How does a former colonials master now belong to an organizational structure that is comprised of mostly former colonies, and claim they all function as equal sovereign nations? The very notion of a Commonwealth reeks of neocolonialism. Recently Gambia, a former British colony and member of the Commonwealth announced on state television that they will withdraw from it. Gambia branded the 54-member grouping, which includes the UK and most of its former colonies, a "neocolonial institution." In a statement released by the West Afrikan nation on Wednesday, the Government said it had decided "the Gambia will never be a member of any neocolonial institution and will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism." The last time a nation left the Commonwealth was in 2003, when Zimbabwe withdrew.
What's the point in being in the Commonwealth?
What benefits did being part of the Commonwealth offer? In the case of Gambia I know it was a popular destination for European tourists who enjoyed it's warm climate and sandy beaches. According to the Commonwealth's charter, member states should communicate and co-operate "in the common interests of our peoples and in the promotion of international understanding and world peace." It supposedly offered a valuable platform for small countries, on an equal with much larger members, on issues that affect them. It focuses on issues like good governance, development, culture and sport.
Is the Commonwealth a neocolonialist ploy? Looking at the history of the Commonwealth might help us in answering this query. In 1884, while visiting Australia, Lord Rosebery described the changing British Empire, as some of its colonies became more independent, as a "Commonwealth of Nations." Conferences of British and colonial prime ministers occurred periodically from the first one in 1887, leading to the creation of the Imperial Conferences in 1911. We must bear in mind that no Afrikan colony had yet attained independence, only Britain's “white colony', such as South Afrika, Australia, Canada, and the likes, had.
Hence, the Commonwealth developed from the Imperial Conferences. A specific proposal was presented by Jan Smuts in 1917 when he coined the term "the British Commonwealth of Nations" and envisioned the "future constitutional relations and readjustments in essence" at the all-important Versailles Conference of 1919 by delegates from the dominions as well as Britain. The term first received imperial statutory recognition in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, when the term "British Commonwealth of Nations" was substituted for "British Empire" in the wording of the oath taken by members of parliament of the Irish Free State.
In the Balfour Declaration at the 1926 Imperial Conference, Britain and its dominions agreed they were "equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations." These aspects to the relationship were formalized by the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The statute applied to Canada without the need for ratification, but Australia, New Zealand, and Newfoundland had to ratify the statute for it to take effect. Newfoundland never did, as on 16 February 1934, with the consent of its parliament, the Government of Newfoundland voluntarily ended, and governance reverted to direct control from London. Newfoundland later joined Canada as its tenth province in 1949. Australia and New Zealand ratified the Statute in 1942 and 1947 respectively. I think at this point it should be clear that the Commonwealth was an association of white nations (apart from Egypt, that had long lost its Afrikanity, becoming lastly an Arab country), that in fact did have a shared history and culture.
All this would change once Afrikan nations began to declare independence, and later join the Commonwealth. The term "New Commonwealth" was used to designated these recently decolonized member states, which were predominantly non-white developing nations. Although the term is rarely heard today, there are clearly two Commonwealths: the “Old,” which consist of white nations that have a shared history and culture; and the “New,” which is composed of former colonies of nonwhites that do not shared a common history and culture (with England). There are presently 54 member countries of the Commonwealth.
Is there some psychological benefit to former Afrikan colonies being in an organization headed by their former "masters," viewing this as a sign of equality? Or is there some type of mental dependency on the part of these former colonies towards their former mother country--a fear of cutting the umbilical chord?