Caribbean Week, August 1996
n 1882 Britain abolished the goverment on Nevis and linked the island politically with neighbouring St. Kitts. Nevisians rioted in protest, but eventually succumbed to the colonial mandate. The resentment caused by that forcible association has simmered ever since. In the past two months the heat has been rising and it appears that it will soon boil over.
The first reading of a secession bill took place in a special session of the Nevis Island Assembly on July 18; it received unanimous support. Both Nevis Premier Vance Amory's Concerned Citizens Movement and the opposition Nevis Reformation Party support secession. Public opinion on Nevis seems strongly in support of secession, though no formal polls have been taken. It appears that only a major surprise can prevent the secession process from moving forward.
When the independent Federation of St. Christopher and Nevis was born in 1983 the new Constitution contained specific measures for the secession of Nevis. Section 113 details the process which must be followed. A secession bill must pass the Nevis Island Assembly by a two-thirds majority, after having sat for "not less than 90 days between the introduction of the bill and... the second reading." After Assembly passage, the voting public must support the bill by a two-thirds majority in a referendum. "Full and detailed proposals for the future constitution of the Island of Nevis" must have been laid in the Assembly for at least six months before the referendum is held.
Over the past three decades calls for secession have been frequent. Simeon Daniel, former leader of the Nevis Reformation Party, lead several delegations to London during the early 1970's seeking independence for Nevis, but was unable to gain British support. In 1980 Daniel was elected Premier on a secession platform, but he never followed through on it.
Relations between the current Labour Government and the Nevis Island Administration have been strained since Labour's 1995 election victory, in part because of Amory's stance of "neutrality" after the inconclusive 1993 election on St. Kitts. The situation took a turn for the worse in the past several months. When federal legislation related to offshore industry was introduced in the National Assembly on June 3, Amory objected to the four bills because Nevis already had its own regulations in these areas.
Labour's plan to open a Federal Office on Nevis pushed Amory over the edge. On June 20, Premier Amory spoke to the people of Nevis in a radio broadcast. He outlined his government's objections to the opening of a Federal Office on Nevis. While focussing much of his attention on the office, Amory characterized it as part of a "deteriorating state of affairs between the Federal Government and the Nevis Island Administration." Amory called the opening of the Federal Office on Nevis "unconstitutional and a callous disregard of the rights of all Nevisians," and declared that it showed "a sinister purpose."
Amory delineated eleven specific actions which the Federal Government could take to cooperate more effectively with his Administration. These included financial commitments for specific projects, increased law enforcement and fire fighting services and turning over some tax collection duties and other administrative functions. Amory concluded his address by asking for the support of Nevisians in his stand that "no employee of the Nevis Island Administration shall have any official contact with the Federal Office in Nevis." Three days later, the night before the official opening of the Federal Office, a large crowd was on hand to hear Amory announce that Nevis will formally seek to separate from St. Kitts.
The grand opening of the Federal Office the following day was marred by the strife. The approximately 20 Nevisians who joined the crowd from St. Kitts were hailed by Prime Minister Dr. Denzil Douglas as visionaries "who will be remembered by history." A group of some 150 protesters stood on the side with signs and banners. The opening of this office "is not about our usurping power and wanting to weaken existing institutions," Douglas said, "but rather this office is about strengthening bonds of cooperation and communication." In responding to Amory's call for the secession of Nevis, Douglas acknowledged "the constitutional right of the people of Nevis to secede." He stated that "my government will not stand in the way" of such a choice. However, he went on to make the case for constitutional reform which would allow the continuation of the federation, with greater autonomy for each island. Douglas cited the importance of small nations banding together to prevent their "marginalization in the global marketplace."
The following day the St. Kitts & Nevis Chamber of Industry and Commerce held a special meeting which produced a press release calling for "urgent and direct dialogue between" Douglas and Amory. Expressing fears about how the situation might affect foreign investment in the islands, Chamber President Victor Williams explained "it's important for people to address the economic implications." CARICOM and the OECS quickly added their voices, calling for restraint and unity.
The deep inter-connections between St. Kitts and Nevis severely complicate the issue. Many Nevisians live and work on St. Kitts and visa versa. Most extended families have ties to both islands. On St. Kitts, many people are "tired of hearing the complaints" of Nevisians. Many callers to a July 18 program on the government radio station, said they didn't think Nevis should secede, but if that's what they want "let them go".
The Federal Government has remained consistent in its calls for responsible discussion, though Nevisian officials insist that their actions don't match their words. Government concern about secession is obvious in the multiple broadcasts of Douglas' speeches on the issue. A memo sent out by the Ministry of Tourism on July 22 to some 100 "partners and friends" in the international community shows their concern to reassure tourists that things remain "calm" in the Federation and that Constitutional processes will be utilized to resolve the differences.
A meeting in early July of Nevisians living on St. Kitts drew some 50 concerned citizens. Most attendees felt that Amory was acting rashly. While the speakers agreed that infrastructure and other development on Nevis lagged behind St. Kitts, they questioned whether an independent Nevis would be economically viable. Questions were also raised about whether Amory was using this emotional issue to buoy his popularity in preparation for elections next year.
Amory appears firm in his decision. At the July meeting of the National Assembly Prime Minister Douglas used the occasion to restate his position on secession. When he was finished, Amory muttered that it was "a waste of time." The Premier and other Nevisian officials recently visited CARICOM Chairman Lester Bird in Antigua. Insiders report that their primary message was "there is nothing to negotiate."
The Constitutional process will take a minimum of nine months. What happens during this time will greatly influence the results of the referendum. Hopefully, the people of Nevis will demand real answers from their political leaders about how an independent Nevis would function. If this work is done and the answers are satisfactory, the smallest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere will soon become even smaller.