Thursday, December 27, 2012

A. Loftus Roker wants his freedom... ...even if he's starving

The road to freedom

Guardian News Editor

Even if he’s starving, A. Loftus Roker wants his freedom.

And so, when he attended the December 1972 Constitutional Conference in London, he was determined to stay into the new year, spending Christmas away from home, if necessary.

He was not returning to Nassau without the very thing the delegation had gone for — independence. Prime Minister Lynden Pindling led government members in that delegation, and Kendal Isaacs led the Opposition.

On December 20, 1972, the delegation signed the independence agreement, and on June 26, 1973, the British Parliament enacted the Bahamas Independence Order.

The official date for independence is July 10, 1973 when the Bahamian flag was raised for the first time. 

Roker was one of the signatories to the Bahamian Constitution.

The 40th anniversary of that signing passed quietly last Thursday. 

There was no recognition from the government or anyone publicly.

Roker sat down with The Nassau Guardian on the anniversary of the signing, and reflected on the kind of country we have 40 years later.

He is but a handful of Bahamian constitutional framers still with us.  Roker pointed out that he sat on every committee established to draft a new constitution ahead of independence.

“The real independence occurred when the British agreed for us to get independence,” he said.

“It felt good to me because I believed in freedom and that is what really distresses me because we don’t preserve our freedom.

“We take it for granted; we allow all sorts of things to happen, and I’m talking about leaders on every level — the politician, the preacher, the parents.  We all seem to take too many things for granted.”

The former immigration and national security minister expressed disappointment over the current state of affairs.

After all, it’s not the kind of Bahamas he and other founding fathers had dreamed of when they attended those talks 40 years ago.

But despite the national challenges — and there are many — Roker has no regrets about independence.

“Nothing will cause me to regret independence, nothing,” said Roker, who at 77 still has a quick step and a sharp mind.

“I say I want independence even if I’m starving.  I don’t believe I should be slave to anybody. So even if I’m starving.”

Sitting in his treasure trove of independence papers; other historic documents – many with Sir Lynden’s signature; old newspapers and cherished photographs – many with colleagues and dear friends who have passed on, Roker acknowledged some of the missteps the government made in the years after independence, but also the achievements.

“The Bahamas isn’t where I expected it to be in ‘72 when we signed the document, but I say the fault is all our fault,” he said.

“If I see wrong going on and I say nothing, I am as much at fault as the fellow who is doing the wrong because if I told him he is wrong, maybe he would stop.”

Pointing to one mistake he said the PLP made, Roker said, “We said to people who voted for us that all the jobs in the banks would be available to you. 

“What we didn’t tell them is that the garbage collection also belongs to you.  And so the people got the view that once the PLP came to power, I don’t have to do any dirty work.  I can get an office job.”

Speaking of the 1972 Constitutional Conference, Roker recalled that the British adjourned the conference for a couple days.

“In the midst of this, the FNM delegation decided that if they don’t leave now they may not get home for Christmas and they signed a blank piece of paper and left us to discuss important matters like citizenship, immigration and all of that.  They left the PLP alone to discuss that,” Roker said.

“I said no matter if they stay until next year, I wasn’t going to move from here.  I came for independence and that’s what I want.  Not one of them was left.

“I said that on the floor of the House a couple times.  They wouldn’t take me up on it.  They just kept quiet.  Now I have a sneaking suspicion that they may have said to Sir Lynden, ‘We’re going, but we’re with you’.”

The Bahamian delegation did not get all it wanted in those negotiations, but it got enough, he recalled.

“If you lived in that time, you would find that the white Bahamians and foreigners who were businessmen here at that time were saying once we get independence, the PLP will take over the courts and all of that, and there will be no justice and we will confiscate their property and all that kind of thing. That’s why the Privy Council was left there as the final court of appeal.

“We kept it because we wanted to give the assurance that we were not trying to run the judiciary, that you had a final court which we couldn’t control. 

“The same thing with the queen.  They saw [independence] as breaking off all connection with Britain, and we will have our own president and we will be dictators.

“That’s why we left the queen there.” 

With all the deficiencies in the constitution, Roker said he does not think it should be “tampered with”.

“If you think about it, if it is decided that anytime you don’t like anything in the constitution you can change it, the constitution would soon mean nothing at all and the young people would feel, that’s only a piece of paper, which it is.  But if you don’t respect that piece of paper [it means nothing].”

Ahead of the 40th anniversary of independence, Prime Minister Perry Christie has appointed a Constitutional Commission, headed by former Attorney General Sean McWeeney.

The Commission is scheduled to report by the end of March 2013 and the government has foreshadowed a referendum before the July observances.

Among other things, that referendum would seek to eliminate clauses from the constitution that discriminate against Bahamian women.

While Roker said he does not think the constitution should be changed, he added that at this stage in his life, he doubted his opinion on the issue really mattered.

For A. Loftus Roker, his role in the march toward freedom developed after a years-long focus on a good education.

Born in Delectable Bay, Acklins, to humble parents who were farmers, Roker said his father, Elkin Roker, who also had a fishing boat, saw the importance of a good education early on.

And so, as long as he was interested in staying in school, he could stay in his father’s house and he could eat.

Because studying was more important than learning to farm, Roker said he never really got into farming until about 10 years ago.

He splits his time between Acklins, his first love, and New Providence, where he bought his first home in his early 30s.

Roker came to Nassau at age 18, and it was then that he realized that he and his family were poor in Acklins.

“When I lived in Acklins I didn’t know I was poor.  I never figured that out until I came to Nassau because my parents always taught us to make do with what we have,” he said.

“…Other people believed that because of the way we lived that we also were well off.  But we had hard times too.

“There was no employment in Acklins then, and there is no employment there now.  The only people who are getting a salary are those who work for the government.”

While working at the Bahamas Telecommunications Department’s transmission station at Perpall Tract, he started thinking about a life in politics. 

At age 23, he went to London.  He spent a year doing GCEs.  Then started studying law.

Roker passed his exams in December 1961 and was called to the bar in May 1962.

At the time, there were just a few black lawyers in The Bahamas.

Speaking of The Bahamas all these years later, Roker lamented the blind loyalty many people have toward political parties.

“For some people, the party is more important than God,” he said.

“It’s either right or wrong and if you check my history, I criticized Sir Lynden, who did more for me than any other politician. 

“I criticized anybody when I thought it was necessary, but whenever it was about him, I never criticized him unless I went to him first, privately, and told him what my problem was. 

“When you heard me criticize him, don’t bother go to him and tell him what Roker said because he knew what Roker was saying.  He knew that long before you.”

Hitting out at blind loyalty, Roker said there are crooked PLPs and crooked FNMs.

“There are crooked Bahamians,” said the former immigration and national security minister.

These days, Roker leads a very private and quiet existence.

But back in the late 1960s, he was the first chairman of the Gaming Board.

While initially shying away for any current position on gambling, Roker explained why he thinks legalizing gambling for Bahamians would be a negative move for The Bahamas 40 years after independence.

“Part of our campaign in ‘67 was that we were against casino gambling,” he recalled.

“The problem was though once we came to power…we felt we did not know what effect the closure of the casinos would have on tourism.  We didn’t know how many people were coming here to gamble, therefore increasing the count.” 

And so, the Pindling administration allowed the casinos to remain.

“The churches and all that were against the thing.  What happened is we didn’t want gambling and we decided this is a tourist facility and Bahamians should not [gamble], and I supported that,” he said.

“The thinking was that if a tourist came here and gambled and got broke, he’s got a return ticket, put him on the plane and he goes back home.

“If the Bahamian gambles and he goes broke, he has to stay here.  And so he has to borrow from his friends because with gambling you always believe you are going to win on the next [try].”

Roker said if Bahamians are allowed to gamble in casinos, crime would increase “because you don’t win in [the] casino”. 

“The slot machine is the easiest thing to play,” he said.  “For every dollar you put in that slot machine, somebody will win 15 cents.

“Somebody, not necessarily you.  So you realize how profitable that is for the casino?”

Roker suggested it is laughable that the government is now in talks with numbers bosses about possible legalization of their businesses.

“Something is wrong with us,” he said.

“If the law says that that thing is wrong, why are we sitting down with the fellow discussing with him how we’re going to set this thing up.  I just wonder. 

“If he is doing something that is illegal now and is still illegal today because nothing has changed and you know who he is, and perhaps the police are helping him carry his money to the bank so nobody robs him, it’s unbelievable what we have come to in The Bahamas and I am saying there appears to be no law and order in the country.” 

Roker added, “I wouldn’t agree with it, but if they want it that’s alright with me.  And there are other antisocial things too that go on with gambling in casinos.”

Dec 24, 2012