The word “independence really means freedom from control or influence from another. However, the question which I believe we all should reflect on is, what really is independence and the benefits which are derived from such?
Historically, we know that Antigua was a colony of Britain at a time when she ruled the waves, and it was said that the sun never goes down on the empire. I recall, as a young boy, that we would sing all those British songs at certain times like Empire Day and Remembrance Day with the sale of poppies.
Many of the citizens from these Commonwealth countries paid the ultimate price by serving in the two major world wars. However, in a changing world, the time came when Britain was more than ready to grant independence to these colonies. In some instances, she allowed first of all, internal self-government, whereby she retained responsibilities for external affairs and defense.
In the case of Antigua, we received Statehood in Association with Britain in 1967 and this prepared the way for full independence. The late Sir Vere Cornwall Bird Sr became the first premier and one of his major feats was to purchase all the sugar estate lands from the Syndicate owners, thus making them Crown lands or assets of the people.
By 1971, there was a shift in the political landscape and the Sir George Walter-led Progressive Labour Movement which held power until 1976, campaigned for political independence, whilst the Antigua Labour Party campaigned against it, citing that the country was not yet ready for same.
The Antigua Labour Party, in power from 1976, moved the country towards full independence on November 1, 1981. The Union Jack was lowered and our national flag was raised.
I recall on that November day, my wife and I were on an aircraft going to Montreal, Canada. However, at one minute past midnight, we stood to our feet and with the excitement and purpose, we recognised the birth of our new nation. Although we were not here physically, we were in spirit.
Thirty-three years later, what can we say we have achieved since independence? Prior to 1981, we fought the British colonialists; now, with independence, it is our own people fighting against each other, as there is much political division and polarisation.
A new dimension has evolved with the increase in migration to the country. We have seen a further division and erosion, in that it appears that it is them against us. Notwithstanding, we must remember that the Constitution of this land guarantees certain freedoms and rights to individuals and these ought not and should not be violated due to political differences.
Independence certainly must mean more than political power; with it must come economic power. When we look at our economy, we are told that almost 80 per cent of our GDP is related to tourism. Tourism, as we know it, is an extremely fickle and fragile industry as can be seen when there is some natural drawback (eg, one can recall the length of time it took the industry to come back on stream after Hurricane Luis in 1995). Thank God that for the past 10 years or so, we have not had any major storms and/or hurricanes to negate the progress of the industry.
However, if we look at the hotel plants, most of them are foreign-owned and very few Antiguans are in top management positions. To borrow a line from one of our calypso icons, “we remain hewers of wood and carriers of water.” Additionally, when we think of the quantum of incentives which government gives to these organisations, the question really to be asked is what do we really achieve as a nation. In most instances, we give hundreds of acres of land to accommodate these plants, yet if one looks at other developed countries, even larger hotels are built on less acreage. In some instances, we have even prostituted our lands as some persons are given them and speculate in the course of time.
Indigenous Antiguans are worth more than a vote at election time. Our people need job security and we are seeing time and time again how Antiguans are being displaced for others.
No other country in the Caribbean allows its citizens to be displaced for others. Yet we remain as though all is well in our fair land. Sooner or later, we will become like slaves and second-class citizens in the land of our birth. Again, to borrow from the calypso icon, “we need to wake up.”
Our people need to be empowered economically and provisions must be made so that we can play a meaningful role towards the development of our country. This should not just be lip service, but the same incentives and concessions which are given to the expatriates should also be given to locals. Locals are and can be investors, too.
Antigua has no natural resources such as gold, oil, timber, or anything of that sort. But we have our people and so, going forward, serious consideration ought to be given as to how we develop our people into competing in this global village, which we now have. We need all ideas to contend. No government has all the answers to the complexities of the time and it is time, therefore for our elected officials to engage all sectors of the society on how we are going to move this country forward.
Our youth, the next generation, represents the future of this country and the investment which we make in them is extremely critical. The way we conduct ourselves, especially those of us in public office ought to be mindful that we are sending messages subliminal and/or otherwise and the old maxim is “children live what they learn.” What must be mindful is that we are sowing seeds and one of these days we will reap what has been sown.
What have we seen also over the past 33 years is an erosion of our cultures and values. There is a total breakdown of our society, the type of deviant behaviour, the escalation of gangs and other sub- cultures are serious causes for concern.
What we are seeing every day has brought some of us to asking the question, where did we go wrong? Parents are reneging on their duties of effective parenting. Take a walk down Market Street on a weekend and you will get an idea of the type of Antigua in which we live today.
The prison is filled with young men mostly between the ages of 18 and 30 and it would appear as though we are losing a generation to crime and violence. As one who serves as a Prison Fellowship Volunteer, I must posit that the programmes, as well intentioned as they are, will not rehabilitate anyone. There must be moral rehabilitation which comes through a Christ-centered programme to bring about transformation of the heart.
In conclusion, I urge us all to remember the contributions of all those who have gone on before us in building this great nation we call Antigua & Barbuda. Those of us who are left behind must ask ourselves: What role can we play in building a fair and beautiful society for our children and grandchildren?
May the God of heaven grant us his favours as we celebrate the birthday of our fair nation.