As the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) closed in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, questions about its relevance, and criticism about it being a colonial relic, were as loud as ever.
It was the 26th biannual Chogm of the Commonwealth’s modern era, and the second held in the East African Community zone, after it met in Kampala, Uganda, in 2007. Chogm was due to take place in June 2020, but was postponed twice due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Commonwealth has been remade by forces as disruptive as the pandemic, though less dramatic, and the Kigali venue for its 26th meeting is revealing. Rwanda entered the Commonwealth in 2009, the first expansion of the bloc in the 21st century. It came 14 years after Mozambique joined in 1995, the Commonwealth’s last expansion of the 20th century.
In Kigali, Gabon and Togo officially became members of the Commonwealth at the heads of state summit. Diplomats in East Africa have suggested that Burundi is also knocking on the Commonwealth door. It all looks like the wasteful pursuit of a dodo. Perhaps it isn’t.
Mozambique’s and Rwanda’s entrances, like Gabon’s and Togo’s, were unusual — they had never had previous structural or colonial link with the UK. Mozambique had been a Portuguese colony, and fought a bitter war of liberation to win its independence in 1975. Rwanda had been a Belgian colony, and a few years after Independence in 1962, fell firmly under France’s “sphere in influence” in Africa. It is for these reasons that their Commonwealth is telling.
British-French political grudge
Mozambique’s entrance had some of its roots in the global movement against apartheid in South Africa. It also picked up the causes in Mozambique and Angola against Portuguese occupation.
As South African History Online notes: “The reaction of the outside world to the development of apartheid was widespread, and by the 1980s posed a sustained challenge to the South African regime.
“While countries throughout the world took various measures to weaken and topple apartheid, it was the anti-apartheid movements in the United Kingdom (UK), Holland and the United States of America (USA) that mounted the most serious of these challenges to the apartheid state, the UK’s perhaps being the most effective of all such organisations throughout the world.”
These movements, especially in the US and UK, moreover functioned in a context where the governments were the staunchest supporters of apartheid.
In Rwanda’s case, it was the Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army-led war, which started in October 1990, against the Juvenal Habyarimana government of the time, that did it. It ended in victory for the RPF/A, but only after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, in which nearly one million Tutsi, and many Hutu, were slaughtered in one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.
The RPF/A was formed by Ugandan-based Rwandan refugees and exiles, and launched its return-to-the-motherland campaign from there. Several of its rank and file, and mid-level leadership, were also drawn from other Anglophone (and Commonwealth) countries like Tanzania, Kenya, Canada, Burundi and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The UK diplomatic support for the RPF after it took power was both controversial and decisive in the context in which the new Kigali government had to fight for international legitimacy.
France didn’t help its cause, and its real and perceived dalliance with extremist killer Interahamwe militia and arming of the military left it hobbled with the image of an enabler of the Genocide. With the RPF’s rise to power, the French sphere of influence in Rwanda all but collapsed. Where once French was the official language, now it was English — and Kinyarwanda.
It was a coincidence, of course, yet Rwanda’s accession to the Commonwealth seemed like the settlement of a 220-year-old British grudge against the French. France was a significant and decisive contributor toward the US’s eventual victory against the British crown and independence in the American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783. France wasn’t done, rubbing it in Britain’s face, by gifting the American people the colossal Statue of Liberty, in New York, commemorating the alliance of France and the US during the American Revolution.
Britain’s loss in America British began to shake the empire, and paying for the war effort led to a sharp rise in national debt. Britain was to survive another century of relative global dominion, but the seeds of the Commonwealth were sown; of British influence through historical ties, “shared values”, and use of the English language was born. It came formally to fruition as the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1926 in the post-World War I period as the anti-colonial movement gathered steam around the world.
Revenge of the colonised
Fast forward to nearly 100 years later, and while parts of it could be anachronistic, the other parts tell a story of a Commonwealth that is a triumph of the colonised against their old colonial master. The Commonwealth is becoming what the empire looks like when the colonies take their revenge — and keep the trophy.
If you sit before a TV station in London these days, the signs are all there. There are a slew of programmes on how the Caribbean, South Asian, and other people from former colonies helped make modern Britain. A disproportionate number of faces in TV advertisements and British popular culture are people of colour.
On both the left and right of British politics, politicians of colour have risen to notable prominence. Among several, there is Chancellor of the Exchequer (minister of Finance) Rishi Sunak, who was touted as a possible successor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Mr Sunak’s parents are emigrants of East African South Asian descent.
His father Yashvir, a doctor, and mother Usha Sunak, a pharmacist, were born in Kenya and Tanzania respectively.
Perhaps the second most controversial UK minister after Mr Johnson, Home Secretary Priti Patel is also of South Asian descent. Born in London, her paternal grandparents were from Gujarat, India, before emigrating to Uganda, and running a convenience store in Kampala. In the 1960s, her parents emigrated to the UK.
Chogm in 2100
So, looking ahead to what this Commonwealth and Chogm will look like in 80 years, or earlier, the UK prime minister who will arrive then for Chogm in some African capital in the next 25 years will not look like Mr Johnson, but Mr Sunak, Ms Patel, or Chuka Harrison Umunna, the former Labour Party Shadow Cabinet member, who was dubbed “Britain's Barack Obama”. He was born to a Nigerian father and English-Irish mother.
One rather optimistic (or bleak) research projected that white Britons will have become a minority by 2051 due to immigration and growth in the population of settled ethnic minorities from the Indian sub-continent and other non-European Union countries. This “tanning” (to borrow the idea from Steve Stoute and Mim Eichler Rivas’s The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy) will affect other large Commonwealth countries, including Canada and Australia.
Queen Elizabeth II is the head of the Commonwealth, but with age and poor health weighing her down, Prince Charles has effectively taken over the role. Prince Charles represented the queen in Kigali, and became the first British royal to visit Rwanda. But even with that, and Prince Harry and his mixed heritage wife Meghan Markle stepping down as senior working royals, the British monarchy, if it survives to end of the century, is unlikely to remain untouched by the great demographic shifts changing the times.
And, contradictorily, the Commonwealth may need to decline, or completely die out as a political force, for it to thrive. Its present quirk, as the only such organisation that has a mini-Olympics in the form of the Commonwealth Games, could well be the reason for its existence in the decades to come. Organising sports, for those who are otherwise denied glory in the Olympics to shine; a steward of English, the universal language of the world, being the source of its relevance.
With Britain a minor power, there will be less nationalist resentment toward the Commonwealth.
In Rwanda, Prince Charles and his wife Camilla visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial to honour victims.
Even just 15 years ago, not even the most fanciful mind would have imagined that the story of the Commonwealth would be touched by the tragedy that was unleashed on the surrounding hills and valleys.
The strangeness of it is that had none of the horrors happened, Chogm wouldn’t have gone there this week, and Prince Charles wouldn’t have been in Kigali.
The author is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter @cobbo3