On April 1, Jamaica announced that the country’s Foreign minister, Kamina Johnson Smith, will contest for the post of Commonwealth Secretary-General.
The announcement has now split Caribbean member countries (Caricom), who had previously backed the current Secretary-General, Baroness Patricia Scotland, who is seeking a second term.
Backed by Dominica, where she was born to a Dominican mother and Antiguan father, Ms Scotland cruised to victory last time after both the African and Caribbean regions coalesced around her.
Britain, where she grew up, never supported her election in 2015. It hasn’t vowed to do so this time either.
While the bloc’s influential nations — Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have not publicly endorsed any candidate, well-placed sources told The EastAfrican that they are likely to support Jamaica’s bid as Johnson Smith is highly regarded at home and abroad.
Ms. Scotland has been under scrutiny by rich member nations after a 2020 internal audit revealed that she awarded a lucrative contract to her personal friend. She denied the allegations and insisted that she followed the organization’s procurement rules.
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) was supposed to have been held in June 2020 but was postponed twice due to the outbreak of Covid-19.
With this year’s summit, Ms. Scotland would have served two extra years on her first term.
She had initially faced competition from Kenya’s Monica Juma, the current Devolution Cabinet Secretary. But in March, Dr. Juma quit the race, citing an inability to convince the Caribbean countries to support her.
Under the Commonwealth voting system that prioritizes consensus, all members must agree on a candidate or one cannot be declared a winner.
Rwandan officials did not immediately comment on the issue.
For Kigali which is keen to have a successful CHOGM, the contest which has already left the Caribbean nations sharply divided, now presents another diplomatic hurdle ahead of June 2022.
“The election of the new SG is one of the most important items on the agenda. The issue was already in dispute because the current SG is seeking re-election yet many members are against her.
“It would be a disaster if there is no consensus and a new SG was not elected. Rwanda will want to make sure everything is settled ahead of the meeting,” a senior diplomat told The East African, adding that Rwanda “will want to avoid a controversial and disruptive meeting.”
The secretary-general will be chosen by heads of government by consensus at CHOGM. His comments come after local media reported that President Paul Kagame will be visiting Jamaica, raising speculation that the election might be on the agenda.
However, an editorial on April 5 by Jamaica’s influential publication The Gleaner termed Kingston’s bid “to say the least, a messy affair. It has the potential not only to cloud Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame’s imminent visit to the island but Ms Johnson Smith’s prospects for a running start in the post, should she be elected.”
The editorial criticized the rushed announcement by their government saying it puts President Kagame in a tricky position as he “will not want to be perceived as taking sides in the matter.”
“…Mr. Kagame is an influential African leader, and it is expected that Jamaica will attempt to elicit his support for Ms. Johnson Smith’s candidacy and his help persuading other African leaders to back her.
“…Jamaica has a significant job to repair any damage that may have already been done and ensure that the Rwandan president is insulated from any further taints during his visit.”
Jo Lomas, UK’s Commonwealth envoy, Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, told The EastAfrican that the UK is studying the bids from all candidates ahead of the meeting.
“We are working with the secretary-general and fellow Commonwealth members to ensure the secretariat delivers for people across the Commonwealth,” Ms. Lomas said.
Britain attempted to field a candidate — Kenya’s Monica Juma — though the plans fell apart.
A meeting between Caricom held on April 6 failed to resolve the standoff as leaders remained divided.
In a statement, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness said of his Foreign minister: “Her qualifications for the post-secretary-general, including her high moral character, diplomatic and political acumen, proven competence, and commitment to the work of the Commonwealth make her an excellent candidate.”
A Commonwealth secretary-general can serve a maximum of two terms of four years each.