KIGALI, Rwanda — The looming contest for the Commonwealth secretary general post has started to overshadow many other key issues at the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) being held here.
On Wednesday, on the margins of CHOGM, leaders and ministers met for high-level discussions on how to best strengthen support for the Commonwealth’s 32 small states.
They stressed the need to forge partnerships to mobilise global efforts on the issues affecting small states, such as the persistent environmental, health, and economic shocks heightened by the novel coronavirus pandemic and the economic ramifications of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
Leaders and senior officials from across the Commonwealth also voiced their robust support for a non-binding charter on climate change, biodiversity and land degradation that would boost coordinated action in these areas among the 54 countries of the Commonwealth.
A document, known as the ‘Living Lands Charter’, is slated for discussion and possible adoption when the leaders meet on Friday.
The Commonwealth Secretariat also announced that its groundbreaking collaboration with Cambridge University has unlocked more than US$10 million of private financing for small island developing states, despite the project only being halfway through its research phase.
In making the announcement, the secretariat quoted Secretary General Baroness Patricia Scotland as praising the Cambridge collaboration “for attracting sustainable development in small island developing states, which will underpin our efforts”.
But despite the major announcements, the buzz in the corridors at the Kigali Conference Centre, where CHOGM will officially open on Friday, surrounded the bids by Jamaica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Kamina Johnson Smith and Tuvalu’s former Governor General Sir Iakoba Taeia Italeli to replace Scotland as head of the Commonwealth Secretariat.
Hours after he arrived in Kigali on Wednesday, Prime Minister Andrew Holness did a pit stop with Jamaican journalists at the Kigali Conference and Exhibition Center where he was the keynote speaker at the Commonwealth Business Forum discussion on ‘Bridging the Digital Divide’.
After a well-received presentation, Holness underscored that he had arrived on the ground only hours earlier and had not yet had a wide-ranging interaction with the people who will make the decision.
“I have met some heads of delegation, some delegations ministers and so forth. The response is good, without question, but in these matters of diplomacy people will be diplomatic. But from the groundwork that we have done, from the commitments that have been made publicly so far, we are in good standing,” said Holness who Jamaica Observer sources say is slated to have at least 15 bilateral meetings before he leaves Rwanda.
Holness defended Jamaica’s decision to nominate Johnson Smith for the post as he scoffed at the argument that the Commonwealth does not benefit small island developing states.
He said while he accepts that more could be done with the Commonwealth platform, it remains a valuable grouping.
According to Holness, Jamaica can offer the Commonwealth “leadership, management, governance, and to bring a perspective to the issues that would not benefit only small island developing states but beneficial for the family of the Commonwealth on issues such as climate change [and] issues to deal with trade and investment, which, I think, much more can be made of the Commonwealth platform”.
Holness told the journalists that he believes Jamaica is well-placed to lead and be beneficial for all the Commonwealth member countries.
Hours after Holness spoke to the Jamaican journalists, Johnson Smith and minister with responsibility for information Robert Morgan faced local and international journalists in a hastily called press conference.
Among the issues faced front on by the two ministers was the continuing claim that Johnson Smith was nominated as a proxy for a country which wants to get rid of Scotland for political reasons.
“I have actually been a little concerned that people have been sort of pressing a narrative that we would be agents of another State in this campaign, as if a small country can’t determine that a leader who was born and raised, has lived, has served, and continues to live and serve in a small island state cannot bring that lived experience to a global stage in a way that is effective,” said Johnson Smith.
She was supported by Morgan who argued that a significant plurality of heads of state encouraged Jamaica to field a candidate.
“We never just got up yesterday and said we are going to put up Minister Johnson Smith, we were engaged by heads. Over the years we have seen the work that she has done internationally, we saw the unifying approaches that she has made at the ACP and the WTO, and other fora and [we] said that we believe this individual has the competence, the temperament and the approach that can bring the Commonwealth together and make it stronger,” declared Morgan.