Commonwealth countries set to meet in Rwanda: What to expect

The summit comes amid souring relations between Rwanda and DR Congo that have reignited decades-long animosity.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson shakes hands with Rwandan President Paul Kagame during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at the office of the President in Kigali, Rwanda
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson shakes hands with Rwandan President Paul Kagame during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at the Office of the President in Kigali, Rwanda [Dan Kitwood/Reuters]

Heads of government from Commonwealth countries will meet in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, on Friday and Saturday to tackle challenges from climate change and poverty to the food security crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine.

Here are some key facts about the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and the Kigali summit, which were supposed to be held in 2020 but were twice delayed because of the COVID pandemic.

What is the Commonwealth?

  • It is a voluntary association of 54 countries that evolved gradually from the British Empire and has existed in its modern form since 1949.

Who are its members?

  • The Commonwealth includes 13 countries in the Caribbean and the Americas, 19 countries in Africa, three in Europe, eight in Asia and 11 in the Pacific.
  • It has a combined population of 2.5 billion.
  • India accounts for 1.4 billion of its citizens, while 32 members have populations of 1.5 million or less, the smallest being Nauru, which has 10,000 inhabitants.

Are they all former British colonies?

  • Most of them are, but that is not a condition for membership. The last two countries to join, Rwanda and Mozambique, have no historical ties to the British Empire.
  • Gabon and Togo, both former French colonies, are expected to apply to join at the Kigali summit.

What does the Commonwealth do?

  • It presents itself as a network for cooperation on common goals such as protecting the environment, boosting trade, supporting democracy, promoting education and gender equality, and giving small states a louder voice on the world stage.
  • Although it is not a free trade zone, it calculates that its members find it 21 percent cheaper to trade with other members than with non-Commonwealth countries which are a similar distance away, based on an analysis of World Bank data. Factors include a common language and similar legal and commercial frameworks.

Who heads it?

  • Queen Elizabeth II has been head of the Commonwealth, a largely symbolic role, since her reign began in 1952.
  • The organisation says the British monarch is not automatically its head, but its members nevertheless agreed at a meeting in London in 2018 that Elizabeth’s son Prince Charles would succeed her in the role. Charles is attending the Kigali summit, representing his mother.
Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales attends a Commonwealth Business Forum Exhibition at the Kigali Cultural Village during Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali, Rwanda
Charles, Prince of Wales, attends a Commonwealth Business Forum exhibition at the Kigali Cultural Village during a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali, Rwanda [Ian Vogler/Reuters]

Who runs it?

  • It has a secretariat based in London and a secretary-general, currently Dominica-born Patricia Scotland.
  • Commonwealth leaders will decide in Kigali whether to reappoint her for a second term or replace her with Kamina Johnson Smith, the Jamaican foreign minister. Britain has criticised Scotland’s leadership and is backing Johnson Smith, as are India and Belize.

Who is attending the Kigali summit?

  • Most heads of government of Commonwealth countries will be there, including Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari, Britain’s Boris Johnson and Canada’s Justin Trudeau.
  • But South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, India’s Narendra Modi, Pakistan’s Shehbaz Sharif, Australia’s Anthony Albanese and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern are not expected, raising questions about the relevance of the organisation for those countries.
  • A few countries like Zimbabwe have left the alliance or signalled their will to leave it. Others like The Gambia, Pakistan and Maldives previously left but have rejoined the body.

What is likely to be discussed?

  • Leaders are expected to discuss souring relations since May between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as rebel groups – which Kinshasa accuses Kigali of supporting – have launched their most sustained offensive in a decade. On Monday, Kenya announced the deployment of the Eastern African Community’s regional force in DRC to quell the violence.
  • Climate action will also be on the agenda as climate change remains a major concern for the bloc. Recent weather events and longer term climate trends, including heat waves, extreme temperatures, droughts, cyclones, floods and rising sea levels, afflict most of its member states.
  • Trade among member nations, a recurring topic of discussion, will be included, too.
  • The coming presidential elections in Kenya, scheduled for August 9, are also expected to be discussed.


Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies