Early last week the political reality of Antigua-Barbuda was shaken by an incident which many described as unprecedented: the arrest of an incumbent minister of government, the aftershocks of which are still reverberating throughout the region. “Mystery Surrounds Antigua Minister’s Arrest in Britain!” read a St. Kitts Observer headline. “Arrest and Release of Antigua’s Tourism Minister Asot Michael in UK,” highlighted Dominica News Online. “Antigua Tourism Minister Arrested in UK; Cabinet Appointment Revoked!” screamed the Jamaica Observer.
Meanwhile, at the epicentre of the politically jolting incident Antigua-Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Brown had already reacted with a level of decisiveness to which the people of this region are unaccustomed. “While I have no firm details of the reasons for Mr. Michael’s arrest, the arrest itself is sufficient for me to revoke immediately his appointment as a Cabinet member and to relieve him of all ministerial portfolios until this matter is resolved,” a resolute Brown declared.
Moreover: “I have repeatedly stated that I expect every member of my government to comply with the highest possible standards required of public office, and while Mr. Michael might establish his innocence in time, the fact that he has been arrested, obliges me to relieve him of all government duties.”
Only hours earlier Michael had been intercepted by the London Metropolitan police upon arrival at Gatwick Airport, en route to represent the Antigua and Barbuda government at a real estate and investment conference in Cannes, France. According to a statement by Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA), he was arrested for questioning in relation to bribery investigations.
Michael, who was released from police custody the same day of the arrest, described his hasty dismissal as “unfortunate.” He went on to display classic deviously purposeful disjointed reasoning, which, sadly, we have come to expect of our politicians, by dismissing his brush with the British authorities as fortuitous and routine, while acknowledging his arrest was as a direct result of allegations of criminality.
“I fully accept and respect the prime minister’s right to appoint and remove ministers in his government. However, in the circumstances I consider that the prime minister’s decision in this case, to relieve me of my ministerial responsibilities, is likely to be due to a misapprehension of what has taken place, and secondhand information, indeed misinformation,” said the embattled long-serving St. Peter MP. “I do not consider that any justifiable question has arisen that I have failed to comply with the highest possible standards required of public office.”
Michael was not alone in questioning his abrupt dismissal. While many viewed the MP’s swift sacking as affirmation of strong leadership and a departure from a political culture of enabled corruption, some regarded it as grossly impetuous. The political leader of the minor opposition, Democratic National Alliance, Joanne Massiah, in a statement released on October 24, described Michael’s dismissal as “curious”. Though she categorically denounced political corruption and bemoaned the reputational damage which will undoubtedly result from the situation in question, Brown’s decision to dismiss while admittedly having “no firm details of Michael’s arrest” was, to Massiah, perplexing.
Many wondered why Mr. Brown had not swallowed his own prescription – purportedly intended to protect the state from injury – by resigning after allegations surfaced that he had received a three million euro bribe from the Brazilian construction firm, Odebrecht. Though he vigorously denied the allegations (which to date have not been substantiated), they have done exactly what Michael’s arrest will undoubtedly do: adversely affect Antigua-Barbuda, not the only Caribbean territory struggling with consistency of action in the face of impropriety – real or perceived: Eleanor Donaldson-Honeywell, solicitor general of Trinidad and Tobago, resigned in 2013 under a cloud of corruption speculation. The following year Anil Roberts resigned as Minister of Sport and Youth Affairs after being beleaguered by claims of impropriety. However, the prime minister who led the government during the aforementioned and other allegations of unethical conduct and downright banditry, and was herself the target of many accusations – Kamla Persad-Bissessar – saw no good reason to resign, despite demands from all quarters of T&T.
On our own home turf there have been, and continues to be, repeated calls for the Minister in the Ministry of Finance, Senator Ubaldus Raymond, to resign or be sacked, following allegations involving an 18-year-old female. And the Minister of Economic Development, Guy Joseph, who has been accused by his detractors of every corrupt and dastardly act short of stealing candy from babies, has been required not only to be ousted from his current ministerial post but banished forevermore from Saint Lucian politics. (In better days the now beleaguered Kenny Anthony had demanded similarly of Security Minister Keith Mondesir and Housing Minister Richard Frederick!)
If innuendo and unsubstantiated allegations were the ultimate arbiters of acceptability, most, if not all our politicians would be pried from the teats of our public purse and forced to get real jobs.
Is Dr. Raymond a liability to the government and people of Saint Lucia? To my mind, undoubtedly. Is Joseph the political boogeyman and corrupt money monster his detractors portray him to be? Whether or not he is, the distraction of the unceasing accusations of impropriety and their impact on the credibility of the government are undeniable. But is any of this new? Is the Raymond affair the first time a minister of government has been accused of the worst kind of infidelity? Is Guy Joseph the only local politician to face serious allegations by his opposites in parliament – never by the police?
Not only is the answer to the two preceding questions a resounding no, the described behaviour is closer to the rule than the exception. Too much effort is wasted seeking to conceal this undeniable fact. I wholeheartedly agree with the dismissal/resignation of any representative of a country, elected or selected, who becomes embroiled in controversy that brings said state into disrepute and/or in any way compromises their ability to provide optimum representation. However, the flagrant inconsistency in the expectation for chivalrous self-impalement, and agitation for unceremonious decapitation belie any suggestion of sincere concern for country and people. That’s what you get when there are no established rules governing public service (spoken or unspoken), and a docile undemanding population. Propriety ceases to be an immutable beacon that informs the acceptable path through the often murky ebbs and flows of politics and all its trappings. It becomes instead a tool selectively used to castigate foes and bolster credibility. The problem is particularly acute in Third World countries such as the CARICOM territories that lack vibrant, relatively objective media to help keep elected officials honest. It is a disease that must be once and for all eradicated before it gets much worse!