Editorial | Direct rule of BVI would be retrograde
A suspension of the British Virgin Islands’ (BVI) legislature and the imposition of direct rule from London would not only be, as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) says, backward and retrograde, it would confirm that Britain’s Tory government is tone deaf. Or, perhaps, the condition among the British is that of being callously hypocritical.
The BVI is British overseas territory, with significant internal self-rule, but with significant powers reserved for a governor appointed from London. But a former British appeal court judge, Sir Gary Hickinbottom, has recommended a “partial suspension” of the island’s constitution, fully vesting executive authority in the hands of the governor. Sir Gary was a one-man inquiry that found significant governance failures – and probably corruption – in the territory.
The Hickinbottom Report was supposed to be released in June, but was brought forward last month when the BVI’s premier, Andrew Fahie, as well as the head of the territory’s ports, Oleanvine Maynard, were arrested in Miami by undercover US drug enforcement agents, posing as smugglers. Mr Fahie, the Americans claim in court documents, offered to allow drugs ship from South America to transit the BVI and to facilitate the laundering of cash in the territory. He would receive a percentage of the proceeds.
TWO FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES
While there is an apparent nexus between Sir Gary’s finding and recommendation and Mr Fahie’s arrest, it is important that two fundamental principles be recognised and disentangled.
First, this newspaper makes no claim about Mr Fahie’s guilt or innocence. That is a matter for a court of law where we expect that he will be subject to due process and receive a fair trial, to which he is entitled. That, however, innocence or guilt, is not the same thing, or a good reason, of depriving people, in a presumably democratic society, of an elected government of their choice.
If indeed the quality of governance in the BVI is as “appalling bad” that it would be “frankly surprising” if this hadn’t led to corruption and graft, as Sir Gary asserts, then those who are responsible should be held to account, including by the law, should the case be made and proven. The institutions of democracy also have other levers to deal with leaders who flout, or play fast or loose, with their obligations.
But as CARICOM agreed, the weaknesses in governance identified in the Hickinbottom Report must be fixed. The issue is how that should be gone about. This newspaper’s position, which is seemingly in concert with the elected representative of the people of the BVI as well as CARICOM and the Organization of East Caribbean States (OECS) – the BVI is an associated member of both – is that the answer can’t be found in the reimposition of direct colonial rule.
Implicit in Sir Gary’s recommendation – which is one that Brits like to trot out when there are claims of governance failures in the ‘colonies’ – is a presumption that people in these parts are incapable of sorting out their affairs. They are thus in need of guidance when confronted with the complexities of statecraft.
In a way, the approach is an extension of the period of apprenticeship and betrays a perception of the people of the colonies that is mirrored in the unresolved issues that confront the Windrush Generation. Indeed, Sir Gary’s report, with its head-stroking recognition of the worth of the good people in the BVI public service, is lathered with this sense of the benevolent overlord providing necessary direction and leadership.
FAILINGS BY THE TORY GOVERNMENT
One possible riposte to Sir Gary’s suggestion is whether British constitutional norms should be suspended because of the allegations of sleaze that have dogged the Tory government and the claims of moral and other failings against their prime minister, Boris Johnson.
What is proposed for the BVI was last used in similar circumstances in another Caribbean British overseas territory, the Turks and Caicos Islands, in 2009, where positions of direct rule, according to CARICOM, “was never intended to deliver democratic governance or to be an instrument of economic and social development of our countries and peoples’’.
Whether that is an apt assessment or the Brits are merely misguided, we are not clear. What is indisputable, though, is that it ought to be the responsibility of the citizens and leaders of the BVI, as CARICOM noted, “to ensure good governance with full transparency and accountability”. They should, of course, work with the British government to address the concerns raised by Sir Gary.
Additionally, the British government cannot be unmindful, as CARICOM reminded it, of its obligations “in respect of United Nations Resolution 1514 of 1960” – the one on granting independence to colonies and their people. It is to be noted that while citizens of the BVI are nominally British nationals, that is a lower class of citizenship that is without the right of abode in the United Kingdom.