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St Helena gets first female governor – after 359 years

Lisa Phillips, by ILRI/Riccardo Gangale (under Creative Commons licence)
Lisa Phillips, by ILRI/Riccardo Gangale (under Creative Commons licence)

Lisa Phillips is to be the first female governor of St Helena since the job was first created more than 350 years ago, in 1657. She also becomes non-resident governor of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.

Indy on Lisa Phillips front
The St Helena Independent hinted in October 2015 that Lisa Phillips could become governor

Her appointment will have come as no surprise to social media users or readers of the St Helena Independent.

The newspaper ran a teasing editorial on 2 October 2015, saying that it was time the island had a female governor – and “suggesting” Ms Phillips as an ideal choice.

It highlighted her forthright campaigning on women’s issues and AIDS in her role as head of Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) team in Kenya.

Six days before Christmas, she appeared to endorse the story by following a number of island-based users on the messaging website Twitter.

Shortly after the news was made official in London, she posted her own online announcement:

“So excited to share with my Twitter followers where my next job is. Such a privilege!”

A congratulatory message was quickly posted by Christina Scott, governor of Anguilla – another UK overseas territory in the Caribbean.

Twitter Lisa Phillips Anguilla

Lisa Phillips tweets and blogs regularly on issues such as open justice and ending female genital mutilation in Africa. She has promised to continue publishing her thoughts online in her new role.

Her emergence on Twitter as likely governor came just over a week after the Wass Inquiry report severely criticised the island government, and governor Mark Capes, for “inexcusably and repeatedly” repeatedly failing to act on warnings about child welfare.

Indy Phillips ragout
How the Indy hinted at Lisa Phillips’s future job

It also dismissed allegations of widespread sex abuse and official cover-ups.

The report found Governor Capes had not been adequately briefed on the existence of previous reports raising concerns about child safeguarding, and said his successor must be given stronger guidance.

The Independent editorial in October 2015 highlighted Ms Phillips’s work on issues similar to those found on St Helena.

As head of DFID Kenya, she describes her team’s work on “improving health, increasing the quality of education, reducing vulnerability among Kenya’s most disadvantaged, and catalysing private sector growth to create more jobs for young people.”

Twitter Lisa Phillips pic

She adds: “I’ve worked for DFID for more years than I care to mention in a variety of jobs, both in the UK and overseas.”

By 1984 she had worked with the Overseas Development Agency – fore-runner of DFID – in several countries in Southern Africa, before joining the ODA teams covering India, Barbados and South East Asia.

Managerial roles in the United Nations and Commonwealth Department were followed by work on migration. In 2011 she was made head of DFID’s department dealing with fragile states, and the following year, its lead on anti-corruption.

She became head of DFID Kenya in 2013.

Her appointment as governor of St Helena marks a break from the long-established tradition of appointing diplomats from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – a practice questioned in the Wass Report, which said the island needed a hands-on manager.

twitter Lisa Phillips congrats

Governor Andrew Gurr had also been recruited from outside the FCO, but he had served in a senior job on the Falklands.

When he left in 2011, the role was given to Mark Capes, an FCO man who will now take up another diplomatic posting. The location was not made public, but one Facebook user on St Helena undiplomatically wished him well in Antarctica.

The Independent’s October 2015 editorial suggested Mr Capes had focused his energies on the island’s airport project at the cost of addressing its pressing social needs – a view echoed by the Wass Report.

It said:

“Credit where it’s due: for Mr Capes, the airport has been the big job, and it’s been a success. But now we have some more human problems to address.

“So we’d like someone who knows about improving education, and has done something about it. We have an educated idea who that could be.

“We’re not all sex abusers, but there are too many victims of abuse. SHG’s style is to keep telling us how everything’s getting better, but we need someone who is actually willing to stand up and say, Yes, there’s a problem, because it was a failure to be open that allowed it to go on for so long.

“We want someone who is willing to stand up and say, out loud, “I want to end violence against women and girls.”

“Someone who’s willing to say, “Justice has to be seen to be done – and be done.” Someone who has actually spent time with the victims of sex crimes would be good, too.

“We know someone who’s said all that, and done all that.

“We never acknowledge there’s a problem with HIV on St Helena, but… there’s a problem with HIV. Too many people have the virus and for all we know, the number has gone up since work on the airport started.

“So we need someone who’s got experience of confronting that awful problem; someone who’s willing to admit it exists. Maybe someone who’s worked in Africa?”

Indy Phillips ragout end
The Independent in October 2015: one last attempt to make friends with Governor Capes?

Once the news of Ms Phillips’ appointment was out in the open, well-wishers in Kenya and around the world congratulated her.

She told one: “I will miss #magicalkenya so much, especially all the people I have met.”

  • Lisa Phillips is not merely the first woman to be chosen as head of state and representative of Her Majesty the Queen on St Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha: she will also be the first governor of the territory to have given birth. She has one son.

See more pictures at the Brits in Kenya website


Democracy on St Helena: councillors opposed prison move – so the whole council was sacked

When councillors opposed plans to move St Helena’s prison close to homes above Half Tree Hollow, governor Mark Capes simply removed the problem: he disbanded the whole council.

Governor Capes took the “nuclear option” to shut down the legislative council for the maximum possible time so he could “work on” a new crop of councillors, the inquiry report reveals.

But Sasha Wass QC strongly criticises the moving of the prison to a residential area, because sex offenders would exercise outside the compound.

The public was never given a reason for Mr Capes dissolving LegCo at an hour’s notice, three months before setting an election date.

The governor also obstructed public debate by imposing three months’ “purdah”, meaning officials and former councillors could not discuss contentious issues. The government claimed this followed best practice, but the system only operates for about three weeks before UK national elections.

Deposed councillors sent a furious protest to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – which backed the governor.

The Wass report does not disclose any other reasons the governor may have had for using his power to remove councillors. It says:

“The inquiry panel raised the point with Governor Mark Capes that there had been fierce opposition to the location of the new prison. He said this: ‘With the prison, I took steps to make sure that we were going to get it done…

“‘I could see we were going to get resistance from our councillors, our elected members who had an attitude that prison is meant to be uncomfortable and unpleasant and there are other things to spend money on.

“‘So one of the reasons I dissolved the Legislative Council in April 2013 was because I felt that the councillors that we had at the time didn’t have the stomach for this.’

“Governor Capes explained that if democratically elected members did not agree with his approach, he had the power to dispense with them. He continued: ‘It was a sort of nuclear option and I dissolved LegCo and I delayed the election for as long as possible under the constitution.

“‘That gave us time to work on plans and strategy and part of that strategy was to make sure that whatever happened with our new councillors, and I was optimistic we were going to get a fresh crop of more…

“‘I wanted to make sure I could work on the new councillors to persuade them that this was the right thing to do to move the prison.””

In their letter to the FCO, 11 of the 12 deposed councillors said the handling of the affair had done nothing to inspire public confidence.

“The process could have been conducted in a more courteous way…. it infers a lack of respect for politicians, the people’s representatives. During this extended purdah, democracy suffers.”

A succession of reports had condemned the Victorian prison in Jamestown, which failed to meet inmates’ basic human rights.

Two months after deposing the council, the governor also imposed a law banning children from bars on Ascension Island, against the advice of the island council – a safeguarding move that won the approval of Sasha Wass.

She says the governor should not simply override objections to projects, because this causes “disquiet and division”.

  • The Wass report says Governor Capes told the inquiry panel: “They asked me to come here to coincide with the airport project because they needed someone who knew about Overseas Territories and how to get things done. My nickname was The Enforcer.”

Governor ‘cocked up’ by dissolving LegCo, says professor
Sacked councillors round on His Absency the Governor
London dismisses election protest against Governor Capes

Governor’s Cape seduction: tax breaks to lure investors

The lure of ten-year tax breaks is set to make St Helena a hot topic with investors in Cape Town, says a South African financial website.

The MoneyWeb report – ahead of a visit by Governor Mark Capes – says the opening of St Helena’s airport in 2016 “will open the island up for business.”

And it lists an array of incentives to pull in investors.

They include “early tax breaks, zero customs duty, corporate tax and capital gains tax for seven years on investments over £1million and below £5million.”

For even bigger investments, it goes on, the tax sweeteners would continue for ten years.

“Investments of more than £1million will attract a 50% discount on freight rates, and those bigger than £5million also qualify for a 50% discount on passenger rates,” says MoneyWeb.

It adds that St Helena has no off-putting sales or property taxes.

An event for would-be investors has been organised by Wesgro, the marketing agency for the Western Cape, to coincide with the governor’s stop-over en route to Tristan da Cunha.

The island party includes Julian Morris, who is leaving his job as the island’s head of economic development.

“The St Helena government is planning £24 million of infrastructure upgrades in the next few years in anticipation of air access,” says MoneyWeb.

“Opportunities are mainly focussed on tourism, fishing and services.

“Extensive research has shown opportunities in especially heritage and culture tours. The island’s link to Napoleon is a huge point of interest. Bird watching, gaming, fishing and diving, and to a lesser extent astronomy are other niche tourism markets targeted.

“On the fishing side, St. Helena has a 200-mile exclusive zone where it controls marine resources and tuna stocks are largely untouched.

“Fresh and frozen tuna provide opportunities as well as sports fishing, says Morris.”

The report does not mention efforts to bring a vessel to the island to enable local fishermen to exploit rich fishing around the island’s sea mounts.

But it does say that the island team will be “in serious talks with prospective hotel investors and parties interested in establishing a fish processing plant”.

The island team, including Enterprise St Helena director Rob Midwinter and councillor Lawson Henry, departed from Jamestown yesterday (7 November 2013).

Lawson will travel on to London with Dax Richards, the island’s Assistant Financial Secretary, to attend the annual Joint Ministerial Conference for overseas territories.

Read the MoneyWeb report:

Ninety days in a wilderness: election delayed until last moment

The restoration of democratically-elected government on St Helena is to be delayed until the last possible week.

A general election is to take place on St Helena on 17 July 2013 – two days short of the 13-week deadline allowed under the island’s constitution. 

Governor Mark Capes dissolved the island’s Legislative Council without warning on Friday, 19 April 2013. He said at the time that the election would take place in July. 

He also said he wanted it to be held well in advance of the latest possible date in November 2013, in order to allow a new council to settle in before dealing with major business, such as the annual visit of UK aid negotiators.

No explanation has been given for the subsequent decision to delay for as long as possible.

Allowing time for votes to be counted, that means a gap of 90 days between dissolution and the naming of 12 new councillors.

There would then be several days’ further delay for training and formation of committees before they would be ready to start work – taking the hiatus close to 100 days.

Displaced councillors have publicly protested over the governor’s decision to exercise his right to dissolve the council without consulting anyone on the island.

Former councillor Derek Thomas told radio listeners he acknowledged the governor’s right to dissolve the council, but added: “One would think there should be good reasons for doing so.”

Professor George Jones, of the London School of Economics, said the governor had “cocked it up” by dissolving the council before he was ready to call an election. The announcement of the polling date came 24 days after the council was dissolved.

It said:  

“The Acting Governor Owen’ O’Sullivan has now agreed a date for the general election 2013, which will take place on Wednesday 17 July 2013.

“In order to vote, or stand as a candidate, your name must be on the register of electors.

“The provisional register of electors was published on Wednesday 8 May 2013, and during a two-week period it will be available for inspection and amendment by contacting the assistant registration officer, Gina Benjamin, at 1 Main Street.

“Copies will also be available at the customer service centre, library and the rural sub post offices.  The provisional register will be available for inspection and amendment until Friday, 24 May 2013.” 

SEE ALSO: Sacked councillors round on His Absency the Governor

‘Tangled’ political system hinders democracy, says Mr Capes

St Helena’s “over-complicated” system of government has been blamed by Governor Mark Capes for a lack of public confidence in decision-makers.

Now the people of St Helena are being asked their views on re-writing part of the island’s constitution, to put right flaws.

Proposals include appointing a chief councillor, who would effectively choose the other executive councillors – just as Britain’s leader appoints government ministers. They could be removed through a no-confidence vote.

A consultation document has been published under the title, Improving Democracy and Accountability.

It says the constitution “creates a political system which is not conducive to collective leadership and responsibility, clear lines of authority, or transparent accountability.”

Changes are proposed is to make it clear who is responsible for decisions, and improve scrutiny of government.

Governor Capes says explaining and justifying decisions is “an essential element of good government.”

But the proposals make no mention of the government’s refusal to allow access to meetings of the executive council, or its agendas, reports and minutes.

Mr Capes also says councillors must be prepared to stand by their decisions. But there is no reference to recent complaints by councillors that they were not consulted on the details of a contentious re-structuring of government departments.

In an introduction to the consultation document, Mr Capes refers to “what appeared to be blurred lines of responsibility and accountability within government.”

He said: “I have no doubt that the current arrangements contributed in part to the low turnouts we have seen at recent by-elections.

“For my part, after one year of trying to make the over complicated and clunky system work, I too have concluded that the system could be improved, especially now that St Helena has entered an era of unprecedented change linked to air access.

“The electorate must be able to see, clearly, where responsibility rests for the decisions taken on their behalf by their elected members.

“It is an essential element of good government that those elected to represent the interests of the people should operate within a structure in which they are readily accountable to the people: to explain, to justify, and to stand by decisions taken by them on behalf of the people.”

Changes to the island constitution can only be made by the Queen. The UK government would only approve amendments that had wide public support.

People have until 25 January 2013 to express their views. Comments can be emailed to or submitted in writing to Cilla Isaac at The Castle in Jamestown.

SEE ALSO: Constitution flaw left leaders challenging themselves

LINK: Improving Democracy and Accountability – consultation paper

Fundraisers plan global push in Jamestown steeple campaign

A worldwide appeal is to be launched for money to restore one of St Helena’s lost landmarks: the steeple on St James’ Church, one of the ‘wonders’ of the island. Here, churchwarden IVY ELLICK outlines a campaign plan worthy of Napoleon.

We are looking at 2015 as our target date for restoring the steeple of St James’. That is when we celebrate the centenary of the landing of Napoleon Bonaparte on St Helena.

Most surprisingly, Napoleon’s death was not registered in any of the country churches, but it is in the register of St James’.

We do some have money left over from phase 2 of the restoration of the church. That will be set aside for the steeple. It is not very large sum, but it will be there and we won’t have to find that amount.

I am determined that once approvals are had, and plans and costings known, we will fund-raise here on the island and appeal to St Helenians and as well the many, many friends of St Helena spread all over the world.

The captains of the RMS St Helena are supportive of the proposal and will do all they can in helping us to raise funds.

We are very fortunate to have a young, energetic vicar in Jamestown, Archdeacon Dale Bowers, who is also very passionate about the proposed project.

The parochial church council is in agreement and we are waiting on our young enthusiastic engineer, Adrian Duncan, to produce plans, options on materials, and costing.

Stone is not one of the options, so we are looking at fibre glass, or lead with a steel frame.

We have not formally put our proposals to the National Trust, the Heritage Society or the Lands Planning Department, but there shouldn’t be a problem. We want to work together with them to restore our heritage.

We must, first of all, meet formally with our bishop to discuss our proposals, and seek the assistance of the Governor to jointly launch the appeal. This will carry more weight in the outside world.

  • A second phase of restoration work on St James’ – the oldest Anglican church south of the Equator – has just been completed. It involved replacing plaster that had fallen  from the tower, walls and pinnacles, and reinforcing the affected areas with steel and concrete. The roof of the tower was replaced, and window frames were repaired and given new leading. Exterior walls were also redecorated. Andrew Duncan was praised for his work.

Rebuilding lost steeple – next job for church fund-raisers?