By Sir Ronald Sanders
ST JOHN’S, Antigua, Tuesday October 24, 2017 – Should areas of countries break away and govern themselves as they see fit? That’s a question that has been debated in several parts of the world, and is in focus now between Catalonia and Spain, Scotland and the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent Barbuda and Antigua.
It should be noted that throughout history, communities which have been separated by religion, ethnicity, and distance (most especially water), have experienced movements for separation. In the Caribbean, Anguilla broke away from St Kitts-Nevis in 1971 during the British colonial era; Tobago agitated for years for secession from Trinidad; as recently as 1998, Nevis attempted a constitutional split from St Kitts; and on Barbuda, a separatist group has been expressing the desire to secede from Antigua even prior to the formation of Antigua and Barbuda as a unitary state in 1981 when it became independent from Britain.
While separatist groups raise their voices loudest and receive the most attention from the media, support for them amongst their own communities is never unanimous; there are many who doubt the wisdom of separation in economic and security terms. As examples of this, an attempt in 1998 in Nevis to force a referendum for secession from St Kitts failed to get the requisite vote to carry it, and a referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom in 2014 resulted in 55.3 per cent of the electorate rejecting the idea. Even in Catalonia where emotions ran high, there is not comprehensive backing for separation.
In the case of the separatist group on Barbuda, at the Antigua and Barbuda Constitutional Conference with Britain in 1980 on independence, the Barbuda representative argued that he had been sent to the meeting “to seek separation” from Antigua. However, he was elected with 302 votes of the 522 Barbudan electors. In successive elections, support for separatists dwindled. The party in the vanguard of separation, the Barbuda People’s Movement (BPM), secured less than half of the votes of the electorate in elections in 1984, 1989, 1994 and 1999. By 2014, the Barbuda electorate was split right down the middle with the BPM losing control by 1 vote.
In any event, the 1980 Constitutional Conference decided that Antigua and Barbuda is a “unitary state”. It paid attention to the Barbudan desire for a level of autonomy over the island’s affairs and consequently agreed to give greater powers to a Barbuda local government council than existed under the 1904 Barbuda Ordinance and the 1976 Barbuda Local Government Act. Significantly, the Conference also affirmed that land on Barbuda has always been the property of the Crown from the time of colonization by the British. This decision rejected a theory by Barbudan separatists that they had somehow acquired Barbuda in common and all land in Barbuda was owned by all Barbudans and that none of it could ever be sold and only they could decide who could lease any of it. The Barbudan separatists tested this decision in the Courts several times, losing the argument on every occasion with Judges finding that, as a matter of fact and law, land on Barbuda belongs to the Crown and the Government of Antigua and Barbuda is the authority vested with power and control over the land.
This latter point has attracted significance recently after the decimation of Barbuda by Hurricane Irma on September 6. The Barbuda separatists have reverted to the dispelled notion that all Barbudans – wherever they live or were born – own all Barbudan lands in common and only they can determine its use which would be on a lease-basis only. Reliance is being placed on a law, passed in 2007 by the former Antigua and Barbuda government in a deal for the parliamentary support of the Barbuda elected representative, which sought to “confirm that all land in Barbuda is owned in common by the people of Barbuda”. Legal experts have argued that the 2007 law is unconstitutional and of no effect, and is also discriminatory since it permits Barbudans to deny land ownership in Barbuda to Antiguans, while Barbudans retain the constitutional right to own land in Antigua.
Barbuda’s non-viability on its own has been confirmed in studies done by the British government in the pre-independence period and reaffirmed by the fact that, over the centuries since 1860 when Barbuda was annexed to Antigua, it has been financed almost entirely by the central government of the country. For instance, for the years 2013 to 2016, the government had to transfer US$13.5 million to Barbuda to sustain a population of 1,500.
Faced with a bill upwards of US$200 million to rebuild Barbuda and re-settle its inhabitants who had to be evacuated to Antigua, the Antigua and Barbuda government contends that land will have to be sold and leased on Barbuda, especially to existing Barbudan lease holders, to contribute to its economic and social development. On a per capita basis, the rebuilding of Barbuda works out at US$133,000.00 for each man, woman and child – the cost of which would have to be borne by the 80,000 people on Antigua and the Antigua and Barbuda government; and they have no means to do so.
It is also most unlikely that the international donor community will provide the full sum of US$200 million. Even loans that the government might be able to attract will not reach the required sum and, in any case, will have to be repaid.
And this is the crux of the matter. Can the areas, which secessionists are seeking to separate from lager national units, prosper on their own? The answer in the case of Barbuda is clear. It cannot. It simply does not generate the income required to sustain the livelihood of its people, and unless it sells or leases land (as every other country in the world does) to investors – both local and foreign, it will not develop an economically viable economy.
In the cases of Scotland and Catalonia in relation to the United Kingdom and Spain respectively, while both are well-developed and would survive, they would be worse off financially since their economies are tied-up with the countries from which the secessionists would like them to separate. Further, they would become small states with little bargaining power in international trade and finance, and no military influence. It is true that the United Kingdom and Spain would also be weaker for the departure of Scotland and Catalonia. But the net effect of separatists winning would be significant losses for the people they are trying to lead.
In this context, the observation of Lord Varys, in “Game of Thrones”, resonates loudly: “He would see this country burn if he could be king of the ashes”.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto.