Rwanda scrubs up for Commonwealth leaders, but not all celebrating

People walk at the Kigali Convention Centre on June 21, 2022, the venue hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) till June 26th. PHOTO/AFP

What you need to know:

  • A tiny nation with a tumultuous history indelibly marked by a gruesome genocide, Rwanda has undergone a dramatic turnaround in recent decades but is dogged by criticism over rights abuses and lack of political freedoms.
  • CHOGM's high-profile guests arrive just as President Paul Kagame's government is accused of backing rebels and stoking violent instability in the mineral-rich east of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, charges it denies.

The streets of Kigali are strikingly quiet for a city hosting British royalty, dozens of world leaders and thousands of delegates at a much-anticipated Commonwealth summit this week, but the clean-up has come at a cost for the less fortunate.

President Museveni waves at Rwandan citizens after crossing over the Gatuna Border on June 23, 2022, to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali. PHOTO/PPU

Tree-lined roads into the tidy Rwandan capital have been kept clear of all but essential traffic, and its spotless streets are uncrowded, with schools shut and students sent home.

Outside the cone-shaped conference venue where Prince Charles and more than 30 Commonwealth leaders will gather this week, little stirs above the drone of lawn mowers and puttering sprinklers keeping the gardens lush and the grass trim.

Sometimes dubbed the "Singapore of Africa", Rwanda's glossy image has long impressed foreign visitors, and the tightly controlled state is risking nothing as it hosts its biggest event yet -- the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

The summit was twice delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic and skirted controversy over Rwanda being made host at all given questions over its record on human rights and political freedoms. 

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (C) looks on as school children take part in a lesson during a visit to The GS Kacyiru II School in Kigali on June 23, 2022, on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). PHOTO/AFP

CHOGM's high-profile guests arrive just as President Paul Kagame's government is accused of backing rebels and stoking violent instability in the mineral-rich east of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, charges it denies.

Rwanda is determined that the turmoil unfolding over the border just 100 kilometres (60 miles) from its gleaming capital doesn't overshadow its moment in the spotlight. 

In Kigali military-style police clad head-to-toe in black are rarely out of sight, moving along idle bystanders and patrolling with machine guns.

"It is impossible to drive three minutes without seeing a group of policemen. They are everywhere and at night, they move in groups of three to five with guns, patrolling the streets," said Geoffrey, a businessman in Kigali who declined to give a second name.

'It's a blessing' 

Delegates arriving at Kigali's international airport were greeted by smiling officials, offered free phone cards, and driven along pretty boulevards lined with the flags of the Commonwealth's 54 member states.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) speaks with Rwandan President Paul Kagame ahead of a bilateral meeting at the office of the President in Kigali, on June 23, 2022, on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). PHOTO/AFP

Polishing the capital for CHOGM's guests -– notably Prince Charles as Queen Elizabeth II's representative on his first trip to Rwanda, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Canada's Justin Trudeau -- cost $4.7 million, according to the government. 

Kigali's world-class conference facilities and top hotels have been given a facelift, roads upgraded and beautified, and slick promotional videos beamed around the globe, including a testimonial from British track star and four-time Olympic champion Mo Farah.

Evenings have been livelier, with street parties and fun runs to entertain visiting guests.

CHOGM has been a boon for tourism operators in the wake of Covid-19, with hoteliers charging top dollar and over 5,000 participants expected at the gathering.  

"This event is really a blessing... We have never been booked like this," said Ines Umamariya, a hotel manager in Kigali.

'We are unwanted' 

But away from the fanfare Kigali's less fortunate have been warned to dress up smart or stay off the streets altogether, city residents told AFP.

"We are unwanted and we know it," said Rwiza Alex, a motorcycle taxi driver who was told his vehicle was too old and unpresentable, and ordered off the street for the remainder of CHOGM.

"During events like CHOGM, the government should find ways to accommodate those of us who don't really earn much."

Human Rights Watch said prostitutes, the homeless, and street vendors had been rounded up, and the NGO called for the closure of a notorious detention centre just a few miles (kilometres) from where CHOGM is being held. 

"They were basically looking for street kids and sex workers... anyone who looks like they will disrupt the city or give it a bad image," said Chantal Uwamariya, a sex worker in Kigali, of a recent police sweep.

Workers are seen at the Kigali Convention Centre on June 21, 2022, the venue hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) till June 26th. PHOTO/AFP

"They are arresting anyone they deem to be idle and disorderly, even people coming from work are rounded up if they are wearing slippers or sandals on the street," said John Peter Dushimimana, a 28-year-old street dweller.

Lewis Mudge, central Africa director at HRW, said Rwanda had a long history of locking up those considered "dirty" whose very existence challenged the squeaky-clean image it wanted the world to see. 

"This time around, in 2022, we are seeing the same old pattern," he told AFP.

"Visitors should know that the clean streets come at a price."

Participants listen during the Commonwealth Women's Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, on June 20, 2022. Rwanda hosts the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) between June 20 and 25, 2022. PHOTO/AFP


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