Dhe flags in the colors of the kingdom, Australia, India and South Africa flutter in the main arteries of Kigali. Leaders of the 54 Commonwealth countries are meeting in Rwanda this week for their first summit since 2018 and their first in Africa since 2007. It is also the first time that the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) has been nearly 5 000 delegates, is organized by a “new” member of the Commonwealth. Indeed, Rwanda was never a British colony, but voluntarily joined the organization in 2009.
A long-awaited meeting
The summit, originally scheduled for June 2020, but postponed several times due to the pandemic, is to “strengthen multilateral cooperation, explore new opportunities and address common challenges for the well-being of future generations”. An ambitious project for a Commonwealth whose role and relevance are increasingly questioned, at a time of transition for the British monarchy and questioning of the colonialist past.
The Commonwealth, of which Queen Elizabeth II is the head, is an association of 54 member states including 15 kingdoms, often former territories of the British Empire. The organization covers 2.6 billion people, or a third of humanity.
The 96-year-old monarch has always chaired the meeting of heads of government since taking the throne in 1952, but will for the first time this year be replaced by her son Prince Charles for the summit meetings scheduled for Friday and Saturday. The heir to the throne, who is making his first visit to Rwanda, is to meet survivors of the 1994 genocide, during which 800,000 people were killed, according to the UN, mainly from the Tutsi minority.
His actions will be closely watched because of the criticisms he allegedly made, according to the newspaper The Times, against the plan, described as “appalling”, of the British government to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. The first departures were canceled at the last moment last week by the courts. Enough to predict an awkward interview with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a fervent defender of the device and also expected in Kigali.
The government project, which claims to curb illegal crossings of the Channel by discharging the responsibility of receiving asylum seekers, is criticized as much by human rights associations as by the UN. “Commonwealth member states must seize the opportunity presented in Kigali to denounce this inhuman agreement and put pressure on the United Kingdom and Rwanda to end” the device, insisted Deprose Muchena, director of Amnesty International for the East and South Africa.
Especially since the summit comes as voices are being raised within the Commonwealth to abandon the monarchy, following the example of Barbados, which became a republic in November.
In March, Prince William, the Queen’s grandson, made a rowdy tour of the Caribbean, criticized for its colonialist overtones. Reproaches that Prince Charles also suffered during a visit to Canada a few weeks later. “The new generation wants to question the history of the British Empire, which is a good thing,” said Meghnad Desai, a British economist and former Labor politician, recently.
Rwanda, a 54e member still questioning
In Kigali, schools in the Rwandan capital are closed and many roads are blocked, while an important security device has been put in place. Flags of Commonwealth countries fly at the airport and the local government has multiplied international communication videos to improve its image.
The choice of Rwanda to host the summit is controversial. The country ruled by Paul Kagame since the end of the 1994 genocide is regularly accused by NGOs of repressing freedom of expression, criticism and political opposition. “Rwanda does not respect the values of the Commonwealth, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression”, enumerated with AFP Victoire Ingabire, the leader of the opposition in Rwanda. There reigns a “climate of fear”, far from the image that the country seeks to give, estimated around twenty civil society organizations at the beginning of June, denouncing the multiplication of enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture. and extrajudicial executions. “The Commonwealth’s silence on human rights in Rwanda risks undermining the organization’s mandate in this area, as well as its integrity and credibility,” the NGOs warned.
The context is all the more complex as Kigali is accused by its neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), of supporting the rebellion of the Mouvement du 23-Mars (M23), which recently took up arms again in the east of this huge state in Central Africa, awakening strong tensions between the two countries. Ahead of the summit, Kinshasa, through the voice of its president Félix Tshisekedi, called on the British Prime Minister to put pressure on Paul Kagame to convince him to stop his “aggression”. At the end of this Kigali summit, the Rwandan president will assume the executive presidency of the Commonwealth organization for the next two years.