Ronald Sanders | Dust off Commonwealth SG elections
Much has been written in the Caribbean media about the contest surrounding the post of Commonwealth secretary-general (SG) that was decided on Friday, June 24 at an election in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
Many statements and claims were made that require clarification, particularly as some of them convey misleading impressions.
One of these claims is that relations between CARICOM countries that supported one or other of the two rival female candidates are now irreparably harmed. No credence should be given to that assertion. This is not the first time that the Caribbean has had rival candidates for international posts. Indeed, in 2015, the region had rival candidates for both the posts of Commonwealth secretary-general and deputy secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS). In the latter case, it was Belize and Guyana.
Once the elections were concluded and a candidate was chosen by all the members of the two organisations (not just the Caribbean states), CARICOM governments continued in their inter-governmental relations, focussing on the issues of government for which they were elected. Exactly the same thing will happen again.
The other fallacy associated with the Kigali election is that CARICOM had to agree on a single candidate. In reality, every Commonwealth country has the right to field a candidate. Jamaica was under no obligation to support the British baroness, who is a member of the British Parliament (on leave). Like every other Commonwealth country, Jamaica had the intrinsic right to field or support the candidate of its choice.
CARICOM countries may have an obligation under the CARICOM Treaty to coordinate their foreign policy positions, but none to harmonise them. Jamaica had no duty to support a candidate proposed by any other country, if, in its own deliberate judgement, it felt there was good reason to support another.
There is ample precedent for this, set in 2015, when, although the majority of CARICOM countries had settled on the candidate of Antigua and Barbuda (me) for the post of Commonwealth secretary-general, the Dominica government insisted on inserting the candidature of the British baroness and member of the British Parliament because she was born in Dominica.
Jamaica ought not to be pilloried, in this instance, for doing what others have done with impunity in the past – that is to maintain the candidacy of the person it favoured.
Allegations have also been made that the Jamaica Foreign Affairs Minister, Kamina Johnson Smith, was the choice of the British Government, and that Jamaica was encouraged to field her candidature at the behest of the British prime minister, who had made his disapproval of Scotland well known.
It appears to be forgotten that, in 2015, the British baroness, Patricia Scotland, was not only chosen by the British Government but her candidature was openly promoted and advanced by every British agency throughout the Commonwealth.
In any event, at the contest in Kigali, at which Scotland received 27 votes to Johnson’s 24, a deep schism was revealed in the Commonwealth. Scotland clearly does not command the support of almost half of the Commonwealth members, notably the main financial contributors to the organisation – Australia, Britain, and Canada – all of which have reduced their financial contributions over their concern with Scotland’s stewardship. Scotland has been elected to serve out the two remaining years of a four-year term into which she drifted, because the COVID-19 pandemic prevented a heads of government meeting.
The Kigali contest was not won by Scotland. It was won by Africa which put all its votes behind her for a simple reason – Africa plans to field a candidate for the job in 2024. Had Kamina Johnson Smith been elected, it would have been for a four-year term, ending in 2026, with the possibility of another term to 2030. Africa was not about to wait.
In part, this was why Kenya was persuaded to withdraw the candidature of Energy and Petroleum Minister Dr Monica Juma, which its President Uhuru Kenyatta announced in August 2021. It was brought to Kenya’s attention that Dr Juma might end up only with finishing the 2020 to 2024 term that COVID-19 allowed Scotland to start. It was better for Africa to leave the British baroness in place as a lame duck secretary-general until 2024, when Dr Juma could look forward to at least a four-year term, with the possibility of a further four years, giving her the post until 2032.
The election of an African candidate in 2024 is now almost a foregone conclusion, especially as, at Kigali, two more African states – Gabon and Togo – were admitted to membership, creating a bloc of 21 states.
Even if Africa does not agree on a single candidate, what is certain is that the candidates for the post will all come from Africa.
Based on the “turn” notion, which seems to have become wrongly embedded in the minds of some governments, rather than choosing the best person for the job based on their qualifications and commitment, the Caribbean will not be considered for the job of secretary-general until other regions have had a turn.
With Europe, Asia, and the Pacific ahead of the Americas (Canada/Caribbean), it could be 2056 until anyone from the Caribbean might be considered. But, even then, it could be Canada which hasn’t held the post since 1965.
Caribbean countries must dust off the election of the Commonwealth secretary-general and concentrate on working, through the councils of the Commonwealth, on making the organisation relevant to their own people, and meaningful to the peoples of the world.
The big issues remain: poverty and unemployment, climate change, inequality, access to financing and development. The Commonwealth confronted these problems in the past; it must be fashioned to do so again.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a senior fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own. For responses and previous commentaries, log on to www.sirronaldsanders.com