Sunday, November 19, 2017

A country implodes

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August 1, 1990: Jamaat leader Yasin Abu Bakr surrenders on Maraval Road, Port of Spain, following six days of siege during the 1990 attempted coup which he led.

Mark Fraser

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Smoke billows in downtown Port of Spain in the aftermath of the bombing at the Police Headquarters building.

Mark Fraser

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The rifle above the head became the identifying image of the attempted coup in July 1990 for years afterward.

Mark Fraser

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At the end of the six days of siege, this was part of the long line of Jamaat members, hands above their heads, surrendering to the military.

Mark Fraser


THE decade, 1990-1999, started out disastrously: on July 27, 1990 members of the Jamaat al Muslimeen, a fundamentalist Muslim group, stormed a sitting session of the House of Representatives at the Red House after exploding a car bomb that set Police Headquarters on St Vincent Street afire. They also invaded State-owned Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) and neighbouring Radio Trinidad.

At the Red House, they took Prime Minister ANR Robinson, several Government Members of Parliament, along with Opposition MPs, hostage. Curiously absent from that afternoon’s Parliamentary session was Patrick Manning, leader of the People’s National Movement (PNM) and Basdeo Panday, leader of the United National Congress (UNC).

Some two dozen staff members were taken hostage at TTT and at Radio Trinidad.

Muslimeen leader, Imam Yasin Abu Bakr, who led the onslaught at TTT, went on air that evening to announce to a totally startled public that the Government had been overthrown, Prime Minister Robinson and other Ministers were “under arrest” and “would be put on trial.” Bakr also declared that evening that the army was on his side.

Nothing could be further from the truth, for even as Bakr made his earth-shattering announcement, members of the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment were being mustered to deal with this unprecedented national crisis.

Later that evening, with a gun to his head, Prime Minister Robinson was ordered to use a radio phone to call on the bristling military forces outside the Red House to stand down. Instead he shouted: “Murderers! Torturers! Attack with full force!” for which act of courage he was shot in the leg.

Government Ministers outside of the Red House, like Herbert Atwell, Lincoln Myers and Clive Pantin, issued a statement later that evening saying that the Government was still in control of the country and appealing for calm. A nation-wide state of emergency, with a curfew, was also declared.

Hostages at TTT were placed in a room that was said to be wired with explosives which, they were told, would be set off if the army attacked the television station.

But the army did attack TTT on

the Saturday, engaging the insurgents for hours in gun battle. A ceasefire was finally struck later that day.

And negotiations got underway.

The Muslimeen were relying on the promise, made by National Security Minister Selwyn Richardson in the Red House, of an amnesty that would pardon them for all the crimes they had committed (civilians had been shot dead by the Muslimeen when they stormed into the Red House and that included a policeman sentry at Police Headquarters).

But on Monday, July 30, the army again opened fire on the insurgents in TTT-and this time around the insurgents were ordered by their leaders not to return fire. Clearly, by now, the insurgents realised they were out-manned and out-gunned. Again a ceasefire was eventually agreed and negotiations resumed.

Finally, on August 1, 1990, observed as a public holiday in Trinidad and Tobago to mark Emancipation Day, the insurgents released their hostages and surrendered to the army. Prime Minister Robinson had been released the day before. Leo de Vignes, a Government MP, who had been shot in the leg, was also released and taken to hospital, but died shortly thereafter.

The 114 insurgents were to spend some two years in jail while the courts deliberated on the validity of the amnesty they had been granted. The local courts finally upheld the amnesty and the insurgents were freed. The Government appealed to the Privy Council, which ruled the amnesty invalid because the insurgents had continued to make demands after agreeing

to the amnesty. But the Privy Council also ruled that since four years had elapsed since the attempted coup, it would not be in keeping with “due process” to have the insurgents all rounded up and tried for their crimes. They remained free.

It would be more than 20 years before a Commission of Enquiry into the events of 1990, was set up in 2012.

In June 1991, the Government won a major lawsuit against the John O’Halloran estate for a considerable sum of money after a successful suit involving allegations of bribery and corruption. O’Halloran, a former PNM Minister of Industry and Commerce, had migrated to Canada to live off his ill-gotten gains, but died there.

In mid-December 1991, the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) Government led by Robinson (and from which Basdeo Panday and several of his key members had since defected) lost a general election. The NAR had come to office in 1986 with a thundering 33-3 majority. But by the 1991 general election, the NAR could only manage to win two seats, with the PNM winning 21 seats. Panday’s United National Congress (UNC) had won 13 seats.

PNM Political Leader Patrick Manning was sworn in as Prime Minister.

On September 15 that year, the Caribbean Communication Network’s TV6, having successfully applied for a broadcast licence, went on air and can now lay claim to being the most popular television network in Trinidad and Tobago.

In 1992, Peter Minshall was part of the design team for the Barcelona Olympics; he would leave his unmistakeable mark on the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 as well. And St Lucian, Derek Walcott, with his strong T&T connection, received the Nobel Prize for Literature in November 1992.

On the world stage too, cricketer Brian Lara would break two world records within two months in 1994. He scored 375, the highest in Tests, and 501 not out, the highest in first-class scores. Eventually, he would become the only cricketer ever to have scored one hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred, and five hundred in first class cricket.

In early 1995, on February 2, the country lost a stalwart and pioneer of the labour movement when George Weekes passed away. He had become the President General of the powerful Oilfields’ Workers Trade Union in the same year as Independence, and had led the OWTU until he retired after 25 years in 1987, to be succeeded by Errol McLeod.

In November 1995, Prime Minister Manning called an early general election and the result was that both the PNM and the Opposition UNC won 17 seats each, with two seats going to the NAR. The NAR threw its lot in with the UNC and Basdeo Panday, UNC leader, was subsequently sworn in as Trinidad and Tobago’s first Prime Minister of Indian descent.

On May 12, 1998, Trinidad and Tobago was overjoyed at the news that Wendy Fitzwilliam had won the Miss Universe crown in Honolulu, Hawaii.

In June 1999 the government of Prime Minister Panday, which included then attorney-general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, presided over the death by hanging of Dole Chadee and eight members of his gang after they were all found guilty of murder. It was an unprecedented manifestation of judicial execution, which has not been repeated to date.