By Richard Coulson
‘Revolution’ is a word that scares Bahamians. Progress, development, new look, fresh start - all are words we are happy to use, while the stronger term frightens us with images of Haitian anarchy or the bloody 19th century Jamaican slave revolt.
We Bahamians have become too content, too easy-going, too civilised to think of revolution. Or so we believe.
Doris Johnson qualified her excellent 1972 history by calling it ‘Peaceful Revolution in the Bahamas’, although she described the young political leader Lynden Pindling throwing the ceremonial mace out of the House of Assembly window pretty close to a revolutionary act in 1965.
I am just old enough to remember the so-called Burma Road march in June, 1942, fascinated as a young boy by the Cameron Highlanders tramping past our gate under steel helmets with fixed bayonets. What started as a peaceful petition for equal pay for Bahamian labourers at the wartime “Project” building at Windsor Field became a day of burnt cars, smashed windows and looted shops the length of Bay Street, with terrified white merchants grabbling their shotguns, pulling down the shutters and running for home.
The night followed with an unruly mob drinking, rioting and torching “Over the Hill”, only partially controlled by the police and the British troops. Three men died in the shooting before it was over.
In those simpler days we soon survived that brief descent into insurrection, but what would happen if this mini-revolution occurred in our hyper-tense present era, with our modern hi-tech communications flashing to the news-hungry media? How many minutes before headlines would appear in New York and London and online blaring “Nassau In Chaos” and the American Embassy issuing a total stop order? How many months before cancelled flights and cruise ships would return, fleeing tourists re-book hotel rooms and thousands regain their lost jobs?
Facing current conditions of unemployment, political dissatisfaction and an independent young populace empowered by smartphone technology, there is no room for complacency that a revolution is impossible. History shows that not every revolution becomes violent, and we can hope that ours will evolve peacefully. But the word has come to mean sudden, unexpected change, with new political and social power structures abruptly emerging, destroying established leaders while creating new ones.
This year, we have already seen these convulsions. In August, Alfred Sears shocked the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) hierarchy by daring to announce his challenge to Mr Christie as party leader. Naturally the in-group joined forces to pooh-pooh his effrontery - “a nice guy, without a chance” - while editorials and public comment uniformly have come to praise his efforts, and it’s becoming hard to find a man or woman on the street who supports the Prime Minister with any enthusiasm. Whether the 2,400 party councillors, the entrenched “stalwarts” who will call the shots at next year’s PLP convention, will be swayed remains an open question, but Mr Sears already talks to many of them.
The more recent convulsion came on November 25, when social activist Ranard Henfield, virtually unknown outside his Carmichael community, stitched together a disparate group of civic groups and concerned individuals into an enthusiastic, peaceful thousand-plus march to Parliament Square and presented a long list of specific demands to Government. This unprecedented demonstration, with no official backing from political parties, labour unions or stodgy citizens’ groups like We The People, shows what can be done by virtually spontaneous efforts raised by wireless networking, akin to the Arab Spring uprisings that paralysed Cairo and other Muslim cities.
Finally, just last week we saw the self-destruction of the Free National Movement (FNM), which had been seething for months but only now exploded. Dr Hubert Minnis has already lost the immediate battle, as Dame Marguerite Pindling, the Governor General, has anointed Loretta Butler-Turner as constitutional “leader of the Official Opposition”. Dr Minnis still calls himself “leader of the party”, but what weight does he carry having lost seven out of ten MPs? He committed the one inexcusable blunder for a leader - he ignored rumblings inside his own party and was “blindsided”.
Mrs Butler-Turner, too, faces difficult questions. Will her negotiations with the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) leave her or Branville McCartney as the dominant face on a new political stage? Bran is popular, but she brings seven elected parliamentarians to the table while he has none. Will the public be asked to vote for a coalition called FNM-DNA or DNA-FNM, or a brand-new name? Or will Dr Minnis claim that only he can carry the banner labelled “FNM”? We now face all the ambiguities of typical European multi-faction political divisions. In our general election, the majority may revert to the PLP, which no matter how unpopular still draws from deep among the Bahamian grass roots.
These uncertainties are the marks of a revolutionary period, when the unexpected becomes the norm. The low turnout of registered voters, 67,000 compared to the previous term’s 134,000, suggest that a growing mass of potential voters are rejecting politics-as-usual and seeking other alternatives, still vague and undefined. This disillusionment with present choices is the classic breeding ground for radical change.
It brought the up-start Adolf Hitler to power in 1933, when neither the German old guard, the waffling Weimar politicians nor the ambitious Communist Party could satisfy the public’s desperation to escape from inflation, unemployment and the crushing burden of World War I debts to the foreign victors. Hitler had a plan, and no one could forecast the misery and destruction that, for 12 years, he inflicted on Germany, the Jews and all of Europe.
That’s the risk of revolutions. Even if they start peacefully, they are totally unpredictable. The American colonies only requested the right to levy their own taxes but, when the pig-headed British Crown refused to compromise in 1775, their muskets were mowing down red-coats on Bunker Hill to start eight years of brutal warfare. In 1789, the French “commoners” simply wanted fair representation for the Third Estate in the congress hastily called by King Louis XVI. But when the clergy and the nobles resisted, popular mobs destroyed the Bastille and killed its guards, and went on to create the Reign of Terror and guillotine the royal family. Diminutive Mexican lawyer Ignacio Madero just wanted to establish the principles “Effective Suffrage, No Re-Election”, but when he entered the election of 1910 against the long-time President Porfirio Diaz, who favoured only his rich cronies and foreign capitalists, Madero started ten years of civil war that left him assassinated by a usurping general, the country’s economy shattered and a million dead.
We can now agree that each of these cataclysms had the long-term result of creating better governments in America, France and Mexico, free of foreign domination and following democratic principles rather than royalist autocracy or despotic caudillos. All true, but the changeover process was agonising for the people who had to live through it. Famine, arbitrary killings and forced exile were often the order of the day.
Today, our country does not suffer from the oppressive conditions that led to those excesses. Looking ahead in the short term, we may face only peaceful surprises. It’s conceivable that Mr Christie will recognise (but not admit) his weakness and end his long career with an eloquent announcement on Majority Rule Day (January 9) that he is handing over the sceptre to his favoured acolyte Jerome Fitzgerald, leaving him to duke it out with Mr Sears for leadership at convention voting later in the month.
It’s possible that Mr Henfield will be energised by his recent success and be chosen by independent citizens to lead a brand-new party. A well-trained lawyer and far from a rabble-rouser, he has sworn to have no political ambitions - but years ago I heard the same assurance from Mr Fitzgerald when he was immersed in business before catching the public-service bug.
Our courts may be clogged with litigation over who has authority to name the “FNM” candidate in each constituency.
Not even the initial leaders of a revolution can foresee its future path; as the movement develops a life of its own, they are often spat out and left in the dust of history, just as Napoleon replaced the previous uncertain experiments with French democracy and was in turn ejected as a victim of his own hubris.
All we can say of 2017 is the near certainty that it will start as a year of peaceful revolution. I will go out on a limb and predict that by the middle of the year, our political power structure will not be what we see today. Beyond that, I do not have the temerity to speak, but cannot overlook that history has given many examples of peaceful change descending to violence.
• Richard Coulson is a retired lawyer and investment banker born in Nassau and from a long line of Bahamians. He is a financial consultant and author of A Corkscrew Life - adventures of a travelling financier.