At the Commonwealth’s recent summit in Rwanda, two new countries joined the international organisation: Gabon and Togo. Commonwealth members are expected to demonstrate commitment to democracy and human rights – but these two countries do not. Neither government allows truly free and fair elections, and both severely restrict people’s rights to organise, protest and speak out. Just like the meeting’s host, Rwanda, they have long-standing autocratic presidents who tolerate little dissent. It seems states are joining the Commonwealth not to abide by its stated values but to use their membership to launder their repressive reputations.

By the end of its summit in Rwanda this June, the Commonwealth had grown: Gabon and Togo both joined the organisation, taking its membership up to 56 countries – almost 30 per cent of the world’s states, with members on every inhabited continent.

The Commonwealth’s history follows on from that of the British empire: it was long almost exclusively a club of countries the UK colonised. For many years Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, was the sole exception. But in 2009 Rwanda joined, and now it’s followed by two more Francophone countries.

What’s in it for Gabon and Togo?

There seem clear benefits for all sides in this move. For the Commonwealth, it helps present itself as a progressive and growing institution, moving away from its foundation as a colonial legacy.

The two governments talked up the opportunities. Gabon’s President Ali Bongo pointed to economic, cultural and diplomatic prospects. Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbé emphasised the potential easier access to 2.5 billion customers in Commonwealth countries, the possibility of educational connections and that fact that young Togolese people are increasingly learning English.

There’s an element of regional integration in the move. Both states border Commonwealth members – Gabon borders Cameroon and Togo borders Ghana – and the same logic may well have applied when Mozambique and Rwanda joined. It’s for similar reasons that earlier this year Ghana, bordered by three Francophone countries, committed to becoming a full member of the Commonwealth’s Francophone equivalent, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie.

But there’s also likely an implicit rebuke to France in the move. For many years France was the dominant international partner of its former African colonies and those colonised by Belgium. Through its decades-long Françafrique policy, France expected and enjoyed continuing economic, political, military and cultural dominance, in return for propping up often brutal and corrupt dictators.

Recent French presidents have taken a more pragmatic approach but remain accused of meddling in Francophone Africa. Anti-France sentiment has risen in several countries, particularly against the presence of French troops. French forces have been stationed in the Sahel region since 2012, when a jihadist surgency won temporary control of northern Mali.

But in recent years French forces have become unpopular in Central and West Africa. Insecurity has increased and spilled out from Mali to neighbouring countries. Many don’t see benefits from the French presence. Last year a French military convoy from Côte d’Ivoire to Mali attracted protests in multiple countries. There’s also unhappiness about the French treasury’s control of two currencies, the Central African CFA franc and West African CFA franc, used across multiple countries, including Gabon and Togo.

Relations have deteriorated the most in Mali, under military control since August 2020. France’s calls for the restoration of democracy were not what the military wanted to hear. In January the government expelled the French ambassador, and in February France pulled its troops out. Mali, among other governments, are reported to be using Russian mercenaries instead.

Given rising anti-French sentiment, it makes sense for the presidents of Gabon and Togo to show they can forge other connections. Opposition to France seems particularly concentrated among young people and has led to a degree of public support for military coups that promise to break the ties, in Burkina Faso as well as Mali. Distancing from France could help buffer public pressure on presidents.

Both countries are adopting a similar approach to Rwanda’s. When Rwanda joined in 2009, relations with France were at an all-time low. France refused to apologise for its role in supporting the regime that committed the 1994 genocide, and in 2006 Rwanda broke off diplomatic relations. Joining the Commonwealth was a way for Rwanda to communicate that it no longer needed France.

Democracy and human rights?

Rwanda is the model in another way: since joining the Commonwealth, its government has intensified restrictions of freedoms.

In Rwanda, power is concentrated in the hands of President Paul Kagame, in office for 22 years. Kagame doesn’t tolerate independent civil society. In recent years several exiled dissidents have been assassinated and opposition politicians, journalists and YouTube users jailed. Around 3,500 people have reportedly been targeted by Pegasus spyware. In 2015 Kagame rewrote the constitution, meaning he can stay in power until 2034.

Not only has Rwanda gone backwards – it was rewarded by hosting 2022’s summit, allowing it to further burnish its international reputation.

Countries that join the Commonwealth are supposed to adhere to its Charter. The Commonwealth’s press release on the membership of Gabon and Togo sets out the essentials:

The eligibility criteria for Commonwealth membership, amongst other things, state that an applicant country should demonstrate commitment to democracy and democratic processes, including free and fair elections and representative legislatures; the rule of law and independence of the judiciary; good governance, including a well-trained public service and transparent public accounts; and protection of human rights, freedom of expression, and equality of opportunity.

The experience of Rwanda since it joined the Commonwealth suggests these are mere words. There’s little hope Gabon and Togo will be held to these standards either.

As well as joining the Commonwealth, Gabon and Togo have something else in common: each has been run by family dynasties since 1967.

1967 is when Omar Bongo became President of Gabon, going on to enjoy single-party rule and then flawed multiparty elections, with his son taking over on his death in 2009. Ali Bongo remains in power following two elections riddled with irregularities, and in 2018 rewrote the constitution to enable further terms.

It was a military coup that brought Gnassingbé Eyadéma to power in Togo in 1967, followed by an identical story of one-party rule eventually giving way to multiparty elections characterised by systematic fraud. He also stayed in office until death, and when he died in 2005 the army declared his son Faure his successor. This was formalised at the subsequent flawed election. Faure Gnassingbé is now in his fourth term, having changed the constitution in his favour in 2019.

There doesn’t seem any ‘commitment to democracy and democratic processes’ here. Nor has either president respected human rights.

A brief and unsuccessful attempt at a military coup in Gabon in 2019 was followed by a crackdown on the media and arrest of opposition politicians. In 2020 the penal code was changed, increasing penalties for insulting the president and organising or participating in a banned meeting.

If anything the situation in Togo is worse. There has been a sustained crackdown since mass protests erupted in 2017 and 2018 against the plan to remove presidential term limits. Protests were repressed with live ammunition, leading to several killings, along with numerous arrests, protest bans and media and internet restrictions. Further restrictions have been introduced since to prevent protests and limit online activity.

In April, three trade unionists were arrested following a teachers’ strike. On the very day it was admitted to the Commonwealth, Togo’s government banned a planned protest against the rising cost of living, poor governance and economic injustice.

What kind of Commonwealth?

The optimistic view would be that, by joining the Commonwealth, Gabon and Togo are opening themselves up to greater scrutiny of their democracy and human rights records: that in accepting their membership, the Commonwealth anticipates progress.

But there’s little evidence of such an effect: 28 of the Commonwealth’s 56 countries – exactly half – have serious civic space restrictions, including the last five countries to join. Not only has Rwanda gone backwards – it was rewarded by hosting 2022’s summit, allowing it to further burnish its international reputation.

The same logic that brought Gabon and Togo into the Commonwealth may be followed by others: Chad and Niger, two more countries with heavily restricted civic space, are said to be thinking about it. The danger is that as it expands, the idea of the Commonwealth as a network of democratic states, always a questionable notion, becomes ever more implausible. Instead it starts to look more like a place autocrats go in search of legitimacy.

There’s an early test on the horizon for the Commonwealth, which regularly organises election observer missions: Gabon is due to hold a presidential election next year. Bongo will surely stand again. How will the Commonwealth respond if there’s a repeat of the apparent irregularities, violence and stifling of protest that characterised the last election in 2016?

The Commonwealth needs to get serious about its stated values. New members should not be allowed to join without a proper assessment of their support for civic freedoms, including the freedom for people to organise, protest and express dissent. Civil society should be consulted when countries apply for membership, and new members should make a clear and unambiguous commitment to uphold democratic freedoms and human rights. Not doing so risks making the international institution complicit in domestic repression.


  • The Commonwealth should take active measures to support civil society and civic space in Gabon and Togo.
  • The governments of Gabon and Togo should commit to upholding free and fair elections with independent observers.
  • Any further countries seeking to join the Commonwealth should be subjected to scrutiny on their democracy and human rights performance, including from civil society.

Cover photo by Tim Rooke-Pool/Getty Images