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Conduct unbecoming

By Raffique Shah

 When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled, says the African proverb. To paraphrase this, when two generals, one captain-turned-minister, and the acting Commissioner of Police lock horns over the contentious issue of soldiers patrolling the streets, a lowly ex-lieutenant should stay far from the heavyweight battle.

But I was never one to run from a fight. Having fired early salvos in the dispute, coming down in favour of the deployment troops, I will not retreat into a foxhole and evade the fire-fight, only to emerge when the body count is taken. I feel compelled to address the issue, hopefully for the final time, shedding some light where my seniors-by-rank see only darkness.

Major-Generals Ralph Brown  (Ret) and Kenrick Maharaj, Captain/Minister Gary Griffith and Ag Commissioner Stephen Williams are, in my view, saying the same thing, but speaking in different languages. Therein lies the confusion that has led to some acrimonious exchanges that have triggered unease among many citizens. After all, these men are the “brass” that symbolise national security.

My understanding is that General Brown’s concern over the deployment of soldiers arose from reports that no one could say who had issued orders for large, well-armed contingents of soldiers to patrol the streets unaccompanied by police officers. There were reports that the Chief of Defence Staff, Major General Maharaj, knew nothing about the deployment—which Maharaj did not deny until a joint media briefing last week.

To compound the seeming chaos, executive members of the Police Social and Welfare Association, who are perceived as speaking on behalf of rank and file police officers, strongly and repeatedly condemned the soldiers-only patrols, and called on Commissioner Williams to take action against them.

Williams added to the confusion when he eventually spoke out (he said he had been out of the country). Using strong language, the Commissioner said he did not endorse what the soldiers were doing, that their actions were illegal, and that they should not wear masks (as some did).

What might have prompted Brown to speak out was when Williams said he would order his policemen to arrest soldiers who were breaking the law. That was a recipe for confrontation, the consequences of which no citizen would want to consider.

Imagine heavily armed soldiers on patrol somewhere in Laventille, and a police squad pulls up, the senior officer saying to the soldiers: you all are under arrest! Madness! But Williams’ pronouncement about the illegality of the soldiers’ activities brought us close to that showdown at sunrise or sunset or whenever.

While all these developments played out in public, the only senior army officer who attempted to clarify the situation was Colonel Smart, commanding officer of the Regiment, and that on a television show, not at an official media briefing. Minister Griffith stoutly defended the deployment of troops using incendiary language which only added to the perception of a “creeping military dictatorship”.

It was against this potentially explosive situation that Brown advised a “return to the barracks”. It was after Brown’s intervention, which called for the Prime Minister to meet with Griffith, Maharaj and Williams and thrash out their differences before any deployment, that the trio finally faced the media—something that should have been done before the brawls among the brass.

I had stated my position earlier: I support the deployment of soldiers in the so-called hot spots because their presence serves as a deterrent to the gangland lawlessness that has descended on those communities. Further, the troops provide a security blanket for law-abiding residents, and most of all for children who can now engage in vacation activities they did not dare consider when gunshots routinely punctuated the peace.

If the Defence Force’s intervention is executed intelligently, supported by good intelligence, it can also provide what is required for the police to arrest gangsters and seize armaments that have reduced many of these districts to war zones.

People may not know it, but police officers are afraid to enter some of these hell-holes, understandably so. They are not as adept with weapons as soldiers are, nor are they schooled in the tactics of urban warfare, which is what is required in dealing with today’s criminals.

Soldiers, because of their training, and under good leadership, will venture anywhere, matters not how dangerous the turf may be. It is no coincidence that since the soldiers established their presence in some “hot spots”, the murders and general lawlessness have declined precipitously.

Having said all of that, I return to General Brown’s concerns and the manner in which Minister Griffith and General Maharaj responded to them. At best, they were uncharitable to the retired CDS, and at worst disrespectful, which is conduct unbecoming of any officer.

What Brown sought through his open letter was to have those in authority—the political directorate and the Defence Force and police chiefs—speak and act in consonance, not dissonance. The police chief was threatening to lock up soldiers. The CDS was silent. The minister was loquacious.

As calls for the withdrawal of the troops heightened, only then did the joint-chiefs speak to the population with one voice. And they all cussed Brown for bringing them to the table. Not nice. 

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