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Back when I was a reporter based in Africa in the 1990s, there were two organisations whose meetings regularly took place amid widespread media indifference: the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Commonwealth.
There were solid reasons for our lack of enthusiasm. Such get-togethers were strong on pomp and rigmarole, but the interesting decisions usually took place behind closed doors. Both organisations were widely seen as little more than dictators’ clubs, attuned to the interests of ruling elites while aloof from the millions of citizens they nominally represented.
The Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm) in Kigali, Rwanda this week will do nothing to challenge those assumptions.
Held in a country primed to receive Britain’s unwanted migrants – a deal that even Prince Charles, who will be chairing for the first time, apparently regards as “appalling” – the meeting will highlight the weaknesses of the organisation on which Britain is pinning its hopes of future global relevance.
In the run-up to the EU referendum, Brexiters talked up the benefits of ditching the EU in favour of a market that – thanks to the vastness of Britain’s defunct empire – holds 2.5 billion consumers, a third of the global population. And, since Brexit, it is true that free-trade agreements have been signed with Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, while a host of other deals are being negotiated with members of the 54-nation association.
But the Commonwealth, like the EU, aims to be more than a trading bloc. Supporters talk about a “values-based organisation”. Its nominal belief in individual liberty, the democratic process, the rule of law and the importance of civil society were enshrined in both the Harare Declaration in 1991 and a Commonwealth charter adopted in 2012. Rwanda’s hosting of Chogm exposes a gaping hole where delivery should be.
Kigali will certainly look fantastic. The city where Hutu militiamen once hacked Tutsi families to death at roadblocks has been transformed into a gleaming conference hub. The flowerbeds have been meticulously weeded, every kerb will have been freshly painted, there won’t be a homeless person in sight.
But the explanation for that latter detail – before important get-togethers, the government relocates homeless people to “transit centres” for “reeducation” – highlights why the choice of Rwanda sends out nothing but worrying signals about where the Commonwealth is heading.
Rwanda is one the most repressive nations in Africa. It may be a “donor darling” whose oft-vaunted development indicators impress outsiders, but it is also a claustrophobic police state premised on violence. The president, Paul Kagame, routinely wins elections with more than 90% of the vote. The Rwandan government muzzles the press and human rights activists and opposition leaders are killed or jailed, or simply “disappear”.
Kagame not only has a terrible human rights record at home, he has for decades cynically exported instability to Africa’s great lakes region. Whatever the truth about the 1994 downing of a plane carrying two African presidents – former colleagues have publicly accused Kagame of ordering the attack that triggered the genocide, which he denies – Kagame certainly created and armed the rebel movement that toppled the president of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko. It went on to slaughter tens of thousands of Hutu refugees in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). His troops hoovered up diamonds, coltan, gold, timber and coffee, which were then passed off as Rwandan produce - in what Jim Freedman, who worked on a UN Group of Experts report on DRC mineral resources, described to me as “a national money-making effort”.
Ten years ago, western donors cut aid to Rwanda because of its obvious support for M23, a rebel movement terrorising eastern DRC. Shockingly, M23 has been on the rampage again in the buildup to Chogm. Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall and Boris Johnson will be toasting Kagame’s statesmanship less than a day’s drive from a region where this proxy force and Congolese army units are blasting away at one another, sending tens of thousands of villagers fleeing for their lives.
Rwanda’s appetite for intervention is not limited to its neighbours. Permanently insecure, Kagame has overseen a regime that hunted down former generals, spy chiefs and advisers who fled into exile. His intelligence services’ assassinations and attempted hits have been staged not only in Africa but in the west. The US group Freedom House last week described Rwanda as “one of the most prolific perpetrators of transnational repression in the world”.
We can take it as read that very few of these ugly facts will be aired during Chogm, so skilled has Kagame proved at making himself useful abroad. For years he traded a willingness to dispatch Rwandan peacekeepers to conflict zones for international respect as “Africa’s policeman” – a deeply ironic bargain, given his simultaneous support for militias destabilising the DRC. Now his readiness to accept the west’s unwanted migrants – Denmark may soon be striking a similar deal to Britain’s – wins him a new free pass.
Last year, at a UN human rights conference in Geneva, British officials robustly called out Rwanda on its record of extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torture. Once the asylum-seekers deal was signed the tone abruptly changed, with Johnson praising Rwanda as “one of the safest destinations in Africa”, while Priti Patel talked admiringly of a country where refugees could “prosper and thrive”.
A Commonwealth that took its own charter seriously would have reached out to those who have been domestically silenced: jailed bloggers and citizen journalists, for example. An international coalition of 24 human rights and journalist groups has formally called on heads of government to press for detainees to be freed and for guarantees that Rwandan media and civil society will be allowed to work freely during and after Chogm.
But the Hutu opposition leader, Victoire Ingabire, whose jailing prevented her running in presidential elections, has seen her requests to attend the civil society events running alongside the main meetings stubbornly ignored. “It seems the people at the Commonwealth are collaborating with the government of Rwanda to exclude me,” she said. Chogm in Kigali, it seems, will faithfully reflect its unaccountable, exclusionary host state.
Thanks to Covid, which forced Chogm to be twice postponed, the Commonwealth actually had two years in which it could have credibly announced an alternative venue to Kigali. But that would have required something approaching a backbone. As it is, the organisation has certainly shown itself to be a “values-based” organisation; they just aren’t the values many of its billions of citizens share.
Michela Wrong is the author of Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad