By Raffique Shah
January 24, 2018
The passing of former President Max Richards, coinciding as it did with the unanimous vote by parliamentarians to elect retired Justice Paula Mae Weekes as the first female and new President of the Republic, seems to have triggered a measure of hope among some citizens that the nation can be rescued from its downhill slide by the eminence of the Head of State.
I beg to differ. When I heard of Max’s demise on the eve of Weekes’ elevation, my instinctive reaction was: this is ominous. By then, the opposition United National Congress had joined with the ruling People’s National Movement to nominate Weekes and endorse her candidacy, an unprecedented bi-partisan consensus, which, given the two parties history in the House, should have rung alarm bells rather than kindle hope in the heads of the more discerning in the society.
Think about it. The war between the UNC and the PNM is so bitter, Parliament has failed to enact several critical pieces of legislation that the latter claimed were vital to dealing with crime and the economy, two issues that everyone agrees are of urgent national importance.
Savaging each other, they scuttled the anti-gangs bill, legislation seeking to eliminate preliminary inquiries in indictable matters and other law reform initiatives that the Government said would enhance crime-fighting and speed up the wheels of justice. On the economy, which all agree is in shambles, the incumbents accuse the opposition of having manufactured the crisis when they were in power, wasting billions of dollars on projects such as the Beetham wastewater plant and the Point Fortin highway extension, and stealing even more through ultra-expensive public housing programmes, hundreds of kilometers of box-drains that cause flooding rather than relieve it, and so on.
On virtually every issue that, potentially, can make citizens’ lives easier, maybe safer, the PNM and the UNC claw at each other’s throats, the behavior of some MPs and senators no better than that of drunken patrons in a hawk-and-spit rum-shop.
Yet, suddenly and surprisingly, the warring sides found common ground in the death of one former president and the “birth” of another. The moment news broke of Max’s demise, leaders and members of both parties were falling over each other to hail him as a great statesman, or, in the words of a teacher when I attended college, the greatest invention since cable brakes!
Max, who many of them had branded a “dawg”, a disaster (when he got the Integrity Commission all wrong), “de wining president” and worse, found himself eulogised as a people’s president, a hero, amidst a string of superlatives such that I thought he might rise from the flag-draped casket on the third day they carted his corpse across the country, out of sheer shock, and either lead the masquerading mourners in a conga-line wine, or scream in disgust: Woe unto you politicians, hypocrites.
These people have no shame. Not only did they desecrate the dead in their desperation to extract mileage off him, but they embarrassed Max in the final hours his mortal remains were on earth. I accept that as a former president the man was entitled to a state funeral, but with Trinis immersed in the season of “wine and jam” or hustling to make a dollar in lean economic times, the vast majority of people couldn’t be bothered with the pomp and ceremony that are central to such an event.
In a nation of 1.4 million, a few hundred filed past the casket during the two days they could pay respect to the late President. I’m sure, though, thousands who were stewing in traffic jams caused by the closure of streets were steupsing and muttering to themselves, “Ah doh know why dey doh bury the damn man and give we ah ease!”
But there was worse to come: the formal funeral service at the NAPA auditorium was so poorly attended, it was shameful. The Government, which must have been responsible for organising the funeral, could have ensured a packed venue by herding students from nearby secondary schools to occupy the hundreds of empty seats that far outnumbered those that were occupied.
In the end, Max’s send-off was nowhere near the stature of the man-scholar, academic, masman, President. There were some important lessons coming out of that near-fiasco, the most important being that the presidency, for all the trappings and symbols of power it represents under the Constitution, is an anachronism that probably needs to be rescued from its misery.
One reason opposition and government parliamentarians could so easily agree on a candidate to succeed the outgoing President, Anthony Carmona, is they see that office-holder as being harmless, maybe even impotent, but a constitutionally requisite distraction.
Successive governments have spent tens of billions of dollars on a range of edifices, among them the palatial Prime Minister’s official residence. But for some 20 years President House has collapsed and remained uninhabitable, reducing the Head of State to occupying a comparative hovel.
I wish I could welcome Justice Paula Mae Weekes to the presidency. But in the circumstances outlined above, and much more that I have not written, I say to her only this: Beware the Ides of March (which will coincide with her inauguration).