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Editorial | Choosing the Commonwealth secretary general

Published:Wednesday | September 8, 2021 | 7:41 AM
Baroness Patricia Scotland
Baroness Patricia Scotland

There is no indication that the future of the Commonwealth, including who should lead the organisation in the midst of a changing global environment, was discussed at this week’s summit of Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and African leaders. Yet, the matter has a new urgency, given Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s nomination of Monica Juma, his defence minister, to be the next Commonwealth secretary general.

That move is, in effect, a challenge to the incumbent, Baroness Patricia Scotland, the Dominica-born former British Cabinet minister, who was elected in 2015 with strong Caribbean support, but whose leadership has been questioned by some of the group’s members, especially the old Dominions.

Should Baroness Scotland decide to face the challenge and offer herself for re-election, CARICOM will have to decide whether to stand by her, and if not, whether the Caribbean should exercise its option to put up its own candidate. Which it perhaps should.

The point is, even if the Caribbean countries believe that Baroness Scotland, who is of Antiguan and Dominican parentage, is too damaged to be an effective secretary general, there must also be certainty that a new leader will come to the job with no agendas beyond what is for the good of the Commonwealth as a whole, unbeholden to narrow interests.

We start on the premise that the Commonwealth is not only relevant, but that it has the potential to play a significant role in shaping the global order in a time of change. Or, it can be a significant and effective intellectual voice in that debate. This is an organisation of 54 members, mainly of developing countries in Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific and Asia, including Singapore, India and Pakistan. Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are also in the club.

So, in terms of sheer numbers, of countries and population, the Commonwealth represents a substantial portion of the world, with the capacity, if it has a coherent message, to command global attention. Significantly, too, Britain and Canada have seats at the table at the G7, where the world’s biggest decisions are often taken.


That broadness, though, can be the Commonwealth’s weakness. While its members’ shared legacy of British colonisation gives it values around which they may coalesce, it is at the same time a loose-knit potpourri of often divergent interests – between countries, regions, subregions and global power.

Shaping consensus, therefore, can, even in the best of times, be difficult. It is hardly surprising that the group’s big political successes – such as engineering the defeat of white minority rule in Rhodesia and apartheid in South Africa – were issues in which one of its members, Britain, which held influence over the group, engaged in the atrocities and, ultimately, was susceptible to the moral pressures of its partners that aggressively drove the campaign for change.

It was also important that most of the Commonwealth leaders at the time were ideologically disposed to the liberation struggles, and in Shridath Ramphal enjoyed the support of an energetic and intellectually nimble secretary general of similar persuasion. Mostly, though, the Commonwealth’s has been a far more modest agenda in support of the economic and social development of its poor members.

More recently, though, the assault on multilateralism by the former US president, Donald Trump, the existential threats posed to many of its members by climate change, and their continued lag in economic development, despite the promises of globalisation, have raised the prospect of the Commonwealth reforming itself so that it can be a more potent voice on these issues.

That part of the agenda this newspaper expected Baroness Scotland to aggressively pursue. While she has had successes in other initiatives, she has not achieved as much on this front as we had hoped. Which is not entirely her fault. From early in her tenure, there was a sense of an orchestrated campaign against the former Labour politician by influential forces in the British establishment, and executed by right-wing and sensational British tabloids.

Baroness Scotland contributed to her weakening by, in some cases, less than rigorous adherence to the institution’s governance arrangements. There were allegations of poor financial management and cronyism at the secretariat. Britain, Canada and Australia cut some of their financial support for the Commonwealth and have quietly lobbied for Baroness Scotland’s replacement, although secretaries general are usually afforded a second four-year term unchallenged.


Choosing the secretary general should have happened at a heads of government summit in Rwanda in June 2020, but that meeting was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was again rescheduled this year and leaders are now considering creative ideas about how or where to hold the summit.

One suggestion is that it be convened on the margins of the UN climate change meeting in Scotland in November. Meanwhile, Baroness Scotland’s job is being extended on a year-by-year basis, Britain having rejected Barbados’ proposal for a four-year rollover.

President Kenyatta did not outline the strategic vision he expects Dr Juma to bring to the Commonwealth, except to laud her “indisputable track record of strategic leadership, management, representation and knowledge of government, regional as well as multinational, and multilateral relations, international development, security, and humanitarian issues…”

These, of course, are all good qualities, which, by implication, he has suggested Baroness Scotland does not have or has not been good at. The question for CARICOM, if indeed it believes that Baroness Scotland has come up short, is whether the community is convinced that the post should go to Dr Juma, when there is an argument that in the normal rotation, the Caribbean should be ahead of the pack in the choice of the SG.

Baroness Scotland was born in Dominica and had Caribbean support, but is a British citizen and a British politician who served in Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s Cabinets. Or now that Kenya has acted, another candidate may rise.