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Building our nation

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The process of re-constituting the highest law of our nation, the Constitution itself, is already well underway and with the best of intentions, may reach its climax in another three years or so. The process of re-constituting the nation, may take quite a while longer and requires the political will of every citizen as it does that of its institutions and organizations. It is far more than a constitutional exercise, than an agreement on the chapters and verses of a document which binds us and by which we are governed.{{more}}

We have, in the first place, to address the major problem of identity. In recent years there has been the welcome spectacle of the proud display of our national flag, especially during the month of independence. This is certainly a most positive development but much more needs to be done as far as forging that feeling of national identity and oneness. In the previous articles in this series, I have situated whatever negative tendencies there are in the historical context. The manner in which we went about selecting our national symbols and the abuse of our national institutions for narrow political purposes have undermined the level of respect we ought to have for such symbols and institutions.

Our national flag is the most infamous example. It started with a one-sided flag identified with a particular political party, then continued with the farce of a flag change with a national competition and winner (Calypsonian Sulle) but a flag designed by a foreigner, personally selected by the then Prime Minister. To add insult to injury, the flag-raising process for the new flag was not even graced with the presence of the country’s leader. Even the choice of the colours of the national flag had nothing to do with historical precedence.

The result is that the flag itself, rather than being a sacred symbol of national pride, has itself been subject to political buffetting. Now this has subsided somewhat, we need to use the space to build and develop a consensus around our flag and an undertaking of its longevity. Do we agree (in a majority) or even understand or know the meaning and significance of our flag. Are we comfortable with it and hence committed to uphold it as a symbol of our national unity?

Our anthem (the author of which regrettably passed away last week) is another important national symbol which has not had the impact that it should. Many, many Vincentians, of all walks of life, are unable to sing beyond the first verse and chorus. Many of us have questions about the relevance of its lyrics (in fact, if I am not mistaken, there have been calls for us to revisit it). Today it is perhaps fair to say that the melody and lyrics of Vibrating Scakes “Our Nation is born” evokes much more emotional attachment than those of our anthem.

We cannot afford to sweep these realities under the table. Nor can we continue to ignore the irrelevance of a monarchical system replete with a Governor-General. Hopefully our constitutional review will address these. What it cannot provide a remedy for is our deep sense of political division, even tribalism, as it is described in some quarters. So every national issue is seen through the lens of political partisanship. It has cost our country dearly so far and will no doubt continue to do so.

A case in point is our current debate over the cross-country road. There are many genuine reasons for persons to be concerned over the implications, environmental and otherwise, timing, cost etc. It can provide a rich debate which can only help to enrich the understanding of all our citizens of a range of issues pertaining to governance, the economy, the environment, engineering etc. But it is being hopelessly subsumed in party politics, with the government insisting that it has a mandate to proceed and an opposition, gearing for elections, which can only gain significantly in political terms if it succeeds in stopping the construction of the road.

Is this the most appropriate way to address an issue of such fundamental importance? Is it not demonstrating, again, our failure to address national issues as those above all partisan interests? I am here more interested in the implications for the national being and for the building of national unity. A forced process relying on an electoral mandate rather than on national consensus will do more harm than good, just as a blind partisan opposition rather than constructive debate and engagement will succeed in doing.

After 25 years, the unity of our nation is as much in jeopardy as it was on the verge of independence. The interested, irrelevant political system that we have now has much to do with this. It is more of a cause than a solution. If we are to build the nation, we have to tackle these crucial defects in our body politic, to address the issues of national identity (those mentioned above as well as issues of national dress, national dish, national music etc) and to engage in a programme of re-education relevant to our needs and aspirations. If we can put these on our agenda come October 27 we would at least be making a start.

Happy Birthday, SVG.