DIPLOMAT Interview with Senator Joshua Phoho Setipa, the SADC candidate for Secretary General of the Commonwealth

You have spoken of plans to ‘Fortify the Commonwealth.’ Can you explain this to our readers?

The world has significantly changed since the Covid-19 pandemic and countries are dealing with an extended list of complex challenges under increasing budgetary pressure. The Commonwealth is not immune to this. For the Commonwealth to be able to deliver on its stated mission to serve as a platform where countries big and small can engage on an equal footing, we have to continue investing in strengthening those ties that hold the Commonwealth together. Fortifying the Commonwealth is particularly important now when there are so many pressures that threaten to undermine the things that bind the Commonwealth together.

Has your upbringing influenced your career choices in politics, development, and diplomacy?

I come from a country that by global standards is very small. Lesotho is one of a few countries in the world that are totally landlocked by one other country, and this has its complications. On average, when someone looks at a map, they don’t see us, they just see South Africa.

Accordingly, Lesotho must jump twice as high to get visibility on the global agenda. From an early age, I was taught that I must be twice as good as the next person due to these inherent limitations. From a career perspective, that means there are very few of us from Lesotho at the UN, the World Trade Organisation or The World Bank, and we have to work twice as hard as the next person in order to get there.

In practice though, there have been advantages. I was exposed to senior decision-making positions and high-level summits early in my career. I was 26 years old when I was sent to establish the Lesotho Mission to the UN in Geneva.

Can you tell us about your experience of the Commonwealth growing up, living and working in Lesotho?

As a young protocol officer in the foreign service, I recall a memorable occasion when I was assigned to support a delegation, led by the then Director of Political Affairs at the Commonwealth. They were in Lesotho as part of the Commonwealth process that led to our return to democracy. Accompanying him to their meetings, I observed how they articulated and facilitated discussions with passion that eventually led to a resolution of our political challenges. From that day, my impression of the Commonwealth was changed forever, and I saw it and still see it as one of the strongest partners for Lesotho.

Since then, I have had the opportunity to interact with the Commonwealth from all angles. I have participated in the work of the Commonwealth representing Lesotho in several meetings over the years, but I also represented other international organisations like the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations Technology Bank in their work with the Commonwealth.

And now, in my most recent role as Senior Director of Strategy, Portfolio, Partnerships and Digital Division at the Commonwealth Secretariat, I’ve had the privilege of seeing the Commonwealth from the inside, which completes the whole experience. 

Throughout my career, I’ve seen the Commonwealth at its best, delivering effective support to member countries. Lesotho, for example, would have descended into violence if it wasn’t for the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has driven constitutional change that provided stability in Lesotho. It has been a key part of Lesotho’s transition to a more stable and mature democracy.

The Commonwealth has driven constitutional change that provided stability in Lesotho. It has been a key part of Lesotho’s transition to a more stable and mature democracy.

Can you tell us about your campaign for Secretary General so far?

I was endorsed as a candidate by the government of Lesotho in early January 2024, and I immediately applied for leave of absence from the Commonwealth Secretariat to focus on the campaign, and ensure there is no perception of conflict of interest. The first step in my campaign was to consolidate the support of my region, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which forms 12 of the 21 African members of the Commonwealth. I have 100 per cent support and the optics of having the region fully behind me are good. I am a SADC candidate.

In February, I attended the Africa Union summit in Addis Ababa, with the government of Lesotho led by the Prime Minister, where we engaged with all Commonwealth members to mobilise and seek their  support.  In London, my work has been to visit every single High Commission. Of course, I know them through my work at the Secretariat, but now I must make sure I understand their expectations and build a case for their support.

I also recently returned from Guyana where I attended the CARICOM Heads of Government Summit, where I was able to continue to make the case for my candidature. I’ll be going back to the Caribbean shortly and visiting each Commonwealth country. I also have planned visits to Malta, Cyprus, and Canada to engage with these countries in their capitals. Over three weeks in May, I will visit every Commonwealth country in Southeast Asia, followed by those countries in the Pacific. Between now and October, I have about 53 countries to visit.

You have expressed a desire to lead change at the Commonwealth Secretariat. What will that look like?

For us to continue to serve and advocate on behalf of its 2.5 billion citizens, the Commonwealth must continuously reinvest, make human capital available and make sure we are the employer of choice. The biggest investment I will make as Secretary General is to make sure we strengthen the Secretariat, the backbone and face of the Commonwealth. This will give the Secretariat the toolbox that it needs to serve member states and to have the ability to be an effective partner to member states. We shall also make sure our programmes are supportive and not disruptive of national and regional priorities.

Today, one of the key challenges the Secretariat is facing is its declining budget. Members states have cut down their contributions, and we need to have a frank dialogue with them about what has motivated this situation. We must discuss how we can get things back on track and regain confidence in the partnership.

What are your main plans and priorities for the job of Secretary General of the Commonwealth?

Aside from reinvesting in the Secretariat, I will prioritise the review of support measures to small island developing states and small states because they are the most vulnerable.

The Secretariat must also work to support countries on climate change related issues, and on access to climate finance. I will be pragmatic about this as the Commonwealth is a relatively small entity, with limited resources and footprint. We must identify one or two key areas where we have a strong value proposition and focus on those.

In other areas, we will continue to advocate on behalf of our member states on international platforms like COP29 to ensure their interests are reflected in the outcomes of these events. We believe we can help countries access these resources that we know are there, but have not been accessible to date. We will build capacity for climate finance.

Across the globe, we see democracy under attack from all angles. Unless we continuously strengthen our institutions, our investment over the last 50 years will be undermined significantly. I will continue to reinvest significant resources in key institutions like the judiciary; the fight against crime and cyber security; strengthening health systems in partnership with organisations like the WHO, plus supporting election management processes and stakeholders.

I will prioritise the work we do on inclusive and equitable growth to ensure that women and children are continuously prioritised in the work of the Commonwealth, and human rights continue to be strengthened. The Commonwealth’s potential lies in its youth dividend: 1.5 billion people in the Commonwealth are between the ages of 15 and 29. That’s a huge democratic plus that we can tap into, but we must invest and provide the skills – especially digital skills – that are required to be able to build qualitative human capital. To achieve this, I will work closely with other Commonwealth partners, in particular, the Commonwealth of Learning that was created to deliver long-distance learning across the Commonwealth.

One of the Commonwealth’s greatest strengths is its convening power, and its ability to amplify the voice of its members.  We must focus on using that power to support global issues that our member states feel strongly about. For example, The Summit of the Future is taking place on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September, which is the first attempt at a global level to set the agenda for what the world should look like in the next 50 years and to consider what issues member states must prepare for.  These are the global discussions that the Commonwealth must be a part of and must add its voice to.

Finally, my priority is to unlock the huge untapped intra-Commonwealth trade potential, which could lift millions of our citizens out of poverty. If we are going to deliver the growth that we seek, it must be driven by robust intra-Commonwealth trade, which represents the biggest market in the world.  We need to invest in the capacity to trade and build networks to trade within the Commonwealth.

Given that the Commonwealth covers such a vast area – and in different geographical regions of the world – what are the major climate issues on the table currently for the Commonwealth?

Climate change is probably the single most urgent threat to the Commonwealth today, which if not addressed urgently, could result in significant loss and erosion of the Commonwealth as we know it. The top 10 countries most impacted by climate change as a percentage of their GDP are all in the Caribbean. Countries like the Maldives or Nauru might cease to exist if nothing is done. For the Commonwealth, climate change is an everyday existential threat. With this, comes a whole range of issues, whether we are talking about mitigation, or about loss and damage, or access to finance. Climate justice is also a key issue for us.

Do you think that the UK-Commonwealth relationship is changing or evolving following Brexit?

Over the years, the Commonwealth has continued to grow from strength-to-strength. When the Queen ascended, there were 16 countries; when she passed, there were 56 countries. Throughout all of this, the UK has played an important part. As host country for the Secretariat, the UK will continue to be a strong and relevant partner. The UK’s commitment to the Commonwealth has not waned because The Queen has passed; we continue to see the same level of commitment from King Charles and will continue to see the same level of commitment from the British government irrespective of who is in office. We do not expect that to change anytime soon.

With the UK now outside out of the European Union, we have seen signs that the UK will redouble its investment in strengthening the Commonwealth. Of course, the EU is also an important partner of the Commonwealth, with two of our members also in the EU: Malta and Cyprus. As Secretary General, I will seek to strengthen our relationship with the EU.

What do you think is currently the Commonwealth’s greatest diplomatic challenge?

This is the threat on the investments we have made in strengthening democratic institutions both within and outside the Commonwealth. In West Africa, for example, over the past 12 months we have seen the significant erosion of democratic institutions with coups in Mali, Guinea and Niger. Commonwealth member states in the region are impacted by this. When regional institutions are weakened, we see a spin off effect, and that must be managed. In Mozambique, armed radical groups threaten the security and stability of the country, and if that goes unchecked, it has the potential to undermine the entire region. At a global level, developments in Ukraine have increased the cost of living in Commonwealth countries, like it has in all parts of the world. The threat to destabilise shipping lanes in the Middle East means the cost of imports and the costs of trade have increased. All this collectively represents a big challenge for the Commonwealth.

Secondly, there is an urgent need for Commonwealth members to get together and seek solutions for how to guarantee the financial sustainability of the Commonwealth Secretariat. Unless the Secretariat is viable and financially secure, it will not be able to deliver for member states. That is a big challenge that our members must deal with quite urgently.

What has been the most memorable day or event of your career to date?

Attaining a scholarship to study in Australia at age 21 was a defining moment in my life that set me on the path I’m on today. This opportunity unlocked so many possibilities. Before this, I had never been on an airplane or out of the country, apart from trips to South Africa.

Are there any hobbies and interests that you enjoy?

I am small time sheep farmer, and one day, I hope to be a wool exporter. This is my hobby and helps me to disengage from what I do for a living. 60 per cent of the global production of mohair is from Lesotho and South Africa, so this is a big industry for us.


“It is Africa’s turn to be Secretary General (SG) of the Commonwealth. When it comes to appointing the SG, there is an understanding among Commonwealth member states that a rotation of regional representation will be observed. The current SG is from the Caribbean and the one before was from India, New Zealand before that, and so on… We have now come full circle, and it is Africa’s turn. There are three candidates to date: me from Lesotho, Dr Mamadou Tangara from Gambia and Madam Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey from Ghana. (A fourth candidate from Tanzania has already dropped out). The nomination period ended on 31st March.” 


“The SG will be elected in Samoa at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in October this year. Each of the 56 Commonwealth member states – no matter its size – has one vote that will be made by the leader of their delegation.”