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New nations on the bloc: Togo and Gabon join the Commonwealth of Nations

25 July 2022 | Newsletter

New nations on the bloc: Togo and Gabon join the Commonwealth of Nations

On 25 June 2022, during the penultimate day of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2022 (CHOGM), at the closing session, the nations of Togo and Gabon were officially inducted into the Commonwealth as the 55th and 56th members of the bloc. The announcement was made by the newly-appointed Chairperson of the Commonwealth, the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, The Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC, commented after the announcement that the decision was made in consultation with Commonwealth heads of state and government and was based on the assessment of the country’s democratic processes, good governance and the robust rule of law. With the addition of the Francophone nations of Togo and Gabon, the number of Commonwealth member states that were not previously British colonies has risen to 4, the other two being Mozambique and Rwanda which joined in 1995 and 2009, respectively. The Commonwealth of Nations has expanded to 7 times its original size since 1949.

Togo began its application to join the Commonwealth in 2014; the motivation for joining the bloc, Togo’s Foreign Minister Robert Dussey explained, is the exposure to the bloc’s political and economic network as well as access to a consumer market of billions of Commonwealth citizens[i]. For Gabon, which submitted its application to join the Commonwealth back in 2017, the Commonwealth is an excellent medium for the nation’s economic modernisation and vital for the diversification of its economy without negatively affecting its relationship with France. Both West African nations were previously French colonies, having gained their independence in 1960 just 4 months apart as Togo gained independence on 27 April 1960 while Gabon gained independence on 17 August 1960.

In this newsletter, we provide a brief, comparative overview of the two nation’s profiles within the global context and analyse how their inclusion into the Commonwealth can foster a mutually beneficial partnership.

Overview of The Gabonese and Togolese Republics

Gabon is a Central African country that lies on the western coast of Africa looking out upon the Atlantic Ocean. Astraddle both sides of the Equator, Gabon shares its northern border with fellow Commonwealth state Cameroon along with Equatorial Guinea to the northwest and it shares its eastern and southern border with the Republic of the Congo. Due to its equatorial location, it has above-average temperatures and humidity levels with heavy rainfall between October and May that averages 3,810 mm along the coast. Gabon has a land area of 267,667 km², of which almost 85 per cent is covered by thick rainforests with over 3,000 species of plant life and many diverse animal species including tropical birds, elephants, monkeys and gorillas. Due to Gabon’s biodiversity, it has set up many national parks, the most notable of which is the Lopé National Park and its associated archaeological sites, located in the centre of the country, that comprise the Ecosystem and Relict Cultural Landscape of Lopé-Okanda which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Gabon has three distinctive regions; the coastal area, with the capital of Libreville located on the northern shore of the Gabon Estuary, is made up of lowlands of beaches and lagoons bound by mangrove swamps and dense forestry that leads inland towards an elevated and broad series of granite plateaus. The second region found further inwards beyond the plateau consists of rolling hills, more forestry and mountains that reach up to as high as 5,000 feet, offering diverse and scenic beauty. And the third region consists of scattered and expansive savannas towards the southeast side of the country although some may be found in the central region as well; additionally, the country also has hundreds of caves across the eastern and central regions, made of limestone and dolomite. The Ogooué River, some 1200 km long, cuts through all three regions of Gabon and is the principal river and largest drainage source for the country; the smaller rivers spread across the territory, including Nyanga, Ngounie, Okano and Sebe, all originate from the Ogooué River.

Togo is a Western African country approximately 1,588 km northeast of Gabon. Togo also shares its border, in this case, the entire length of its western border, with a fellow Commonwealth nation, Ghana. It shares its entire eastern border with Benin and its northern border with Burkina Faso. Similar to Gabon, Togo has a generally tropical climate. The rainy season varies across regions though typically lasting between April to October with annual rainfall averaging 1000 mm in the north, central north and the coast and 2000 mm in the western region. The country experiences a dry season during the winter which remains hot with temperatures not usually falling below 29 degrees celsius. Similar to Gabon, Togo’s climate and topography lend to the land’s immense biodiversity with over 4,000 animal species and 3,502 spontaneous species of terrestrial flora. Togo is one of the smallest countries in West Africa with a land area is approximately 56,785 km² divided into 6 distinct regions. The capital of Lomé is located on the western edge of the narrow coastal region in the south; sandy, low-lying beaches overlook the Gulf of Guinea and scattered tidal flats and lagoons are seen along the coastline of which Lake Togo is the largest lagoon flowing inland. The southern-central region comprises a tableland called the Outachi Plateau that stretches 32 km inland with a width of 20 km and a height of 60-90 metres. This plateau and the sediment surrounding Lake Togo are known for the laterite soil and deep reddish colour also known as terre de barre, due to its iron density. Upwards from the plateau in the northeast direction is another tableland though much higher in altitude reaching up to 460 metres in height; this plateau is drained by the Mono River and its tributaries. Towards the northwest direction upwards from the Outachi Plateau, the land rises steeply toward the Togo-Atakora Mountains which stretch across the northeastern region of Togo into the eastern borders of Ghana and end in the western region of Benin. The Baumann Peak, also known as Mount Agou, is the tallest mountain in the range, rising to about 986 metres. The region north of the Togo Mountains consists of a sandstone plateau on top of which is a beautiful expanse of savanna drained by the Oti River which is one of the main tributaries of the Volta River. This chief river system flows down from Ghana. Found in the eastern part of this region is a cultural landscape; the Koutammakou, the Land of the Tammari people, is an area which feature’s this tribe’s famous two-storey mud houses which to this day remain a preferred structure of living, and in 2004, this territory was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The northern-most region is comprised of granite and gneiss and the cliffs of Dapaong lie in this area.

Although Gabon has a land area almost 5 times that of Togo’s, according to 2022 estimates, Togo’s population is approximately 8,492,333, which is 3.6 times that of Gabon’s is pegged at 2,340,613 as of 2022. In terms of demographics, 80.1% of Gabon’s population is Gabonese-born of which 23.2% are from the Bantu-Fang people, 18.9% are the Shira-Punu, 11.3% are Nzabi-Duma, 6.9% are the Mbede-Teke, 5% are Myene, 4.9% are Kota-Kele, 2.1% are the Okande-Tsogo, 0.3% are the Pygmy people and the remaining are from other smaller tribes. The non-Gabonese population makes up the remaining population of which 4.6% are Cameroonian, 2.4% are Malian, 2.4% Beninese, 1.6% Togolese, 1.1% Senegalese, 1% Congolese whilst the remaining 7.6% are Nigerian, Equatorial Guinean and other ethnicities from around the world that have acquired Gabonese nationality. In Togo, there are 37 different ethnic groups of which the predominant are the Éwé people including the Aja and Mina speaking people making up 42.4% of the total population. The Kabye and Tem people account for 26%, the Gourma and Akan people account for 17.1%, the Kebu-speaking Akposso account for 4.1%, and the Ana-Ife account for 3.2% with the remaining population consisting of non-locals. French is the official language of both nations, however, it is spoken more widely in Gabon than in Togo as 80% of Gabonese can speak it fluently whereas in Togo about 30%-37% of the population speaks French fluently. In Togo, Ewe and Mina are the major African languages spoken nationwide; Kabye and Dagomba are also prevalent languages for a portion of the society. For Gabon, aside from French, Fang, Myene, Nzebi, Bapounou/Eschira, and Bandjabi are also spoken by the Gabonese people with Fang being the second most spoken language after French. Christianity is the religion of the majority of both countries; in Gabon, 42.3% of the nation practices Roman Catholicism, 12.3% practice Protestantism while 27.4% practice other denominations of Christianity. Almost 10% of the population practices Islam whilst the remainder of the population’s practices are unknown. In Togo, 42.3% of the population are Christians (all denominations included), 36.9% practice folk/indigenous religions, 14% practice Islam and the remaining practice Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and atheism. Similar to many Commonwealth nations, the majority of their citizens are vibrant and youthful; approximately 60% of both nations’ populace is under the age of 25. In terms of urbanisation, Gabon has amongst the highest urbanisation rates on the continent with 90.7% of citizens living in cities. Comparatively, 45% of the Togolese citizens reside in urban areas.

Both nations are presidential republics and instate the President as the Chief of State and the Prime Minister as the head of government with the latter appointed by the former. In Gabon, the President is elected by a simple majority vote for a 7-year term, without any limits on term renewals, and the Prime Minister is responsible for appointing the Cabinet in consultation with the President. For Togo’s Executive branch, the President is also elected on the basis of a simple majority vote without term limits, however, the term lasts for 5 years rather than 7, and the President is the one directly appointing the Cabinet of Ministers on the advice of the Prime Minister. Gabon’s Legislative branch comprises a bicameral Parliament with the Senate having 102 seats for candidates that serve 6-year terms and are indirectly elected by an absolute majority vote through municipal councils and departmental assemblies. The National Assembly consists of 143 seats for a term of 5 years and members are elected in single-seat constituencies via an absolute majority vote that could go on for 2 rounds in the case of a tie of votes. Togo’s Legislative branch, in comparison, includes a unicameral legislature which is the National Assembly. It comprises 91 seats for a term of 5 years as well though in Togo’s case members are directly elected in multi-seat constituencies via closed voting and representation is proportional to the size of the political parties’ list.

Gabon is an upper-middle-income country abundant in natural resources and said to be the 23rd largest economy in Africa in terms of nominal GDP. According to 2020 estimates, the country is the fourth-largest producer of oil in Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s fourth-largest producer of manganese (largest reserves worldwide) and one of the world’s largest producers of tropical timbre. Its GDP by the end of the 2021 financial year (FY) was recorded to be US$18.27 billion dollars and the nation’s GDP per capita, which was calculated to be US$6759.86 in 2021 according to the World Bank, is amongst the top 5 across the entire continent. After experiencing a plunge in GDP due to the pandemic which caused a drop to -1.8% growth in 2020, Gabon is slowly recovering as analysts predict that the GDP growth will be back to pre-pandemic levels at a growth rate of 3.7% in 2022 (compared to 3.9% in 2019). The upsurge in GDP growth and economic recovery can be attributed to the rise in oil prices and the gradual increase in Gabon’s oil production after it plummeted in 2020. Aside from oil exports, which account for approximately 45% of the nation’s GDP and 80% of its exports, Gabon’s 9.8% increase in manganese production, 120% increase in palm oil production and 29.8% increase in timbre wood production were also drivers of its economic rebound. The value-added industrial sector (including construction) accounts for 47.8% of which manufacturing comprises 21% and mining 6%. These trends are set to increase as the Gabonese government is actively looking for economic diversification to decrease reliance on oil as part of the Gabon Strategic Plan 2010-2025. Agriculture, forestry and fishing are also a focus under this plan as it employs approximately one-third of the population but only generate, when products are value-added, 6.3% of the GDP due to the max exodus of people, especially the youth, towards urban areas in search for better employment opportunities. The lack of proper infrastructural development hampers the potential of this sector, however, with adequate foreign direct investment and policy drive, improved transport and electricity facilities can lower production costs and improve the sector as mentioned earlier which in turn could lower dependency on food and capital goods imports. Additionally, it will also help boost the currently underdeveloped tourism sector which contributes just over 3% to the GDP.

While Gabon’s economy is certainly on the path to a robust recovery and possesses the potential to diversify and expand sectoral efficiency and capacity, the nation faces several challenges to becoming a developed economy that must be made a priority. Public debt, 60% of which is external debt, is currently equal to 74.7% of GDP; it has decreased since 2020 when it was at 77.4% and it is forecasted to decrease further down to 70.1% by 2023. Despite the narrowing deficit, the public debt remains at unsustainable levels due to which a three-year contract has been signed with the IMF’s Extended Fund Facility (EFF) on the condition of structural reforms and steady fiscal consolidation. Furthermore, though inflation rates decreased from 1.3% in 2020 to 1.1% in 2021 it is expected to spike up to 2.9% in 2022 owing to the ramifications of the ongoing Russian-Ukraine conflict. Be that as it may, it is forecasted to fall down again in 2023 to 2.5% and hopefully will remain on a downward trajectory provided economic growth remains consistent. Regarding the current account deficit, it has been improving in the post-pandemic recovery period because of the increased export of oil, timber and minerals. Despite the uptick, deficits in the services sector due to the import of technical expertise for the transportation of oil for production are equivalent to 9% of the GDP and the net negative balance of payments in the primary income account is equal to 11% of GDP, both of which cause a significant dearth of funding. Such challenges must be overcome with the help of foreign direct investment and support from international institutions such as the IMF to accelerate economic growth and post-pandemic recovery.

Togo is currently a low-income country and is classified under the Least Developed Country (LDC) category by the United Nations, ranking it 38th out of Africa’s 54 countries in terms of nominal GDP. The nation has one of the largest phosphate reserves and is the 6th largest exporter of calcium phosphates across the globe; despite this comparative advantage, however, 2019 estimates show that the mining sector comprises only 3.7% of GDP and 22% of exports largely due to the lack of infrastructural development and technology which hinders productive capacity. The nation is also a key producer of coffee, cocoa, yams, cassava, sorghum, maize and cotton on the continent and due to its historically robust agricultural and agribusiness sector it employs about 66% of the nation’s workforce and, as of 2021, generates 19.3% of GDP. Although the raw agricultural materials only make up about 8.6% of the country’s exports because they are mainly consumed domestically. Togo’s manufacturing sector, which contributed 14% of the GDP in 2020, generates a fair share of revenue from the processing of the aforementioned agricultural products and equally from the manufacturing of textiles, tires, salt and consumer goods including footwear and confectionery items. Togo’s nominal GDP at the end of the 2021 financial year was US$8.41 billion and the GDP per capita (also nominal) was US$644.07, a value that has been steadily increasing since 2012 when it was pegged at US$519.3; despite the increase. Even so, this value is equivalent to only 5.25 per cent of the global average (US$12,262) according to World Bank data and ranks it as the 5th lowest across the African continent. Low economic rankings notwithstanding, Togo has seen robust annual growth in GDP; since 2009, it has consistently recorded a growth of 5% and above. This period of renewed growth is to be attributed predominantly to the swift increase in public expenditure and its vastly improved reallocation and most importantly the increase in the public investment ratio from 3.6% to 5.5% as well as the inflation rate dropping from 8.69% to 0.69% in 2019. These factors coupled with improved fiscal and current account deficits stimulated sustainable private sector growth and economic expansion that kept annual growth consistent until the political unrest of 2018 and the subsequent onset of the pandemic again plummeted the dynamic growth rate down to 1.8%.

The effects of the pandemic were particularly harsh on the enterprises of agricultural and agribusiness, tourism, manufacturing, and the transport and logistics sectors that experienced a 41%, 33%, 36% and 35% decline in sales, respectively and due to the increased spending in response to the crisis, the budget deficit increased to 6.12%. Fortunately, post-pandemic recovery has been reassuring. GDP growth bounced back close to pre-pandemic values at an estimated 4.8% owing greatly to the increase in productivity of the mining sector including an 87% increase in phosphate extraction in 2020 along with the revival of final consumption expenditure that reverted to pre-pandemic levels to contribute 80% of GDP in value. Agricultural production is also expected to boomerang with the support of the National Agricultural Investment and Food and Nutritional Security Programme (PNIASAN). The US$7.8 billion National Development Plan (2018-2022) is also increasing public investment into the development of infrastructure of and around the port of Lomé in efforts to make the sole deepwater port of West Africa a regional hub and gamechanger for Togo’s annual foreign direct investment levels. This will be compounded by the Adetikiopé industrial platform (PIA) the mission of which is to enhance the value-added processing and export of natural resouces which officially commenced in June 2021 and is hoped to potentially attract more private investment. The services sector, which contributes 49.3% of GDP in value, will also recover as container traffic in the port of Lomé bounces back to pre-COVID levels. Such positive aspects of recovery are encouraging but it must be considered in conjunction with the several areas of recovery that still require arduous efforts to improve; public debt has grown to 61%, inflation is set to rise 4.6% and the current account deficit continues to suffer from the structural deficit of approximately US$1 billion (2021) in merchandise and services trade as compared to increasing imports that are not fully offset by rebounding export values. Furthermore, Togo sources 40% of its wheat imports from Ukraine and the current conflict of the latter with Russia jeopardises the availability and prices of the food staple for the country. Aside from the conflict, climate change has also made Togo’s economy vulnerable most particularly its agriculture sector that has been shrinking in GDO contribution over the years as temperatures rise. Export diversification is thus paramount to offset the adverse effects of global supply chain disruptions and infrastructural development will help drive investment, both public and private, to the nation which in combination with concessionary grants and loans, including the IMF’s Extended Credit Facility (ECF), will help keep the nation on the right track towards eventual stable economic development.  

A New Frontier- The Republics’ unrealised potential in the Commonwealth

As former territories administered under the French colonial empire, Togo and Gabon see both economic and cultural merit in adopting English as a second language. President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon expressed an interest in this idea during his trip to Rwanda in 2012 during which he shared about how Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, inspired him back in 2008 when he made English the medium of instruction in schools which enhanced the business networking and investment levels of the country that subsequently joined the Commonwealth the year after. For Togo, English has been an important medium of communication in schools and business circles since 2014 and as such joining the Commonwealth is an extension of  the benefits of English as a common language; however, for Togo in particular there is an added cultura; significance for joining the Commonwealth. As the Foriegn Minister of Togo, Robert Dussey, stated, “Integrating the Commonwealth will help bring us closer to our own people who have become Ghanaians” signalling a rapprochment with the Anglophone sphere to solidify geopolitical ties whilst also pursuing greater cooperation with the Francophone world.

Both countries stand to benefit from the opening up of the over 2 billion people consumer market of the Commonwealth, and contrariwise the bloc also stands to benefit from the growing ties with the Francophone sphere of business and political cooperation that comes with the increasing membership of such countries. Furthermore, analysts and experts have also mentioned the possibility of these new memberships paving the path for more countries to follow the two new members’ steps to joining the Commonwealth including Algeria, Yemen and Israel which are currently being considered as new inductees. The list could expand to include more nations from the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF). Aside from individual countries’ membership interests, the induction of Togo and Gabon also increases the regional influence of the Commonwealth through the expansion of trade agreements Commonwealth nations are signatories too. Togo’s membership of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) opens doors for more Commonwealth participation in Western African economic forums and Gabon’s participation in Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC), of which Commonwealth member Cameroon is also a signatory, also increases Commonwealth representation in Central African regional discussions. Aside from regional relations, Gabon’s recent achievement of a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council in 2021 is also a potential pathway for greater representation of the Commonwealth in the international political arena, which could be especially useful to raise the voices of Commonwealth small states and Sub-Saharan African nations, including Togo and Gabon themselves, that are most vulnerable to the rapidly escalating effects of climate change.

For the two newest members of the Commonwealth, the consensus is that the decision to join the Commonwealth is significant and a step in the right direction to expand their footprint in the international economic and political arenas. Togo’s Foreign Minister, Robert Dussey, mentioned in an interview with Reuters how “Togo’s motivation is to grow our diplomatic, political and economic network by joining the great family of 54 nations,” and that they “wish to forget closer ties with the Anglophone world”[ii]. In similar sentiment, the Foreign Minister of Gabon, Michael Moussa Adamo, also in an interview with Reuters said that “If the Commonwealth wasn’t alive and vibrant and constructive, why would countries such as Gabon … and Togo join?”[iii]