Throughout history, communities which have been separated by religion, ethnicity and distance (most especially water), have experienced secessionist movements. Such movements are now current in relations between Catalonia and Spain, Scotland and the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent Barbuda and Antigua.
While separatist groups raise their voices loudest and receive the most media attention, support for them amongst their own communities is never unanimous. There are many who doubt the wisdom of separation in economic and security terms. A referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 failed to secure a majority vote and, after the hype surrounding a controversial independence referendum in Catalonia on October 1, 2017, a Metroscopia poll seven weeks later revealed that 71 per cent of the Catalonians polled would prefer politicians to find an agreement based on Catalonia staying part of Spain.
The Caribbean has had its fair share of secessionist movements—always from the smaller islands that form a single state with larger ones. Anguilla broke away from St Kitts and Nevis in 1971 during the British colonial era; Tobago agitated for years for secession from Trinidad; in 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 an independent, unitary state in 1981.
In each case, the secessionists claimed ‘distinct communities’, expressed their dissatisfaction with being governed from ‘another island’, and demanded more autonomy even though objective analysis showed that the tiny islands could not pay for themselves. For example, Tobago’s share of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Trinidad and Tobago is 1.9 per cent and the local government depends on the central government for subventions to provide goods and services to the population. In Barbuda’s case, it contributes less than one per cent of the GDP of Antigua and Barbuda and the local government is entirely dependent for all its financing on the central government.
Over the years, the secessionist movement on Nevis has subsided, particularly because the present government of St Kitts and Nevis is constituted by a coalition of several parties, including the major political party on Nevis. But, the separatist tendency remains and could erupt again if a purely St Kitts-based political party is elected as the central government. In the case of Tobago, separatist inclinations have all but died due to two reasons: two of the six prime ministers of Trinidad and Tobago have come from Tobago, and local government legislation has given Tobago autonomy over much of its affairs.
A new Bill to give even more powers to the local government, has been adopted by the Tobago legislature and is currently under consideration by the central government.
However, the secessionist drive in Barbuda has gained new currency in the wake of the island’s decimation by Irma, a category 5 hurricane, in September 2017. Barbuda was left with no electricity or water, and the destruction of more than 95 per cent of all buildings, including homes. The central government was forced to evacuate all the Barbuda residents to Antigua, particularly as two more hurricanes, José and Maria, were on track to hit the island a few days after Irma’s disastrous passage
Barbudans became the first ‘climate refugees’ in the Caribbean with the government of Antigua and Barbuda providing them shelter and food.
The cost of rebuilding Barbuda has been estimated at approximately US$215 million or 15 per cent of the GDP of Antigua and Barbuda—a cost beyond the capacity of the central government. With little or no help from the international community, except for immediate relief to the Barbudan community, the central government has been carrying the cost of establishing basic services on Barbuda, but with no homes or other facilities such as a hospital or a school, both flattened by the hurricane, the majority of the Barbudans have had to remain on Antigua.
All this has given an emboldened voice to Barbuda separatists whose quest for secession, since the early 1900s, has never abated despite the fact that the Antigua and Barbuda Independence Constitutional Conference with Britain in 1980, decided that Antigua and Barbuda is a ‘unitary state’. This decision, which included giving greater powers of autonomy to the Barbuda local government, rejected a theory by Barbudan separatists that the people had acquired Barbuda in common at the 1834 abolition of slavery, and all land on the island is owned by all Barbudans, and that none of it can ever be sold. Moreover, onlythe people of Barbuda could decide who could lease land of any size.
The Barbudan separatists tested the constitutional conference’s 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.
In the wake of Hurricane Irma, the Barbuda separatists have now reverted to the notion that all lands on Barbuda are owned by Barbudans in common, and that the central government has no authority to sell lands on the island, including to Antiguans.
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, that 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 have the constitutional right, which many of them exercise, to own land in Antigua.
Faced with a bill upwards of US$200 million to rebuild Barbuda and re-settle its 1,500 people, the central government contends that land will have to be sold and leased on
Barbuda, especially to investors in hotels, to contribute to its economic and social development.
On a per capita basis, the rebuilding of Barbuda works out at US$133,000 for each man, woman and child.
The fundamental question for areas that want to separate from larger national units, is: Can they 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. The same is true for all the other smaller islands of the Caribbean that want secession.
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.
The same is doubly true for the Caribbean islands, except that none of them would have any chance of survival on their own.
Despite this, the atavistic disposition for distinctiveness as a community and the objection to being governed from outside—even by a government in whose election they participate and which pays for their existence—is likely to continue.
In turn, political parties will bargain with separatists, offering greater autonomy in return for political support to form governments. Thus, the governance of these island-states will endure disruption, but actual secession is most improbable.
This article was first published in London in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.