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John Connolly

Why is a former French colony joining the Commonwealth?

Gabon’s decision to join the association is a coup for Britain – and a blow to France

Why is a former French colony joining the Commonwealth?
President Ali Bongo and Prince Charles (photo: Getty)
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When Boris Johnson flew to Rwanda with Prince Charles for a key Commonwealth summit last weekend, the trip ended up being overshadowed by a bubbling feud between the two men over Britain’s Rwanda asylum scheme, which Charles has privately opposed.

For the Commonwealth the focus on the spat was a shame, as it had some welcome news to announce that was arguably far more significant for Britain than the two men’s personal beef. On 25 June it was officially declared that two new countries, Gabon and Togo, were joining the Commonwealth. For those who have been prophesising the death of an antiquated and creaking Commonwealth for years, it was a reminder of the organisation’s continued relevance in Africa. And it was made all the more significant by the fact that both Gabon and Togo are former French colonies who have chosen to prioritise their links with London over Paris.

To try and understand why a former French colony in the heart of Africa would risk jeopardising its close relationship and long history with France to join an organisation for former subjects of the British empire, I visited the ‘Republique Gabonaise’ last week for a whistle-stop tour of the country. While I was there it soon became clear that France had taken its former colony for granted – and this represents an opportunity for a Britain which is looking to expand its global links after Brexit.

For those not familiar with our new Commonwealth neighbour, Gabon is on the equator on the west coast of Africa. It has a population of just 2 million, half of whom are under the age of 25. Around 85 per cent of the country is covered with dense forest – which even overruns the sprawling concrete capital of Libreville. Gabon is oil rich but still poor, and is looking to diversify its economy.

Since it gained its independence from France in 1960, the country has had three presidents. The latest is President Ali Bongo, who was elected in 2009 and whose father led Gabon for 42 years. Ali Bongo is an interesting character. Educated in France and at the Sorbonne, as a young man in the 1970s he released a funk album entitled ‘A brand new man’ (rumour has it that James Brown’s band played backing) before giving up the music career to become a politician. A portrait of Ali Bongo smiling benevolently in a suit and tie now hangs in every government office in Gabon.

Ali Bongo has long had an anglophile streak, which at least partially explains his country’s shift towards the Commonwealth. He has a townhouse in Mayfair (which he bought for £25 million in 2010) where he often stays and he is – I’m reliably informed – an avid reader of The Spectator.

But the country’s move away from France cuts much deeper. There is a deep sense in Libreville that Paris has taken Gabon for granted for years, which has cost the country investment opportunities and the chance to develop its economy.

Ahead of the Rwanda summit we meet Gabon’s new foreign minister, Michael Mousa Adamo in his office, which is decked out a little bit like a Bond-villain’s lair with white leather cushioned walls and doors. Adamo is effusive about Gabon joining the Commonwealth. He explains that unlike the Francophonie, the Commonwealth is ‘dynamic’, ‘more practical, it’s more hands-on’, and will act as a gateway for Gabon in the English speaking world. By comparison, he suggests that Gabon’s links with France have cost his country ‘billions’ in investment.

Adamo won’t be drawn on how the Commonwealth bid has gone down with the French, but it’s pretty clear speaking to officials here that diplomats in Paris are fuming about the loss of influence and are worried that other French-speaking African nations could follow in Gabon and Togo’s steps, which Adamo thinks is ‘almost certain’ to happen.

To add insult to injury, Adamo indicates that Gabon could move away from using its current currency, the CFA Franc, which is controlled by the French treasury and has been accused of impoverishing African nations. ‘Eventually that has to change, it will change… You cannot stick to the CFA forever’ he argues, citing the importance of sovereignty.

The question though is what this all means for Britain. There is one thing in Gabon that Britain is in dire need of at the moment – petrol – and Adamo says he is hoping exports to Britain will increase, along with investment. The main benefit though may well be the expanding Commonwealth. In a world increasingly dominated by Chinese investment (including in Gabon) Britain is at the centre of a growing network of African nations hoping for significant economic growth in the decades ahead.

The benefits of all this could be seen when we visited a club in Libreville which organises English classes in schools and for adults. To celebrate Gabon’s ascension to the Commonwealth (and a visit from British journalists) the walls were festooned with plastic Union Jacks which were sellotaped to the walls and in the hand of every student. The class, which was mainly made up of young adults, was asked what they thought of Britain. Their responses would warm the cockles of the most stone-hearted Briton: ‘James Bond’, ‘Britain’s good values’, ‘the accent’, ‘the first country to abolish slavey’, ‘Shakespeare’, ‘the football’, ‘the Queen’. For years, especially since the Brexit vote, certain commentators have revelled in characterising Britain as some sort of isolationist hellhole which is despised by the rest of the world. These students were a reminder of how valued Britain’s reputation still is abroad – and perhaps how much more good we could do if we didn’t keep pretending that the country is fast becoming a fascist dictatorship.

There are some who have criticised Gabon’s Commonwealth ascension, pointing out that the country has a dubious human rights record and limited press freedom. Ali Bongo’s re-election in 2016 was marred by allegations of electoral fraud in his home province, which saw the president receive a 95 per cent vote share on a turnout of 99.9 per cent. In 2019 there was an attempted coup against the president, but it was so badly organised that it only lasted the morning. The country has made some strides forward on human rights. Presumably with its Commonwealth bid in mind, Gabon became one of the few African nations to reverse a ban on homosexuality in 2020.

Where Gabon can be said to be doing better is on the environment, which is why Prince Charles has been so involved in the country. Gabon’s environment ministry is led by a well-known British conservationist called Lee White, an old drinking buddy of Lord Goldsmith’s in parliament. White has the serious air of a man who thinks a lot about saving elephants. Unlike many African nations Gabon has managed to preserve and even grow its 50,000 elephant population and White points out that the country could lead the world on environmental protection. The country now only cuts down one or trees per hectare of forest on a 25-year rotation to preserve the forest and ensure there is little to no carbon loss from logging.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of Gabon joining the Commonwealth though is what it represents. In this corner of the world, ‘Global Britain’ is being taken seriously. And if Gabon is among the first of many countries to now join the Commonwealth, that could represent a huge opportunity for our country.