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Political intrigue and economic recession haunt Kigali summit

After a four-year gap Commonwealth leaders meet in Rwanda amid fresh questions about the organisation's purpose and legitimacy

Every Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) prompts its own soul-searching, together with confident predictions that its 54 members will agree that this colonial-based organisation has outlived its purpose and should be wound up. But the members, apart from a very few, don't reach that conclusion.

This year's CHOGM (pronounced 'Chog-um') in Kigali from 20 to 26 June promises to be a troubled one, even if few of the concerns of the bigger and richer members of the club – such as Australia, Canada, India, Nigeria and South Africa – are addressed. Some of the members eulogise its unique span of membership and its tremendous networking value.

With their seven-day summits, CHOGMs are a rare opportunity for political leaders to convene for an extended period. Unlike the Group of 7 or 20 summits which tried to agree policy aims during the 2008 credit crunch or the Covid-19 pandemic, CHOGMs rarely take decisions of global import.

The Commonwealth's finest hour was its backing for sanctions against apartheid South Africa 36 years ago. But this week its members, which include 19 African states, will struggle to find agreement on another morally compelling cause.

The British government under Prime Minister Boris Johnson is showing a new-found enthusiasm for the club. One reason is that officials hope the economic networking power of the 54 members will compensate for Britain's exit from the 27-member European Union (EU), the richest trading bloc in the world. But the Commonwealth is far, and likely to remain so, from the single market solidarity of the EU.

Yet this week's agenda is wide-ranging and challenging: reforms to the governance of the Commonwealth; more effective policies to support gender rights and expanding opportunities for young people; better cooperation on public health after the pandemic; more robust rules on human, economic and social rights; consideration of membership applications from Gabon and Togo, both former French colonies; tougher policies on climate action and cyber-security.

Most politically contentious will be the race for the Secretary-General's post. Incumbent Baroness Scotland, a former UK Attorney General under Labour, wants another term. But Prime Minister Johnson is backing Jamaican Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson Smith, who also has India's support. African and Caribbean members are divided (AC Vol 63 No 4, June for Juma). The Secretary-General's position is traditionally decided by consensus but as Scotland is still standing, that looks unlikely.

Still more contentious is the track record of the CHOGM host, Rwanda's President Paul Kagame. The summit opened amid worsening tensions on the border between Rwanda and Congo-Kinshasa. This follows Rwandan police shooting dead a Congolese soldier on 17 June and Kinshasa's claims that Kigali is sponsoring military action by the M23 militia (AC Vol 63 No 10, Kenya sponsors risky anti-militia plan).

Alongside these regional tensions, Kagame's government is also embroiled in the political fight over the Johnson government's £120 million (US$148m) arrangement to send asylum-seekers arriving in Britain to Rwanda, where they will live and work while their applications are processed (AC Vol 63 No 9, Refugee deal faces delays as legal and political challenges grow).

Although the arrangement has been condemned by the UN and opposition parties in Westminster, Britain and Rwanda say they are determined to go ahead. The first flight, due to carry nine asylum-seekers, was cancelled in the week ending 18 June after a last-minute intervention by the European Court of Human Rights.

The Strasbourg-based court, which is connected to Council of Europe, said that one of the asylum-seekers on the flight, an Iraqi man, faced 'a real risk of irreversible harm' if he remained on the flight. A series of domestic challenges to the plan is also making its way through the British courts.

Kagame's government has said that it is 'undeterred' by the ECHR move and would continue with the programme. British officials have indicated that Zambia is among a number of African states interested in striking their own 'cash-for-asylum-seekers' deal.

But the arrangement looks set to provoke argument and some embarrassment at the CHOGM. Representing Queen Elizabeth II, Charles, the Prince of Wales, is reported to have privately criticised the Britain-Rwanda asylum deal as 'appalling'.

None of those misgivings are likely to surface publicly. Both Johnson and Kagame have every motive to make the conference run as smoothly as possible.

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