The decision of Kamina Johnson-Smith, Jamaica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, to contest for the non-vacant post of Commonwealth Secretary General (CSG) in 2022, remains a mystery despite so much has been disclosed.
Context and brief history
It is to be recalled that in early 2022, at a CARICOM Heads of Government meeting in the Bahamas, the incumbent CSG, Baroness Patricia Scotland was given the overwhelming support to continue in the post. Jamaica also voted in support of the continuation of Scotland. The COVID-19 pandemic had delayed the completion of her term and the decision was taken to extend her term. Surprisingly, however, on April 1, 2022, Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that Johnson-Smith would vie for the post. (See )
Johnson-Smith’s bid was unsuccessful, despite confident assertions from the Government of Jamaica that she would prevail. One of the yet-to-be-resolved issue is who were the people who funded the Johnson-Smith campaign. Referring to the campaign as Johnson-Smith’s is itself problematic as there were conflicting statements coming from Johnson-Smith and (defacto) Information Minister, Robert Morgan about the “ownership” of the campaign. On occasions the claim would be made that the campaign is Johnson-Smith’s and at others that it is Jamaica’s.
What was clear, however, based on earlier partial disclosures by the government, and more recent reporting, was that Johnson-Smith was a candidate who was being actively supported by both the Government of Jamaica (GoJ) and private sector companies in Jamaica. After the contest was over, the GoJ disclosed that Johnson-Smith’s candidacy was funded by some private sector companies or individuals. Two were named, Keith Duncan of Jamaica Money Market Brokers (JMMB), and the conglomerate Grace Kennedy, headed by Government Senator (and former junior minister in the Ministry of Finance) Don Wehby, who contributed on behalf of his company. At the time of the government’s partial disclosure, Robert Morgan indicated that some other contributors wish not to be named.
On Sunday July 2, 2023, the Gleaner newspaper named four other contributors: Adam Stewart, executive chairman of Sandals Resorts International; Lee-Chin, head of AIC Barbados Ltd, the parent company of Jamaica’s largest commercial bank, National Commercial Bank; Mark Myers, chairman of Barita Investments Ltd., and Earl Jarrett, CEO of Jamaica National Group.
Two main questions arise, in relation to these donations and the decisions of at least four don to have sought to keep their donations secret. The questions are:
- What larger agenda were these donors seeking to satisfy or serve in contributing to the campaign of someone who would become a former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade and incumbent Commonwealth Secretary General (i the campaign had been successful)?
- What are the reasons some sought to keep it a secret?
Jamaican citizens and other onlookers are at liberty to make of this whatever they will, and a quick survey of social media postings suggests that many people believe that both the decision to donate and the desire to keep that decision secret raises concerns about whose interests are being served.
Jamaican law (the Finance and Administration Audit Act), a public official who receives gifts exceeding a stated limit, must declare same. The available information suggests that Johnson-Smith, whose campaign for the job of CSG benefitted from donations, had not done requisite filing in compliance with law. In light of this, one citizen, Wilfred Rattigan, has filed action in the Supreme Court claiming that Johnson-Smith failed to comply with the law and seeks the intervention of the court to compel her to make the required filing. The matter is yet to be heard.
It will serve the ends of justice and transparency that the matter be fully ventilated, and I would be curious to see what sanction Johnson-Smith would incur if the court were to find that she broke the law.
But beyond whether a law is broken it would be instructive to ascertain whether Johnson-Smith had failed to make the require disclosure in keeping with the law.
Her alleged concealment of information as outlined in Rattigan’s filing, stands curiously alongside the actual request for concealment by some of her donors.
Was Johnson-Smith a proxy for Boris Johnson?
The untimely and ill-advised pursuit of Johnson-Smith for a post which was not vacant, becomes more questionable when one considers that she might have been running as a proxy candidate for disgraced ex-Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson. The idea that Johnson-Smith was a proxy for Johnson in his vendetta against Scotland, was extensively advanced in newspapers. For example, the Bahamas Uncensored carried a story on June 26, 2022 entitled “Patricia Scotland defeats Boris Johnson”, the Guardian newspaper’s version was titled “Boris Johnson fails to oust Lady Scotland from Commonwealth role”. Similar stories were carried by the Financial Times and the Mirror.
Thus, whatever may have been Johnson-Smith’s claims to the contrary, there is widespread global conclusion that she was being used by Johnson. But who is Boris Johnson, really?
Who Johnson was and is deemed to have become has been the subject of extensive analysis, too many to summarize in this space. But two pieces, both published on June 10, 2023, one by Luke McGee, published by CNN and titled, “Boris Johnson’s name will go down in history, but for none of the reasons he wants” and another by Faye Brown of Sky News “Boris Johnson stands down as MP with immediate effect” sum up the global perspective on Boris Johnson in a painfully brutal manner.
McGee argues that Johnson was seen as “damaged goods” whom his party members blocked from returning to office after Liz Truss was being forced to demit office as the shortest ever serving Prime Minister in UK history. McGee continues:
“When Johnson gave evidence to a parliamentary committee – with a Conservative majority – investigating whether he deliberately misled parliament over Partygate, you could count his supporters in the room on one hand. They muttered and tutted at others in the room as Johnson was grilled for hours”.
Referencing the same partygate issue, Brown notes that at the heart of Johnson’s decision to forcibly end his career as an MP, having been previously forced to step down as Prime Minister was his lying to Parliament.
While these incidents may appear trite, at the heart of the issue is Johnson’s credibility and character as a leader. It is this man, for whom Jamaica’s Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, sullied the name of Jamaica and their own reputations.
The leaders of Jamaica’s private sector are not naïve and knew or ought to have known the larger game that was afoot. It is arguable that they too must bear some of the brunt of having been party to a scheme which at one and the same time undermined trust in Jamaica’s word, divided CARICOM, and hurt Jamaica’s reputation abroad.
The lessons from this painful story of how Boris Johnson, a once popular and flamboyant political leader, has left the stage and how he will be remembered in history is a teaching moment for all who would pay attention. The maxim “live (and lead) with a consciousness of the legacy you wish to leave” is a handy and helpful one, or as Stephen Covey, in his book, Principle-Centred Leadership, suggests, we should live with the end in view.
One of the arguments of McGee, in the article cited above, is that Johnson no longer has control of his legacy. McGee’s position is that the facts of history have now been set on Johnson’s premiership. With it being well nigh impossible for him to become Prime Minister of Britain again, his record will always be that he left in disgrace as both Prime Minister and Member of Parliament, unless he reinvents himself.
Reinvention of self begins with taking responsibility for his actions and directing himself to a life of service by uplifting others. As long as he remains focused on himself and as long as the pattern of his life is self-indulgence, he will be remembered in ignominy.
To the extent that Johnson-Smith and some business leaders in Jamaica are seen as associated with Boris Johnson, the stain of his legacy may also be deemed as a stain on them. But like Johnson, they too can fashion the future in new and meaningful ways. In the same way I argue that Johnson’s future fortunes rest on his admitting wrongdoing and taking responsibility for his actions, I am of the view that whatever adverse views persons have come to have of Johnson-Smith and the companies which funded her campaign, those views could be changed if they all ‘come clean’ on what they did and why it was done. While it is acknowledged that there is no presumption of wrongdoing on their part, there are justifiable questions of motivation and purpose. Maintaining goodwill and building trust require openness and transparency.
Professor Canute Thompson is Professor of Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and Head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning. He is author of two award-winning books and articles, among his collection of eight books and over a dozen journal articles, and the operator of leadershipreimagination.com website.