Term of Commonwealth boss in focus as meeting is pushed back

Wednesday May 19 2021
Vincent Biruta and Patricia Scotland.

Rwanda’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta (left) and Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland at a recent press conference in Kigali. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NMG


The decision to delay the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) for the second time due to Covid-19, has left the Secretary-General’s position in limbo, even as leaders protest the travel bans imposed by the United Kingdom.

Announcing the postponement on May 7, Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland and Rwandan government, the would-be hosts, said the “impact” of Covid-19 had made it difficult to prepare for the meeting which is usually a physical biennial gathering announced.

“Having reviewed all available evidence and risk assessments including with the World Health Organisation and their risk assessment tool, and after close consultation between the Commonwealth Secretariat and Member States, the decision has been made to postpone the Chogm in Kigali for a second time,” said the Commonwealth Secretariat in a statement.

“The decision to postpone Chogm for a second time has not been taken lightly. The health and welfare of all Commonwealth citizens at this critical time must take precedence,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said in a statement.

“We look forward to welcoming the Commonwealth family to Kigali for Chogm at the appropriate time.”

The immediate problem now is on the question of the position of Secretary-General. Traditionally, the decision to extend the term or elect a new person rests with Chogm. And until members meet, the position remains in limbo.


In office since 2016, Ms Scotland, a Briton, was initially to know her fate last year, when Chogm was to determine whether she earns a second four-year term. When the meeting was delayed, she was granted a one-year extension, which has now ended.

The new postponement means Chogm leaders must meet before end of this year to decide her fate. “We can continue with year-on-year extension, but it is not ideal. We can also ask whether her extension is by two years or a full term of four years considering she's getting extensions unrelated to a full second term,” a diplomat told The EastAfrican. Commonwealth rules say the Secretary-General is eligible to serve a maximum of two four-year terms and Scotland will remain in office until leaders decide.

When her term neared an end in 2019, the UK floated the idea of replacing her but it came to nothing. As things stand, she is still Secretary-General, speaking for the Club, but it is not a second term proper, meaning certain actions may lack clarity.

Sources told The EastAfrican that while Rwanda was ready to host the event, leaders from the 54-member club were angered by the UK’s travel ban, issued as a Red List, at the start of April, affecting many Commonwealth countries, and all passengers transiting through the UK.

Between the travel ban and the time the postponement was announced on May 7, only five heads of government had confirmed participation in the June event. Most, including the UK itself, had resorted to sending Foreign ministers or other representatives.

“That was not ideal. So a postponement was certain. The Red List jeopardises travel for those who must transit through the UK,” said one diplomat familiar with the plans, referring to UK’s controversial decision to list countries from where passengers would be refused entry through or into the UK.

Ms Scotland hinted at this in a circular to member states just before the ban was announced.

By May 4, she said 29 member states, more than half of the membership, had imposed travel restrictions and suspended international flights in some cases. The UK, where most members were to transit had banned flights and passengers from areas considered high risk, including Kenya and South Africa.

Others had halted travel with India, where a new variant is ravaging the population. “Countries which have closed their borders have also, in the majority of cases, banned international flights or impose severe restrictions. “This is resulting in reduced participation at Chogm by Heads, as well as registration for the four forums, with confirmed indications of attendance at only 10 to15 percent of that notified at the same stage prior to previous Chogms,” she wrote to members.