By Syed Sharfuddin
This month the Commonwealth celebrated the return of Maldives to the organisation taking its membership tally to 54 sovereign states. However, against the tranquil background of colourful flags and welcome speeches, there were also grey clouds looming over the future of the organisation, and in particular the performance of the current Commonwealth Secretary-General who is completing her first term of office next month. According to Commonwealth convention, the Secretary-General of the organisation is automatically eligible for a second term, subject to confirmation by Heads of Government at their next meeting, called CHOGM in Commonwealth parlance. But it seems that the current Secretary-General may be the first to be denied a second term due to poor performance. The next CHOGM will be held in Kigali, Rwanda in June 2020.
The Rt Hon Baroness Patricia Scotland QC was elected Secretary-General at the Malta CHOGM in 2015, defeating two other candidates – Sir Ronald Sanders of Antigua & Barbuda and Ms Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba of Botswana. There was another African candidate in the race but his nomination was withdrawn by his Head of Government a week before the CHOGM.
At the end of the term of Mr Kamalesh Sharma in 2016, it was the turn of the Caribbean region to nominate a candidate for the position of the Secretary-General. In the event, two candidates were nominated from the region – Sir Ronald Sanders from Antigua & Barbuda and Baroness Patricia Scotland from Dominica. Sir Ronald secured the support of 10 of the 12 countries from the Caribbean region, but Baroness Scotland had the backing of the UK, the country of her residence, career and nationality. From Africa, the two candidates were a former Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General from Botswana, and a former Foreign Minister from Tanzania. Like the Caribbean region, the African region was also divided over their regional candidate for the post of Secretary-General.
Baroness Patricia Scotland was born in Dominica (West Indies) but grew up in the UK and was trained as a successful barrister. In 1997 she was nominated by Prime Minister Tony Blair as a Labour peer in the House of Lords. At the Malta CHOGM two rounds of elections were held in which Sir Ronald lost the first round, and Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba lost the second round. The vote was so close in the second round that Botswana demanded that a third round be held to decide a clear winner but the CHOGM Chairperson (Malta) declared Baroness Patricia Scotland to succeed Kamalesh Sharma as the next Secretary-General.
The appointment of Baroness Patricia Scotland changed the power balance in the Commonwealth and tilted it heavily in favour of UK, which had previously made way for other member states to occupy the top position at the Secretariat. Although she was originally a Caribbean candidate, she was and remains for all practical purposes a British Secretary-General having UK nationality and UK Peerage. According to the founding documents of the Modern Commonwealth adopted in 1949, the Monarch of Great Britain & Northern Ireland, as well as other Dominions and Realms is the Head of the Commonwealth. The Headquarters of the Commonwealth is located in London. In 2018 the UK also became the Chairperson of CHOGM by virtue of hosting the last Commonwealth Summit in London. The UK currently has four positions in the Commonwealth: the Head of the Commonwealth, the Head of the Secretariat, the HQ of the Secretariat and the Chairmanship of CHOGM.
This is not to say that the UK’s responsibilities are not commensurate with the high status it enjoys in the Commonwealth by virtue of its position as the linchpin of the organisation. The UK’s contribution to the annual budget of the Commonwealth Secretariat is one third of its total budget; the UK charges no rent for housing the Secretariat at Marlborough House in the heart of central London, including its security, furnishings and maintenance which runs into thousands of GBP each month. The UK Government provides diplomatic immunity and tax exemptions to Commonwealth Secretariat staff serving as international civil servants. Other major contributors to the Commonwealth Secretariat budget are Australia, Canada and New Zealand, followed by other middle-income countries.
The Memorandum establishing the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1965 envisaged a Secretary-General who would be a Senior High Commissioner. However, in practice only two out of the six Secretaries-General elected so far were senior diplomats – Sir Arnold Smith from Canada (1965-75) and Kamalesh Sharma from India (2008-16). The other four Secretaries-General were a former Foreign Minister of Guyana, Sir Shridath Ramphal (1975-1990), a former Foreign Minister of Nigeria, Chief Emeka Anyaoku (1990-2000), a former Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, The Rt Hon Don Mckinnon (2000-08) and a former Peer and Attorney General from the UK, Baroness Patricia Scotland (2016).
The Commonwealth Secretariat suffered a great deal during the tenure of Mr Kamalesh Sharma (2008-16). He was a great diplomat but lacked the management skills to run a large organisation whose members have diverse and often conflicting interests. They are also not easily given to compromise or consensus. Mr Sharma also did not have the clout and political profile to reach out to a President or Prime Minister over the phone and get their approval on an issue at hand. It was during Sharma’s time that Canada stopped its voluntary contribution to the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC) resulting in drastic cuts in the Secretariat’s development and technical assistance programmes. During Sharma’s two terms, on the whole the Commonwealth was marred by mistrust and loss of confidence. The Commonwealth’s advocacy and advisory programmes declined considerably and human rights concerns in member countries became a sharp reminder of the fundamental values, which the Commonwealth is committed to uphold in its Charter.
In 2016 Baroness Patricia Scotland took over a fractured Secretariat and a financially challenged organisation. The Board of Governors of the Secretariat, comprising Commonwealth High Commissioners in London, as well as the small but influential Finance Committee of the Secretariat, comprising representatives of selected High Commissions, had high expectations from the new Secretary-General to fix the problems and turn the Commonwealth around like in the old days before it went sliding down under Sharma’s administration. The new Secretary-General unfortunately failed to meet these expectations and landed the organisation in deeper mess and controversy even though she executed these steps with all the good intentions in mind for achieving cost efficiencies and enhanced performance.
The new Secretary-General annoyed many senior staff by concentrating decision making in her office. She virtually rendered her senior management team out of work by reaching out to the third tier of staff and decided not to renew the contracts of the three Deputy Secretaries-General when their terms expired. This was a fundamental mistake as these deputies represented different regions and voices of the organisation. She also undermined the democracy and good offices work of the Secretariat by merging the political affairs directorate with the more technical, legal and governance directorate of the Secretariat and kept the post of director political vacant for over a year.
The result was a number of staff departures. Those who stayed were scared, overworked and demoralised. The primary complaint against her is that after assuming charge she discarded the previous reports on the restructuring of the Secretariat and awarded an external contract to review the programmes and management roles of the organisation to a former Labour colleague Lord Patel of Bradford on her personal recommendation by waiving the requirement of calling an open tender. At the time of getting the contract, Lord Patel’s firm KYA Global had assets of £971 and debts of £48,762. His firm received over £250,000 as fees for the review of the Secretariat. Her critics, who include among others, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, point out that this was not only against the Secretariat rules but also a clear conflict of interest. A KPMG audit later identified “significant weaknesses” in the Secretariat’s procurement procedures. Baroness Patricia Scotland’s supporters who comprise mostly the Caribbean countries, Nigeria and Namibia have said that she is being targeted by the old Anglo Saxon Commonwealth because she is ‘black’ and that the Secretariat did not break any rules and obtained value for money in the contract awarded to KYA Global to recommend measures to modernise the Secretariat.
However, the audit report was only the last straw on the camel’s back. A lot of criticism had piled up against the current Secretary-General in her first term. In January 2017 the BBC reported that officials at the British Department for International Development (DfID) were unhappy with her poor leadership. To support the Secretary-General the FCO appointed an acting chief operating officer at the Secretariat whose salary came from the British treasury. In December 2018 an employment tribunal awarded compensation to a Deputy Secretary-General who accused the Secretary-General of breaching her employment contract and terminating her after two years. Earlier in the year, a staff member posted in the Secretary-General’s office had also won compensation for unfair dismissal. He was hired by Kamalesh Sharma but was relieved of his duties after Baroness Patricia Scotland took over from Sharma. Commonwealth’s major donors see these payouts as a serious governance issue because this money, if saved, could have gone to fund some of the development projects of the Commonwealth. The current Secretary-General is also accused of self-projection and concentration of authority. Her visits to member countries have been unnecessarily long and often without senior staff. Recently, the Secretary-General visited India for five days to attend the annual strategy conference of the Observer Research Foundation. She also visited Swaziland for four days.
It appears that there are twice as many countries that are not in favour of the current Secretary-General getting a second term compared to the one third who may wish her to carry on for another four years. Australia, the UK, Canada and New Zealand have decided to stop their contributions to the Commonwealth Secretariat pending the publication of the independent auditor’s report and until they secure the assurance that she will step down after June 2020.
This is not the first time an incumbent Secretary-General has received opposition from member countries for a second term. In 1979 Secretary-General Sir Shridath Ramphal was threatened by India when his first term came to an end but the opposition did not gain momentum and he was re-elected to a second (and indeed third) term unopposed. At the 2003 Abuja CHOGM, Commonwealth Secretary-General Don Mckinnon actually had a Minister level candidate from Sri Lanka officially stand against him in the election. Even though many African Heads who were angry with Mckinnon over Zimbabwe voted for Sri Lanka’s candidate, Don Mckinnon managed to get a clear majority for a second term. Unless Baroness Patricia Scotland resigns from office, she is likely to relive the experience of Don Mckinnon at the Kigali CHOGM in 2020, but the odds are very much against her.
The Conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has no love remaining for a Labour Peer who has regrettably proved to be divisive for the organisation at a time when the UK needs reliable trading partners in the Commonwealth following its exit from the EU. The UK also realises that even if the majority of developing countries from the Caribbean and African regions back Baroness Patricia Scotland for a second term, she will not be able to receive much cooperation from the old Commonwealth who control the funding of most Commonwealth programmes, including Commonwealth’s technical assistance and economic development projects. The UK government is likely to advise the current Secretary-General to step down if it can find a suitable replacement for her. But the challenge is to find a person who is both capable of steering the organisation out of troubled waters and is also well known internationally to secure the agreement of Commonwealth Heads at the next CHOGM in June 2020. A quiet head hunting is currently ongoing and some names have been mentioned, including that of the Foreign Minister of Kenya, who may be in a position to become Baroness Patricia’s replacement.
It cannot be ruled out that the old Commonwealth group’s criticism of Baroness Patricia Scotland would be seen by some African countries in the prism of racism, as hinted at a Board of Governors’ meeting in London last week by the High Commissioners of Nigeria and Namibia. But let us not forget that in 2003 some African countries had challenged the second term of a ‘white’ Secretary-General. At Kigali, African Heads may use the advantage of a CHOGM being hosted by an African country to claim that it is Africa’s turn to fill the Secretary-General’s post if Baroness Patricia Scotland cannot continue for a second term. It is ironic that it was African countries themselves who breached the precedent of regional rotation by supporting an African candidate in 2015 when it was the turn of the Caribbean to have its Secretary-General. Interestingly, Baroness Scotland combines three regions in one person. She is non-white by descent (African), Caribbean by her country of birth (Dominica) and European by her nationality (British). The rotation principle is therefore completely out of the window for the position of the new Secretary-General. The race is open for any capable person who has the capacity to comprehend and manage the finances and programmes of the organisation for its members and who possesses the political clout and intellectual ability to restore the lost place of the Commonwealth at the global stage.
It cannot be left unsaid that many of the Commonwealth’s current problems are rooted in the unwillingness of donors to provide enough funds for the Commonwealth to retain staff expertise and implement its development projects across the diverse regions of the Commonwealth. An example is the election monitoring function of the Commonwealth for which funds are always found but there is little or no provision in the Commonwealth budget to support member countries’ poverty alleviation programmes or livelihood support projects. With a modest budget, the Commonwealth’s bigger and ambitious mission cannot be achieved.
At their next CHOGM, Heads may elect Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates to run the Commonwealth but unless governments are willing to provide sufficient resources to the new Secretary-General, not much would change. To repopulate a jungle and bring back its lions, elephants, buffaloes and flora and fauna to the dried waterholes, it is important to preserve the rainwater and stop land encroachment. But if countries contribute peanuts and expect to see lions, they will only get monkeys.
London: 9 February 2020
* Mr Syed Sharfuddin is a political analyst. He served as a Special Adviser in the Political Affairs Division of the Commonwealth Secretariat from 2000-2006.