In four days hence our country will mark 50 years of political independence and sovereignty. There are, among those who currently govern us, some who are of the view that independence and sovereignty are not important in the modern world. But today we propose to ignore them and to take a step back from the theatre of absurdity that passes for government and politics in our land and try to make an assessment of how we have done these past 50 years in terms of making our independence and sovereignty a reality.
We should begin by acknowledging that all the grant (and it was a grant not an achievement of our own) of political independence really did was to present us with an opportunity if we were wise enough, mature enough, responsible and hardworking enough to build for ourselves and our succeeding generations, a nation free, stable and enduring.
Building a nation strong and enduring enough to last for generations upon generations is not a task to be accomplished in 50 years or even 100 years. The challenge presented to those of us, fortunate to be present at the commencement of the journey was really to lay the foundations of such a nation; foundations strong enough to permit succeeding generations to erect an edifice of which all of us, past, present and future, could be proud.
It is no indictment of ourselves or of those who have gone before us, to say that 50 years on we have not yet accomplished that task. Nation-building, history tells us, has always been a long, painful, ofttimes bloody and violent process, for which no guarantees are ever given.
The fact, therefore, that we have not yet succeeded in laying the foundations of our future nation should not be construed as our failure. The real assessment to be made is to examine just what we have been able to accomplish these past 50 years and just how such accomplishments contribute to the foundations of the nation we have been given the chance to build. In any such assessment it becomes vital to understand and appreciate the context in which we took up that challenge 50 years ago. For it is that context which would determine the analysis of how wise we were in the strategies we pursued.
As far as that context is concerned two facts stand out. The first is that 50 years ago, at the beginning of our journey, we were not one people. We were an agglomeration of many peoples of different histories, cultures and hues, each having a different psychological and spiritual relationship with the land in which we found ourselves.
The second fact is that at the time of the grant of political independence we were all utterly ignorant of and inexperienced in the role and responsibilities of citizenship in an independent polity. Trinidad was the quintessential example of total and complete colonialism. Unlike other West Indian colonies, including Tobago, which all had some experience of representational assemblies, Trinidad knew nothing of that.
We were a "crown" colony, ruled on behalf of the crown by a governor in whom all power and authority was reposed. While there was something called a legislative council, it was comprised entirely of nominated members whom the governor had to approve. Of the people and their role in whatever passed for government there was nothing except to look to and to plead with the governor for attention to our problems.
Out of this second fact emerged two important developments. The first is that from the very beginning we made a dreadful mistake. Because that totally colonial structure of government and governance was all that we knew, when the time came to write our independence constitution we wrote a constitution which, in all its essentials, replicated that colonial system of government. Our independence constitution was all about the role and powers of the executive and said nothing about the role and powers of the people.
It is not surprising therefore that in its evolution, and under the pressures of government, that constitution resulted in the particular form of authoritarianism which manifests itself as maximum leadership which, I would assert, is a particularly Trinidadian phenomenon.
The second development is that as far as the people were concerned, left without role and powers in the constitution, we continued to use, refine and develop the only political method available to us under the colonial era for expressing our voice and making our demands. This was the methodology of protest action.
The history of these first 50 years of political independence, viewed from the perspective of the forest as a whole, can thus be written as a titanic struggle of the people to subvert, to overthrow and to obliterate the colonial structures of authoritarianism and to win for ourselves role, voice and power in new constitutional arrangements which would form and inform the very foundations of our nationhood.
Today, that struggle, which has crippled and constrained every government and administration we have had, has led us into what I have called the crucible of chaos. This crucible I have defined as being marked by the collapse of the institutional framework of the state to the extent that any semblance of order and rationality is gone and we are now entirely subject to the forces of irrationality, adhocracy, indiscipline and reckless adventurism.
I have also argued that our immersion in this crucible of chaos is a necessary and critical phase in the process of our political transformation. Indeed it is this chaos which makes transformation possible. But this does not mean that the outcome of the struggle is predetermined. Maximum leadership may be on the ropes, but it is not dead and may yet transform itself into a form or totalitarianism to stamp out any vestige of popular freedom. The signs are already there!
By the same token the forces of popular freedom also have the opportunity to be transformed into a movement for liberation and genuine political independence. But that is not going to happen by accident. For, as I have stated before, "What is required is an act of 'will' from we the people. For if we, the people, or at least enough of us, do not cast off the shackles of our dependency and fear, and be prepared to stand forth boldly to advance and defend our interests," then the transformation we seek will simply not happen.
So after 50 years of political independence that is where we are. Still locked in a titanic struggle between authoritarianism and popular freedom; immersed in a crucible whose powerful fires will transform us, for better or for worse, into that which we are destined to become. In these fires let us not lose hope, let us pray for our salvation, but above all let us act to make it so.
Happy 50th Anniversary to all my readers.
—Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.