Goodbye to all that

Gambia's exit from the Commonwealth raises questions about the organisation's relevance

Given its reputation as a harmless vestige of the once-sprawling British empire, it was somewhat startling when Gambia's president, Yahya Jammeh, decried the Commonwealth as a "neocolonial institution" and announced his nation's exit from the 54-member club. It has been suggested that Britain's strained relationship with Jammeh — he has accused it of aiding his political opponents — and its criticism of his human rights record might have contributed to the decision. Yet, Gambia's withdrawal, the first since Robert Mugabe pulled Zimbabwe out a decade ago, also raises questions over the Commonwealth's relevance.

For the general public in many of the Commonwealth's member countries, the most consequential aspect of membership is the athletic games held every four years. At a time when international organisations appear to be proliferating, from the BRICS to the G-20, the Commonwealth is caught in an existential crisis over its role. Its operations are constrained by its small budget and staff. It cannot substantially support development programmes, and most member countries rely on it only for minimal technical assistance.

The Commonwealth's primary value lies in its utility in projecting soft power. Some countries believe being part of a large bloc of nations improves their negotiating ability, which might explain why non-colonies like Rwanda and Mozambique have joined the group. The Commonwealth has also fashioned itself as a promoter of democracy and human rights in member states, suspending members to punish violations to its charter, such as between 1999 and 2004, when Pakistan was suspended after Pervez Musharraf's coup. But increasingly, such sanctions have little effect, indication of how weak the institution has become.

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