THINGS THAT MATTER: Tribalism, Currency and Corruption
“The problem, the major setback, lies in the fact that approaches to nation-building are often prevented, stymied or frustrated because if one does not agree lock, stock and barrel with the other side, then one is labelled sometimes in the most derogatory fashion and people’s motives are put to the sword. The impression is given that if you disagree with the Government or the Minister of the Crown, that then you are not only unwise and stupid, but you are wicked, pernicious and that everything that you do should somehow be smothered in Hell’s flame. Barbados is too small a country to go forward with that kind of tribalism.” (Sir Roy Trotman, Senate speech October 25)
When I was a boy, a “Bajan couple” of years ago, there was considerable insularity in our culture, our way of life, and our interest or participation in local politics or development issues. Men talked about cricket ad infinitum, and women talked about children, clothes and cooking – what I call the three domestic C’s. Going to Jamaica in 1962 to enter the University of the West Indies at Mona opened my eyes to the outer world in a real way – beyond my voracious reading about the world in the Lodge School Library. With a population ten times ours, Jamaica was a big country, and Kingston a big city; and with Jamaican music and a dialect all their own, parochial Barbadians couldn’t fail to be impressed. But what impressed me most was the consuming interest – the passion – for politics. At every party and social gathering the chat was not so often about cricket but about politics.
At that time, this seemed to me to be a healthy thing. Raised on the stories of the ancient Greek / Athenian concept of democracy and the city state (at the feet of classics teachers Leslie “Bessie” Walcott and P.McD.Crichlow), where every citizen was considered to have a voice (not the slaves, of course, because their democracy was happy with slavery) this enthusiasm to “be involved” in the democratic/political operation of newly independent Jamaica seemed a good, progressive and healthy thing. But we all know what’s happened to Jamaica over the years, with the importation of guns to arm political protagonists, escalation of crime, drugs and violence in a poorly educated society, export of both goods and money with resulting, continuing devaluation of a dollar originally valued at 1.2 US dollars, and descent into what has for decades been widely called tribalism. Here’s a report of Minister of Government Dr. Peter Phillips, now Leader of Jamaica’s Opposition, speaking a couple of years ago:
“Phillips lamented that political tribalism, in particular, had paralysed the country’s capacity to make difficult decisions about its future. The finance minister said tribalism has led to severe consequences for the country, particularly a deterioration in national standards. He said that in too many instances, tribalism had led people to settle for less than acceptable standards because of the political affiliation of persons guilty of the breaches.
He added that the tense political climate often makes people and organisations afraid to praise or criticise either of the major political parties for fear of being labelled as being in support of one party or the other.
Phillips said trust in the political directorate has also eroded, while participation in the political process has declined. However, he says standing on the side-lines is not an option for Jamaicans at this time and called for greater participation in the development process.”
I’ve quoted these comments in full because of their direct relevance to Barbados today, and prompted by Sir Roy’s words in the Senate. Sir Roy is one of the most intelligent, senior and highly respected Barbadians, whose patriotism and mettle in the building of Barbados has been shown to be tried and true, and his brutal honesty cannot be ignored or brushed under the carpet, as so much else is today. He lamented the failure of engagement of government with the many good people and organisations with good ideas. He lamented that tribalism often caused those of a different persuasion from the main religion of the day from contributing to the service or even putting any money in the offering plate – in other words, people withdraw out of fear of disillusionment.
Sir Roy’s comments are highly relevant to debates both in the House and in the Senate, where the party line, to put it politely, demands blind faith and doesn’t permit genuine discussion. It’s noteworthy that public pronouncements indicate that virtually all economists except one (whom I do respect) as well as past governors of the central bank, as well as past PM, Mr. Arthur, have been recommending early IMF support for our economic crisis, to avoid devaluation. Senator John Watson joined his strong and eloquent voice to this clear consensus, speaking in the Senate on Wednesday. He pointed out that the IMF of today is not the IMF of 1991, and their low interest loans, debt restructuring and fiscal discipline would avoid the much feared and possibly fatal devaluation – a slippery slope which destroyed Guyana and Jamaica when imposed forty years ago.
But it’s being widely speculated that the plan is NOT to seek IMF support early so that a new government would have no choice but to devalue and be permanently damned! Meanwhile the talk and increasing fear of devaluation is almost certainly scaring some less-than-patriotic business people to keep their foreign exchange earnings outside. This rapidly reduces our Foreign Reserves. It’s what ruined Jamaica and it can ruin us. Be warned!
When I returned home from Jamaica in 1977, Jamaica, my second home, was “under heavy manners”, the term describing the serious hardships of rapid devaluation, escalating corruption, crime and tribalism. Many Barbadians said: “We’re going to go that way.” I countered that Barbadians were highly literate, politically canny with good leaders and strong social organisations (the current buzzword is social capital) with leaders of integrity across the society. At that time there was a notice over the customs desk at the airport saying: “We don’t have a drug problem. Help us keep it that way.”
We all know what has happened.
Which leads me to the panel discussion on Wednesday night, reported in the media – “Corruption: Cost, Consequences & Remedies”, organised by the newly formed Integrity Group Barbados. Splendid accounts were given by Mr. Ken Gordon of Trinidad, Chairman of the T & T Integrity Commission, and Sir David Simmons, Chairman of the Turks and Caicos Integrity Commission. The challenges faced in Trinidad provide lessons for us. The horrendous corruption of Turks and Caicos Prime Minister, Ministers and hotel developers were revealed by Sir David, but the reality is that the exposure, trials and remedies may only have been possible because Turks and Caicos is NOT an independent country. On the other hand, over in the Bahamas, where Dr. Minnis’s government recently won the election on the basis of widespread and open corruption, they have promised justice and promptly introduced Integrity legislation within months.
Barbados in contrast lags BEHIND the Caribbean, with our Integrity Bill hidden in a cupboard since 2012, when it was passed pre-election 2013, but never signed into law. Why not? We who used to lead are now head-in-the-sand followers. This in spite of our participating in Grenada in forming The Association of Integrity Commissions and Anti-Corruption Bodies in the Commonwealth Caribbean, TWO YEARS AGO, on my birthday, June 25, 2017. And as Cynthia Barrow-Giles wrote in a recent paper: “The dominant view that the Caribbean represents an oasis of democratic stability in the developing world has suffered irreparable damage, given widespread corruption, institutional inertia, open challenge to the State and clear structural deficiencies even while elections are conducted in an atmosphere of seeming freeness and fairness.”
Sir Roy’s rebuke about tribalism MUST be heeded if we are to regain our self-respect. We must resist at all costs the pre-election tribalism, already brandishing aggressive and disturbing threats about the nature our election campaign will take.
(Professor Fraser is Past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology. Website: profhenryfraser.com)