The Platform


The Paul Kagame government must clean up its own human rights record and avoid association with some of the continent’s more problematic leaders.

For the first time in four years, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) took place in Kigali. Delayed due to the pandemic, the heads of Commonwealth nations finally had the chance to gather, in person, to discuss joint challenges and opportunities facing their nations. With 54 nations making up the Commonwealth, the significance of this gathering was evident.

Rwanda was the last member state to join the Commonwealth as a “non-British Empire member state.” Rwanda has come a long way since the genocide that tore the country apart in the early 1990s. Hosting the summit is a privilege many vie for, drawing significant media coverage and exposure.

The summit provided Rwanda’s leadership with the chance to display its various successes, inspiring other Commonwealth nations and encouraging cooperation. Despite being relatively small and landlocked, with a population of around 13 million, economic growth over the past decade stood at an impressive average of 7.2%. Another inspiring aspect of Kagame’s efforts has been his ICT Hub Strategy. This has included the ambitious Connect Rwanda initiative, with the goal of ensuring that every citizen is connected using a smartphone.

At the same time, the summit placed Kigali under the spotlight regarding human rights issues. While Kagame has been building up the country’s economy, his government has been noticeably less committed to the issue of human rights. Nicknamed the “global elites’ favourite strongman,” Kagame has arrested a large number of journalists and human rights activists, and has been accused of supporting the M23 rebel group destabilizing an already fragile DRC along with election manipulation (Kagame won the 2017 election with 99% of the vote). The summit could prove to be an opportunity for Kagame to change course and show the international community, and the Commonwealth of Nations that he is committed to the human rights values espoused by Commonwealth nations.

The hosting of the summit underscores a further risk that the government must be aware of. Considering that all Commonwealth members were welcome to attend the summit, this also attracted several morally disreputable leaders who sought to exploit the summit in order to raise their international profile and evade domestic criticism.

One such leader in attendance was Wavel Ramkalawan, the president of Seychelles. Elected in 2020, Ramkalawan has since his election, been facing a wide range of criticism. This has included accusations by Berard Dupres, the Chief Executive Officer of the Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation that Ramkalawan has been undermining freedom of the press, and allegations of corruption in Ramkalawan’s own cabinet related to infrastructure and recent constitutional changes which empowers the military. It was in reference to this last point that concerns were expressed by the Ombudsman, who stated that the constitutional amendment does not sit well with the notion of democracy.

A further testament to the current Seychellois government’s authoritarian tendencies has been a trial that began in late 2021. Involving a number of high-profile figures connected to the island’s former government, a number of sources have depicted the trial as politically motivated, aimed at locking up members of the business community, politicians, lawyers and members of the military. The government has been accused of using intimidation, while the police have admitted to human rights violations. Accusations such as these should serve as a warning to those looking to engage with Ramkalawan or members of his government.

At the same time, the summit provided an opportunity to begin to engage with some of the up-and-coming leaders of Commonwealth countries as well as those leaders with bonafide democratic credentials. Leveraging this opportunity to build alliances with leaders working to shape the future of democracy in Rwanda, despite the country’s sordid past, should be top of the list of priorities. This would necessarily come at the expense of those seeking to exploit this important event for personal gain. Kigali can and should continue to serve as a guiding light for development and work to improve its own track record domestically such that Rwanda can be an example of good governance for the continent.

Kate Flask is an American freelance writer and digital nomad who studied creative writing in the UK. She has a personal and professional interest in East Africa and Indian Ocean Islands and Runs Seychelles Watch.