Rwanda is getting its turn to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting from 20 June to 25 June 2022. The grouping of former imperialist Britain power plus its dismantled empire of former colonies, protectorates, and mandates has not had its biennial summit since 2018 because of COVID restrictions. Rwanda, one of the five ‘non-British Empire’ member states, joined the 54-member organisation in 2009. Political scientist Keith Gottschalk unpacks key points of the Kigali meeting.
What’s the history of the Commonwealth?
After the second world war, the United Kingdom dropped the use of terms like “British Empire” and “Imperial”. As each colony, protectorate or mandate gained independence it was invited to join the Commonwealth of Nations, which was formed in 1949. The Commonwealth is viewed as an inter-governmental organisation of equals.
The British monarch is only its ceremonial head. Its working secretariat is elected. Today, it is one of the largest international governmental organisations, surpassing its Francophone, Lusophone and Islamic equivalents. As a symbol of formal equality, it rotates its summits among members. The first summit was held in Singapore; the most recent in London. They are usually held every second year.
What’s its relevance in today’s world?
Relationships between a former imperialist power and an ex-colony are often fraught. The former imperialist power may dominate the economy of its colony for up to a century after “flag indpendence”. For example, South Africa got independence in 1910, but only a century later did its trade and investment with China overtake that from the UK.
The Commonwealth has done remarkably well in retaining membership, and in comity of relations, despite these background tensions. Associated entities range from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to university links. Publishers open branches in other Commonwealth countries: Oxford University Press is the most prominent of these.
The average country in the developing world cannot afford to maintain more than ten or a dozen embassies abroad. Summits like the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting provide useful opportunities for networking. It brings over 50 heads of government to the same town at the same time. It is convenient to arrive a day early, or depart a day late, to allow time for lobbying as well as wheeling and dealing.
Past summits have not had dramatic outcomes, but cleared the air through discussions and negotiations about why different governments follow different policies.
For ‘non-British Empire’ states, what’s the attraction?
Many states find it a gain in prestige and influence to add the Commonwealth to their portfolio. Rwanda, Cameroon, Mozambique, Mauritius and the Seychelles are all examples of states with multiple international affiliations. (Mauritius and the Seychelles were ruled successively as French, then British colonies.)
In the case of Rwanda, joining the Commonwealth was also intended as a diplomatic slap in the face to the French government from a Francophone country. Rwanda was a German colony, then a Belgian mandate, and was never under British rule. But the central Africa nation has been viewed as a French enclave in Africa.
Rwanda has been bickering with France for nearly 30 years, over involvement in the 1994 genocide. It’s only since the 2021 visit to Kigali by President Emmanuel Macron that relations seem to have taken a positive turn.
What does Rwanda gain by hosting the summit?
It gives President Paul Kagame prestige and soft power. Kagame is often termed “the west’s favourite dictator” because he gets no public criticism from states in Europe and northern America. But he receives a steady trickle of criticism from civil society groups over repression of rivals at home and dispatch of death squads to assassinate opponents abroad.
Author and journalist Michela Wrong’s Do Not Disturb bestseller, and reactions to the jailing of Paul Rusesabagina, who saved lives in Rwanda’s genocide, are just the latest examples of this undercurrent of condemnation.
Ascension to the African Union chairmanship in 2018 brought more prestige to Kagame than usual for other chairs. His proposal to the African Union to narrow its focus in the interests of efficiency, and revise its collection of annual membership dues was widely accepted. This international role brought much positive publicity (in Africa) to Kagame and Rwanda.
A Commonwealth summit in Kigali enables President Kagame to showcase the modernity of his capital, and position himself as central in international diplomatic networks. Kigali has an impressive convention centre, for instance. Kagame also gets the opportunity to project all the positive dimensions of his achievements such as economic growth (which averaged 7.2% over the decade before the COVID-19 outbreak) and a pro-information technology policy that includes distributing smartphones to households.
The summit will no doubt include tours of the 1994 genocide museum for the visiting heads of state and government, and accompanying media.
Rwanda is a continental leader in effective family planning. Rwanda also boasts the world record for the highest percentage of MPs who are women, over 60%. This is especially rare in African parliaments.
What are the risks of such a high-profile event?
There are dangers in the spotlight. Some human rights protest organisations could use the opportunity to seek media attention, to argue that it is inappropriate for a country with Kagame’s human rights record to host the Commonwealth summit. Rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression and democracy are some of the values of the Commonwealth. Rights groups could organise protests outside Rwandan embassies in western countries.
And should Rwandan troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo be involved in battles, or minerals looting, during the summit, this could also detract from the summit prestige accruing to Kagame. But overall, this Commonwealth summit will be another feather in the cap of President Kagame.