Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson grabbed the headlines in Angola this month when he said the country joining the Commonwealth club of former British colonies would be “splendid” .
The president of the oil-rich southern African nation Joao Lourenco had said he wanted to follow Mozambique, like Angola a Portuguese-speaking former colony of Lisbon, and become a member of the largely Anglophone bloc.
“Splendid that Angola wants to join the Commonwealth family. Very much welcome President Lourenco’s commitment to long-term reform, tackling corruption and improving human rights,” wrote Johnson to his 451,000 Twitter followers.
But there has been a mixed reaction to Lourenco’s sudden passion for the Commonwealth, with some Angolans warning that the new president is merely trying to put a gloss on its woeful human rights record.
Perhaps even more surprising was Lourenco’s interest in joining the Francophone group of French-speaking countries.
The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) has 84 members and observer states with roughly a billion people while the Commonwealth has 53 members with a combined population of 2.4 billion.
“The example of what happened with Mozambique, which is (linguistically) stranded between the countries of the world, is that it ultimately joined the Commonwealth,” said Lourenco during a visit to Europe at the beginning of the month.
Mozambique, which joined the Commonwealth in 1995, and Rwanda are the only Commonwealth members without historic ties to Britain.
“Angloa is not surrounded by Portuguese-speaking countries but by Francophone nations so we are asking to join ‘La Francophonie’ — and in the coming days we will also be asking to join the Commonwealth,” added Lourenco.
‘Is this man thinking?’
But investigative journalist and government critic Rafael Marques said the announcement was part of the government’s efforts to launder its tarnished international image.
“People in Angola these days can barely write Portuguese because the education system has basically collapsed. So if you cannot educate your own people in the official language — how do you join two other foreign communities of languages?” he said.
“These good-will announcements gain some points in the media and gain the attention of Boris Johnson but leave people at home wondering ‘is this man thinking?'”
Human Rights Watch hopes that if Angola were to join the Commonwealth, the government would have to improve its underwhelming rights record.
“It will have to adhere to some principles and rules that, if they do, it will be very good for the environment in the country,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Zenaida Machado.
“For us it’s a good sign – assuming they will have to adhere to the precepts of the Commonwealth which we all know are very clear about human rights.
“But there’s been no internal debate – Angolans were not consulted on whether they wanted to be part of the Commonwealth.”
‘An exclusive club’
The Commonwealth Charter insists on “equality and respect for the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights” in member states.
Ordinary Angolans, grappling with sky-high unemployment and inflation, are torn over what joining the two language blocs could mean for their prospects.
“It’s a good idea because Portuguese is not widely spoken so we should fight to join their communities,” said Luanda resident Manuel Joao, 28, speaking Portuguese.
“Angola is already part of several similar organisations, the advantages of which haven’t been seen,” 36-year-old Augusto Pedro, who is unemployed, told AFP. “The government is just wasting money to burnish their image.”
Political analyst Augusto Bafua Bafua said Angola had been let down by its existing membership of the Portuguese language association, describing it as “very weak and (with) a lot of rivalry between Portugal and Brazil”.
“It’s a good idea for Angola to join the Commonwealth and the Francophonie because the majority of African countries are tied to these organisations,” he said.
Angola’s sudden desire to join non-Portuguese blocs could also be linked to Luanda’s recent tensions with Lisbon over Portugal’s efforts to prosecute former Angolan vice-president Manuel Vicente in absentia.
But writer Sousa Jamba warned that “being part of the Commonwealth is not easy – it’s an exclusive club”.
“The Commonwealth doesn’t have the ambiguities of the Francophonie, it’s a very serious organisation,” he said.