Wave of confusion
If the Commonwealth of The Bahamas is to have a fighting chance of recovery after the horrors of Hurricane Dorian it will require leadership that is professional in demeanor, considerate in policy, disciplined in message and clear in intent.
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis has, so far, consistently displayed none of these things.
Minnis has a tendency to make hasty and poorly thought-out decisions, usually followed, at worst, by denial and insults when asked about his opaque decisions, or, at best, a reversal or a rationale that either makes no sense or is insulting to the intelligence of the public.
True to form, Minnis has once again sown confusion in the midst of a situation where clarity is of the utmost importance.
The latest example, at the time this article was published in any event, was the sending home of the commander of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF), Commodore Tellis Bethel, weeks after the worst hurricane in living memory hit The Bahamas.
As is par for the course with the Minnis administration, there appeared no method to the madness.
The storm, of course, hit Abaco and Grand Bahama on September 1 and 2.
The death and devastation left in its wake has been well documented.
The RBDF has been integral in the evacuation effort on Abaco and Grand Bahama.
It has been the key security force at the main ports on both islands, which were badly damaged.
The RBDF, along with the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF), has been leading the recovery effort for bodies left behind in Dorian’s wake.
The RBDF has also been guarding and distributing supplies.
The RBDF established a container city as its operations base in Dundas Town, Abaco, where they produce over 700 meals per day to feed the RBDF, RBPF and other government officials.
The RBDF set up and operates a reverse osmosis plant which can produce up to 1,000 gallons of water per day.
The RBDF has a clinic and officers living quarters on Abaco that its personnel man and fully maintain.
The RBDF has been providing security at the shelters for those displaced by Hurricane Dorian.
Bethel oversaw all of that.
All the while, the RBDF has been carrying out its regular functions of patrolling our waters for poachers, drug traffickers and human traffickers, and safeguarding our harbors.
Therefore, when the Cabinet Office announced on October 6 that Dr. Raymond King, who previously headed the Port Department, was being appointed deputy commander of the RBDF effective Monday, October 7 to have oversight of operations on Abaco and Grand Bahama, many people could understand.
“As deputy commander, Dr. King will assist Commodore Tellis Bethel in the discharge of his duties,” the statement from the Cabinet Office read.
There had been complaints about evacuations and safety on the ground on Abaco, and the effectiveness with which aid was being delivered to those remaining on both impacted islands.
It made sense to have someone like King, with over 30 years on the defense force, assisting the commodore with such a monumental task — a task our own prime minister said the government of The Bahamas could not accomplish alone.
However, on October 15, the captain of Coral Harbour Base, Adrian Chriswell, announced that Bethel had gone on vacation leave as of that day until January 15, 2020.
Chriswell also announced that day that RBDF Deputy Commander Captain Samuel Evans retired effective October 4.
Chriswell also announced that King had been promoted to captain, appointed to the post of deputy commander and has taken over for Bethel while he is on leave.
To be clear, this announcement did not come from the Cabinet Office; this announcement did not come from the prime minister or the minister of national security.
This announcement, one of such magnitude, came from the captain of Coral Harbour Base.
It was not until October 20 that the RBDF Public Relations Department sent out a press release confirming King was taking over for Bethel while he was on leave; and another press release stating Lieutenant Commander Berne Wright will take over as acting port controller to fill King’s former position.
It is truly mind-boggling, though it is becoming less surprising, that the prime minister had neither the regard for the RBDF nor Bethel to get in front of this himself in a sensible manner.
Meantime, Minister of National Security Marvin Dames, usually quite verbose, has yet to comment on the matter despite numerous attempts to reach him.
King has made no public comment.
The rationale was even worse
Even though Minnis’ stubborn silence on matters can be troubling, this is perhaps one of those times he would have been better off saying nothing at all.
At a press conference at the Office of the Prime Minister on October 21, the prime minister was asked about the timing of sending Bethel on vacation seven weeks after the storm.
Minnis said he did it to save taxpayers’ money.
“I think the government has a policy that individuals who have long, extended vacation – from we came in, we’ve enacted such a policy where we place individuals on leave,” he said.
“We’re not in the business of paying individuals for three and four-year vacation leave that they’ve accumulated. We put you on leave so as to save the Bahamian taxpayers’ money.”
The Nassau Guardian understands that Bethel has accumulated vacation of just under a year.
Minnis, for his part, said he doesn’t think there’s any issue with sending Bethel on leave at this time.
“I don’t think that would compromise anything,” he said.
“We have been very, very focused on security. We’ve been very focused on the rebuilding efforts of Abaco, the Abaco cays and Grand Bahama; and we will remain focused on the rebuilding efforts.
“Like I said, it won’t happen overnight and the public and Bahamians at large must understand that, but we will continue to move with our reconstruction efforts. All throttles have been pushed ahead moving forward.”
One once again wonders if the prime minister takes the Bahamian people for fools.
But even if he does, the Bahamian people are not entirely as foolish as he may think.
On October 3, the prime minister told Guardian Assistant News Editor Travis Cartwright-Carroll that he wanted an additional 150 law enforcement officers on the ground on Abaco to assist with security concerns there.
“We will again talk to the defense force,” the prime minister said.
“We have, I was told, 40, 50 individuals who may have retired. You know they force retirement early, at 55. So, we will call all those individuals back so that they can assist with security.”
Where was the prime minister’s concern for saving the taxpayers’ money when he wanted to call back 40 or 50 retired officers who are already receiving a pension?
In fact, why was the prime minister so eager to bring back retired RBDF officers when he had eight senior police officers who were sent on leave earlier this year, who are technically still employed by the government, who no one has asked to return to service?
If the prime minister wants the retired RBDF officers back, does that not mean that all experienced hands on deck are needed at this time?
It is also unclear if anyone contacted those retired RBDF officers at all.
That idea may have gone the way of the prime minister’s consideration of instituting a curfew on Abaco.
Or maybe it was as meaningless an utterance as his December 31, 2017 deadline for all illegal migrants to leave the country or face consequences that never came.
One also has to wonder, where was the prime minister’s concern for saving the taxpayers’ money when he created the new Ministry of Disaster Preparedness, Management and Reconstruction?
Where was the prime minister’s concern about saving taxpayers’ money when it was recently announced that Cabinet authorized the purchase of a $30 million gas turbine for Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) when torture of daily load shedding was finally waning?
No one is fooled by the prime minister’s nonsensical reasons for his erratic decisions.
Sending Bethel home in the midst of disaster recovery so you wouldn’t have to pay him later for vacation he legitimately earned is ridiculous.
But even more ridiculous is to say that to Bahamian taxpayers and expect them to believe it.
Tell us the real reason why
Bethel has not been without his detractors.
He has come under criticism by the prime minister before for a new RBDF vessel worth tens of millions of dollars being damaged leaving Coral Harbour Base in 2018.
Displaying his lack of talent for diplomacy while greeting state officials and heads of law enforcement at a function at police headquarters that April, Minnis turned to Bethel and said, “Commodore, I hear y’all still mashing up our boats, eh.
“Y’all fellas need to know how to navigate.”
Minnis casually waved his hand, his index finger outstretched, as he made the remark.
Bethel did not respond.
Bethel and the RBDF were also heavily criticized for the search and rescue attempt of downed pilot Byron Ferguson, who has been missing since his plane, a six-seater Piper Aztec, crashed in waters two nautical miles from Lynden Pindling International Airport in November 2018.
In the hours after the crash, officials said they spotted debris suspected to be from the aircraft. However, when they returned to the site the next morning, they were unable to find the wreckage.
When asked if any efforts were made to secure the plane after the crash, Bethel said, “No efforts were made to secure the aircraft because our priority right then and there was to look for persons who might have been alive in the water.”
The RBDF was also lambasted by the family and by Attorney General Carl Bethel over its handling of the operations.
Bethel has also been criticized for several illegal Haitian sloops being found on shore in sight of the Coral Harbour base on New Providence.
More recently, Bethel found himself admitting that the RBDF was not prepared for the magnitude of Hurricane Dorian.
Though, to be fair, every government agency and Cabinet minister who has commented on that specific issue has said the same thing.
Even the prime minister admitted he would not send first responders out in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian because of the danger it posed, even as civilians risked their lives to rescue others throughout and after the storm.
It may be that the prime minister thought Bethel unfit for command.
If that is the case, then he should have said that.
However, it should be noted that Bethel helmed the RBDF hurricane response and relief efforts following Joaquin in 2015, Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017.
This may have been his hardest rodeo, but definitely not his first.
More than likely, Minnis was looking for someone to take the blame for the overall lackluster and confusing response in the aftermath of the storm.
Or maybe Minnis wanted someone he thought was more of his supporter.
The prime minister has long been known to value loyalty over qualifications.
This is a man who fired Reece Chipman as chairman of the Antiquities, Monuments and Museum Corporation because he “couldn’t get along with the staff.”
Yet, later executed a minor Cabinet reshuffle to keep then Minister of Social Services Lanisha Rolle in his Cabinet after the employees in her ministry could no longer tolerate her.
His public reasoning then was specious as well.
Bethel was confirmed as commodore days before the last general election.
Perhaps Minnis feels, without evidence, that Bethel is loyal to a party other than the Free National Movement (FNM).
But disregarding the fact that Bethel was confirmed by the last Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) administration, has the prime minister not considered the optics of the abrupt shift and what it does to the morale of officers who just last week had a different commodore?
And who, pray tell, will be in charge of the RBDF on Abaco and Grand Bahama now?
Minnis has announced no strategy to bring relief and recovery and enforce law and order in the midst of all this while the people of Abaco and Grand Bahama are still struggling and in great need of help.
This time, the stakes are much too high for Minnis’ special brand of chicanery.
We are all depending on him to get this right.
Bethel deserves a little dignity
The Royal Bahamas Defence Force was formed in 1980.
Its more than 1,500 members make up one of the largest navies in the Caribbean.
Bethel joined in 1981 and was sent to Britannia Royal Naval College in the United Kingdom for his officer training that year.
He left the RBDF in 1991 and reenlisted in 1996.
RBDF retirement policy to receive full benefits is having 25 years of unbroken service.
Bethel is 58.
It is unclear what will happen when Bethel’s leave is over.
He may be forced into retirement without benefits by a prime minister who has no record of military service.
He may be forced to take the remainder of his leave while Minnis potentially finishes figuring out whatever it is he is attempting by having sent Bethel home.
We have had enough of prime ministers playing with people’s livelihoods and diminishing their careers on a whim.
The Bahamian people do not expect that of our elected officials.
They work for us.
We excuse Minnis’ mercurial decisions and puerile justifications too easily.
We are counting on him to rise to the occasion in the aftermath of this catastrophe.
If he wants to earn our respect, and another term in office, he must begin to act like someone whose behavior we are willing to accept for another seven years.