promoting social change to which those in the “business of development” could pin their hopes.

This, however, shifts the debate away from the critical assessment of obstacles to development. It thereby gets in the way of a proper diagnosis of the real challenges to promoting more social equality and justice in some of the most unequal societies in our world.

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Soweto uprising – 40 years on: the role of Wits students

  By Martin Plaut, Senior Research Fellow, ICWS

Remember Soweto poster

It is hard to believe, but it is 40 years since the pupils of Soweto confronted the apartheid state. It was the beginning of the end of white rule in South Africa. But the children – many of them very young – paid a terrible price.

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Commonwealth, Sustainable Development Goals and T20 Cricket: some ‘Ivory Tower’ reflections

by Dr Balasubramanyam Chandramohan PhD, FRSA, FHEA, ICWS Senior Research Fellow

Bank Holidays are a good time to let some thoughts break through normal routines of academic life.

As I sit facing across the window, with a magnolia tree in full bloom and not many yards from the famous tree that that was a part of Kent County Cricket Club grounds till high winds destroyed it a few years ago, I thought of recollecting and reflecting on an extraordinary few weeks in April.

Just recovering from co-organising a workshop on UN Sustainable Development Goals and Higher Education at  the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London with a fellow Senior Research Fellow, I search for answers for what one of the contributors, a seasoned Programme Officer of a range of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) – in South Africa and Afghanistan and UK — asked: Can the expertise/knowledge held by ‘Ivory Towers’ (exact quote) be made available to CSOs?

Living in an ‘Ivory Tower’, I find the above disconnect (or perceptions of it) a bit surprising. Have universities always been seen as being remote from day-to-day realities/issues? What has happened to all the ‘Third Stream Activities’ and ‘Knowledge Transfer’ (and PR) activities that university staff engage in? Can Universities, speaking of ‘vertical’ activities, redefine their roles and support goals of universality in SDGs by forming and actively participating in specific/individual SDGs involving both the Global South and the Global North? Can universities, additionally, as sites of disciplinary/multi-disciplinary/inter-disciplinary knowledge taxonomies, look out of their ‘Ivory Towers’ and conceptually and practically help to work across what could, if due attention is not paid, become 17 SDG ‘silos’ of activity?

Thinking back to the 6th of April, there was a high profile event on Sport and Sustainable Development organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat. The format was that of a debate with three speakers each arguing for and against the proposition: To maximise the contribution that sport can make to sustainable development, governments should focus investment on ‘sport for health’.

 As I was unable to attend the event, I sent in my contribution to the debate in the form of points supporting the ‘against’ argument. As with any oppositional debate, my points were one-sided:

  • ‘Sport for health’: Sport can contribute in a range of ways to achieve sustainable development, such as contributing to social cohesion cutting across a range of political, linguistic and cultural divides, and so the intangible benefits are equal if not more in importance to benefits such as health with regard to sustainable development
  • Investing in ‘Sport for Health’ should be left to sports bodies which have a greater reach, appeal and financial resources than individual governments (for example, football and cricketing bodies have enormous resources that are more than what many governments can afford). Governments can, however, ensure that the investments are directed equitably and free from corruption and mismanagement
  • To be successful, ‘Sport for Health’ investment should be accompanied by attitudinal change rather than just creation of stadia or sports facilities. These changes would come, mostly, from a range of opinion builders and icons in public life that can pass on/embody messages of health benefits from sports. So, governments should invest in communication strategies rather than sports per se for one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many communications regarding sports and their links with the health of individuals, families and communities

However, my main contribution was to suggest that Sports in the Commonwealth as a whole will get a boost if cricket (T20 format) is included in Commonwealth Games 2018, and Olympics 2020 (and later ones too). 

England v Sri Lanka, Twenty20 International, Southampton, UK Thursday 15 June 2006  Image via Flickr user Badger Swan

England v Sri Lanka, Twenty20 International, Southampton, UK, Thursday 15 June 2006. Image via Flickr user Badger Swan

I thought I must make a more detailed case for T20. Here is my argument in five points:

  • Cricket is the most popular sport of the Commonwealth going by the number of fans/supporters. For numbers, just add the populations of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Kenya, Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland, and the West Indies
  • Cricket embodies Commonwealth and its key democratic principles of adherence to rules, fair play etc. , its diversity of membership, which has ‘equal say regardless of size or economic stature’, its gender equality, as there are teams for both men and women, and others
  • T20, the latest format in which cricket is played, is ideal for getting quick results, in a matter of hours. Several newspapers, TV Channels and media outlets devote space to T20 league matches, bi- and trilateral tournaments, and reciprocal tours by teams
  • Many teams from the Commonwealth and beyond (Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Oman, UAE, Holland, Ireland, Hong Kong) participate in national/regional tournaments, bilateral or trilateral series, and/or the T20 World Cup
  • Cricketing bodies such as the Indian Premier League are rich and could potentially help in popularising the game in all countries through helping to construct cricket grounds and develop training facilities

These investments, in addition to promoting cricket, can have spin-off benefits such as helping in the overall development of sporting facilities, enriching the culture of participation in sports, and promoting SDGs such as Health and Education.

I would like to (continue to) argue that Commonwealth institutions need to work towards getting T20 cricket included in Commonwealth Games and the Olympics, as part of their strategy for Sport for Sustainable Development.

I am sure there will be some agreements and disagreements regarding what I said. That is what blogs are for!

Observing Uganda’s 2016 Presidential Election

 By Dr Eva Namusoke, Postdoctoral Research Officer, ICWS

 The 18th February saw long-anticipated elections in Uganda, where the incumbent President Yoweri Museveni of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) faced his stiffest opposition in his 30 years in office. With a reported 60.8% of the votes, Museveni was declared winner and will continue as president until 2021. The election drew extensive coverage in Uganda and abroad with the campaign process being marked by frequent arrests of the opposition leader, sometimes clashes between the Ugandan police and opposition supporters, constraints on the media, and the recruitment of controversial Crime Preventers. In this election in Uganda, as on previous occasions, international election observers were invited into the country to witness and asses the democratic process. Election observers included teams from the EU, the East African Community, the AU and the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth in particular has one of the oldest traditions of election monitoring, having observed more than 130 elections in 36 countries since 1980. While the various observer groups present written reports about the process, the interviews in the Commonwealth Oral History Project (COHP) offer a look behind the scenes, moving beyond the measured words of the official reports and photo ops.

Olusegun Obasanjo, Chair, leads members of the Commonwealth Observer Group Commonwealth Observer Group - 2016 Uganda Elections

Olusegun Obasanjo, Chair, leads members of the Commonwealth Observer Group
Commonwealth Observer Group – 2016 Uganda Elections

 

Election monitoring in the Commonwealth began in 1980 under the leadership of General Secretary Sir Shridath “Sonny” Ramphal. In 1980, the Commonwealth sent a group to monitor the first elections in independent Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), the culmination of long-term involvement in the transition to majority rule. Neville Linton worked at the Commonwealth Secretariat from 1983-1995 and was involved in observing numerous elections. Along with his discussion of elections in Namibia, Kenya and Bangladesh, he also explained the beginning of the activities in 1980:

‘You see, these were crisis situations: Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, and the phase after Idi Amin. But they had been one-offs. What happened in the meeting in Malaysia was that it was accepted that this would now be part of the routine practices of the Commonwealth.’

The process of Commonwealth election monitoring was formalised following the 1989 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malaysia and as Linton recalled, Malaysia volunteered to be the first country to allow Commonwealth observers at its 1990 general election. As noted above, Uganda’s post-Amin 1980 election was one of the earliest observer missions for the Commonwealth. Hugh Craft, an Australian diplomat and member of the 1980 Commonwealth Observer Group (COG) described the turbulence of this particular election:

‘Violent? Yes, in the extreme. I vividly remember guerrilla leader Museveni surrounded by his AK47-bearing bodyguards, straight out of the jungle, coming into the Speke [Hotel] to see the COG.’

Raja Gomez, a Sri Lankan civil servant, was part of the same group as Craft and similarly remembers the events:

‘That was one in which we had soldiers firing in to our hotel. And we have a tape of the shots being fired and various people talking and saying silly things to each other – shall we get under tables and that type of thing you say to each other in situations that you would have never met before.’

Martin Aliker, a Ugandan diplomat, ran in the 1980 elections and discussed the results, arguing that while the voting was free and fair, the election was stolen by the electoral commissioner deliberately reporting the wrong winners.

Amitav Banerji, who joined the Commonwealth in 1990 was also actively involved in election monitoring and commented on what made the Commonwealth process unique:

‘Election observation by the Commonwealth was very different from other observer groups because they were led at much higher level, usually a former head of state or a former head of government.’

The inclusion of a former head of state remains an important part of the Commonwealth process and there appears to be an effort to ensure the individual is from the same continent. Most recently, the October 2015 Commonwealth Observer Group to Tanzania was led by former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, while the group in Uganda was led by another former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo. The 13-member group representing a range of professional and national backgrounds arrived in Uganda on the 11th February, a week ahead of the election, and spent their time meeting with various civil society groups. Reflecting on his experience in Namibia in 1994, Linton made an important point:

‘What we would do would be to go in before the election, in the run-up to the election because in any case that is when elections are fixed.’

His words were echoed with examples by another veteran of the Commonwealth monitoring process: Sandra Pepera who stated in reference to the 1992 Ghana elections:

‘Well, I think we understood intimately – straight off – that it was just too late to come in two weeks before polling and, clearly, certainly, in Ghana’s case… Yeah, two weeks before the election… This thing was a done deal long before COG arrived.’

As mentioned above, the campaign process for Uganda’s 2016 election has been a somewhat turbulent time for the opposition, suggesting the necessity to view the events of the 18th February within a longer timeline.

In Uganda’s 2016 election, unlike in previous years, the proliferation of social media added another level to monitoring. Despite the government’s surprise decision early on the 18th to block social media including Facebook, Twitter, and (in a move that unduly affected businesses) mobile money, the hashtag #UgandaDecides trended on Twitter. Through the creative use of VPNs to bypass the blockage, Ugandan news sources, opposition leaders and individuals alike shared stories of missing ballot papers, late openings and tense, hours long queues at polling stations. As a result the frustrations of Election Day in Uganda were instantly transmitted around the world, allowing the international community to follow events live.

The Commonwealth Observer Group’s preliminary report on Uganda’s 2016 election, published on the 20th February, echoes other international monitoring groups in its criticism of the process. With a long list of issues noted including a lack of transparency in campaign financing, restrictions placed on the media and incompetency in the work of the Electoral Commission, Obasanjo concluded that, as in previous Ugandan elections, ‘once again these elections fell short of meeting key democratic benchmarks’. Interestingly, African observer groups were notably less critical of the process.

Chief Emeka Anyaoku, who became Commonwealth General Secretary in 1990 right at the beginning of the huge scaling up of Commonwealth election monitoring described its significance:

‘Commonwealth observance of elections legitimises the election and makes it easier for the parties who have lost to accept the result if the election is judged to be free and fair by Commonwealth observers. And this works both for the governing and the opposition parties.’

In the case of Uganda’s most recent election, it appears the process was somewhat lacking in both freedom and fairness. In the wake of the announcement that Museveni had won, his closest opponent, Dr Kizza Besigye, who had received 35.37% of votes, disputed the result and was considering challenging the results in court. At the time of writing and despite protests from the likes of the US government, Besigye had been taken into police custody following three days of house arrest, and the office of his Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party had been stormed by police. Police have also been deployed around major intersections in Kampala and Obasanjo has meanwhile urged security forces and political party supporters to ‘exercise restraint and avoid unnecessary confrontations’.

With Commonwealth observers present at presidential elections from 1980 and regularly alongside a slew of other observer groups in the years since, Uganda has perhaps one of the longest histories of international monitoring of its electoral process. However, it appears that while the levels of violence have reduced markedly since that first monitored 1980 election, there remains some way to go before the country can claim truly democratic elections.

cop

Commonwealth observers at polling stations, as Ugandan people cast their votes. Commonwealth Observer Group – 2016 Uganda Elections

 

Thatcher’s top secret plan to destabilise the Ethiopian government

by Martin Plaut, Senior Research Fellow, ICWS

Newly-released documents show that in 1985, the PM wrote to the Foreign Office seeking action on the Marxist and pro-Soviet regime in Ethiopia. Towards the end of 1985, at the height of the worst famine in modern Ethiopian history, Margaret Thatcher contemplated helping to topple the Ethiopian government. The documents – marked Top Secret and Personal – have now been placed in the National Archive.

Margaret_Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

The British prime minister had long made no bones about how much she disliked the military regime led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. The British government was among the most generous donors to the Ethiopian famine appeal, but the regime itself – Marxist and pro-Soviet – was exactly the kind of authority Thatcher loathed.

By late 1985 the prime minister’s patience was wearing thin. Charles Powell, her private secretary, wrote to the Foreign Office asking what steps might be taken. The FCO, taking is normal, cautious approach wrote back on 27 November saying that: “Barring an assassin’s bullet, Mengistu looks secure, and the opposition movements inside and outside Ethiopia remain deeply divided. The choice is between seeking to influence the present regime, and a policy of containment.”

This did not satisfy Thatcher at all.

“The Prime Minister continues to believe that it is not enough just to jog along in our relations with the distasteful regime in Ethiopia,” came the reply from her private office, just two days later. “If the conclusion is that our present relations offer no serious scope for exercising beneficial and positive influence, she would like serious thought given to ways in which we could make life harder for the Ethiopian regime. These might, as examples, include:”

The letter then lists four options – the first two of which were explosive.

“i) support for the rebels in Eritrea and Tigray;

ii) a more active effort in conjunction with the Americans to identify and perhaps encourage opponents of Mengistu within Ethiopia”

The other two options were more conventional: asking other western powers to criticise the Ethiopian government and taking a “more robust line” when examples emerge of the abuse of aid.

The Foreign Office – and Geoffrey Howe as foreign secretary – must have found these suggestions very hard to digest. Certainly it took some more than a month for a suitable response to be drafted. “The Foreign Secretary agrees that jogging along with the Ethiopian regime would not be right,” came the reply on 10 January 1986.

But, noting that some progress was being made, the Foreign Office urged caution. Backing the rebels would – Sir Geoffrey believed – not work, driving Mengistu further into the arms of the Soviets and (a killer argument with Mrs T) it was also noted that the Eritrean and Tigrayan rebel leaders were “…as extreme in their broadly Marxist political attitudes as the Derg [the Ethiopian government].”

The letter concludes: “We do not believe that support for the rebels would work to our advantage.”

What is interesting to note is that the British government was – if this correspondence is to be believed – unaware that aid that international charities were providing through the Sudan based rebel movements was already being diverted to purchase weapons. A programme I produced for the BBC in 2010  detailed this evidence.

Bob Geldof objected – saying that none of Band Aid’s money had gone astray (a suggestion the programme never made). The BBC Trust apologised to Geldof for the apparent mistake.

I was subsequently contacted by the head of a major British aid agency who substantiated the claims that aid had gone astray, without commenting on which agency’s resources had been used to buy arms and ammunition.

Originally published by the New Statesman 

Rhodesian UDI: 50 years on

by Dr Sue Onslow, Senior Lecturer in Commonwealth Studies

There is a remarkable public amnesia in the UK that 50 years ago on 11th November, Southern Rhodesia defiantly declared its independence from Britain. In a highly theatrical performance, and under the gaze of a large photograph of the Queen, Ian Smith, the prime minister, and his cabinet signed Rhodesia’s declaration of independence, consciously modeled on the American declaration of independence of 1776. Whilst announcing Southern Rhodesia’s break with the Labour Government, Smith stressed his country’s enduring loyalty to the Crown – yet another example of contradictory thinking in the Rhodesian settler community. The break with Britain had been a long time brewing, and the British public was aware of this – notwithstanding Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s press statement that it was ‘a shock’.

Ian Smith, Rhodesian Prime Minister, in 1975

Ian Smith, Rhodesian Prime Minister, in 1975

Smith and his Cabinet colleagues had planned this rupture carefully, removing dissident elements within the Rhodesian Army and civil service; privately sounding out senior officers in the RAF via their High Commissioner in London, to calculate whether Britain would use force against the rebellious Rhodesia Front government; ensuring this announcement was after sales of the Rhodesian tobacco crop, the country’s primary export earnings; seeking Portugal’s solidarity and support, to ensure trade sanctions would fail; identifying South African finance and credit; smuggling Rhodesian gold out of the country in airline food trays, via Johannesburg, to Switzerland (using South African contacts with key members of the Swiss banking system). The British government only belatedly realized what was going on and certainly their intelligence on South African attitudes and activities was remarkably poor. And the Rhodesian choice of 11th November itself was highly deliberate – Remembrance Day, underlining the Rhodesian white community’s contribution to the British war effort in WWII – and because it was a Friday. Smith confidently believed that this declaration of independence would be a 9-day wonder: that the City of London would rapidly adjust, and the reverberations of Salisbury’s actions would start to settle over the weekend.

Instead of this 9-day wonder, Rhodesia’s illegal declaration of independence developed into a crisis of international dimensions, fracturing Britain’s relations with the modern Commonwealth. Rhodesian UDI starkly demonstrated the limitations of British power – London had used American power to achieve British diplomatic goals of decolonization, and was to try to do so again in the Rhodesia case, particularly in 1977-1978. Interestingly, it was a British led show in 1979 that led to eventual settlement. This 14-year period highlighted the problems of using economic sanctions as effective political leverage; it also witnessed the radicalization and violence of rival African nationalist movements in their shift to armed struggle, from external bases; how winning the propaganda war in the international media acts as a force multiplier for a political movement; and the importance of civil society activity – the Anti Apartheid Movement regarded Rhodesia’s transition to black majority rule as the earlier victory before South Africa in 1994.

Attempts at settlement of this crisis in a small, landlocked country in Southern Africa drew in a multiplicity of international actors, from the region, from unlikely ideological sympathizers and financiers, and from both sides of the Cold War divide – interestingly, unlike many of his political opponents, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did not underestimate Ian Smith, whom he described as acting with ‘dignity and courage’. (In contrast, Lord Carrington was highly critical, describing Smith as a bigoted and stupid man, ‘who could see every tree in the wood, but not the wood.’ As a number of these interviews underline, the Commonwealth became a significant actor in this story of Rhodesia’s decolonization into Zimbabwe, and the country’s achievement of internationally recognized majority rule in April 1980.

Is this 50th anniversary important today? Certainly, for contemporary Zimbabwe, which had again caused considerable headaches for the Commonwealth before President Mugabe’s abrupt departure in 2003. Particular paths taken, in contrast to others deliberately not selected, are always significant in a country’s history, and its current politics, given the particular legacies of its political economy, and this inheritance of the new elites. Access to land is probably the most toxic of all colonial legacies. Smith had been pressed to liberalise land ownership and access before 1965 – in the hope that a compromise could be reached, and a modified form of white-led independence achieved. The RF resolutely refused to do this. The land settlement of the Lancaster House agreement at the end of the UDI era was problematic in that it was a highly conscious political arrangement, which stored up problems for the future. Furthermore, history of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe has been progressively politicized since the election of ZANU-PF in 1980, particularly so since 2000 and the emergence of ‘patriotic history’ as a key way to legitimize ZANU-PF and to present political opponents as counter-revolutionary and de-legitimate.

The Commonwealth is also guilty of amnesia on Rhodesia/Zimbabwe: its repeated public emphasis on the success of its role at the Lusaka heads meeting in 1979 contrasts dramatically with the Commonwealth’s silence – and this includes the Commonwealth Secretariat’s silence – about the violence and killings in Matabeleland between 1982-1985 post-independence. There is public acknowledgement of the sad irony of the Harare Declaration of 1991 as the second key foundational document for the modern Commonwealth, set against growing political authoritarianism and turmoil in the country by the late 90s/early 2000. Like Smith in 1965, Mugabe’s abrupt withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 2003 was in defiance of Commonwealth opinion and confirmed the country’s increasingly pariah status. Given the significance of the 11th November, one is tempted to reflect, ‘plus ca change…’ in terms of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe public gesture political behaviour. Yet, President Mugabe and ZANU-PF as a dominant one-party state might reflect on the eventual fate of Ian Smith and the Rhodesia Front rule. A country cannot stand indefinitely against the forces of the international political economy, regional and international opinion. Cue the Commonwealth as a mediating conduit again, to help ZANU-PF find its way out of its current political/economic cul-de-sac?