By Raffique Shah
February 05, 2011
AS proceedings of the Commission of Enquiry into the 1990 attempted coup wax warmer from day to day, I cannot help but feel a sense of shame. I am shamed by the political manure that is unearthed, by the stench that emanates from the mouths of politicians past and present. Indeed, I sense the discomfort, the bemusement, of chairman Sir David Simmons and his commissioners, as they listen to tales of intrigue, allegations of betrayal and acts of cowardice during one of the biggest crises this country faced since independence.
For the benefit of Sir David and his colleagues who are not Trinidadians, I should declare my mala fides: I was a central figure in the mutiny of 1970, and my youngest brother was among the Muslimeen “soldiers” who stormed the Red House on July 27, 1990. I need add that even as we held Teteron Barracks in 1970, based on our demands, the Eric Williams Government appointed first a committee, and months later, a commission of enquiry into the state of the Regiment and the mutiny. Neither report has ever been made public. But most of the issues surrounding the mutiny entered the public domain through the preliminary enquiry into charges of treason and three courts martial that followed the Black Power uprising and the mutiny.
I had reservations about this enquiry mainly because I asked myself what it would yield at this time, 21 years after the attempted coup. It is early days yet, with only a handful of witnesses having appeared before the commission. We heard how Abu Bakr and his not-so-merry men pulled off their brazen assault in spite of warnings given to ministers in the Ray Robinson Government. That was startling. We learned that Bilaal Abdullah shot Robinson and Selwyn Richardson. That was not surprising. Some witnesses said the insurgents seemed well trained. Others spoke of the majority being young, unprepared for what they got themselves into.
I imagine the hearings would be even more interesting when the enquiry resumes, with testimonies coming from persons like John Humphrey, Abu Bakr, Basdeo Panday, Patrick Manning and maybe officers of the Police Service and Regiment. From what I have seen and heard thus far, I think Sir David and his fellow commissioners are very professional. They have acted judiciously and asked the witnesses pertinent and penetrating questions.
While we are getting snippets of what happened during those days of wrath, the highlights of the hearings were political bacchanalia. There are security concerns that, even in retrospect, need to be addressed. But these appear to be secondary to the near-chaotic politics of the period. The State’s main intelligence unit at the time was the Special Branch of the Police Service. What intelligence on the Muslimeen did it gather before the coup? Ordinary citizens were aware that the Jamaat was a law unto itself. Did the Branch, or the then-commissioner, Jules Bernard, not know of their activities? If not, why?
It’s a pity Bernard is now deceased. The commissioners would not see first-hand what a “toothless bulldog” looks like. Bernard embodied the impotence and incompetence, of the Police Service. Borrowing a sentence from Earl Lovelace’s new book, Is Just a Movie, the instinctive reaction of the police to the attempted coup was to run—away from the action! That happened back in 1970. Nothing had changed in 20 years. It was only when the insurgents were contained at the two locations they had occupied that the police returned. Again, this was a repeat of 1970.
As for revelations that some policemen were hurling expletives at their superior officers and calling for Robinson’s head, I can attest to that being true. I was then managing editor at the Mirror. With the Guardian and Express caught in the coup zone, we went into a daily publication to fill the breach. We monitored the police frequency through a shortwave radio to enhance our new gathering. I heard the cussing. I also saw heavily armed police officers consorting with looters. Many people would testify to these gaping holes in our national security net. The country owes a debt of gratitude to the officers and men of the Regiment who brought a disciplined, yet forceful response and resolution to the attempted coup.
The politicians, however, were woeful at the enquiry. The commissioners heard of infighting in the NAR that was pathetic. Here was a coalition of parties that dealt the PNM its worst defeat ever. The NAR rode to power on the people’s disgust with the PNM, and maybe the parlous state of the economy that made George Chambers a hated man. While it’s true the NAR inherited a mess, the many man-rats at the party’s helm compounded its woes that came shortly after the euphoria of victory.
Robinson complained about Panday not being a team player. Did he not know beforehand that Panday must be captain or nothing else? In fact, Robinson is himself the consummate Afro-Saxon. Before he became Prime Minister in 1986, he was “Ray”. On victory night he insisted on being addressed as “Sir”. Rawle Raphael said he was warned about an attempted coup but he took it as a joke. John Humphrey saw a solution to the country’s monetary problems in the “Trinity dollar”. Emanuel Hosein stayed with Robinson after the split, he said, but with serious reservations.
Sir David must have already concluded that he is dealing with a pack of jokers. What may shock him is nothing has changed in La-La-Land, not even after two armed insurrections.