COMMONWEALTH leaders gather in Rwanda this week to discuss issues ranging from trade to health to climate change, a summit that will test the organisation’s mettle at a time when its relevance is being questioned.
The Commonwealth, a club of 54 countries that evolved from the British Empire, encompasses about a third of humanity, with members ranging from India to tiny Nauru.
It presents itself as a network for cooperation with shared goals such as democracy, peace and prosperity, but critics, including many who are supportive of its values, say it needs to be more than a talking shop.
“We would like to see not just posturing,” said Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou of the Overseas Development Institute think tank.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has called for the Commonwealth to act more as a bloc like the European Union, writing in a recent column that the Kigali summit “should be a moment when the potential for our club is reimagined”.
However, the signal from some other members is much less upbeat. India, Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand are among the countries that are sending ministers but not heads of government to Kigali. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is four hours away by plane, is skipping the event citing diary clashes.
On the plus side for the Commonwealth, which is open to countries that were not part of the British Empire, former French colonies Gabon and Togo are lined up to join.
Analysts say this is part of a trend whereby France’s ex-colonies in Africa are seeking new alliances as they distance themselves from Paris and its old networks of influence.
The Commonwealth, however, has unresolved tensions of its own linked to the legacy of Britain’s imperialist past and role in the slave trade — subjects not expected to be discussed by the leaders gathering in Kigali, at least not openly.
“I think we should be talking more about reparations,” said Fidelis Bologo, a Nigerian graduate student taking part in a youth forum on the sidelines of the summit. “This should be at the heart of the Commonwealth,” he said.
Other uncomfortable issues will be simmering under the surface as the heads of state and government, who are meeting on Friday and Saturday, smile and shake hands for the cameras.
Earlier this month, 24 civil society groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called on Commonwealth leaders to use the summit to challenge the host, Rwanda, on its human rights record.
They said President Paul Kagame’s government was responsible for a wide range of violations including abusive prosecutions and harassment of opponents and journalists, unlawful detentions and torture. Rwanda denies this.
“The silence of the Commonwealth on Rwanda’s human rights record risks undermining the organisation’s human rights mandate,” the groups said.
There is no indication this will be raised at the summit.
Rwanda is also the focus of controversy concerning Britain’s policy to deport some asylum seekers there. Prince Charles, who is attending the summit, was reported by British media to have described the policy as “appalling”.