[OPINION] Should the Commonwealth still exist?

By determining that Prince Charles will succeed his mother Queen Elizabeth as head of the Commonwealth when the 92-year-old monarch steps down, the 53-nation organisation has gone full circle.

It remains a mystery why the heads of state gathered in London last week elected to do this, rather than introduce a rotational system of filling this position like other multilateral organisations do.

Admittedly the post occupied by the queen and ultimately her son is purely symbolic.

Nevertheless, the decision taken in London will fuel the criticism that the Commonwealth, which is pretty much a symbolic organisation, is a hangover of British imperialism.

I have been following Commonwealth summits since 1971 when Idi Amin took advantage of President Milton Obote’s absence in Singapore to seize control of Uganda.

Six years later France Albert Rene mounted a coup against Seychelles President James Mantham while he was attending the Commonwealth Summit in London, underlining that no deed is so onerous that it does not bear repeating.

So apart from being grist to the tabloid’s mill, and cannon fodder to the anti-imperialists, what are the Commonwealth’s major achievements?

No doubt it concentrated heavily in its early days in bringing down apartheid.

Having covered the adoption of the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement banning sporting relations with the racist regime at its 1977 London summit, I was refused entry to Zambia for CHOGM in Lusaka two years later.

Nothing would keep me from Melbourne in 1981 where pro-apartheid New Zealand premier Robert Muldoon endeared himself to his supporters by referring to Zimbabwe’s debutant President Robert Mugabe as a jungle bunny.

Ten years later Mugabe hosted the CHOGM that made the Harare Declaration mapping out the organisation’s course into the new millennium.

By 1993, however, Mugabe led his country out of what he called an evil organisation that took him to task for stealing an election.

So, no shortage of colourful rhetoric to be sure.

At one stage in my career, I was shortlisted to become media spokesman for the Commonwealth.

I was asked in my interview: If the Commonwealth did not exist today, would it have had to be invented?

Of course, I replied. Why else would we have the Francophonie?

As an inveterate multilateralist, I find myself defending both these talk shops and others like the United Nations and the African Union with the argument that it is better to be negotiating and deliberating than making menace and, worse, engaging in armed conflict.

As Winston Churchill put it: jaw jaw is better than war war.

But one must beware of over-egging the pudding.

Some of those steering Britain’s perplexing path out of the European Union are saying the Commonwealth could replace the EU as a rating partner.

With the Commonwealth currently comprising 9% of trade with Britain compared with 44% with the EU, this is patent fantasy for the next century.

Certainly, the Commonwealth plays an important role furthering the goals of smaller nations that make up the majority of its members.

And there is something to be said for using the soft power of cultural and historic ties to maximum effect in an often unfriendly world.

Thus far the Commonwealth has adopted one laudable feature of its founding ethos: understatement.

It should preserve and cherish this.

Jean-Jacques Cornish is an Africa correspondent at Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @jjcornish