“CHOGM is coming to Rwanda”: Once again the Commonwealth got it wrong.

Par Chaste Gahunde

The chorus has just begun. Surely, it will be relentlessly repeated for at least two next years until the CHOGM takes place in Rwanda, in 2020. Every observer would realise that a decision to keep the CHOGM in Rwanda constitutes an indication of the unequivocal support the United Kingdom is rendering to the dictator of Rwanda. It takes us to reflect on values and principles of the organization, and how it can influence good governance and democracy in country members.

How I know the CHOGM…

In 2007, I was in Uganda where I sought exile (2006-2008). It was a year of a lot of noise about a near thing, “Chogam”. [Tshogam], that is how it sounds in vernacular Ugandan accent. At least that is what I caught. A simple explanation to and by the ordinary citizen, was that “Chogam” was the arrival of Queen of England. Uganda was colonized by England.  Ugandans respect the Queen, and so, President Museveni took credit to have succeeded to convince Her Majesty to accept that invitation.  Everything turned around “Chogam”: From Entebbe airport to Kampala, the capital, the road surroundings had to be clean. I was living in Kitubulu, near Katabi military barracks, a few kilometres from the today Entebbe State House, formerly, Idi Amin’s palace. Every night, Police kept unusual patrols and arrested many youngsters suspected to smoke ‘enjaga’, marijuana in local language. TV and radio stations talked about “chogam”, local farmers said about it, every ordinary resident was getting ready. Even Semanda, a local mental ill man knew that Queen of England was coming. Some confused “chogam” and Queen!

In Kampala things took another level: traffic directions were changed, “esawa ya Queen”, the Queen’s Clock located at the city’s entrance from Entebbe side was repaired and repainted. The Road Police was given a new uniform. They had to put on white colour in order to hail the Queen. Imagine white uniform in Kampala’s dust!!!

Later on, we learnt that a special order of high calibre cars was ordered, just for the “chogam”. Among these, was a bullet proof brand new Range Rover to carry Her Majesty the Queen. All these expensive cars were sold later after the three-day event.

…And the Commonwealth.

On my arrival in Guyana, I got an opportunity to learn more about the Commonwealth.  As a senior leader in the University of Guyana Students’ Society (UGSS), I got closer to the Commonwealth office’s directorate especially during the preparation and host of the Caribbean Commonwealth Students meeting held in 2011. In 2012 I studied a short study programme run by the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) after which I got a diploma in Commonwealth Values and Youth Development. Afterwards I either participated into activities of the Commonwealth Youth Programme, or I followed closely.

About the CHOGM

The CHOGM is the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting, one of organs of the Commonwealth of Nations. The Commonwealth of Nations is an organization in which the United Kingdom meets and exchanges with the England’s former colonies. In fact, apart from Rwanda that joined in 2009 the rest of country members were colonized by England.

Values and Principles

Looking at it from another perspective, the Commonwealth could be seen as a strategy of the UK to keep a colonizer’s hand on the so called independent countries. It is very tough to explain the togetherness of the non-longer colonized countries and their former master, keeping in minds the scars of that sad past. To me, the Commonwealth reason d’être should be of repairing the damages of colonization.

However, its values and principles are very attractive. They include democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, separation of powers, good governance, inter alia.

In the wake of 2009 CHOGM, Tom Porteous takes us into what was going on inside the organisation. In the article still relevant today and rightly titled “The Commonwealth is a jamboree of repression”, Porteous reminds us how in the past the Commonwealth played a major role in keeping checks and balances in the governance of country members. For instance, Porteous recalls  that South Africa was excluded due to the apartheid rule; in 1995 Nigeria was suspended following the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa; Pakistan was suspended after after General Musharraf’s coup d’etat in 1999; in 2002 Zimbabwe was suspended and withdrew from the organisation the following year; in 2007 Pakistan was once again suspended a decision taken during CHOGM held in Kampala. Fiji was suspended from attending the 2009 meeting in Trinidad.

Today, all the human right abusers are welcome to attend even to host and chair the meetings of the organization. Dictators forge arguments that will justify their abuses while their counterparts look aside. Pakistan and Bangladesh claimed to be threatened by terrorism to justify abuses and torture. Rwanda uses either genocide or threat to national security to intimidate or even extrajudicially execute political opponents.

Can the Commonwealth play the Police’s role? A testimony

In 2014, my political organization Ishema Party based in France decided to participate into the 2017 presidential elections in Rwanda. We chose Rev Father Thomas NAHIMANA as our flagbearer for that historical civic duty and right. We knew that Paul Kagame, as reckless as he is, would do whatever it took to discourage our nonviolence movement. We met different diplomats for two main reasons: First, we wanted to send our message to Paul Kagame that Rwanda could be built even with opposition. We had no weapons and were open to dialogue and peace talks. Second, we wanted to see at which extent the organizations such as the Commonwealth to which Rwanda freely adhered would play the police’s role.

Our message reached. Kagame responded that we were bluffing, that we only wanted to make our political portrait in the media. At some point of the process the same diplomats asked us to provide the proof that we had applied for visa to go to Kigali! On November 23rd , 2016 our team led by Fr Thomas NAHIMANA was denied to board a plane from Nairobi to Kigali. In a letter I addressed to the diplomatic corps in Rwanda and copied to the Commonwealth secretariat and to Louise MUSHIKIWABO the following morning, I asked their intervention to make Kagame understand that they should let us enter without hindrance. Neither the Commonwealth nor any diplomat was able to do it! Talking to the media, Kagame seemed to give a green light. We took the next flight on January 22nd 2017 and this time our team was blocked at Brussels international Airport on orders emanating from the Rwanda Immigration Directorate. All these took place after Kagame forced the parliament to amend the Constitution so that he can remain in power. All the time Rwanda got away free. And the Queen knows this.


Designating Rwanda as the next CHOGM host should serve as a call to act. In fact, despite numerous reports including the organization’s own reports on human rights abuses by Kagame’s regime, Kigali was given an opportunity. It is high time for the next host country to abide with the minimal core values and principles of the Commonwealth without which a country cannot pretend to a membership. It would be shameless to Her Majesty the Queen to talk about democracy in Kigali while a woman like her, INGABIRE Victoire, is languishing in prison for having expressed herself. It will be of no use talking about good governance while Thomas NAHIMANA and other political opponents who demonstrated their will to contribute to the country’s political development are banned from their motherland.

Let the following take place before the 2020 CHOGM:

  1. Release of all political prisoners: Mrs Victoire INGABIRE, Déogratias MUSHAYIDI, Mihigo KIZITO, Ms Diane RWIGARA, Mrs Adeline RWIGARA, Théonetse NIYITEGEKA.
  2. An inclusive national dialogue between the Government of Rwanda, the opposition and all key social players of the nation.

The CHOGM might take place without considering the above-mentioned actions. But once again, it will get it wrong.