Incumbent Baronnes Scotland, right and her challenger for the post of Commonwealth Secretary General Johnson-Smith
Incumbent Baronnes Scotland, right and her challenger for the post of Commonwealth Secretary General Johnson-Smith

For the second time in as many elections for the post of Commonwealth secretary-general, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has found itself at the centre of controversy surrounding the nomination of Dominica's candidate, the British jurist, Baroness Patricia Scotland.

Having expressed "overwhelming support" for Scotland's re-election following their inter-sessional meeting in Belize last month, CARICOM leaders are now forced to make another attempt at reaching consensus on a candidate following an announcement by Andrew Holness, the Jamaican prime minister, that he would nominate Kamina Johnson Smith, his foreign affairs and foreign trade minister, for the post.

This has placed CARICOM in a bind, particularly since Holness has insisted he will not withdraw Johnson Smith's nomination for the election, scheduled at the 20-25 June Commonwealth summit in Kigali, Rwanda.

The heads of government agreed at a special meeting last week to establish a five-member prime ministerial committee comprising the leaders of Jamaica and Dominica, as well as the Bahamas, Guyana and St Vincent and the Grenadines, to meet with both Scotland and Johnson-Smith at a yet-to-be-determined date, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, the Vincentian prime minister, revealed. The meeting is likely to take place in Guyana.

"[We want to move] forward as far as practicable with some unity and if we can't achieve that, well, then, it will be done with good sense and with respect for everybody," Gonsalves told The Sun.

No automatic second term

That Scotland is facing a re-election challenge is due to the fact that leaders of the 54-nation grouping, which encompass nearly a third of the world's population, went against the norm and refused to allow her an automatic second term.

This was mainly because of questions about her leadership, particularly financial procedures at the secretariat, which led Australia, New Zealand and the UK to withdraw funding.

Scotland, whose tenure was due to end in March 2020 but was extended due to COVID-19, was branded "Baroness Brazen" and "Baroness Shameless" by right-leaning British media after signing off on a lavish refit worth hundreds of thousands of pounds at her mansion. She was also strongly criticised by internal auditors for awarding a lucrative consultancy contract worth £250,000 to a company run by a personal friend.

In their report, the auditors had expressed concerns that the secretariat's "acts and omissions" in relation to the contract - and other alleged failings it that they identified, endangered "the integrity" of the institution and risk "serious reputational if not actual damage."

Scotland lawyers maintained the decision to award the contract to her friend was fully justified and complied with procurement procedures at the time.

Issues of concern

These likely are the "issues and concerns" that Holness said "did not go away" when he was asked to explain to parliament what had changed in the period between the inter-sessional, after which he was quoted as saying there was no other candidate proffered in Belize "and our support would remain" with the current holder, and his nomination of a candidate.

These issues are also why Skerrit's support of Scotland's re-election – the prime minister has written to every Commonwealth country urging support for the incumbent - is baffling, one person closely associated with the Dominican leader told The Sun.

"He is very utilitarian, [so]what could she offer him?", asked the person, who requested anonymity because of the nature of the relationship with Skerrit. "I don't understand what the benefits of her are to him, or why he's so hell-bent on keeping her in office."

But concerns remain about Jamaica's volte-face and whether outside forces, including Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, had not played a role in Holness' decision.

In his statement to parliament, Holness explained that if CARICOM support for his candidate, and that of other regions of the Commonwealth, would unite the London-based international organisation.

Brown says Jamaica's nomination is a "monumental error"

But Gaston Browne, the Antigua and Barbuda prime minister, who called the move a "monumental error," suggested that Holness was dancing to the tune of "those who seek to divide and rule."

This level of disunity has prompted Tony Fraser, an experienced Trinidadian journalist who has covered countless CARICOM summits and leaders, to call on regional governments to explain their position on the two candidates.

"CARICOM leaders . . . have to come to a give reasons as to why they are taking the stand, if new information has come forward, what has changed their position if they change it," Fraser told The Sun. "Because if they don't, they will simply look like the acolytes of Boris Johnson taking a position against the incumbent Scotland."

CARICOM was in a similar position in 2015 when, much to the annoyance of many of his counterparts, who pointed to the fact that Scotland had left Dominica at age two, dedicated her entire career to Britain and had never worked for Dominica or any Caribbean government or institution, Skerrit nominated the British Labour peer.

It was widely expected at the time that Sir Ronald Sanders, the Guyana-born diplomat, businessman and academic, who was nominated by Antigua and Barbuda and had the support of at least nine of the twelve CARICOM countries who are members of the Commonwealth, would have been the region's choice.

Sanders eventually withdrew his candidacy, prompting the Antiguan prime minister to write a stinging letter to Freundel Stuart, then the Barbados prime minister, practically accusing Stuart of lying by stating that leaders had referred the matter to the bureau of heads.

"It's kind of typical of the culture of CARICOM that they agree to one thing when they come together, and speeches are like fine wine, and they're tripping over themselves, but when they get back to the countries they adopt, not a CARICOM position, but a national position," stressed Fraser. "This historical conflict-laded relationship . . . is a failure to cohere around common coordinated foreign policy."

Peter Wickham, the former University of the West Indies political scientist, agrees that the entire region should stand behind Scotland if the majority of the members agree to support her.

However, Wickham is concerned that in such a case, Scotland could win the battle, but the Caribbean could risk losing the overall prize.

"We may very well do that [endorse Scotland] and then we may find that another region may put up a candidate at the very last minute and we lose it as a region because her negatives are so strong," Wickham told The Sun.