The stage is set for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) slated for June 20 to 26 in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. With four of the seven East African Community partner states being members of the Commonwealth of Nations, the EAC Secretary-General, Peter Mathuki, says it will be an opportunity for the four partner states – Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda – to reap the benefits.
Indeed, the Commonwealth will no doubt bring vast opportunities as it is home to almost one-third of the world’s population, and predictably all eyes will be on the host, Rwanda, a key member of the EAC.
About 2.6 billion people – out of the world’s 7.9 billion population – live in the Commonwealth’s 54 countries.
Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, will assume Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth, taking over from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and will hold the position for a period of two years when the next CHOGM will be held.
Rwanda is understandably excited to be hosting the esteemed CHOGM gathering on its soil after joining the group in 2009.
Among its achievements, CHOGM is touted for assisting the economically poor member states to meet their needs.
It provides technical assistance and expertise to the less developed members, promotes the development of education by offering scholarships and exchange programmes, promotes mutual understanding and cooperation among members by holding joint sports and cultural activities, and promotes the development of the youth through the Commonwealth youth programme
CHOGM also promotes good governance, and above all, it encourages trade among member states. Supporters of the Commonwealth say apart from the United Nations, the group is the only major international organisation to unite a diverse range of developed and developing countries, covering 30% of the world’s population.
“This makes it valuable in fostering dialogue on democracy and development, as well as a great deal of cultural and academic exchange,” said one supporter, adding, that the Commonwealth’s Harare Declaration of 1991 committed the group to principles of human rights and democratic government, and provided practical and moral support for states in transition from dictatorship or democratic rule.
Another advocate of the Commonwealth said developed and developing countries “discuss and negotiate bilateral trade and investment deals in an atmosphere of goodwill”, and the Commonwealth provides practical help in maintaining permanent missions to the UN. Others say all the countries of the Commonwealth have equal status and Britain is no longer dominant in the way it was in the immediate post-colonial era.
But despite the obvious advantages associated with being part of the 54-member group, critics say the group is a “pointless legacy of the British Empire, which serves only to bolster Britain’s sense of importance in the world and to make it appear that its monarch still has a role in the modern world”.
“The Commonwealth professes high ideas but fails to live up to them,” said one critic.
Another critic weighed in, accusing the Commonwealth of being a sham as its members always pursue self-interest when it conflicts with Commonwealth solidarity.
“On important issues,” another critic added, “naked self-interest always wins over Commonwealth solidarity, for example, Britain’s refusal to place sanctions on South Africa in the 1980s. In practice the Commonwealth is ineffectual.”
While some of these weaknesses are glaring, hopes are high that with Kagame at the helm for a good two years, these flaws will be addressed as Rwanda’s President is a tried and tested leader.
When he took over the rotating chair of the African Union, his critics queried if he would succeed in re-modelling the continental body into an effective institution. The AU was widely ridiculed as an organisation with “the bark of a bulldog, and the bite of a poodle”.
But when Kagame took over in 2018, he hit the ground running. He championed a proposal to levy a 0.2% tax on each country’s imports to finance the AU to provide the organisation with $1.2 billion and wean it off from its donor dependence. Kagame launched the African Union Peace Fund aimed at developing a mechanism of self-financing of Africa’s peace and security activities.
The AU passport was introduced during his tenure with the aim of facilitating the free movement of people, spurring economic growth, and promoting trade within the continent.
In short, the advent of the result-oriented Rwandan leader brought a new sense of urgency into the otherwise lethargic continental body.
Perhaps Kagame’s most outstanding accomplishment was the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCTA), which if successfully implemented, will see Africa becoming the world’s largest free trade area with 55 countries merged into a single market of 1.2 billion people with a combined GDP of US$2.5 trillion.
The AfCTA creates a single continental market for goods and services as well as a customs union with free movement of capital and business.
To demonstrate his resolve to have a peaceful Africa, Kagame has played a significant role in providing Rwandan peacekeepers in war-torn countries under several United Nations and AU missions.
Recently, Rwanda deployed its crack troops to neutralise an Islamic insurgency which was wreaking havoc in northern Mozambique at a time Sadc member states were dithering.
Apart from these accomplishments, Kagame is widely revered for transforming a devastated and traumatised Rwanda into a model country touted as the Singapore of Africa.
Rwanda was reduced to ground zero during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, which ended after Kagame bravely led a rebel movement that stopped the massacres and drove the genocidal regime out of power.
As Kagame takes over the Commonwealth mantle, all eyes are on him, especially from Zimbabwe, a country that wants to be readmitted into the family of nations following decades of isolation.
Zimbabwe quit the Commonwealth in dramatic fashion in December 2003 after the group resolved to extend sanctions against the then President Robert Mugabe’s government.
With President Emmerson Mnangagwa eager to reengage the international community, his focus will be on how Kagame will manoeuvre to ensure Zimbabwe is readmitted into the Commonwealth.
After all Rwanda and Zimbabwe have struck a common chord.
Jakachira writes from Harare, Zimbabwe.