As Rwanda hosts Commonwealth summit, Kagame’s human rights record comes under scrutiny

Paul Kagame
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KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) — With fresh coats of paint and streets swept clean, Rwanda’s capital is preparing for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit, which will bring leaders of the 54-nation group of mostly former British colonies whose relevance is sometimes questioned.

President Paul Kagame will host Prince Charles, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and scores of world leaders in a glittering summit, which takes place between June 20 and 25, that he hopes will promote this East African country’s standing.

The summit is an opportunity to highlight Rwanda’s stability and relative prosperity under Kagame’s rule. It also will focus attention on Rwanda’s widely criticized deal with Britain to deport asylum-seekers from the U.K. to Rwanda. Legal challenges stopped a flight that would have brought the first group just days before the summit.

The Commonwealth is a bloc of many developing nations but includes richer ones such as Singapore and Australia. Members range from established democracies such as Canada to more authoritarian ones like Rwanda itself.

Homeless people and sex workers have recently been removed from Kigali’s streets as the government detained them ahead of the summit, according to Human Rights Watch.

What do the Commonwealth’s countries have in common aside from their colonial past? Where is the bloc’s voice in international affairs? And how does Africa, a continent of 1.3 billion people, benefit?

Climate change, and how to rebuild the global economy facing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, will be high on the summit’s agenda, organizers say. The event also will discuss business, civil society, youth and gender issues.

Rwanda, a former Belgian colony now ruled by an Anglophile leader, seeks to show how the country of 13 million people has progressed since the genocide in 1994. It is the sixth African country to host the Commonwealth’s biennial summit since 1971. Neighboring Uganda hosted the summit in 2007.

Commonwealth summits in Africa have been noteworthy. The 1979 gathering in Zambia helped to bring an end to white minority rule in Rhodesia, which became majority-ruled Zimbabwe in 1980. The 1991 summit in Zimbabwe saw the Commonwealth increase international pressure to bring an end to South Africa’s racist system of apartheid.

“The Commonwealth is relevant, but the question is to whom? Do governments get political capital out of it? You profile your country, you profile your name,” said Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a political historian at Uganda’s Makerere University. “You can derive political legitimacy out of hosting such an event.”

That rare opportunity is why countries such as Rwanda appear eager to “spend their meager resources” to host the summit, he said.

Rwandan authorities said they would spend roughly $10 million improving infrastructure ahead of the summit, which was initially scheduled to happen in 2020 but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hotels and restaurants are fully booked, ensuring the summit’s popularity among some Rwandans.

“The bottom line is to showcase what products we Africans have, and visitors will always come back to buy or invest,” said teacher Agnes Nadin. “This is the beauty as CHOGM attracts a big gathering.”

But others who spoke to The Associated Press were less enthusiastic, asking what the Commonwealth means for Africans.

“The former master’s underlying motivation is not good governance in Africa or improvement on the human rights platform but influence-seeking,” said Dias Nyesiga, a business consultant in Kigali.

The Commonwealth should establish a peer-review mechanism of steps each member should take to achieve the bloc’s values, including good governance and the protection of human rights, he said.

The Commonwealth would be more influential if it worked boldly to address global challenges such as “the consequences of pandemics,” said Eric Ndushabandi, a professor of political science at the University of Rwanda.

Representing 2.5 billion people, the Commonwealth notably monitors elections among member countries and makes recommendations in its reports.

The bloc has suspended member states in response to events deemed to be in violation of its values. Nigeria was suspended for years after a harsh military government executed environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others in 1995.


Zimbabwe left the bloc in 2003 as President Robert Mugabe’s government faced criticism over disputed elections and seizures of farms owned by white people. Zimbabwe’s current government now seeks readmission, and analysts say President Emmerson Mnangagwa is pushing for greater international legitimacy after taking power from Mugabe in 2017. Zimbabwe remains under international sanctions.

“Mnangagwa sees it as politically expedient to be added back into the Commonwealth because in as much he has been described as ‘worse than Mugabe,’ he wishes to be seen as a good global citizen,” said Zimbabwean political analyst David Chikwaza. “The Commonwealth’s association is something he believes will cement his mantra of reengagement.”

The Commonwealth undermines its influence by appearing to be more of a nostalgic political group rather than a trading bloc, Chikwaza said.

Commonwealth leaders at a summit in 2018 pledged to boost trade within the bloc to $2 trillion by 2030. But trade between Britain and Commonwealth countries was so low by 2020 that the bloc accounted for only about 9% of the U.K.’s total trade, with the value of exports to the Commonwealth falling by 16% between 2019 and 2020, according to the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics.

With China now Africa’s leading trade partner, the U.K.’s political influence in its former colonies has waned. In Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, a mountain-top parliamentary building erected by the Chinese is set to replace the Victorian-style chamber.

Edson Sangwa, a Zimbabwean vendor of cheap electronics and children’s toys imported from China, quipped: “What is the Commonwealth? We know China!”