It’s time for Commonwealth ‘Club’ members to talk about exorcising Empire demons

Monday July 04 2022

Heads of state and government at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Rwanda. PHOTO | CHOGM


There is a conversation we must have, and it concerns the Commonwealth.

After postponement caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, it had begun to appear as if Rwanda’s finest moment in international diplomacy might not happen. Finally it did, and the country put its very best foot forward, receiving the representatives of roughly a third of humanity.

There was something almost surreal about what I was seeing, so many people without face masks. Only a couple of months ago this was unthinkable, as Rwanda had practised probably the most stringent Covid-19 protocols in the region. Now, masks were optional, and people even huggeed without a worry in the world.

The legendary cleanliness of Rwanda’s towns has never been in doubt for quite a number of years, and one could have expected noting less during Chogm (as the meeting of Commonwealth heads of government is called). But Rwanda showed other aspects of organisational capacity in things such as traffic management, event marshalling and throwing a huge party.

Encouraged by a host population too long limited in its mobility by the pandemic — there was a time recently when the curfew came into effect at 6pm — the visitors threw themselves into the sundowners that sometimes went on to midnight, and music from all over the Commonwealth, night runs, Rwanda traditional dances, golf matches, even cricket, were all on offer.

These were, of course, the accompanying garnishments for the main menu which, as is customary, features the usual suspects on world agenda: the pandemic and its impact on the world’s economies; the war in Ukraine and the devastation it is wreaking on the poorer countries of the world; climate change and the environmental Armageddon the world is visiting on itself; the intractable and growing problems of youth and unemployment; the ever-present gender issues and the centrality of women’s issues in everything the world tackles they are legion, complex and are refusing to go away.


More and more, such meetings are being marked by the voices of young women and men, who have been taking centre stage in the discussions.

I think if one looked at the profiles of earlier Chogms, one will notice the relative dearth of pot-bellied and greying men and the ascendancy of fresh-faced and quick-stepping men and women always seemingly in a hurry. Which is as it should be. The youth will not be postponed into a problem of the future; their time is now, and this Chogm in Kigali showed us just that.

It was acknowledged that innovation is required in every aspect of our human endeavour, and that requires the full participation of young people, who are better able to think up new ideas of how things are done, and move away from the sterile, ineffectual ways of yesteryear. The ideas expressed at Kigali by the young men and women involved in financial markets, corporate bodies, agriculture, education, mining and the arts and music, were most refreshing. I have a feeling that the youth have arrived and that from now on their place will be at the front and centre in the affairs of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth itself is an interesting notion taking on rather unexpected ramifications. Originally conceived as a club of Britain and its former colonies – thoughts of neo-colonialism inevitably come up – it has now begun admitting those who, as Paul Kagame said in his opening speech, have had no such history. Recently, Gabon and Togo joined the “Club.”

Evocations of empire will always haunt the relations in such organisations, because it is simply not possible to undo what was done to the colonised by the coloniser. Feelings of rancour might be tempered by streaks of mutual admiration, even a reluctant love, between peoples who have interacted over the ages in special circumstances defined by their respective statuses at the moment of engaging.

In this engagement, horrendous crimes were committed, and atonement has not been on the agenda, yet. Perhaps the evolving, multilingual Commonwealth — at least one Lusophone country has joined — will set the stage for conversations aimed at exorcising the demons that have bedevilled our relations since the days when the “sun never set on the British empire.” Today it sets every day on those former dominions that are trying very hard, in spite of everything, to conjure up feelings of friendship and equality in the process of “delivering a common future.”

As Prince Charles spoke at the opening session about countries which have had “constitutional relations with my family” , I could not help feeling that he was just about to say something like, ”I bring you greetings from my mum, who sent me here,” but then at that very moment he said something which I found very interesting:

He was talking about what I have just said above: “The roots of our contemporary association run deep into the most painful period of our history. I cannot describe the depths of my personal sorry at the suffering of so many as I continue to deepen my own understanding of slavery’s enduring impact… If we are to forge a common future that benefits all our citizens, we too must ways, new ways, to acknowledge our past. Quite simply this is a conversation whose time has come.”

Need I say more? Let us now open that conversation.

Jenerali Ulimwengu is now on YouTube via jeneralionline tv. E-mail: [email protected]