Constitutional reform and colonial ties
ARINTHIA S. KOMOLAFE
Published: Jul 30, 2013
The British Empire was often referred to as the empire upon which “the sun never sets”, having risen to become a global power between the 16th and 18th centuries. The empire at its peak comprised of approximately one fifth of the world’s population spanning across North America, Africa and Asia predominantly.
Almost 40 years after obtaining political independence from Great Britain, Prime Minister Perry Christie commissioned for the second time within the past decade a Constitutional Committee to build upon the work of the previous Constitutional Commission and to recommend various progressive, egalitarian and presumably transformative changes if necessary to our current Constitution.
The legacy of the Constitutional Committee
The Constitutional Committee stood at the door of opportunity to transform or at the very least impact the future social, political and economic landscape of The Bahamas. On the one hand, history will be kind to them for their hard work, consultative approach and meticulous approach to the review of the Constitution. Members of the committee will be praised for several of the recommendations they made if these are adopted by the government of The Bahamas and ultimately the Bahamian people in a referendum.
On the other hand, members of the committee will also be remembered as those who chose to preserve the status quo on certain pivotal issues. In particular, the history books will note their stance on the movement of The Bahamas toward full independence from the U.K., the maintenance of the British monarchy as head of our state, our evolution into a republic and the court of final appeal for The Bahamas. Future generations will either commend or blame the committee for the reinforcement of our sovereignty and instilling a greater sense of identity for Bahamians.
Decolonization and the system of governance
It seems useful to consider the approaches to decolonization as a backdrop to the systems of governance in affected countries across the globe. As Great Britain and France built their empires, they rose to become the greatest colonial powers globally. Whereas many of the former French colonies became republics after gaining independence from France, Great Britain chose a system that comprised of Commonwealth realms whereupon former colonies would still be linked to the British monarch. The exceptions in this regard were the former colonies within the continents of Africa and Asia which heavily favored a republic style system.
A look at the governance systems and structures within the Caribbean paints a different picture. It suggests that Caribbean nations, although pleased with their newfound status of independence, felt it safer and perhaps in some cases more prestigious to maintain their ties with their former imperial rulers by retaining the British monarch as their head of state and they appointed a representative in the form of a governor general instead.
The British Commonwealth of Nations
Ireland gained its independence from Great Britain in 1949 and upon independence became a republic. As a result, Ireland was automatically excluded from the Commonwealth of Nations
which did not permit republics at that time. However, the 1949 London Declaration makes it possible for members of the Commonwealth to change their systems of government to a republic status while remaining members of the Commonwealth, provided that the members recognized the King/Queen as their ceremonial head. Ireland, however, elected not to gain re-admission to the Commonwealth of Nations.
The Republic debate within the Commonwealth
Currently, there are 54 members (including Fiji which is currently suspended) in the Commonwealth of Nations, with 33 of those members having evolved into republics. Five are monarchies, leaving 16 others of which many are located in the Caribbean.
It is noteworthy to state that some of the republic members bestowed executive powers in their presidents while others have elected to have a ceremonial presidential head. Additionally, while some Commonwealth countries have abolished the Westminster style of governance, others have maintained the same.
Within the remaining 16 countries that have yet to evolve into republics, the debate on evolution into republics rages on. This conversation remains in an infant stage here in The Bahamas and is yet to gain the traction that many believe it ought to. However, the debate has been ongoing in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia as well as Caribbean countries such as St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Jamaica and Barbados.
It appears that the arguments are centered on the fact that retaining the Queen as the head of state runs contrary to true sovereignty. Others also feel that within the context of their governance, the monarchy is a regressive institution that has no relevance to local society as the cultural norms and challenges faced on a social, political and economic level have very little similarity.
The constitutional report
In this sense, the rationale for maintaining the status quo of our governance structure is worthy of scrutiny and thought. The constitutional report revealed a view that expressed disappointment over the likelihood of relinquishing our ties to Great Britain and all that came with it, including our current British honors system. Further, the said viewpoint hinted at the fact that the appearance of the word ‘royal’ before many of our establishments created the appearance of superiority to our counterparts in the region. Feedback of this nature is crucial and we should celebrate the beauty of our democracy which allows us to express diverse and sometimes divergent views. The aforementioned position undoubtedly provides a window into the minds of some of our country men and women. These thoughts further show that we have much work to do to elevate the minds and engender a feeling of Bahamian pride among our people.
The commission raised concerns over the costs of evolving into a republic, including loss of U.K. financial aid and training assistance among others. This concern is minimized by the magnitude of this issue, its role in national development and only seems to constitute deferred costs. It can be argued therefore that a delay in addressing this matter now is only an attempt to maintain the status quo and delay the inevitable.
A fight for another day?
In the final analysis, it is important to state to the satisfaction of those among us who are proponents of some form of British imperialism that an evolution into a republic will not automatically eliminate our ties with the U.K. The option of remaining members of the Commonwealth of Nations is still available thanks to the 1949 London Declaration.
We have already begun the process by naming our roads, schools, housing estates and government buildings and national monuments after our Bahamian heroes. The introduction of Bahamian faces on our bank notes was a welcome development. Being a small island nation subject to the pressure of international treaties and regional and global agreements, we must seek to maintain some form of independence to ourselves. Arguably, evolution to a republic is a step in that direction.
The institution of a president as our head of state (whether ceremonial or executive) and consequently our own honors system will engender pride, hope and a sense of purpose, rather than clinging to a past that is becoming increasingly irrelevant. It is often said that he who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day. For now it seems that the most recent Constitutional Committee has passed on this matter leaving this for the next generation to confront or perhaps the government of the day may have a different view.
• Arinthia S. Komolafe is an attorney-at-law. Comments can be directed at firstname.lastname@example.org.