At the Commonwealth’s biennial summit recently held in Trinidad and Tobago, the much anticipated news that Rwanda was to be admitted as its fifty-fourth member was announced. The significance of this decision should not be underestimated – neither for Rwanda, as a tiny, landlocked country in East Africa, nor for this international association encompassing one quarter of the world.
For many, Rwanda echoes in our consciousness as a country ravaged by a genocide perpetrated on its people 15 years ago. This appalling episode left one million dead, three million refugees, a region riddled with insecurity and a country and people struggling to comprehend the enormity of the horror inflicted upon them.
The lessons of the genocide have been harsh and the many memorials to the dead continue to remind survivors of the terrible price paid by the majority of Rwandan families. Yet visitors to Rwanda can now see an enormous amount of progress, and the overriding feeling that I get every time I visit the country is of a people wanting to move onwards and upwards to a better future.
I first had the chance to visit Rwanda in 2007 when Andrew Mitchell, Shadow Secretary for International Development, organised a trip for a group of Conservative MPs, candidates, supporters and activists to the country. We were split into groups to work on a variety of social action projects. I was given the opportunity to refurbish Girubuntu primary school for 83 orphans and other children in the capital, Kigali.
The experience made a lasting impression on me, as it did all those of us who worked on the social action projects. I continue to remain engaged with the school and have returned to Rwanda several times since 2007. I am currently rebuilding the school on a new site for 300 children which I hope to have completed by September 2010.
Despite these social action projects and similar initiatives by other international organisations, and despite the desire by the people of Rwanda for a prosperous future, there is no denying the fact that Rwanda still ranks as one of the 20 poorest countries in the world. However, under its President, Paul Kagame, Rwanda now has a secure and stable government and it has embarked on a firmly upward trajectory. 94% of primary school age children are now enrolled in the school system, foreign investment is flowing in at a hitherto unprecedented rate and, prior to the recession, GDP was growing at a remarkable 11.2%.
On a regional level, Rwanda is taking on new responsibilities: providing soldiers for African Union missions and pursuing new opportunities and cooperation through the Eastern African Community. This is a country with much to offer to, and gain from, the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth gives democratic voice to countries both large and small, embracing all the major faiths and spanning five continents. It is a rich patchwork of nations, united by the threads of democracy, diversity, tolerance, understanding and collaboration. These shared values and aspirations that have endured within the Commonwealth are ones that I also see enshrined in Rwanda.
Indeed, along with the reward of accession also comes the responsibility to adhere to the Commonwealth’s core values. As with all members, we must be vigilant about adherence to the obligations attached to membership, both to ensure the Commonwealth’s continued credibility and to bring the utmost benefit to its people.
Shortly after his inauguration as President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela remarked: “The Commonwealth makes the world safe for diversity.” Today, this still rings true, and if we are to continue to embrace this belief we must keep the door to this multilateral association open to willing and able prospective nation members.
Some have reacted sceptically to the admittance of French-speaking Rwanda to the essentially English-speaking Commonwealth. But I believe there is real strength in diversity, and the admission of Mozambique 14 years ago has already set a clear precedent for countries without a British colonial past or constitutional link to Britain joining the Commonwealth.
Furthermore, many of the refugees who returned to Rwanda from neighbouring countries after the genocide brought a more anglophile outlook back with them. Indeed, since the first British embassy was opened in Kigali in 1995, relations between our two countries have come a long way. The UK’s relationship with Rwanda is governed by a ten-year memorandum of understanding, and our exchanges of trade, ideas and people have grown enormously. In support of this, DfID plays a very active role in Rwanda, with aid flows expected to increase even further to £55 million in 2010-11.
English has now become the country’s third language and is being absorbed enthusiastically by many youngsters. Rwanda has even seen the emergence of that most quintessential of English sports – cricket.
If the Commonwealth is to have the moral authority and strength to endure, then it must be able to embrace change and adapt to shifting geopolitics. The recent accession of Rwanda to the Commonwealth was a very encouraging sign. My experience in Rwanda tells me that this offers both great scope for a country striving for a positive future, and the potential for the revitalization of the entire Commonwealth.