As Rwanda joins the Commonwealth, many ordinary Rwandans will struggle beyond the obvious benefits of international integration that will put Rwanda on a better economic, social and political path, to understand the relevancy of the international body to each of one of us.
Bob Speller, M.P. in The Benefits of Commonwealth Parliamentary Liaison says that the diversity of its (commonwealth) membership and its manageable size are major reasons for the commonwealth’s continued relevance and strength as an international organization.
He quotes the then secretary-general of the Commonwealth, Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria, who very aptly described the Commonwealth’s most important attribute as: “surely its ability to bridge racial, ideological and economic divides and inequalities, assisted by its common language and common heritage.”
The Commonwealth, aside form its agenda, is in itself a massive union of all types of countries with all kinds of peoples, big and small, rich and poor, developed and developing. It consists of wealthy post-industrial countries with rapidly ageing populations as well as impoverished nations struggling to meet the most basic needs of young, rapidly growing populations.
In the Harare Declaration of 1991, the Commonwealth Heads of Government reaffirmed their confidence in the Commonwealth as a voluntary association of sovereign independent states and in its basic principles.
The Declaration noted that the end of the Cold War, the retreat of totalitarianism, the virtual completion of decolonization, and the changes underway in South Africa presented the world and the Commonwealth with new tasks and challenges.
Consequently, the countries of the Commonwealth pledged to concentrate their efforts in the protection and promotion of the fundamental political values of the Commonwealth which are defined as democracy, democratic process and institutions that reflect national circumstances, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, and just and honest government.
They also include fundamental human rights, including equal rights and opportunities for all citizens regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief.
Among others included equality for women, provision of universal access to education, continuing action to bring about a free, democratic, non-racial and prosperous South Africa, the promotion of sustainable development and the alleviation of poverty in the countries of the Commonwealth, extending the benefits of development within a framework of respect for human rights, protecting the environment, action to combat drug abuse and communicable diseases, help for small Commonwealth countries and their unique problems; and support for the United Nations and other international institutions.
In a way there no global association of nations like the Commonwealth, especially because all commonwealth members regards themselves as equals, something which is lacking in bodies like the United Nations whose structures like the Security Council regularly reduce them playing field for world politics.
The Commonwealth is not a political union, but an intergovernmental organization through which countries with diverse social, political and economic backgrounds are regarded as equal in status. Therefore Rwanda with her small population and economy will have the same vote as say the United Kingdom or Australia.
As much as the Commonwealth is the baby of the former British Empire, from colonialism and domination, Britain learnt some crucial lessons. No wonder most former colonies have gladly remained members of the Commonwealth.
In fact Rwanda is not the first country without any links whatsoever to British colonialism to apply for membership in the international body. Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, was admitted in 1995 following its first democratic elections.
Rwanda, a formerly Belgian trust territory that had been a German colony until World War I was considered an “exceptional circumstance” by the Commonwealth Secretariat and becomes the second Commonwealth member admitted without having any such links to the United Kingdom.
Because of its apolitical nature and the equal status of each country the body wears moral authority when discussing important global issues which otherwise would have been only looked at through selfish individual national interests.
The expulsion of South Africa and inclusion of racial equality as a prerequisite for membership may have well contributed international pressure to the fall of apartheid.
The nature of decision making and deliberation which involves liaison and consensus may however sometimes be too drawn out and slow or may be polarising without suggesting a lasting joint position.
In the last decade the pull and push over the Zimbabwe crisis saw most African countries openly siding with President Robert Mugabe, despite his open disregard for human rights and democracy while the ‘white’ western countries stood firmly alongside expelled white settlers and exerted pressure on Harare without much success.
As Bob Speller states, the diversity of its membership, however, and its manageable size are major reasons for the Commonwealth’s continued relevance and strength as an international organisation.
The joining of Rwanda, apart form the obvious socio-economic benefits brings the international clout that a new member country will wield, especially with the new Franco-Rwanda relations that have emerged from the gigantic tussle that the two countries have had over injustices that have been conducted or condoned by France against Rwanda.
France and its allies will not take Rwanda for granted on the international scene because of their historical pre-independence relations.
Nor will the United Kingdom or any major players that may have heavily supported Rwanda to join the Commonwealth. That leaves the small country that is Rwanda in a surprisingly strong position for a country in Africa and without any natural advantages except the sheer power of direction of leadership and political will to get things done when things need to be done.