© CHOGM Malta 2015
© CHOGM Malta 2015

On 26th November, the eve of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will signal the election of a new Secretary General, a defining moment for an organisation eager to remain relevant. The meeting in Malta from the 27-29th November will also be an opportunity for heads of government from across the 53 member states to discuss pertinent issues including the threat of terrorism, climate change and economic development. The election of a new Secretary General comes as India’s Kamalesh Sharma prepares to complete his second mandate in April 2016. The process of electing a new Secretary General is somewhat shrouded in mystery, taking place in a closed session attended exclusively by heads of government. The Commonwealth Oral History Project (COHP), a collection of over 70 interviews with former and current high-ranking politicians, diplomats and civil servants from across the Commonwealth, provides an important insight into the history of the organisation. The interviews include discussion of what it takes to be elected Secretary General, what makes a strong leader for the Commonwealth and the reasons why the election of the 2015 Secretary General in particular is so crucial for the endurance of the organisation.

The 2015 election is closely contested with three candidates vying for the position. Of the three candidates, Botswana’s Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba is said to hold the support of the African member states. Guyana’s Sir Ronald Sanders was nominated by Antigua, and Baroness Patricia Scotland, born in Dominica and raised in Britain, was nominated by another Caribbean nation: Dominica. In light of the two candidates representing the same geographic bloc, the Chairman of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States called a week before CHOGM for one of the two nations to drop their candidate and back a single Caribbean nomination. A fourth candidate, Tanzania’s Bernard Membe recently stopped campaigning while conservative British and Australian MPs were rumoured to be supporting Australian Alexander Downer in a bid to take advantage of the split Caribbean vote. As the nominations are open right until the start of the selection process, new candidates could make themselves known at any moment.

One of the strengths of the Commonwealth Oral History Project is the interviews with three of the four living former Secretary Generals: Sir Don McKinnon from New Zealand (2000-2008); Chief Emeka Anyaoku from Nigeria (1990-2000) and Sir Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal from Guyana (1975-1990). The interviews offer an intimate look into the office of Secretary General, including personal stories and perspectives on international moments in the Commonwealth as well as the daily work of the office. All three men emphasise the extent to which personal connections defined their work and indeed this is a common thread throughout all of the interviews in the COHP. In his interview, Sir Don recounted his frustrations with a lacklustre staff at the start of his term, and shared one of the activities that helped him survive the post: ‘…a couple of laps of Hyde Park on a Household Cavalry Life Guards horse. By the time you get back, you could take on the world.’

Chief Anyoaku reflected at length on the pioneering work of the first Secretary General, Arnold Smith (1965-1975), who died in 1994: ‘Smith was an international public servant in the sense that he believed that the Secretary General should have a role in the formulation of Commonwealth policies, and this was what he did.’  On his own time in office, it appears the lack of internal cohesion was Chief Anyoaku’s first concern: ‘One of my firm decisions was that the Commonwealth must deal with its internal contradiction because on the one hand, the Commonwealth was rightly championing the cause of non-racism and democracy in South Africa, while on the other hand, the same Commonwealth was tolerating among its membership military dictatorships and one-party states that were clearly non-democratic regimes.’

Regarding his appointment, Sir Sonny, was surprised to hear his name had been suggested for the post by Commonwealth High Commissioners who had been impressed with his work in the Non-Aligned Movement. In a reflection of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that goes into selecting a new Secretary General, Sir Sonny learned thirty years later that there had been another contender: ‘Idi Amin – who had staged a coup against Obote during the Singapore meeting, in early ‘74 – floated the idea in a letter to Wilson of his nominating Obote to the soon-to-be-vacant position of Secretary General!’

Sir Sonny’s tenure is described by a number of those interviewed as the golden era of the Commonwealth – a result of both his leadership and the effectiveness of the organisation. Sir Ronald – who was also interviewed – will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of his Guyanese predecessor and, as discussed in interviews for the COHP, has already made a name for himself in the Commonwealth, particularly as a member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group. In his interview that took place in October 2013, Sir Ronald provided a detailed analysis of the different leadership styles of previous Secretary Generals, demonstrating an understanding of what it takes to lead the organisation, as well as an impassioned final comment on the future of the Commonwealth: ‘Unless the Commonwealth can find some evangelist to be the next Secretary General, somebody so fiercely committed to the idea of the Commonwealth and willing to work for it morning, noon and night – and when I say work for it I mean not only at the levels of heads of government but [at] the levels of people – to rejuvenate it, as a going concern, I think it will only be a question of time before it withers and dies.’

With Masire-Mwamba and Baroness Scotland campaigning for office, there is a real chance the next Secretary General will be the first woman to hold the post. The two women also appear to be harnessing the power of social media, as Masire-Mwamba has been campaigning extensively on Twitter, while Baroness Scotland is also active on the social media network. Both Baroness Scotland and Masire-Mwamba have websites dedicated to their campaigns while Sir Ronald has added a campaign brochure to his personal website. Of the two women, Masire-Mwamba has been active at the high level within the Secretariat itself: she served as the Deputy Secretary General from 2008-2014 in a position that was held by Chief Anyoaku from 1977-1990.

The professional background of the next Secretary General has come into question with those interviewed for COHP generally favouring a leader from a political rather than diplomatic background. Smith, Chief Emeka and Sharma were diplomats while Sir Sonny and Sir Don were politicians. Similarly to Sir Ronald, in his interview Matthew Neuhaus, former Director of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Political Affairs Division, reflected on the merits of the previous Secretary Generals’ different approaches. He also described the election process in a June 2015 blog post written for Commonwealth Opinion:

‘Traditionally elections of a Secretary-General occur in private at the Leaders retreat, with no officials present, save for one adviser each for the Chair and the Secretary-General. Leaders present their country’s candidate for the role. A straw poll is then conducted, with leaders writing the name of their preferred candidate on a piece of paper. The Chair – this time it will be the Prime Minister of Malta – advise the relative numbers. If one candidate is strongly ahead of the others their Heads will be asked to withdraw their nominations so the successful candidate can be elected by consensus. If needed, more rounds can be held.’

Reflecting on this process in a 2014 piece in The Round Table, Sandra Pepera, a former analyst in the Political Affairs Division of the Commonwealth Secretariat, lamented the lack of transparency in the election, noting that even the infamously secretive Vatican was offering more insight into the election of the next Pope.[1] As the selection process stands, Africa holds the largest number of votes, closely followed by the Caribbean. There is an unofficial rule that the nationality of the Secretary General should rotate around the Commonwealth and as a result it would appear to be the turn of the Caribbean, namely Baroness Scotland or Sir Ronald which is further reason for the region to pick one candidate to support. However, according to one former nominee who was interviewed, while regional blocs tend to vote for the same candidate, this is not always the case and his own campaign for Secretary General was thwarted at the last minute following a post-prandial meeting that led Thambo Mbeki to change his vote.

The question remains whether whoever the heads of state choose will be able to steer the Commonwealth into the future. A great deal rests on the shoulders of the next Secretary General; as Sir Sonny stated in his cautious view of the Commonwealth’s future: ‘I am troubled, and the choice of the next Secretary General is going to be absolutely crucial.’

[1] Sandra Pepera, ‘Waiting for White Smoke? The Commonwealth’s Search for New Leadership’ The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, 103, I4, 2014, pp. 399-401, p. 399.