After a two-year hiatus, the 26th edition of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) took off in Kigali this week, against a din of discontent. The meeting happened barely a fortnight after the European Court of Human Rights forced the suspension of a planned relocation of asylum seekers from the United Kingdom to Rwanda.
In the rarefied atmosphere of the meeting rooms at the Kigali Convention Centre, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni spoke for many, when he raised the issue of Covid-19 vaccine inequity.
Separated by time, space and theme, the two issues speak to a need by the club to re-imagine itself and its mission in contemporary times. During the 1926 imperial conference when Britain and the Dominions agreed on the earlier precursors of today’s Commonwealth, it was largely a meeting of equals. Australia, Canada, India, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa agreed that they would be equal and independent members of a community within the British Empire that owed allegiance to the British monarch.
The term commonwealth made sense a century ago because at the time, in terms of economic and technological development, these countries were almost at par or had reasonable prospects of closing the development gap. With the expansion of the club to include newly independent states from Africa, Latin America and Asia, the term became a misnomer.
Nearly seven decades since the advent of African independence, the Commonwealth manifests institutionalised inequality. There is no evidence of any will, effort or prospects for redressing the imbalance that makes the Commonwealth a club of haves and have-nots. Global issues such as climate change and gender inclusion often offer a handy escape hatch from the black and white issues that should form the core of Chogm summit agendas.
Inequality is the source of problems such as illegal immigrants from former colonies, which Britain and other European members states have tried to deal with by introducing more barriers to people seeking to access their territories. The desperate measures that the Tory government in Britain has recently resorted to, amply demonstrate the enormity of the problem and the futility of current controls.
Results of the 2022 African Youth Survey should be food for thought to this year’s Chogm. African youth are less optimistic about the future prospects of the continent. The survey also shows that youth mostly want to leave the continent for economic reasons (44 percent) and education (41 percent). Politics and security rank a distant fifth and sixth at 12 percent and nine percent respectively. These numbers clearly show that the core drivers of migration are the search for self-actualisation and a better life. And because of history, most migrants prefer the country of their former colonial master.
Climate change, sustainability and gender are important issues for discussion. But whatever goals are set cannot be achieved in an economic vacuum. Most members are trapped in recession debt, war and hunger. Covid-19 has deepened inequality. The lot of the poorer members can only improve if there is new thinking among the haves about promoting equity and equality.
The Commonwealth needs to make wealth common among members, by realigning knowledge, capital and investment flows, to expand opportunities among the less prosperous members.