…Amid An Enveloping Power Vacuum
By SUNITY MAHARAJ
These are dangerous times. A government too weak to govern under terms of a democracy has decided to govern on the borrowed strength of a State of Emergency. A people lost without leadership, grasping at straws, ready to hold on to anything, including the lull of a false calm.
Forty one years ago, a government that had broken faith with the population turned its guns on the people and, thereafter kept the peace by the untouchable Randolph Burroughs, the charismatic leader of the Police Flying Squad who lived by the credo of ‘by any means necessary’.
Twenty one years ago, another government that had lost its legitimacy after fracturing and expelling a key partner, precipitated this country into crisis by insisting on its electoral right to carry on. Into the yawning chasm of distrust between the government and the governed rode a former officer of the Mounted Branch now turned Imam, Yasin Abu Bakr, and his band of 114. For those who don’t remember, Bakr was the untouchable of the eighties, the bombast that everyone preferred to be on the right side of or nowhere around at all.
He alone dared to do what so many wanted and urged but didn’t themselves dare to do: Move Robinson from power. Well, he did- and failed- because when he looked around, the multitudes were gone.
Come 2011 and nothing has changed.
The Partnership of 2010 has long fractured, papered over only by the smiling face of Kamla Persad-Bissessar in carefully structured, ethnically-sensitive photo-ops with strategic positioning for Tobago, the COP and whoever else as the situation warrants. Under the mask, the UNC is rampant. In government, its partners have all been brought to heel, reduced to begging for talks that never materialise. But while the leaders stay in the cabinet, claiming to be fighting for their people from inside, the people, like Longfellows’ Arabs, have silently folded their tents and are silently stealing away.
From Tobago to Westmoorings to Point Fortin, the cry for representation is everywhere. With its partners reduced to impotence, the Persad-Bissessar administration is already a government without legitimacy. Across the parliamentary aisle sits an Opposition still naked from being exposed as too coward and too enamoured of power to stop a runaway zealot leader from taking us all over the cliff.
And so, as it is wont to do in moments such as this, Trinidad throws up substitute leaders, colourful, charismatic, laws unto themselves. For now that person is TV host Ian Alleyne. A man already untouchable, perfectly in sync with the distressed masses and finely tuned to the wavelength of the country. While Bakr had to shoot his way into TTT in 1990, Alleyne is orchestrating his movement from the unenviable platform of the number one television station, Monday to Friday, 90 minutes at a bite. Unbridled and unstoppable. MP for the Masses. At least for now.
And so it goes in this land where elections repeatedly fail to deliver representation.
For those who harbour the hope that this State of Emergency might succeed in cleaning up the crime dens, cast your minds forward to the next general election and ask which party would be brave enough to attempt to win office without running the money into the hands of these very same denizens. In the absence of real politics and real engagement, bribery and patronage have become the stock in trade of our politics, creating in turn the power bases that run things from outside parliament.
Ask yourself, too, how many of the gang leaders and ‘community leaders’ being hunted down today were in the pay of the parties in the 2010 election. The badder they were, the bigger the fee for organizing people, bringing out the crowds and getting out the vote on time. Pity the innocents living among them, cowering in fear but knowing that the murderous badjohns are protected by the big boys and girls in power.
If we are victims of the criminal gangs, the gangs too are victims of the cynical politics that took root in the dawn of Independence almost fifty years ago. Overwhelmed with the challenge of transformation from colony to democracy, we opted for the quick-fix and the blind loyalist. The independent mind was declared a threat to political stability. The seeds of destruction now flowering blood-red in the hills of Laventille, Morvant and beyond were planted in a soil stripped bare of the ambitious independent tradesmen and women and the decent public servants who had spread out from the plantations and settled along the East-West Corridor, hoping to raise the next generation above the poverty line.
These were the people who were washed away as the Prime Minister’s Special Works Projects sucked the life out of ambition and created new poles of power dependent on government money.
After 1995, the henchmen spawned by Special Works were organized and harnessed into a sophisticated force under the laser focus of Sadiq Baksh. By then, no one really knew where the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen began and government ended. Certainly not Patrick Manning and his political babysitter Joan Yuille-Williams who had led the little boy by the hand in the art of real politics.
Today, we reap the whirwind of the corruption of our political lives. Once, we had longed for freedom so that we might have the right to a say in our land; in our innocence, we handed that right to those we believed best represented us. But none, from Williams down, has been up to the challenge of representation. Under pressure, each has buckled and surrendered to the easy fix, using bribery where possible, coercion where not- and often with the full complicity of the professional classes, deluded as they are by the false protection of power, position and privilege. That is, until the heavy hand of arbitrary power rests on their shoulder, and then all hell breaks loose.
Notwithstanding the very many good people with noble intentions that stood under its shade, there is no denying the truth that the Government of the People’s Partnership was born in bribery, an overnight arrangement crafted by a man willing to promise everything to people who were glad to get anything.
How ironic that at the centre of the politics, there was no politics, if we are to take politics to mean something more than horse-trading. As flawed as it was, however, no one with an interest in this country could deny the sense of relief at having stopped the Manning bullet train. But it was clearly not going to be enough.
The transformation of what Best called “a pick-up-side” into a coherent political force was quickly aborted; the prime minister’s cabinet took precedence over the political leadership of the alliance and with that one act, killed the possibility of graduating from bribery to something approximating representative politics with a reasonable prospect of tackling the core problems of the nation. Having dismissed the partnership and failed to institute a mechanism for rational policy-making based on shared and declared principles, the Persad-Bissessar administration has had no choice now but to govern by extempo.
On Sunday August 21, panicked by the rising tide of disenchantment, as expressed by protesting trade unions and communities, and overwhelmed by blood-strewn front pages, the Prime Minister went into extempo mode and bungled us all into a State of Emergency. It was a bizarre piece of her theatre, delivered from her private home, her ministers crowded into the picture. Why she was not at the official residence in St Ann’s, and why CNMG had to jump several technical hoops to go live from south Trinidad at the expense of a full media presence remains unexplained. Genuine security fear or sheer paranoia? The mis-steps and mis-speaks that followed are now a matter of historical record, although, in time, even this government might figure out how to finesse the hand.
Worrying indications, however, suggest that it is acquiring a dangerous taste for order imposed under the gun. For make no mistake, this is the sub-text of the Prime Minister’s repeated assertion that the State of Emergency has brought safety and peace to the land. In democratic countries, States of Emergency do not bring peace; they create space under specially-approved conditions for action designed, ultimately, to allow peace under democratic government that guarantees the rights and freedoms of all. The sublimal suggestion from the Persad-Bissessar administration that it can provide peace and safety only if the population gives up its rights, is a leap onto the road of totalitarian government at the rate of a galloping dictatorship.
If the Prime Minister is appalled at this view of her actions, she should ask herself whether she ever expected to be ringing the emergency bell. Certainly not with all the solutions she assumed she had for dealing with the country’s crime problems. But where we are is exactly where extempoing will get us all as we stumble ever so innocently from one state of disaster to another.
Perhaps, between the purple prose of her speechwriters and the siege mentality within the inner circle, a State of Emergency might seem an exercise in tough love from the ‘Mother of the Nation’.
But the Prime Minister’s selection of Anand Ramlogan as spokesperson for the government suggested differently. Not even Karl Hudson-Phillips in the infamy of the Public Order Act was as brutal in language and as hardline in attitude as Ramlogan. Thrown on the defensive after repeated mis-steps, Ramlogan’s preference for bullying and threatening the population cut the ugly figure of the power drunk politician. Ultimately, however, he is nothing more than the iron fist in the Prime Minister’s velvet glove, seemingly happy to be the Chosen One, this time, as the convenient foil to the carefully crafted maternal image. Good cop/ bad cop, as was played out in the scenario involving the errant teenager of facebook fame.
The gravest danger, however, is not Ramlogan, but the enveloping power vacuum as, once again, the population is failed by the entire political system. The signs are ominous. We have been this way before, We should therefore consider ourselves warned.