Is activism dead?
Two years ago, as the country was moving closer to a general election, The Nassau Guardian published a story about a proposal for the Chinese to enter the fishing industry in The Bahamas.
This revelation seemed to be the final straw for an electorate that had had enough of the Christie administration, which was widely viewed as corrupt, unaccountable and determined to take actions that were against the national interest.
Public anger toward the government was growing by the day, notwithstanding the deep troubles that still gripped the opposition Free National Movement (FNM) at the time.
In that highly politically charged climate, the We March movement was birthed. Aided by the powerful social media tool and the energy that accompanies an election season, the spirit of activism took on life and many hundreds of Bahamians, if not thousands, were drawn in.
Opposition politicians seized on the opportunity, hitching their wagons to the movement.
FNM Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis and colleagues wore the Black Friday T-shirts created for the march. Minnis declared that the experience had made him a changed leader and vowed to be a prime minister who would listen.
Two years later, there is a sense that a significant number of those who supported the FNM feel betrayed. Disenchantment seems to be growing.
But will the activism that preceded the overthrow of the Christie administration be reignited?
The Black Friday march held by the We March group was a turning point as the election season intensified. It was led by attorney Ranard Henfield, a community organizer who was instrumental in highlighting the many significant issues that made the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) a far-from-desirable choice for the irritated electorate.
Henfield has since betrayed the movement, which he had claimed would be an independent voice for the Bahamian people.
In 2017, he said We March had no intention of endorsing or associating itself with any political party.
“This is an indication to every politician and every political party that we have found our voice and are not afraid to speak up and demand better,” Henfield said.
He also said after the group’s April 2017 march, “Right now, the PLP might feel We March is anti-PLP. But if this government changes and the DNA wins or the FNM wins or another party wins, we will march on them. So, clearly we are not anti a political party, but we are anti-bad governance. We March does not intend to go out and does not want to go and support a party.”
Weeks later, after the FNM won the general election, Minnis appointed Henfield to the Senate, in a move that drew some criticism. Henfield claimed he is an independent senator.
“I am not an FNM senator. I am a consultative senator having been afforded this privilege by the prime minister after consultation with the leader of the opposition. My role here is to champion the many causes we marched for on Black Friday and Majority Rule Day 2017,” he said in June 2017.
While he has claimed to be independent, we understand that Henfield attends FNM parliamentary caucus meetings.
He was also recently present at the FNM’s weekend conclave, which was open only to FNMs.
His alignment with the FNM and abandonment of the We March movement has discouraged some people from wanting to participate in such activism again. Many concluded that We March was a move calculated to propel Henfield’s political career.
Just 18 months into this term, many voters are already agitated. Although there does not appear to be a strong desire to see the PLP returned, the FNM has disappointed many.
The FNM administration counts as its initial achievements a decrease in crime — or at least the murder rate; a spark on the economic horizon, as observed earlier this year by the International Monetary Fund; and what it claims to be increased fiscal accountability.
But those so-called achievements are not translating into an improvement in the quality of life for many Bahamians.
We are being squeezed daily to pay more taxes, amidst a rising cost of living. After voting against the initial implementation of value-added tax (VAT) by the former administration, the FNM came to office and raised VAT from 7.5 percent to 12 percent. We were told more revenue is needed to pay our bills and tackle the debt.
Already burdensome energy costs are also on the rise.
The view is that the rich are getting richer.
The recent decision by the government to rent space from Immigration Minister Brent Symonette was viewed by some, including FNM MP Vaughn Miller, as a corrupt move, despite the fact there is a constitutional provision that legally permitted it.
While many Eleutherans welcomed the government’s recent approval of Disney’s plan to develop a cruise port at Lighthouse Point in South Eleuthera, the Minnis administration, which took a long while before it reacted to growing opposition to the project, also faced some fallout.
Despite communications challenges and backlash from some of its decisions, the government says it is engaged in an number of important initiatives, like local government for New Providence and an improvement in the ease of doing business.
However, many Bahamians are not feeling the FNM.
But there is no “savior” who is today leading citizenship activism in our democracy and no Black Friday march this time around.
There might be a lack of enthusiasm for the kind of activism that we saw play out two years ago because we are not today in the same kind of political climate. The next election is more than three years away, unless the prime minister decides to call it sooner.
But there is a great deal of activism that plays out every day in the social media sphere, although some of it is fueled by disinformation, which at the end of the day can be just as powerful and equally as damaging to an administration as the marches that took place in the run-up to the last election.
We March was a demonstration of people power, but it also provided an important lesson about the need to be wary of leaders who play on people’s emotions for their own advancement, whether political or otherwise. It should, however, not dissuade citizens from active involvement in their democracy outside going to the polls every five years.
An educated and an engaged electorate that demands quality governance is important in keeping the government accountable and honest.