This blog post was published under the 2015 to 2024 Conservative government

31st March 2017 Abuja, Nigeria

A Peace Building Commonwealth – If We Use It Well

I’ll start with a potentially career-limiting admission: in recent years I hadn’t thought much about the Commonwealth. With UK-focussed (non-FCO) jobs and UK-focussed family life, it simply hasn’t been terribly visible to me. It brings memories of Steve Cram (my dad’s hero) winning races in the ‘80s, and a school trip to the Commonwealth Institute in the ‘90s. To be honest, I hadn’t heard much mention of it as a player on the world stage.
That changed as we started preparing to celebrate Commonwealth Day in Abuja. It’s fairly obvious that the Commonwealth is a potential force for good. As the Queen said in her Commonwealth message this year: “the cornerstones on which peace is founded are, quite simply, respect and understanding for one another”. If the 2.5bn people living in the Commonwealth – with their hugely varied languages, cultures, religions, economies, locations – respected and understood each other a bit better, the world would be far better off.

At the Commonwealth events I took part in last week in Abuja, I met two very different groups of people. Both started out not sure what the Commonwealth is all about, beyond the Games. Most thought you could replace the word “Commonwealth” with “UK” without changing the meaning of the sentence. Both were amazed by the wealth of variety it contains (“So India and Pakistan are members?” “What’s Rwanda doing there?”). There were the ubiquitous comments about visas (if not free travel between Commonwealth countries, there should at least be a Commonwealth queue at border control). And there was recognition of the huge potential for good – provided it can make itself relevant.

First up, “Tea and Tweets”: 17 of Nigeria’s most influential social media personalities came for tea at the Residence to discuss the Commonwealth. There was surprise about its size and the range of countries it comprises; there was a bit (only a bit) of disgruntlement about Britain’s colonial past; there were questions about the value for Nigerians in belonging to the Commonwealth (cue the visa comments). But then there was the strong sense that we should be making more of this network – valuing the differences, sharing culture as well as sport, speaking out more strongly to uphold and promote the Commonwealth’s values. Nigeria needs peace, and the Commonwealth could be a powerful peace builder. But it needs reinvigorating, was the message I took. Our conversation got the conversation going right across Nigeria, with #CommonwealthDay trending for over 24 hours and generating engagement rates three times those that this Post usually manages.

Later I spoke to around 60 students at a public secondary school in Abuja – some of the 1bn young people under 30 who are the Commonwealth’s future. A bit shy, more used to being told what to say than asked what they thought, but, as they settled in, the conversation took them through similar phases: only heard of the Commonwealth in relation to the Games; amazed by the range of countries; seized of the opportunity. They were inspired by the values: “peace”, “democracy”, “tolerance”, “justice” all matter hugely to these young Commonwealth citizens. Particularly fun was the reaction when I told them Nigeria had been suspended from the Commonwealth in the 1990s (“No!” they cried, and hung their heads in mock shame). But the nodding heads when I told them why (the Government execution of a leading environmental activist), and what led to them being readmitted (the end of military rule), was a sign of how far Nigeria has come in terms of commitment to – and expectation of – respect for human rights.

So, where does all this leave me? Convinced of the potential and the value of the Commonwealth, certainly. But also convinced that it needs a refresh. The Nigerians I talked to last week had barely ever thought about the Commonwealth. They suggested celebrations of arts as well as of sports. Closer educational ties. Stronger trading relationships. A more powerful voice speaking out for the Commonwealth’s values – values that would make a real difference in a country like Nigeria. A more visible, more relevant presence in the lives of the 2.5bn people who live in its member countries.

2 comments on “A Peace Building Commonwealth – If We Use It Well

  1. Reading this late but still full of sense at this time. Peace starts from within. From the root. I will be holding a Catch Them Young Community Spelling Bee for about 40 children in both Primary and Secondary School in a community in Ibadan on 16th of this month I shall ask for contributions on peace building from these excited young ones . Let’s start from Commonwealth grassroot and young minds.

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