In my part of the world, it is said that when the address on the envelope is longer than the content of the letter, it means there is nothing substantial to say. This was the conclusion I arrived at when I read the Kigali communiqué of the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference which was held from June 19-21, 2022. The 117-point communiqué was 10,248 words long on bland statements and endorsement of already endorsed programmes. For instance, the conference meandered around the same Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs formally endorsed by world leaders at the United Nations in September 2015, that is about seven years ago. Its repetitive position on Covid-19 covered at least five of the points.
Labouring through the communiqué, I asked myself; did the African and other Third World leaders who populate the Commonwealth, wade through the document before endorsing it? Did their technocrats examine so long a communiqué before committing their countries? If they did, why was it not summarised into concrete, easily digestible points?
I was not really surprised because the Headmaster of the Commonwealth is Britain, a country whose parliament is famous for long debates and whose current Prime Minister, the Honourable Boris Johnson is a master of circumlocution. Given the verbosity, I was tempted to ask whether Mr Johnson wrote the communiqué; but it did not contain the flowery nature of his often combative prose.
The Commonwealth is primarily a club of former colonies repeatedly raped by Britain which has convinced its victims that it is now reborn and wants a commonwealth for all and a shared future. This is even as it refuses to repay, even by means of token restitution, the enormous resources it looted from the former colonies. For instance, from India alone, between 1765 and 1938, Britain looted over $45 trillion.
Even if it refuses to pay compensation, at least it can return artefacts looted from the colonies. From the Nigerian city of Benin alone, the British stole over 10,000 pieces which they are still keeping. The British Museum alone, stores some 8 million artefacts looted from the former colonies.
To be sure, colonisation and the process of decolonization were nightmares for the victims. The Pan Africanist, Franz Fanon began his famous 1963 book ‘The Wretched Of The Earth’ with the truism that: “National liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood to the people,
commonwealth: whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.”
However, British Prime Minister Johnson, who haven buried his Kalfat, Turkish ancestry, and adopted that of his English great grandmother, Margaret Johnson, while claiming to be more English than the English, thinks the colonised ought to be grateful that Britain colonised them.
In his February 2, 2002 piece in the ‘Spectator’ titled: “Africa is a mess, but we can’t blame colonialism.” Johnson argued that the best option for Africa is to be recolonized. He argued that Africa’s problems cannot be blamed on “Britain, or colonialism, or the White man…The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience.” After exonerating the colonialists, Johnson wrote: “The problem is not that we (Colonialists) were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.”
In his speech at the Commonwealth, Johnson told the 54 countries gathered, a lie that they and Britain “are united by an invisible thread of shared values, history and friendship.” In truth, the thread of colonialism is visible and the colonizer and the colonized could not historically, have had shared values and friendship.
Charles, The Prince of Wales, who, unlike Johnson, does not strive to flaunt his Englishness, was more reflective and sober. In talking about the potential of the Commonwealth, he said: “… to unlock the power of our common future, we must also acknowledge the wrongs which have shaped our past. Many of those wrongs belong to an earlier age with different – and, in some ways lesser – values.”
He described the British colonization of Canada and the genocide against the indigenous peoples as “one of the darkest aspects of history.”
Charles spoke to the heart of the Commonwealth when he told the gathering: “It seems to me that there are lessons in this for our Commonwealth family. For while we strive together for peace, prosperity and democracy I want to acknowledge that the roots of our contemporary association run deep into the most painful period of our history. I cannot describe the depths of my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many, as I continue to deepen my own understanding of slavery’s enduring impact. If we are to forge a common future that benefits all our citizens, we too must find new ways to acknowledge our past. Quite simply, this is a conversation whose time has come.”
Unlike Johnson who justifies and romanticises colonialism and presents it as the panacea for Africa’s problems, Prince Charles acknowledges and apologises for the nightmare that was colonialism. In comparison to Prince Charles, Johnson is a man who claims to be more Catholic than the Pope.
An intriguing aspect of this conference was the emergence of Rwanda’s Paul Kagame as the new Chair. His country, like Mozambique which had also joined the Commonwealth, was not a former British colony. Rwanda was colonised by the French and Mozambique by the Portuguese. But within thirteen years of joining the Commonwealth, Rwanda holds the Chair; Is this a strategy to draw in more countries that were colonised by other competitors?
At the Kigali meeting, two former French colonies, Gabon and Togo found their way to the venue as members. The Commonwealth’s claim that these countries were admitted based on its principles of good governance, human rights, and democracy is incorrect as neither upholds those principles. Togo for instance has since the former French legion Sergeant Gnassingbe Eyadema seized power in 1967 – with the baton, at his death, passing on to his son, Faure Gnassingbe – been a brutal country that neither respects fundamental human rights nor democracy.
President Kagame said Rwanda: “ a new member with no historical connection to the British Empire, expresses our choice to continue re-imagining the Commonwealth, for a changing world.”
On the Russian-Ukrainian War, the conference made a little veiled support for the latter as the: “Heads underscored the need to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states.” They also reaffirmed their commitment to the neo-colonial and neo-liberal policies that has impoverished almost all members of the Commonwealth. In this, they reiterated: “the importance of maintaining transparent, inclusive, fair and open agricultural markets and trade.”
In the end, the Commonwealth leaders came to Kigali, talked and returned home, perhaps to wait for the next gathering.
- Owei Lakemfa is a journalist, labour and social rights activist and host of Diplomatic Hour, Citizen FM, Abuja.