KIGALI, Rwanda — All week Jamaican officials here for the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) repeatedly said that, unless the sands shifted, Jamaica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Kamina Johnson Smith would be the next secretary general-elect for the 54-nation grouping.
The reference to the sands shifting was an acceptance that countries that had pledged their support for Johnson Smith could change their minds at the last minute.
Well about 11:00 am in Kigali on Friday there was a seismic shift in the sands as the sitting Secretary General Baroness Patricia Scotland addressed the official opening ceremony of the CHOGM and offered a treat some countries could not resist.
“We have laid the foundations for transformational change and I am determined that, when the role of secretary general rotates to Africa two years from now, I will hand on the baton with a stronger, more effective, more powerful Commonwealth than ever before,” said Scotland.
That announcement, it is believed, caused a number of African countries to abandon Johnson Smith and move their support to Scotland.
An African is scheduled to become the next secretary general of the Commonwealth in 2024 and there were fears, by countries on the continent, that the takeover date could be shifted to 2026 if Johnson Smith were to be elected to a four-year term, or if it was decided that Scotland was starting a new term, rather than finishing her second term.
In addition to her commitment to spending only two more years in the job, Scotland wooed some undecided countries with her declaration about her role at the secretariat since taking office in 2016.
“To have served as your secretary general these past six years is the great honour and privilege of my life. Together, we have been friends in good times and in bad, voices for the voiceless, [and] advocates for development and progress.
“I believe profoundly that the Commonwealth today, in 2022, is a beacon within that international system. A place where people come together, where we work together. Here no voice is louder or more important than any other, and where no one is left behind,” declared Scotland a short while before the leaders went into closed door talks with the decision on the secretariat high on their agenda.
Hours later there was an obvious muted celebration among the Scotland backers as news filtered out of the meeting that she had held on to the post, albeit by a razor-thin margin.
The initial reports had 27 countries voting to retain Scotland while 24 had voted to move to Johnson Smith. The Jamaican camp had a measure of hope as reports later surfaced that Johnson Smith had picked up another vote to move to 25.
But that hope was crushed as other sources said the final count was 24 to 27 in favour of Scotland, and director of the Communications Division in the Commonwealth Secretariat Matthew Patterson faced journalists to announce that, “By the consensus of the leaders… Baroness Scotland has been reappointed secretary general of the Commonwealth.”
Patterson did not provide any numbers, but Johnson Smith, in an exclusive interview with the Jamaica Observer, quickly accepted defeat and offered her congratulations to Scotland.
“As I said to many people along the way, if I didn’t pull through in this undertaking, in this journey, then it was that God wasn’t ready for me to leave Jamaica yet,” said Johnson Smith, who would have had to relocate to London if she had been successful.
“I want to thank every country and every person who supported me in this race, those I know and those I don’t know,” added Johnson Smith.
In his reaction, Prime Minister Andrew Holness said the contest was a good one as he congratulated Scotland.
“My heartfelt congratulations and commendations also to our Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Senator Kamina Johnson Smith, who ran a distinguished and exemplary campaign,” declared Holness.
He said Jamaica remains deeply proud of Johnson Smith and was happy to have put forward such a strong, credible, and competent candidate.
“Her candidature won her the respect and admiration of many countries within our Commonwealth family and brought prominence to Jamaica and our ability to contest within such a large international institution,” added Holness as he underscored that, “Jamaica continues to believe in the Commonwealth, its diversity, and its potential to deliver for its people.”
In the meantime, minister with responsibility for information Robert Morgan, who is part of the Jamaican delegation to CHOMG, told the Observer that he was also proud of Johnson Smith’s performance.
“We entered the campaign about two months ago and we were able to get 24 countries… to support her candidature. We have had the opportunity to engage heads of state. We have done about 27 bilateral engagements so far in Rwanda and we have participated in some very important discussions that will redound to the benefit of Jamaicans,” he said.
“At the end of the day, whenever you enter a democratic process you have the opportunity to win or to lose. On this occasion we were not successful, but we are proud of the type of campaign which we ran. It was a campaign of dignity, of decency, of respect, and I think if Jamaicans look at it they will be proud of how Minister Johnson Smith represented the island,” added Morgan.
In a release marking her victory, Scotland said: “It is deeply humbling to have been reappointed as secretary general of this great Commonwealth. To continue to serve our family of nations is a true honour and a privilege, and I will do so to the best of my ability. We will face the world’s challenge with unity and purpose.
“To seek high office is a profound act of service and I want to commend my colleagues who also sought to serve. The Commonwealth is richer for the breadth and depth of talented leaders who dedicate themselves to our family of nations.”
The 26th CHOGM will come to a close today following a foreign ministers’ round table with civil society and associated organisations, a retreat for Commonwealth Heads of Government, an executive session, and a media briefing.