Fri | Jun 2, 2023

Orin Gordon | CARICOM fumbling its gift

Published:Tuesday | June 14, 2022 | 12:06 AM
Kamina Johnson Smith, Jamaica’s foreign minister, is congratulated by lawmakers (from left) Robert Morgan, Olivia Grange, Anthony Hylton, and Julian Robinson shortly after Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced in Parliament about her candidacy for secr
Kamina Johnson Smith, Jamaica’s foreign minister, is congratulated by lawmakers (from left) Robert Morgan, Olivia Grange, Anthony Hylton, and Julian Robinson shortly after Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced in Parliament about her candidacy for secretary general of the Commonwealth Secretariat.
Orin Gordon
Orin Gordon

On the vote for Secretary General at the Commonwealth Summit in Rwanda in one week’s time, the Caribbean bloc of countries reminds me of the fairy tale of the woodcutter, his wife and their gift.

A grateful fairy who the woodcutter rescues in the forest grants them three potentially life-changing wishes. His wife shortsightedly wishes for a loaf of bread, he angrily wishes that it would stick to her nose, and they had no choice but to expend the final wish on removing it.

By the loose agreement on regional rotation, it was somewhat surprisingly agreed that it was again the Caribbean’s turn to have the office of Secretary General (SG), when the matter of who would succeed Kamalesh Sharma of India was put to the vote at the summit in Malta late in 2015.

I say “surprisingly”, because by 2025 – the Commonwealth’s 60th birthday – a Caribbean man/woman would have been in the chair for 23 years, well over a third of its existence. This assumes that the Caribbean candidate who was going to take office in 2016 would be there for two terms, as is the convention.

If one counts Canada as part of a Caribbean and Americas bloc, as the Commonwealth does in its member nations listing, the region would have supplied the SG for 33 of those 60 years, more than half. The Americas and Caribbean bloc contains 13 of the body’s 54 member states – fewer than a quarter.


Excluding Canada, with whom CARICOM does not caucus on these matters, CARICOM has even less of a presence, and less than one per cent of the Commonwealth’s population.

The SGs so far have been Arnold Smith of Canada (1965-1975), Sir Shridath Ramphal of Guyana (1975-1990), Chief Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria (1990-2000), Sir Don McKinnon of New Zealand (2000-2008), Kamalesh Sharma of India (2008-2016), and Baroness Patricia Scotland of Dominica (April 2016 to now).

By 2015 the last Caribbean SG, Sonny Ramphal, had been out of office for 25 years. But it was still some feat to get the rest of the Commonwealth to agree that it was the Caribbean’s turn. There were parts of the Commonwealth more deserving of a go than the Caribbean – east and southern Africa, the Pacific outside of the big two of Australia and New Zealand, and Europe.

Africa, with 19 member states, has the biggest bloc, and is second to Asia in population size. The 10-year term of a West African is barely representative of the geographically distinct parts of that vast continent. Nkrumah, Kenyatta and Mandela represent far-flung points. Besides, two men from the Americas sat atop the organisation for its first 25 years.

The Caribbean bloc was fortunate to be handed the opportunity, in 2015, to put another of its sons or daughters into the office. Not least because rotation is not a requirement. By having two candidates contest the office in 2015 and doing so again now, CARICOM is messing around with its gift. Jamaica put forward its Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Minister Senator Kamina Johnson Smith, when a number of CARICOM leaders believed that the bloc had settled on a consensus candidacy, that of the incumbent, Patricia Scotland.


Johnson Smith’s entry poses questions about the length of her tenure, should she win. An SG can now only serve a maximum of two four-year terms. Terms are set by election by leaders in caucus, that is, at a summit. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve been unable to meet for two years. Circumstances meant that the sitting SG has served two years beyond her term. Do they count towards a second term? If Johnson Smith is elected, would it be for a full four-year term? And as accomplished as she is (and I ask the question with respect), would her tenure essentially be that of a placeholder for two years?

The last question is important because the rest of the Commonwealth – particularly Africa – has no intention of waiting around while the Caribbean gets two bites of the cherry. A senior leadership source in CARICOM told me that “we’d be crazy” to think that African nations would allow Johnson Smith to serve one full four-year term, let alone two, as is the convention.

On top of all of the time that candidates from the region have already held the office, that would be 14 years of Scotland and Johnson Smith. It’s not going to happen. The way that UK diplomatic sources put it to a senior Caribbean colleague, who has worked this beat for decades alongside me: “Africa definitely have the expectation that it’s their turn in a couple of years’ time.” A couple of years. 2024.

Johnson Smith and her prime minister, Andrew Holness, would have gamed this out, and would know that she could serve as little as two years if she’s elected. Why would she risk serving such a short term? The Government says a number of Commonwealth countries persuaded them to challenge Scotland. Again, if the return is two years, it had to be a heck of an argument.

Nevertheless, Johnson Smith’s backers have been projecting an air of inevitability. Jamaica’s Minister of Information Robert Morgan made some news on The Gleaner Twitter Spaces chat on May 26, by saying that she, Johnson Smith, “crossed the line” on publicly pledged support among the 54 members ... saying, in effect, that she had the race locked up. Scotland, meanwhile, has been in the Caribbean working her support.

Orin Gordon is a media consultant at Send feedback to