By Alice Lawson
LOME (Reuters) - Togo's decision to join the Commonwealth will help it develop closer ties with English-speaking countries, opening up new horizons outside of France's sphere of influence in West Africa, the Togolese foreign minister said.
Francophone Togo's application to join the 54-nation club made up mostly of former British colonies is expected to be approved by Commonwealth leaders meeting in Rwanda on Friday and Saturday, along with that of Gabon, also a former French colony.
"Togo's motivation is to grow our diplomatic, political and economic network by joining the great family of 54 nations," Foreign Minister Robert Dussey told Reuters.
"We also wish to forge closer ties with the anglophone world."
He said he expected Commonwealth membership to deliver new export markets, funding for development projects and opportunities for Togolese citizens to learn English and access new educational and cultural resources.
This will be music to the ears of Commonwealth boosters such as Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari at a time when the organisation's relevance is under question among some of its existing members.
With a population of about eight million and an economy heavily reliant on agriculture and phosphate mining, Togo is a long thin country on the West African coast, sandwiched between Ghana to the west and Benin to the east.
Ruled for 38 years by strongman Gnassingbe Eyadema and now by his son, President Faure Gnassingbe, the country maintained close ties with Paris for decades, but like other West African countries it now seeks to be less reliant on its former ruler.
"It's clear that we are in a moment of quite a big critique from many francophone countries of the relationship with France," said Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou of the Overseas Development Institute think tank.
"There is a clear desire to diversify interlocutors."
The foreign ministry in Paris said the moves by Togo and Gabon to join the Commonwealth were sovereign decisions by those countries on which it would be inappropriate to comment.
On the streets of the Togolese capital Lome, some citizens were supportive of the pivot.
"Lome is sending quite a clear message to Paris that after years spent under its domination without any great results, it wants to open itself up to the anglophone world," said a man who gave his name as Anani.
Messan Epiphane said it was too early to say if being part of the Commonwealth would make any difference to people's lives.
"It's a positive initiative but it mustn't be just another paper membership. It has to change the day-to-day life of Togolese citizens."
(Additional reporting by Ayenat Mersie in Kigali and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)