Louis Lee Sing and Nafessa Mohammed, Mayor of Port of Spain and Chairman of the San Juan/Laventille Regional Corporation respectively, are engaged in major public squabbles with Minister of Local Government Chandresh Sharma.
The bone of contention is money to conduct the affairs of the respective local government corporations. The mayor has loudly expressed his dissatisfaction with the allocation given by central government for the running of the city while the chairman and minister are locked in battle over the construction of a new market.
As unseemly as these quarrels have been, I believe they can be beneficial to the advancement of our democracy. For starters, the mayor and the chairman, now in opposition, belong to a party that has dominated central government for over forty years. Under their watch, local government was deliberately kept in an enfeebled position totally dependent on central government. The effect of this is most visible in the neglect of communities in which local government was controlled by the opposition.
Today, with the shoe on the other foot, these two public officials are experiencing what their party leaders made others experience. They are having a taste of their own unpalatable medicine.
If through this experience however they, and the country as a whole, come to appreciate the importance of having strong local government that’s not so totally dependent on central government financing to provide the services required of them, then this would be an important forward step on our democratic journey. But this is not a guaranteed outcome; there is a fly in the ointment.
The new administration is sending mixed signals in its approach to local government. There is no clear indication that it will eschew the past practice of using central government power to dominate local authority and instead seize the opportunity to embed local government as the foundation on which our republican democracy will be built. Indeed, there are contradictory omens.
In its local government manifesto (LGM), the political leader of the ruling party and Prime Minister had this to say to party followers. “All of our supporters need to understand what is at stake here now. If we don’t control local government how will we deliver results? If we don’t control local government, who will be responsible for ensuring that your communities are kept clean? Who will be responsible for ensuring that your neighbourhoods are safe? Who will be responsible for ensuring that your roads are well maintained? Who will be responsible for ensuring that there is a well functioning health centre in your community? Who will be responsible for education, water distribution, pavements, street lighting and a whole host of other issues affecting your communities?” (LGM pg.3).
Here, the political leader’s view of local government is unambiguously stated. According to this view however, in order to receive the services mentioned, local government corporations must be under the control of the same political party controlling central government. This perspective is at odds with other manifesto statements committing the new administration to a genuine participatory democracy and expressing a more progressive view on local government.
For example, on page six of the said manifesto is the following statement. “We will enhance democracy by embracing the philosophy of meaningful Local Government. We maintain that the people are sovereign and that government is the servant of the people. This requires that the people be engaged in discussions on issues that affect their needs as far as possible within the democratic representative system. To this end, we must strive towards a system that is free of any encumbrances that can limit, undermine or marginalise the spirit of total participation.”
These are two very different perspectives. One concentrates power in the hands of central government. It advances the notion that in order for local communities to receive proper services, then the same party must be in control of both central and local governments. This is the philosophy of the former regime.
The other point of view recognizes power as being concentrated in the hands of the people. The people are sovereign and government is the servant of the people. It follows therefore that for meaningful local government to be achieved, it must be empowered to exercise executive control over all matters within its jurisdiction.
Which of these two perspectives will emerge as the hallmark of Mr. Sharma’s tenure as minister of local government? Only time will tell. At this juncture however, there is no evidence to suggest that he is committed to a local government reform agenda that deepens our democracy by empowering people in their respective communities through the devolution of power from central to local government.
On the contrary, his actions to date is more in keeping with the past practice of central government domination rather than being transformational and giving identifiable recognition to the concept of government as servant of a sovereign people. This domination by central government is seen not only in his actions in respect of the market issue but also in the statements in support of his actions expressed by the area’s parliamentary representative. The clear signal here is that all power must reside at the level of central government.
The minister may well argue that his government is committed to the full implementation of the Municipal Corporation Act (1990) which will strengthen local government. We can take him at his word.
But here is the rub. Should the 1990 Act be implemented and local government given the constitutional protection it deserves, then the new administration would have succeeded in closing the circle of governance as expressed by the PM during the campaign. In other words, local government, albeit a somewhat more robust one, will be firmly under the boot of the central government.
Yet, this need not be the case. The administration must be aware that, if the promise of constitution reform to ensure participatory democracy and citizen empowerment is to be fulfilled, then this would require the creation of new institutions and processes that give meaning to these concepts.
Constitutions however, are not only reflected in written text. They are also about the civic norms, values and practices we observe. There is no requirement therefore to await new written text in order to demonstrate commitment to establishing the people empowering democracy repeatedly spoken of by the new administration. In this regard it missed an ideal opportunity to signal its adherence to this commitment when it appointed mayors and chairmen following the recent local government elections. Instead of breaking new ground by choosing these high public officials only from among elected members of the councils, it stuck with the old elitist formula, in the majority of instances, of selecting non-elected members to these offices.
Had it broken new ground, this gesture would have been tangible evidence, albeit a small step, towards recognizing the people as sovereign. Once more we see the interest of the party superseding that of the people, and the interest of central government that of local government. So far, nothing has changed and our democracy remains in an arrested state of development.
Nonetheless, the squabbles between the minister and the political heads of the local corporations, and the fact that the administration is in the early phase of its tenure, provide an opening for a comprehensive debate on a new system of local government.
This debate will have to consider questions such as: How should local government be financed? Should it be self-financing to the maximum degree possible? Should the number of regional corporations be increased? Should any responsibilities, now in the hands of central government, be transferred to the regional corporations? For example, the responsibility for community and/or health centres, to name just two.
What legislative and taxing power should be held by local government? Indeed, how much power should be devolved from central to local governments?
On the issue of enhancing democracy and empowering people, should mayors and chairmen be elected by area residents to their respective posts? Should both local and central governments, adopt participatory budgeting as the method by which each arrives at an annual budget?
For those unfamiliar with this method, it is one which directly involves local people in making decisions on the spending priorities for a defined public budget. It engages residents and community groups, representative of all parts of the community in discussing spending priorities, making spending proposals and voting on them.
In this approach to budget making the voice and priorities of the citizen are made clear and the authorities held accountable. Further, the involvement of the community in this manner has the additional benefits of strengthening democracy, the communities, the nurturing of responsible citizenship while at the same time promoting transparency.
As the government rolls out its constitutional reform agenda, it will have to face all these issues. It is only then we will be able to gauge its true commitment to advancing democracy by entrenching the citizen as sovereign and local government as the bedrock on which that democracy is built.
Each July, I endure the anniversaries of two of the darkest days of my life. For me, these are days of great anguish. Not only over the deeds themselves, but also how, as a nation, we have treated with them.
The first of these is July 16, the date in 1996 on which my housekeeper/manager was murdered. This crime remains one in a long catalogue of unsolved murders in Trinidad and Tobago. Every Commissioner of Police over the fourteen year period has assured me that this case file remains open. Trouble is, no one seems to be reading it. The present CoP, one of the original investigators, is about to retire as have others who were involved in the case. And, while I can appreciate that the annual murder rate has escalated sharply since then, I am unaware of any action taken by the police that would suggest an on-going interest in this matter.
Having some knowledge of how things work in this country, I raised with both the former and present CoP, the idea of establishment of a Cold Crimes Unit to insure continuous investigations of cases such as this. Both men vigorously assured me that they were in the process of bringing on stream such a unit. Well, the file remains open on that one as well.
So I, no xenophobe, but finding this appointment hard to swallow, reluctantly await the new CoP with whom, notwithstanding the pressures he would be under, would raise this matter once again.
The second is July 27. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the 1990 attempted coup, one of the worst armed assaults against our country’s fledgling democracy. And, an event about which so little is known.
When I awoke that morning I could not have imagined that by dusk of that day the seat of government would be under violent siege; nor could I have imagined that in the dead of night I would be crawling stomach to the ground, together with Clive Pantin and other technical personnel—all under elite military escort — -up a mountainside to reach a television relay station in order to effect a broadcast to the nation in which, after introducing myself and the others present, announced to the nation that “the government has not fallen, I repeat the government has not fallen.”
That address was the first opportunity, in the six to eight hours since the assault began, to assure a very confused population that the attempted coup had failed. That the government had not fallen and was in control and functioning and citizens should remain calm.
Colonel Ralph Brown, commander of the military forces that subdued the rebellion, also addressed the nation confirming that the Army was not supporting the armed attempt to unseat the democratically elected government, as claimed the coup leader, and in fact the Army, by that time, had already established an ‘iron ring’ of control over the situation.
The public record of this event tells us that parliamentarians were held hostage in the Red House and journalists and other media personnel at Television House. That the then prime minister was shot and wounded, a parliamentarian was killed as was a staff member of parliament. So too the sentry at police headquarters along with a still unclear number of other fatal casualties. That there was looting, burning and destruction of Police Headquarters and several businesses in downtown Port- of- Spain by the time of the coup makers surrender on 01 August.
But there is much we do not know, and seem not to want to know about this event. Governments from then till now have steadfastly refused to investigate this sordid episode. The population knows nothing of what or who was responsible for the breach in the national security apparatus. The public has no definitive information on the social and political affiliations of the coup makers to other elements at home or abroad that made it possible for them to undertake this criminal adventure.
We do know however that the two most senior political leaders and members of parliament outside the government, Mr. Manning and Mr. Panday, refused to condemn the initial attack on the nation’s seat of government and democracy.
Mr. Manning did eventually issue an episodical statement well after the Army had established definitive control of the situation and after his initial statement was rejected as being too weak to be of any political value in the circumstances. Imagine my great surprise therefore, on hearing Mr. Manning’s robust condemnation of the recent coup in Honduras along with all his affirmations of the sanctity of democracy.
Such a statement on the events here at home in 1990 would have been most welcome. But perhaps his association (as well as Mr. Panday’s) with the leaders of the attempted coup, both before– and more particularly– after the event, precluded a similar statement being made. As for Mr. Panday, the nation still awaits his condemnation of what took place on that fateful day. The fact that these two men went on to become prime minister(s) of the country notwithstanding their behaviour during, and their peculiar relations with the leaders of the attempted coup following the event says much about the state of Trinidad and Tobago politics as about the men themselves.
If this nation is to grow in its appreciation of democracy; if it is be more at peace with itself, then this and future generations deserve to know all the facts that contributed to this event. It is mandatory therefore that a proper investigation be carried out. If there are any skeletons in the closet, then they must be fully exposed to the cleansing light of public scrutiny, letting the chips fall where they may.
For any nation to truly advance, it must have a deep understanding and appreciation of its past. Citizens of this country have a right to an accurate account of the various factors that led to this event. It must identify all the main players. Those that acted out the script as well as with those that wrote the script for the event. Such an account, I have no doubt, will assist us in having a better understanding of who we are, as a people and therefore contribute to our advancement as a nation. The new government must launch an independent enquiry into the 1990 attempted coup.
When Prime Minister Manning responded to Chaguanas West M.P. Jack Warner on the issue of the church being built in Guanapo Heights by Chinese labour, which as far as the public is aware, are here working on public projects being undertaken by Government, I was stunned. It was unbelievable to me that Mr. Manning would invoke religious persecution as an element in this already contentious matter. With his claque dutifully applauding and egging him on to gie dem talk, dey want talk, gie dem talk, so to speak.
Here was the Prime Minister, a politician of long standing, using religious persecution, one of the most divisive and despicable forms of human behaviour known to inflame murderous passions, as pretext to avoid having to be transparent and accountable to the citizens of this country in what appears to be highly questionable government involvement in this private project.
In the torrent of comments that followed, many responsible citizens sensing the danger inherent in his statement, condemned Mr. Manning’s contention of religious persecution. Much of the commentary, however, had gone precisely where Mr. Manning wanted it to go. So there is considerable discussion at present on his right to have a spiritual advisor of his choosing, which was never a consideration in the matters raised, with no distinction made between citizen Manning and Prime Minister Manning: one private the other public. And, so long as we remain mired in that discussion, we lose focus of the public’s right to hold its elected officials accountable and to insist on transparency in the conduct of public affairs.
But, we must not lose sight of the nasty bit of politics that he has played. The red herring of religious persecution was used very deliberately to divide; to create a sense of us against the rest; to encourage a fellow-feeling of victimhood and consequently to stand with the one seen defending us. It is an attempt to rally this group of religious adherents behind him, even if it means mis-representing the case. It is politics at its worst because Mr. Manning has shown that he is quite willing to light the flames of religious intolerance, where none existed before, in order to shore up his diminishing political fortunes.
The issues before the Prime Minister were quite straight forward. The first was, has this long mysterious spiritual advisor to the PM been unjustly afforded privileged access to the material resources of the state? The second issue called for a public statement by the PM that explains totally, completely, accurately and faithfully, exactly what is his involvement in this church construction project.
The long statement given by Mr. Manning thus far provides very few answers and exposes a huge credibility gap. The PM has acknowledged that: his spiritual advisor is the Head of the Lighthouse of the Lord Jesus Christ which owns the church; neither he nor any member of his government owns the building being constructed; state land had been granted for the purpose; he has visited said site; state funds are not being used to build said church; neither he nor any member of his government gave any instruction to UDeCOTT regarding the construction of the church. He has confirmed that occupiers of the land were paid to vacate the site but his explanation differs sharply with first hand media reports from the parties that were made to move.
Here is the rub. Despite all that has been said by the PM, no one knows who are the present officials of this church. No one knows the size of its congregation; no one knows the true cost of this building and who is paying for its construction; no one knows who instructed Shanghai Construction to build this church. If UDeCoTT did not instruct Shanghai to do so, then who issued those instructions? If state funds are not being used to construct this building, then who is paying? Who is paying for the paving of the roadway to the church and why is this of greater importance than the paving of access roads for farmers?
Where are the leaders (if any) of this church and why are they so silent on the controversy engulfing it. If all transactions are above board, they should have no fear of public scrutiny. By now they should know that Mr. Manning’s statement on this issue has not helped their cause and that the media will probe and audit every official statement on this matter, whether it comes from the government or the church itself. Thus far responsible opinion is that the PM’s statement lacks credibility and is to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Stakeholders in this matter must know that silence is not an option and that the mystery surrounding this project must and will be unraveled. To that end the public awaits a statement from the prime minister that reflects, to use his own words, totally, completely, accurately and faithfully, exactly what has been his involvement in this matter. Finally, as he prepares his next move, I invite the PM to recall the fate of Richard Nixon and remind that in the end, truth prevails.
Now, this is a strange tale of two Bailey bridges, one over the Macoya River; the other over the Caroni. The Ministry of Works is the government agency charged with the responsibility for these two as well as all other main bridges and roadways in the Republic.
Accidents occurred at both sites in which men lost their lives, and suffered injury. As a citizen observing the public affairs of this country, the parallel ends there. In the case of the Macoya incident, which happened on Thursday 5th November 2009, three men died after their truck collided with the bridge. The Caroni incident left one man dead and several others injured after the bridge collapsed under the weight of their vehicle on Saturday August 2nd 2008.
The tragedies at these two sites are being treated in strangely different ways, not merely by the same ministry, but by the same minister, leaving the public understandably perplexed. In the Macoya case, Minister Colm Imbert has been aggressively vocal from the start, while in the case of Caroni, after an initial attempt at blame sharing, he has gone silent. Let’s examine the two.
Recent news reports indicate that government is seeking to recover the cost of damage done to the bridge at Macoya. Funeral arrangements could not yet have been made when the minister made an unprecedented announcement at a press conference that the government would be seeking to recover an estimated $500,000 cost of damage done to the bridge from the party he deemed responsible for the accident. There were no survivors from this tragic accident.
Public outrage over his statement forced the minister into temporary retreat. But, we now hear him speaking through his Director of Highways, Mr. Roger Ganesh, saying that the cost could be higher than the initial estimate and would be recovered from the relevant insurance company. According to the Director: The vehicle has insurance and we will be going after them for the cost of the damage of the bridge.
In respect to the Caroni matter, there is complete silence. Citizens would, no doubt, recall the minister’s first response to that accident was that a previous administration had erected that bridge. Meaning by that, one can only suppose, that his administration cannot be held responsible for that accident. Immediately following this accident, the Prime Minister mandated that an investigation be carried out to determine cause of the accident. It is public knowledge that the team has reported months ago. But not a word has been said by either minister or Prime Minister on this subject.
In view of the minister’s aggressive pursuit of recovering cost and pinpointing responsibility for the damage at Macoya, are we not entitled to assume that his silence on the Caroni matter is an admittance of his ministry’s responsibility ?And further, that he believes that if he stays silent long enough, this episode will disappear in the mist of time. However if this assumption is wrong, the minister must say so publicly. If it is not, then the minister must explain why he is not pursuing the payment of compensation in this matter with the same alacrity as he is seeking to recover cost in the Macoya incident?
While the minister’s treatment of these two matters may appear uneven, there is a feature that is common to both, the display of state power. Here we see the heavy and oppressive hand of the state at work. In both cases, the welfare of the victims and their survivors does not matter. And, without the financial means, on the part of the families of the victims, to launch a counter-offensive against the state, its heavy hand will prevail. The families of the dead simply become collateral damage. To me, that is unjust and responsible citizens must stand firmly against injustice wherever it rears its ugly head.
In the midst of the many troubling things taking place in Trinidad &Tobago, there are a few that give cause for some optimism. Take for example, the emerging organization called Peoples’ Democracy. This is a new entity made up of several NGO’s and trade unions. It is an effort to fashion a platform from which a common programme of resistance can be carried out against those government policies and action that are detrimental to good governance and the advancement of a citizen-centered democracy. It is perhaps the most important political initiative to have taken place in recent years. It is not a political party nor is it likely to become one. It is a platform of common cause against a marauding government that is bent on silencing any voice raised against it, especially when it is for the right reason.
For those old enough to remember, there are similarities between the Summit of Peoples’ Organizations (SOPO) of the late eighties and the current Peoples’ Democracy. Some of the principal organizers are the same as is the methodology of bringing disparate groups together. To the extent that I support the current initiative, I am mindful of how that earlier effort was contaminated by elements that became part of the attempted coup of 1990. So far, the current initiative appears to be a genuine effort to protect the rights of workers as well as deal with the pervasive issues of crime, public safety, property tax proposal, corruption, lack of public accountability, transparency, and the erosion of democracy and good governance that plague the country today.
In addition, there was the two-day (9 & 10 November) international conference on Strengthening Democratic Processes and Good Governance: Comparative Perspective held at the Hilton Hotel that was organized by Yestt and the CRF (Constitutional Reform Forum). This conference focussed on the issue of deepening democracy through the use of instruments such as proportional representation, referendum and recall. The seminar was well attended, with excellent presentations and participation. Presenters from as far afield as the UK, South Africa, Ireland, Surinam, Guyana, St. Vincent and the Grenadines all shared real life experiences of working with these instruments. At the conclusion there was very strong agreement that Trinidad-Tobago can advance its democracy by adopting a model of democracy that included these instruments. The impact of this seminar and the activities of Peoples’ Democracy are likely to be underestimated by the traditional political establishment. I have no doubt however that something new is stirring and will be felt throughout the political landscape of this country.
While this conference and the Peoples’ Democracy initiative aim at enhancing and deepening the republic’s democracy, the government continues consciously along its democracy denying path. As this is being written, the country is engaged in a discussion of a government proposal to ban journalist Andre Bagoo of Newsday from covering the proceedings of parliament. Bagoo, it should be said, is one of the most persistent and thoroughgoing professional in the print media today. Less than two weeks ago the government failed in its bid to have senator Dana Seetahal sent to the Privileges Committee of Parliament for remarks made in one of her weekly columns. These actions must be placed in the context of Prime Minister Manning’s unprecedented personal visit to a radio station to complain about remarks that an announcer made about him.
For those with eyes to see, intimidation is the order of the day. It is also evident in the tone of recent statements by Mr. Manning that government will not allow itself to be embarrassed by protest action of prison officers, however legitimate their protest action may be.
His preoccupation with not wanting to be embarrassed stems from his not wanting the underbelly of the society to be exposed on the eve of, or during, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). This meeting, which follows the Summit of the Americas held earlier this year, prompted a comment from the British High Commissioner that even the UK, with far greater resources, would be hard pressed to hold two similar meetings in the same year. The very clear message then is that no one will be allowed to rain on Mr. Manning’s parade. Not the prison officers, show promoters who criticized his newly opened National Academy of the Performing Arts as being out of sync with the cultural needs of the society, nor those who, like the Peoples’ Democracy, refuse to be silenced. Waiting in the wings is Mr. Manning’s well armed and body-armoured riot squad that we saw in rehearsal during the Summit of the Americas.
The prime minister is, no doubt, calculating that by the time the CHOGM is over, Christmas festivities will be in full gear then we are into carnival and a host of other distractions that should keep citizens attention away from such issues UDeCott, the new property tax proposals, constitutional reform and all those concerns about crime, accountability, transparency and corruption that are uppermost in peoples’ mind.
In my reading of the political situation that would be a grave mis-calculation. The dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs is very deep and will only be masked, but not dissipated, by the season’s activities. Active political expression of discontent is certain to increase in the weeks and months ahead.
Today (5 Feb. ’06), brings to an end forty days of commemoration marking the 20th Anniversary of the period of fasting I spent on the steps of the Hall of Justice.
I felt compelled to mark this occasion with focus on the words: remembrance, reflection and thanksgiving. After all, twenty years ago the focus was on corruption, public accountability and transparency. These concerns, while important then, have taken on even greater relevance and urgency today.
It is therefore good, I believe, for all right thinking people to ponder the road we have traveled over those years. Hence the urging to: remember, reflect and give thanks that we are yet in a position to slay the evil hydra-headed beast that is rampaging throughout this land.
My country has become a strange place indeed. It is difficult to recognize as the place in which I was born and grew up;as the place to which I have given my life. It bears no resemblance to the place that I aspired to help build. Today, it is a strange and murderous place. In my homeland, I feel as a complete stranger.
It is not only the unspeakably gruesome crimes, or the fearsome frequency of the murders and the kidnappings but the total incompetence and blatant ineffectiveness of our leaders in combating this scourge that is destroying our country.
The security chiefs are paralyzed, as is the country’s political leadership. Together they offer virtually no protection to a hapless population gripped by fear and under the gun. The marauding criminals, some of whom are members of the protective services sworn to shield the population from villains, commit crimes with increasing frequency and impunity. Technological fixes such as expensive eye-in-the-sky towers and airships have turned out to be fraudulent. And, in that last bastion of hope–the judicial system, justice does not appear to be blind but seems instead to be more allied to the haves than the have-nots. The engine driving this ghastly state of affairs is undoubtedly materialistic greed. Greed fuelled by corruption and the drug trade.
In 1994, at a symposium organized by the business community and held at Queen’s Hall, I warned all assembled, including the then police commissioner, that if we did not identify and remove the local Pablo Escobars from our midst, the great departments of the state, as well as the private sector, were certain to be infected by the poison carried in the long tentacles of the drug trade.
But while the drug trade helps to explain the rising tide of murders in the country, it does not explain why leading politicians from the nation’s two major political parties are before the courts to answer charges of corruption. That fact however brings little comfort to many in the population who share a very jaundiced view of what can be expected from the administration of justice given some rather peculiar decisions taken by our courts in recent years.
It distresses me greatly that some persons currently before the courts on these charges are the same persons who, twenty years ago, gave the impression that they firmly supported my actions and were committed to an anti-corruption agenda that demanded public accountability and transparency from public officials and state agencies.
Our corrupt leaders, whether from the public or private sector or from the block, have failed to grasp an important lesson from the psalmist who plainly warned: Do not trust in extortion, or take pride in stolen goods; though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them. Nor should we be overawed when a man grows rich, when the splendor of his house increases; for he will take nothing with him when he dies. There can be no doubt that if our leaders were to follow these simple truths and forsake their greed, the scourge of corruption that is causing so much distress would disappear.
There is so much more to be said and that will be said during the coming months. For the present however, I simply want to give thanks to our Lord God Almighty and to all those that have supported me during these past forty days. The thanks offered today is through the disabled community of Trinidad and Tobago—a group that is disenfranchised in so many ways. What we do on this day will gird us for what we must do tomorrow. God Bless.