A diplomatic chess game, which started two years ago to oust Baroness Patricia Scotland as Commonwealth secretary general, is now playing out in the Caribbean Community (Caricom) following Jamaica’s decision to nominate Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Kamina Johnson Smith for the post.
Scotland’s reign as secretary general has been marred by allegations of corruption and cronyism at the London headquarters of the organisation, whose 54 nations have a combined population of 2.4 billion. She has denied the allegations.
Scotland has been the centre of controversy since it was reported in 2016 that she had spent thousands of pounds on the refurbishing of the London house that came with the job. She has, however, denied extravagant spending on the house.
In 2020 she was criticised by the Commonwealth’s Audit Committee for “circumventing” the tendering process after awarding a £250,000 consultancy contract to a friend. Britain, Australia and New Zealand have suspended their discretionary funding to the Commonwealth Secretariat until its financial systems are tightened up and tested by external auditors.
The withdrawal of funds saw the secretariat’s core budget dropping to £32 million from £52 million in 2012/13.
But those concerns appeared to have been ignored by Caricom leaders who — following the 33rd Intersessional Meeting of Heads of Government, held March 1-2, 2022, attended virtually by Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness and in person by Johnson Smith — issued a communiqué which said, “Heads of Government expressed their overwhelming support for the re-election of Baroness Patricia Scotland as secretary general of the Commonwealth”.
That came after a release from a special meeting of the Caricom Council for Foreign and Community Relations held October 16-17, 2021, and hosted by Jamaica’s consul general in Miami, Florida, which said, “The incumbent, Baroness Scotland, enjoys the broad support of the community.”
On Sunday, reports emerged that Caricom leaders are to meet this week to discuss the controversy, but up to press time there was no official word on the date for the meeting which is expected to be held virtually.
Scotland was elected to the post at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta in 2015. The next election is scheduled to take place during the June 20-25 Commonwealth summit in Kigali, Rwanda.
Scotland is the second secretary general from the Caribbean and the first woman to hold the post.
At the time of her election Scotland was mandated by Commonwealth leaders to review the operations of the secretariat. Three years later, she established a high-level group of mostly former Commonwealth foreign ministers, but according to a BBC story published in February 2020 the group’s report was never published.
The BBC also reported that a senior British diplomat wrote to Scotland on February 3, 2020 to say that continued UK funding would be suspended until the Commonwealth Secretariat complied with the recommendations of a KPMG report.
“These conditions included a register of occasions when procurement rules were waived, a register of real and potential conflicts of interest, and an updating of the body’s whistle blower policy,” the BBC report said.
However, the BBC reported a spokesman for the secretariat as saying that Scotland was making the organisation more “dynamic and integrated”.
Last Friday, following Jamaica’s announcement of Johnson Smith’s candidacy, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Browne described it as a “monumental error”, and said he was hoping that the matter will be resolved amicably.
“I know that there is a push now to have a meeting early this week and hopefully we can have a consensus and we can dissuade Jamaica from proceeding on this particular issue and for us to support Baroness Scotland.
“Baroness Scotland is a ‘Caribbeaner’ and as a member of the family I think we have a moral obligation to support her, to protect her and stand in solidarity with her, especially considering that there are entities and individuals outside of the region who are trying to emasculate her. We have to protect our own,” Browne said.
He said he had spoken with Holness on the issue, adding that “for Jamaica now to take that decision to break the [Caricom] consensus and to present Johnson Smith as a candidate, I think it will only serve to divide the region”.
According to Browne, during his discussions with Holness over the last weekend he indicated that he would have closed his eyes to support Jamaica.
“I know Kamina very well. I have no doubt she would have made a very good Commonwealth secretary general, but the point of it is that Antigua and Barbuda would not support Jamaica’s position,” he said.
Dominica has also called on the 54-member Commonwealth grouping to re-elect Scotland, saying that despite the challenges of the novel coronavirus pandemic and climate change, she has “laid a solid foundation to look at solutions for our countries in the future”.
Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, in a letter to Commonwealth governments, recalled that the Dominican-born Scotland had a mandate “to reform the Commonwealth secretariat and to advocate and to be a voice for those of our countries without a voice.
“In her first term she delivered on reform and on change; she delivered on partnerships and innovation for the benefit of our countries; she delivered on good offices and democracy. She successfully braved the challenges of the climate crisis and of the COVID-19 pandemic and has laid a solid foundation to look at solutions for our countries in the future,” Skerrit said in his March 23 letter, Caribbean Media Corporation reported.
Last year Kenya announced that it was nominating its defence minister, Monica Juma, for the post but withdrew the nomination on the basis that while it wants a change in the leadership of the Commonwealth it did not want to split the grouping.
“A change at the head of the Secretariat is necessary if the Commonwealth is to address urgent, emergent and future risks and threats and if it is to assume its rightful place among the community of nations where its voice can shape and drive the pursuit of sustainable development for all,” said Kenya.
In announcing Jamaica’s nomination for the Commonwealth’s top job on Friday Holness said: “The Government of Jamaica has every confidence in Minister Johnson Smith’s abilities to build bridges and consensus, bringing governments and peoples to a common understanding. Her qualifications for the post of secretary general, including her high moral character, diplomatic and political acumen, proven competence, and commitment to the work of the Commonwealth make her an excellent candidate.
“She will bring a wealth of experience to the position, and is committed to international public service, with special regard for sustainable development, gender and the interests of small states, which will contribute significantly to the work of the organisation towards 2.5 billion citizens of the Commonwealth.”
Up to press time the Office of the Prime Minister had not responded to a number of questions submitted by the Jamaica Observer on the developing row. Among the answers sought was whether Jamaica had agreed with other Caricom Heads of Government in March to support the re-election of Baroness Scotland and, if yes, what has changed in past month to cause Jamaica to change its position.
On Monday, when the Observer contacted British High Commissioner to Jamaica Judith Slater for a comment on the issue she said, “The UK Government has noted the announcement with interest. Kamina Johnson Smith is a very credible candidate and we will study her bid carefully. A decision on the Commonwealth secretary general is for Heads of Government to take at CHOGM in Kigali in June.”
Johnson Smith is an attorney-at-law who worked previously in private practice and as corporate in-house counsel and holds a Bachelor of Arts in French, a Bachelor of Laws and a Master of Laws in Commercial Law.
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