The 49th anniversary of Bahamian independence meets a nation that can boast tremendous accomplishments across various fields: We have increased free access to education, progressed to a University of The Bahamas, established the National Insurance Board, the Central Bank and the defense force, further expanded our police force, produced world-class athletes, and developed a more sophisticated national economy.
But we are a country that is also troubled by numerous challenges and disappointments – low educational attainment, a fractured healthcare system, an increasingly lost sense of community, persistent illegal immigration, an elusive dream of home ownership for far too many, a worsening national debt, and an economy where Bahamian empowerment is far from impressive.
In recent months, high inflation has made life in our commonwealth more difficult for many, and our wealth is certainly not common.
As we become more advanced technologically, and many of us more exposed internationally, we are simultaneously witnessing a continued erosion of our social and moral fabric and the loss of important aspects of our culture.
Our leaders and our society in general seem clueless about what to do about out-of-control crime. Almost daily, there are reports of murders.
Incredibly, we were told this week by the national security minister to brace for more police involved shootings as he predicted greater confrontation on the streets of New Providence between law enforcement and criminal suspects.
On Grand Bahama, many residents are chilled to the core after a series of sexual crimes, burglaries and other serious matters were reported by police.
While political leaders continue to give themselves high marks for their performance, the problems facing so many in our communities seem to be worsening.
For many Bahamians, there is no place for them in their Bahamas. Many have no hope of achieving the dreams our forefathers dreamed for us.
Many young Bahamians do not feel any sense of pride or deep affection for their country or its history.
We are losing nation builders as they are called to the great beyond, and, in many instances, their stories are going to the graves with them.
Meanwhile, serious political divisions have slowed the pace of national development.
In the last 20 years, no political party has been re-elected. This has resulted in many cases in the cancellation of initiatives, projects and policies that could foster economic growth, strengthen our fiscal position, and, equally as important, drive progress in our social life as a country.
Take for instance the last term of a Christie-led administration.
A group of Bahamian professionals from multiple sectors and disciplines – some affiliated with the major political parties and smaller political forces – and many with no political leanings whatsoever, but with a love for The Bahamas, joined forces in a massive effort to develop a National Development Plan that citizens across the country and beyond our borders could buy into.
The plan covered every conceivable area of national life – the economy, education, healthcare, national security, etc. – with well thought-out and developed ideas for where our country should be in the decades to come.
It was intended to be a shared vision.
Though the Free National Movement in opposition supported the effort, and though Dr. Hubert Minnis, who became prime minister, had endorsed the work of the committee that spearheaded the plan’s development, the work was cast aside for obvious political reasons.
In other cases, we have seen important work abandoned by politicians because of their fear of losing their stranglehold on power.
The effort of the committee that looked into and developed a plan for local government for New Providence is a prime example.
The initiative was killed as the then-minister responsible for local government, Renward Wells, thought the proposal would put too much control in the hands of local government mayors, who would have more voters in their districts than members of Parliament have in their constituencies.
Wells’ short-sighted view of what was presented, and Minnis’ lack of political will, meant that the committee’s report – completed, again, by a group of competent Bahamians from across sectors – was dead in the water.
The Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), too, has promised local government for New Providence and it has pledged to restart work on the National Development Plan.
We will have to wait to see if the Davis administration is serious about these initiatives.
Truth is, the greatest threat to our national progress, particularly over the last quarter century, has been our partisan approach to so many areas of development, and the refusal of those in the political directorate to make use of the wide talent pool that exists outside their political parties.
We keep starting, stopping, and starting again in a new direction.
We keep spinning wheels.
It is absolute madness.
Parties often over-promise to win elections; political leaders often act and speak, not based on conviction, but on expedience. This is why we have seen so many instances of hypocrisy once they are elected.
The worsening fiscal position and the realities of governance, meanwhile, have resulted in many pledges never being fulfilled.
Difficult decisions have had to be made.
In the case of the last Ingraham administration (2007-2012), decisions related to badly needed infrastructure upgrades on New Providence, and the decision related to the sale of a majority stake in the Bahamas Telecommunications Company, doomed the FNM.
Though the first term of the Christie administration had been chaotic and scandalous, the Bahamian electorate turned once again to the PLP and quickly became disillusioned once again.
This paved an easy and clear path for a new FNM administration to emerge, one headed by an ill-prepared leader to assume power in 2017.
When crises struck, Minnis’ incompetence as prime minister came sharply into focus.
Decisions related to the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in 2019, and the botched management of the COVID-19 pandemic made him and the FNM an unpalatable option for Bahamian voters, with many deciding against voting altogether in the general election last year.
Once again, a PLP government emerged, this one headed by Philip Davis, who had been the deputy prime minister under Christie.
Davis thus far has been underwhelming, but he remains likeable and his administration has avoided scandal.
We have no doubt that he is an honest politician who wants best for his country.
Despite the patting on the back that took place during the recent budget debate in the House of Assembly, we remain in a grave position on many fronts, however.
In 2022/2023, the national debt is projected to reach $11.6 billion.
When it struck in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic met an educational system already under-resourced with generally poor results.
The nation was already suffering from a significant skills gap.
The pandemic led to untold learning loss. The results will be potentially catastrophic in the years to come.
We were pleased to see in the budget debate Glenys Hanna-Martin, the minister of education, at least acknowledge the critical situation at hand and commit to working to address it.
She reported that thousands of students did not return to schools after they were reopened, after being closed as a result of the pandemic.
This is a near daunting issue for our country that would require efforts that go well beyond what the Ministry of Education can deliver.
With all that challenges us, one might wonder what really can we be proud of as we start a countdown to 50 years of nationhood.
We can be proud that notwithstanding those political fractures we discussed, we have always experienced peaceful changes in government.
We can be proud that despite their challenges, our important institutions have endured and developed.
We can be proud that notwithstanding the many young people lost to crime and other social ills, many young Bahamians are making their mark in nations around the world.
While it is wonderful that so many of them are being exposed through important opportunities, and while it is certainly true that Bahamians do not need to be in The Bahamas to contribute to national development, there remains a critical need to provide greater avenues and incentives to reduce the brain drain we continue to experience.
We can be proud that by and large, Bahamians are able to enjoy the freedoms of an open democracy.
We are able to worship freely, express ourselves openly, assemble freely and we have freedom of the press.
Political leaders, if they truly care about the country, would allow the freedom needed for more Bahamians from a cross section of our national life to have their voices heard.
An important way to address the critical questions of the direction of our Bahamas is to restart in earnest the work on the National Development Plan.
A lot of progress was made. Much more progress could be made.
Importantly, in order to move forward, we must prioritize education.
With the government’s financial resources so stretched, this is clearly easier said than done.
But without a focus on improving educational outcomes, we should not expect to see a Bahamas that progresses on multiple fronts in the years to come.
If our people are ill prepared, they cannot drive our development.
We say, too, that while political parties have politicized crime, it is not trite to say it’s an issue the entire society must be involved in addressing.
Youth and mentorship programs must also be prioritized, as must be a focus on economic growth.
The government must attract greater foreign investments – we need the foreign dollars – and it must simultaneously prioritize greater economic empowerment for Bahamians from every political stripe, and those who have no political affiliation.
A Bahamas where only those whose political party is in power have the best shot at opportunities is not a Bahamas for all Bahamians.
We all should eat, no matter who sits in the seat of power.
To achieve these goals, we will need mature and compassionate leadership that is willing to work with leadership from every important sector in our Bahamas.
We are pleased to see Prime Minister Davis appear to take seriously the need to consult with business, religious, civil society and other stakeholders in addressing national problems.
While we are not naive enough to believe that politicians will not play politics – that is what they do by their very nature – we are disheartened to see them do so on so many important matters.
We need honesty in government. Is it a joke to want and demand that?
Bahamians must demand enactment and enforcement of laws designed to fight corruption through fostering accountability and transparency in governance, especially relating to how public funds are expended.
But building a better Bahamas is not just the job of those in power or the elites.
More of us who care about our country must be willing to do our small (or big) part to serve our communities and drive improvements that could collectively lead to significant progress.
Davis must understand that he and his Cabinet cannot solve our problems by themselves. More of us in civil society must recognize this too.
Those in government do not have all of the answers.
Thinking that they do is sure to lead them where predecessors in office are – on the outside looking in, or whimpering from the political graveyard.
Davis should not be so foolish, myopic and arrogant as to dismiss the advice and assistance of statesmen – and women – who have passed this way before and whose knowledge and experience could be instrumental in finding solutions to our biggest problems.
As 50 years of independence nears, we believe this is a good juncture to take a serious introspective look at where we are, where we are going, where we want to be and how we plan to get there.
While the frustrations are many, these islands, rocks and cays belong to us.
It is our duty to fight for our shared future, and that of our children.