Barbados Severs Colonial Ties with the British Monarchy: A Call to Action for Africa?

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Barbados has, in tremendous unison, resolved to drop the British monarchy’s Queen Elizabeth II as the island’s head of state, ushering a new epoch where Barbados will be recognised as a republic state. The country’s Parliament unanimously agreed (25 votes to none) to promulgate a Constitutional Amendment that will sever colonial ties where the British monarchy remained the head of state in the Caribbean nation.

After a protracted two decades, Barbados, a former British colony, will have its own head of state – and the Constitutional Amendment will become operative starting from the 1st of December 2021.

Barbados has created an empowering precedent in the world of Commonwealth of Nations – a “loose association of former British colonies and current dependencies” (as well as Rwanda and Mozambique) that somehow still mirrors the shape of the imperial British Empire – and particularly for the Caribbean and African nations whose colonial ties with the British Empire have proved hard to cast off.

When Barbados declared its independence in 1966, it chose to remain in the Commonwealth realm and recognise Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state. Currently the Commonwealth realm of nations has 16 nations with Queen Elizabeth II as their monarch and head of state – but this number will drop to 15 in the wake of Barbados’ amendment.

However, the new Amendment effectively repeals the 1966 Order of Barbados as an Order in her Majesty’s Council, supplanting it with a constitutional reform that provides for a Barbadian citizen as the country’s head of state and not the queen. Barbadians now owe their allegiance to a Barbadian citizen and the country’s institutions; not to a distant monarch who has presided over brutal colonial exploitation.

The oath of allegiance for leadership has shifted from Her Majesty to the State of Barbados and the “continuity of its institutions” for the first time since English settlers arrived on the island in 1625 (where they established a huge sugar plantation industry off the cheap labour of hundreds of thousands of African slaves). The Amendment keeps the Barbados Constitution fundamentally unchanged.

This also gives Barbados a freshly authored chance to improve its organic democracy. The Amendment is borderline a revolutionary act within the discourse of political and colonial symbols [of oppression] – by becoming a republic, Barbados has severed its symbolic colonial ties to the British Crown. And of course, this intensifies pressure for other Commonwealth nations to follow suit, thus dismantling the vestiges of British imperialism.

The Governor-General of Barbados [the queen’s representative to Barbados] Sandra Mason will become the country’s first head of state in a ceremonial role. Addressing legislators, Prime Minister Mia Mottley (of Barbados’ Labour Party which has the majority in Parliament) said that together with opposition leader Bishop Joseph Atherley “they would make a joint nomination for the election of a president of Barbados and a date will then be set for that election”.

It remains blurry as to when this president will be sworn-in, and it is also hazy if Barbados will then effectively leave the Commonwealth entirely, although by inference this is the path suggested by the constitutional reforms.

In September 2020, the Barbados government made it known to the world that it intended to remove Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state by November 2021 (coinciding with the island’s 55th independence anniversary), proclaiming that “[t]he time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind”.  And this sentiment has been materialized by commendable political will and praxis.

When Barbados announced this intention last year, the speech written by Mia Mottley and delivered by Governor-General Sandra Mason conveyed the affection of Barbadians as regards republicanism: “Our country can be in no doubt about its capacity for self-governance … The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind.”

“Barbadians want a Barbadian head of state. This is the ultimate statement of confidence in who we are and what we are capable of achieving.  Hence, Barbados will take the next logical step toward full sovereignty and become a republic by the time we celebrate our 55th anniversary of independence.”

But Barbados may perhaps be cautious about instantaneously renouncing its Commonwealth membership, as economic ties with Britain are still preserved by the island’s cultural and economic base. The [economic/trade] benefits of being a Commonwealth member in the age of heightened neoliberal capitalism have become diminished and cumbersome to quantify. The constitutional reform by Barbados may inspire other African countries but economic dependence impedes this – making African countries devoid of agency [thus powerless] in the narrative of the Commonwealth.

This raises questions for other Commonwealth nations, both in the Caribbean (such as Jamaica which has hinted about removing the queen as its head of state) and in Africa that may desire to sever symbolic colonial ties with the United Kingdom.

The Commonwealth may have registered its successes pertaining anti-colonial struggles and facilitating orderly transfers of power, but the truism behind this association of nations is that it serves as Britain’s conduit for furthering neocolonial domination and acting as a bulwark of neoliberal imperialism by legitimizing such imperialism in former colonies and settler territories such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

For now, the undoubtable and salient legal point is that Barbados will become a self-assertive republic democracy with its own head of state, boldly disregarding the “nonsense of paying homage to the queen”.  Guy Hewitt, a former high commissioner of Barbados in London remarked that “Britain still remains our largest source market for visitors, and tourism is our major economic activity. So there are still a lot of links that go back from our colonial history to our contemporary reality”

Looking at the precedents set by Guyana  (1970), Trinidad and Tobago (1976) and Dominica (1978) – where these countries dropped the Queen as their head of state – Barbadians, alongside contemporary black thoughts on decolonization, have reassessed their relationship with Britain and clearly it is time for change.

The blurry nature of Commonwealth membership was engendered by Hewitt when he said, “There is this acceptance that a republic status is part of the growth of any modern democracy — part of being truly sovereign, having a native head of state.”

African countries need to follow suit and cut colonial ties with Britain – this serves as defiant statements to the royal family about their explicit and implicit role in global predicaments such as racism, inequality, neocolonialism, and ‘accumulation by dispossession’ at the hands of foreign private capital.

This should even be transcended by striving for economic independence so that there is no dependence on the British capitalist form of economic relations which seeks to perpetually extract infinite resources and human capital from former colonies. The Commonwealth is underpinned by liberal propaganda where the narratives of “trade and development partnerships” with the British Crown are proselytized and idolized, but without any tangible benefits as far as genuine poverty/income inequality amelioration is concerned.

Barbados’ breaking up of colonial ties with the British Crown serves as a call to action for African countries to foster collective solidarity that sees them becoming independent from British consumerist capital which works to further under-develop African countries. If there is to be self-sufficiency in Africa free from neocolonial trappings, then the precedent set by Barbados must be followed by rendering the British Crown and the Commonwealth as obsolete global hegemonic institutions.

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