Feb 7, 2023

Mawazo Writing Africa

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Commonwealth in Kigali: Another chance for Rwanda’s Kagame to project softpower

Rwanda’s turn to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting from 20 June to 25 June 2022. The grouping of Britain’s former imperialist power plus its dismantled empire of former colonies, protectorates and mandates has not held its biennial summit since 2018 because of COVID restrictions. Rwanda, one of five non-British Empire member states, joined the 54-strong organization in 2009. Political scientist Keith Gottschalk unpacks the main points of the Kigali meeting.

What is the history of the Commonwealth?

After the Second World War, the United Kingdom stopped using it of terms like “British Empire” and “Imperial”. As each colony, protectorate, or mandate became independent, it was invited to join the Commonwealth of Nations, formed in 1949. The Commonwealth is regarded as an intergovernmental organization of equals.

The British monarch is its ceremonial head only. His working secretariat is elected. Today it is one of the largest international governmental organizations, surpassing its Francophone, Lusophone and Islamic equivalents. As a symbol of formal equality, it rotates its peaks among the members. The first summit took place in Singapore; the youngest in London. They are usually held every two years.

What is its relevance in today’s world?

Relations between a former imperialist power and an ex-colony are often strained. The former imperialist power can dominate its colony’s economy for up to a century after “flag independence”. For example, South Africa became independent in 1910, but just a century later its trade and investment with China overtook that of the United Kingdom.

The Commonwealth has done remarkably well in maintaining membership and nurturing the relationships despite these tensions in the background. Associated bodies range from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to university fraternities. Publishers open branches in other Commonwealth countries: Oxford University Press is the most famous.

The average country in the developing world cannot afford to have more than ten or a dozen embassies abroad. Summits, such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, provide useful networking opportunities. It brings over 50 heads of government to the same city at the same time. It’s handy to arrive a day early or leave a day later to allow time for lobbying and business.

Previous summits have not had dramatic outcomes, but discussion and negotiation has cleared the air as to why different Governments follow different policies.

What is the appeal for states that are not part of the British Empire?

Many states see adding the Commonwealth to their ranks as a gain in prestige and influence portfolio. Rwanda, Cameroon, Mozambique, Mauritius and Seychelles are examples of states with multiple international affiliations. (Mauritius and the Seychelles were successively governed 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 of a francophone country. Rwanda was a German colony, then a Belgian mandate, and was never under British rule. But the Central African nation is seen as a French enclave in Africa.

Rwanda has been at odds with France over its involvement in the 1994 genocide for almost 30 years relations have taken a positive turn.

What does Rwanda gain by hosting the summit?

It brings prestige and easy power to President Paul Kagame. Kagame is often referred to as “the West’s favorite dictator” because he has not been publicly criticized by states in Europe and North America. But he faces constant criticism from civil society groups for cracking down on rivals at home and sending death squads to assassinate opponents abroad.

Author and journalist Michela Wrong’s bestselling Do Not Disturb and the reactions to the imprisonment of Paul Rusesabagina, who saved lives in the Rwandan genocide, are just recent examples of this undercurrent of condemnation.

The rise to the presidency of the African Union in 2018 brought Kagame more prestige than other chairs . His proposal to the African Union to narrow its focus in the interest of efficiency and to revise its collection of annual membership fees met with broad support. This international role brought Kagame and Rwanda a lot of positive publicity (in Africa).

A Commonwealth Summit in Kigali allows President Kagame to showcase the modernity of his capital and to position himself as a central element in international diplomatic networks . For example, Kigali has an impressive convention center. Kagame also gets an opportunity to project all the positive dimensions of his achievements such as economic growth (which averaged 7.2% in the decade before the outbreak of COVID-19) and a pro-information technology policy that encourages the distribution of smartphones to households

The summit will no doubt include tours of the 1994 Genocide Museum for leaders and the accompanying media.

Rwanda is a continental leader in effective family planning. Rwanda also boasts the world record for the highest proportion of women in Parliament, over 60%. This is particularly rare in African parliaments.

What are the risks of such a high-profile event?

There are dangers in the spotlight. Some human rights protest organizations may use the opportunity to draw media attention to argue that it is inappropriate for a country with Kagame’s human rights record to host the Commonwealth Summit. The rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression and democracy are some of the Commonwealth’s values. Rights groups could organize protests in front of Rwandan embassies in western countries.

And if Rwandan troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are involved in fighting or looting minerals during the summit, it could also damage the prestige of the summit, which Kagame would fall to. But overall, this Commonwealth Summit will be another feather in President Kagame’s cap.