Scotland v Jamaica: UK leads move to unseat Commonwealth secretary-general

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Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Senator Kamina Johnson Smith

By Oren Gruenbaum

Commonwealth member states in the Caribbean have turned on each other since Jamaica’s foreign minister, Kamina Johnson Smith, overturned convention by challenging Patricia Scotland for the post of secretary-general.

Johnson Smith told the Jamaica Observer that she was confident that she was building a consensus around her candidacy, which was announced on 1 April. ‘I think that is going very well. We are over the line,’ she said on 26 May, a month before the result of the election will be announced at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

Scotland had earlier asked Johnson Smith to withdraw her candidacy, telling ABS TV in Antigua that ‘there is no vacancy.’ The Dominican-born Scotland said: ‘This wasn’t the appropriate time to challenge a fellow Commonwealth Caribbean for this post.’ However, her Jamaican rival flatly refused to do so, telling Television Jamaica: ‘That will never happen.’

Scotland’s first term was supposed to end in 2020 but it was agreed to extend her term during the Covid pandemic. The Jamaican’s challenge, announced on 1 April, was all the more surprising as Scotland appeared to have secured the backing of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) for a second term at a summit of the regional bloc in Belize only weeks before.

Although she rose to prominence as a minister in the UK government under Tony Blair, Scotland’s candidature for her first term in 2015 had been endorsed by CARICOM, not least because of the support of Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda. He had also backed Scotland for a second term and immediately called Johnson Smith’s candidacy a ‘monumental error’ that would only divide the region. Browne also criticised Jamaica for breaking with an apparent understanding within CARICOM that Scotland would be the Caribbean candidate for the role, which has traditionally rotated between regions. Scotland has also said: ‘Africa anticipates that they will have an opportunity to put forward an African secretary-general in 2024.’

CARICOM, after appointing a committee to look into the matter in April, had by May ‘washed its hands’ of it and decided its members were free to support any of the candidates (Tuvalu and Kenya had also thrown their hats in the ring). Though Scotland is the incumbent in a role where a second term is rarely opposed, she has some formidable opponents within the Commonwealth, not least the British government, which was seen by Scotland’s supporters as being behind the early challenge last summer by the Kenyan nominee, the defence minister, Monica Juma).

The Maldives became one of the first member states to unequivocally back Johnson Smith, declaring on May 4 that it supported her ‘without hesitation’. After meeting the Singaporean foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, in New York, and taking part in a panel discussion on small states chaired by him, Singapore backed her candidacy, declaring that she was ‘well placed to lead the Commonwealth to greater heights’.

A few days later, India also endorsed her, when the foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, tweeted on May 9 that Johnson Smith’s ‘strong credentials and vision bode well for the future of the Commonwealth’. The UK followed suit, with Boris Johnson tweeting on May 19 that the Jamaican had the ‘support to unite our unique family of nations.’

Belize, which was reportedly one of eight states backing Scotland in 2019, switched sides in late May to declare for Johnson Smith. The PM, John Briceño, said Belize would be supporting the challenger and suggested Trinidad and Tobago would also back her. Hinting at the entrenched opposition to Scotland among many big players in the Commonwealth, Briceño, who is also chair of CARICOM, said of the Jamaican: ‘She is likeable, she is hardworking, and she can get people to work together, and I think that is more than anything else, important.’

Scotland’s time in office has had more than its share of controversies. In 2016, only months after Scotland became secretary-general, the Daily Mail alleged in a series of articles that she had circumvented procurement rules in appointing friends and allies to consultancy and PR jobs, had advised the ‘despotic’ leaders of Kazakhstan and the Maldives in her role as a barrister, and had overspent hugely in the ‘lavish’ revamp of the secretary-general’s official residence in London’s Mayfair. These allegations were strenuously denied by Scotland.

In 2019, an internal Secretariat report leaked to the BBC revealed ‘deep concerns’ over the organisation’s governance, priorities and financial stability, following two costly and embarrassing rulings against the Secretariat by employment tribunals. The report indicated some member countries opposed Scotland’s automatic reappointment for a second term, as had been the case with all previous secretaries-general. Press claims of ‘cronyism and profligacy’, and a lack of reforms at the Secretariat, soured relations with Johnson’s government, while her supporters accused him of having a ‘colonial mindset’ about the Commonwealth. In 2020, the UK withdrew discretionary funding from the Secretariat, following similar moves by New Zealand and Australia.

Guy Hewitt, the former Barbados high commissioner to the UK, has become the latest influential Caribbean figure to back Johnson Smith. Speaking at a symposium organised by The Round Table and London University’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies, he said: ‘It is with great dismay that I have been forced to reconcile myself to the reality that on the watch of the first female secretary-general, someone I like personally and who shares West Indian roots, the fundamental values that underpin the Commonwealth have been further trampled upon.’

Scotland’s supporters have criticised Johnson for coming out in favour of Johnson Smith while the UK is chair of the Commonwealth as they  believe the British government ought to remain neutral during the election. ‘They are confident there is not a majority in favour of her dismissal, and claim resentment has grown at what could be regarded as a divisive approach,’ the Guardian reported.

For Hewitt, however, change is necessary to preserve the Commonwealth itself. ‘Enough is enough,’ he said, ‘good governance must not be just a concept but a lived reality, a way of doing.’ With criticism as devastating as that ahead of the election, the odds on Scotland staying in office seem to be widening fast.

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.

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