Audio of Commentary Charles Wilkin QC – “From Crisis to Crisis”
The political crisis over the Motion of No Confidence now pending in the National Assembly for almost two years has shaken our democracy at its roots. It has highlighted three major ailments in that fragile democracy namely the inadequacy of the constitution, the overwhelming and senseless negativity caused by political tribalism and the weakness of civil society. The crisis may end, whenever, with a general election. The general election, whatever its result, will not however cure the three ailments. If they are not overcome the country, despite current and any future economic progress, will lurch from crisis to crisis as it has done since the British gave up colonial control of our internal affairs in 1967. Yes, the people of St. Kitts and Nevis have ruled themselves not since independence in 1983 but since associated statehood in 1967-‐ almost 48 years.
The first crisis began right after statehood in February 1967 when Anguilla revolted. On 30th May 1967 the Anguillians, furious at the failure of the British Government to provide in the 1967 constitution for a strong local government for them and tired of their abysmal living conditions for which they blamed the Labour government in St. Kitts, threw the St. Kitts police off the island and Anguilla has since been separately governed. There followed the events of 10th June 1967 when, reportedly, a group of Anguillians arrived in St. Kitts by boat and attacked the Defence Force Camp, the police headquarters and the electricity power station. A state of emergency had already been declared by the government which proceeded to arrest and detain 19 members and supporters of the opposition Peoples Action Movement (PAM) under the emergency powers. Some were charged with insurrection offences. None was successfully prosecuted. There began the tribalism in St. Kitts. The ruling Labour Party felt that PAM had aided the attack by the Anguillians as part of an attempted coup d’etat. The PAM supporters say that the Labour government wanted to jail their leaders and destroy their party.
That tribalism has gotten worse with the years. It has resulted in the literal interpretation of the “winner take all” concept of elections and in the mentality that government is the property of the party in power, a prize to be kept at all costs. It has led to an entitlements mentality that says that supporters of the party in power must take precedence over everyone else. Productivity is a far second to loyalty. Principle succumbs to expediency.
In a speech in 1992 to a conference on the Quality of Life in St. Kitts and Nevis. Sir Probyn Inniss said “It is interesting to note that many of the controls which were exercised by the colonial masters and which local political leaders complained about bitterly, when they did not control the levers of power, remain as firmly in place today as they were 25 years ago. Independence has brought about a transfer of power from Downing Street (in London) to Church Street (in St. Kitts) but has anything really changed?” Strong words still applicable today, maybe even more so. Sir Probyn went on to lament what he called the “virtual destruction” of a neutral and independent Civil Service. Sir Probyn attributed this to the polarization and alluded to some features of it including:
-‐ “Political partisanship is more important than citizenship”
-‐ “The political system demands blind loyalty and obedience “
-‐ “Deification of political leaders by their supporters”
-‐ ‘There is nothing too nasty to say about the other side”
-‐ “To show compassion and decency is a sign of weakness”
-‐ “The prevailing ethic suggests that politics is about making money. If you don’t you are a fool”
All of these features have remained solidly in place since 1992 when Sir Probyn spoke.
The extent of the polarization was graphically described by Father Alrick Francis of the Anglican Church in an interview on WinnFm radio station on 13th February 2014. Referring to life in Nevis, Father Francis told the reporter that in the past seven years or so Nevis has changed from a close knit to a divided society. He said there are tensions all over the island and people are boiling and angry and losing their sense of relationship. He said that people refuse to greet each other in church and select their churches and denominations based on politics. In some cases they even choose seats in Church based on their political allegiance, he said. Nevis has caught the virus from which St. Kitts has suffered for 48 years.
There is division even among members of the clergy and within umbrella religious organisations. Some put their political hat above their clerical gown and are prepared to compromise spiritual and moral principle for party. And this in a country whose motto is “Country above Self “ and whose constitution says in its very first paragraph that “Whereas the people of Saint Christopher and Nevis declare that the nation is established on the belief in Almighty God and in the inherent dignity of each individual.” The prevailing culture has managed not only to put Party above all else but to mix God into the politics. Political leaders are deified, they can do no wrong and must not admit error. They are even portrayed as providing blessings. Love, forgiveness and humility, which are at the core of Christianity, have no place in political activity.
Even death cannot avoid the scourge. There have been coffins dressed in party colors and mourners forsaking the usual dark colors of mourning for party colors. I was told reliably of a conversation in Charlestown, between a social activist and a gang member in the height of a period of gang terror. A funeral passed during the conversation. The gang member said pointing to the mourners dressed in party colors “What about that gang”. Touché.
As a result there has been a negative effect on attitudes generally. Too many people are hostile and angry in their interactions. Lawyers are not immune. Some are giving the profession a bad name by their uncouth behavior to each other in Court where they are unable to separate the politics from their duty as officers of the Court.
Added to the polarization and the all pervading politics is the constant electioneering because of frequent elections. The upcoming election will be the sixth in just over 10 years including Federal and Nevis government elections.
Those elections and earlier ones have shown how porous is the electoral system. That porousness has been mercilessly exploited. The country has hardly been able to exhale before another election is upon it. That is unsettling and harmful. The policy of handouts therefore takes precedence over sustainable development. If you give away the country it will not be your problem if you lose. If you win then you can worry about it.
Even allowing for the relatively short period of its self-‐rule and for the complexities of democracy St. Kitts and Nevis has thus far failed to achieve real maturity in its constitutional democracy. The tribalism has exposed the weaknesses in our constitution, including the federal relationship and the lack of adequate checks and balances on the exercise of executive power. Those weaknesses have been fodder on which successive parties in power have fed.
One of the main weaknesses in the constitution is the arrangement under which Nevis is federated with St. Kitts and Nevis. Nevis has a separate government but also a guaranteed number of seats in the National Assembly and the right to secede. St. Kitts does not have its own government and has no right to secede. Since it was joined with St. Kitts in 1882 Nevis has always felt that it got the shorter end of the stick. When Nevisians held the balance of power at independence they used that advantage to insist on the current arrangement. The current arrangement is overweighted in their favour and should be changed. The Phillips Commission and Task Force which led the constitutional reform process in 1998 and 1999 suggested viable ways of such change. The two reports are gathering dust somewhere in Government Headquarters. If they can’t be found I have copies. They should be re-opened.
Another major weakness is the lack of adequate checks and balances on the exercise of executive power. The British assumed that it was not necessary to spell out such checks and balances in the constitution as the leaders of St.
Kitts and Nevis would follow the spirit as well as the letter of the constitution. For example there is no time limit for bringing a Motion of No Confidence
before the Assembly. There is a need for a time limit only because our politicians, when it suits them, like to stand on the letter of the law. Well then the letter should be changed to include all the measures necessary to constrain excesses and abuse and to ensure greater transparency including laws on campaign finance, integrity in public life, freedom of information, procurement oversight and anti- corruption. Civil Service reform is badly needed as well.
Some of these measures should be entrenched in the constitution so that politicians do not tamper with them when they consider them too burdensome or when it suits them politically to do so. It is essential for the future wellbeing of the country that the debate on constitutional reform begin in a rational and non partisan way with those involved putting country above party.
A society is only as strong as its civil society. Civil society includes the Church, business organisations, professional bodies, youth groups and other non governmental organisations. Despite the vast powers given in the constitution to a Prime Minister an effective and organised civil society can by its influence deter excesses in the exercise of that power. Civil society in St. Kitts and Nevis is weak and relatively ineffectual in that regard because the political tribalism has embedded itself within many of the constituent bodies and many who are unaffected by tribalism keep quiet out of fear. Many of the politicians appear to give deference to civil society but below the surface they try to undermine the organisations. For example, some members of the Bar Association refuse to participate in its activities because they hold the view that the Bar has no business commenting on issues in political dispute, even if they relate to the constitution and the law. This despite one of the express purposes given to the association in its empowering statute being “to promote, maintain and support the administration of justice and the rule of law”. If some lawyers are so narrow minded and cowed one should not be surprised that many others in civil society are the same. The doctors are not organized and do not speak with one voice even on health issues affecting the country. In the vast majority of countries in the free world the Medical Association would by now have spoken out on the issues relating to conditions at the Basseterre High School. The silence of the medical profession on this issue is deafening.
It is high time that the country shed the yoke of polarisation. This is the third generation burdened by it. Despite advances in education people remain mired and seemingly unable to apply the reasoning and learning provided. Hopefully the current generation is observing very carefully and with the enlightening of the information age will say no mas, no more. If not, they too will soon become embroiled in the facile and immature wranglings that are our politics.
Praying that the election itself will not be the next crisis, there will inevitably be another in due course unless and until we change the constitution and mature politically. The harm which such crises and the underlying tribalism does to the reputation and stability of our country, to its competitiveness internationally and to the productivity and morale of the people is real and too often ignored or understated.