Loftus Roker and George Smith, the only two surviving signatories to The Bahamas constitution who did not previously receive a national honor, have turned down spots on the long list of Bahamian honors announced on Independence Day this year.
The governor general conferred the awards under the National Honours Act.
Roker and Smith were among the group of 15 Bahamian men who traveled to London in December 1972 for the constitutional talks with the British.
In addition to Roker and Smith, the only signatories still with us nearly 50 years later are former governors general Sir Arthur Foulkes and Sir Orville Turnquest and former parliamentarian Philip Bethel.
Foulkes and Turnquest were awarded the Order of the Nation in 2018, along with former Governor General Arthur Hanna, who was alive at the time.
Bethel was named companion of the Order of The Bahamas in the newest round of awards. His name topped the list of more than 200 Bahamians honored, some posthumously.
We were interested in knowing why Roker and Smith rejected the Bahamian honor.
Roker said his reasons are complicated.
For starters, he said, he got a call the day before Independence Day, and he also does not feel the decision to select him was sincere.
“I don’t believe the national honors were done properly,” he told National Review.
“I don’t believe the committee that was set up to do that, I don’t believe that they took everything into consideration when they were [deciding] these honors. Really now, this thing about the most honorable is really a joke.”
To understand why Roker turned down the honor, one would need to understand the mind of the man.
Roker does not generally believe people should go into politics looking for or expecting to be honored.
“I didn’t go into politics to get anything,” he said. “I went into politics to serve the Bahamian people.”
This is why in 1987, the year he retired from politics, he turned down a Queen’s honor.
“It’s a complicated reason,” said Roker, speaking about his decision to turn down the Bahamian honor. “I wasn’t accepting anyhow.”
The national honors system has a title designation of “most honorable”, something he is not interested in.
“When they started this most honorable thing, I was laughing at them,” Roker said.
“I thought it was a joke, so if I think that’s a joke, you think I [am going] to take it?”
Roker also finds it insulting that on July 9 he received the call letting him know he had been selected for a national honor when he was not even invited to any of the official events marking the independence anniversary.
“You ask them if I got an invitation to anything with these celebrations. And you have to be invited to some of these events,” he said.
“I would have thought if you’re celebrating independence and we’re the ones who did the thing [we would at least be invited].”
Smith, likewise, has a multi-layered reason for turning down the honor.
To begin with, he believes that the value of the awards has been watered down by the sheer number of people on the list and the failure of the selection committee to explain to the Bahamian people why each individual was chosen.
“I turned it down too because I know we can do it in a better way and I want to send that message,” Smith said.
“It has nothing to do with disrespect. I want it to be done in a way where if you receive those things you feel the country has signaled you out, and I think that the people who did it, I hate this word … and I would have avoided using it, but they did a piss poor job.
“I also know when you do too many of any one thing at any one time it ends up becoming problematic and I stated that position when I saw the number of people my party in government assembled in terms of the diplomatic service.
“We just overdid it and that meant that the excellent people in it are diminished because we throw in people just because we like them or just because of their partisan loyalty to me or to someone else, so the excellent people in these things end up being diminished because we do too many.
“We pick people sometimes for reasons other than what they ought to be picked [for]. If you’re honoring people, pick people because they deserve to be honored.
“Don’t do it just because you like them or don’t do it just because you think they’ve been around so long. Do it because they deserve it and they are the best among us and they ought to be [honored].”
Given the unique lens through which Roker and Smith are able to view our development in these 49 years of nationhood, we were also interested in their perspective on how far The Bahamas has come since 1973.
“I think we have made great progress in terms of some of our industries, and our economy with all its shortfalls, it generates a lot of money,” Smith said.
“I question the commitment in recent years in putting the necessary resources in education, our failure to establish a proper National Health Insurance and in raising the standard of healthcare, and I also worry that the level of poverty has increased.
“… We are not dealing with the major problem we have in this country, which is lifting people out of poverty.”
For his part, Roker believes The Bahamas has gone backward in some areas.
“Whatever you may have said about [Lynden] Pindling and [A.D.] Hanna and all of them, in the early days, we were interested in looking out for the benefit of the Black people and the country,” Roker said.
“Today, I want to get in politics to get rich. The only way I can get rich in politics is if I’m a crook. There is no other way. I get a salary. If I am a minister, I cannot do any private work, so there is no way for me to be a minister in this government or any government in The Bahamas [and get rich honestly].
“If I get rich, you know I had to steal that or I had to do some dishonest thing to get that because I can’t get rich off my salary. So nowadays all [some] are worrying about is what they can get.”
Roker, an Acklins islander who grew up farming to eat and vows to this day he would “eat grass” before he begs or steals, is also dismayed by what he sees as a pervasive sense of entitlement among Bahamians.
“Nowadays, all we’re worrying about is what we can get. … The government has no money. When the government needs money it has to take it from you. That’s where government gets money from and everybody is sitting down [saying] ‘the government ain’t doing nothing for me’.
“What should the government do for you? The government should make provisions for the police and different things like that so that you can work in a condition to allow you to be safe; not to feed you. The government has no obligation to feed you. It should make it possible for you to work and get food.
“Bahamians believe that they are entitled to things. Bahamians are entitled to everything in The Bahamas but they must be prepared to work for it. Don’t sit down and wait for me to give it to you. That’s our problem.”
Forty-nine years on from independence, Roker sees the establishment of The National Insurance Board as among the things he is most proud.
“We were advised before we put it into force, we had advisors come in to advise us, and they told us to be very careful because in the beginning we’re going to get plenty money coming in and there’s no money going out,” he said.
“But eventually, money will start going out and if you do not invest the funds you get properly, you’re going to get in trouble along the [way] when monies start going out, and exactly what they told us happened and the opposition said that we were going to be using that as tax.”
Roker also told us, “I am proud of the defense force, too, because we need protection. We don’t need an army, but we need to protect our waters and they can pay more attention to people who are fishing illegally in our waters.”
He said he’d like to see the crime situation brought under control as The Bahamas charts a course for the next 50 plus years.
“Crime is one of my biggest problems I’ve found since independence,” Roker said.
“We’ve not found a proper way to deal with crime in The Bahamas and I’d like to see us as a peaceful nation and I’d like to make sure that people who are in The Bahamas they come here with the permission of the government or not at all.”
Smith, meanwhile, told us he’d like to see The Bahamas become a republic in the shortest possible period of time “and certainly by the next general election”.
He added, ‘I’d like to see us where education is a given, where we are an enlightened people through the high standard of education, healthy through a high standard of healthcare, and a safe country with a greater degree of success in law and order.
“We have to empower our people, and governments in the future must recognize that they are actually working for the people and the overbearing pompous politicians are a thing of the past. Though we are small, we could be great.”