As Rwandan President Paul Kagame takes charge of the Commonwealth for the next two years, he faces a daunting task of reviving an association that faces an existential threat due to its colonial history.
President Kagame took over chairmanship from Britain under PM Boris Johnson at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in Kigali.
As chair, he is expected to oversee the work of the Commonwealth Secretariat, the implementing organ of the 56-nation club, whose memberships is drawn from those predominantly with colonial ties to the then imperial British Empire. In recent years, the club has admitted countries with no such historical ties including Rwanda, Mozambique and most recently Togo and Gabon.
“Countries join the Commonwealth because it has many meetings at Heads and Ministerial level and is thus a forum that provides political legitimacy. These French colonies, as are some Caribbean Commonwealth countries, are also Francophonie members. All this strengthens their political legitimacy, deepens the impression that they are recognised and accepted by the global community,” a diplomat told The EastAfrican.
The Commonwealth values enshrined in its charter include the promotion of democracy, human rights, good governance, the rule of law, individual liberty, egalitarianism, free trade, multilateralism and world peace.
Crown vs sovereignty debate
Critics argue that despite the increasing membership, the club has failed to live up to its values as member countries continue to violate these principles without being held to account partly because it has no binding framework to impose sanctions.
The Commonwealth, which is headed by Queen Elizabeth II, 96, is under pressure as more countries seek sovereignty and break ties with the British monarchy.
In 2020, Barbados became the fourth Caribbean country to replace the Queen as its Head of State, joining Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Dominica who did soon after gaining independence in the 1970s. Eight other former British colonies in the region, however, still pledge allegiance to the Crown.
But, most recently, in March, Jamaica formally expressed its intention to become independent amid protests calling on the monarchy to pay reparations for slavery during a visit to the country by Prince William, second-in-line to the British throne and his wife Kate Middleton.
Now, speculation is rife that Britain is attempting to persuade Jamaica to shelve the plans by endorsing Kamina Johnson Smith, their candidate for the position of Commonwealth Secretary-General.
But Ms Smith’s candidature has also created a rift between members in particular with the Caribbean, which had previously endorsed the current Secretary-General, Baroness Patricia Scotland who has had a controversial and extended tenure.