A newspaper lead story, reporting last week on the contest between Opposition Leader Keith Rowley and former senator Pennelope Beckles-Robinson, was headlined, “PNM rift widens”.
It was the first indication of what, some say, is likely to be a messy party battle. On one side is Dr Rowley—still reorganising a party left in shambles by the recalcitrance and excesses of his predecessor—now branded by his opponents as someone to be feared if given high office.
They claim, too, that he is a person who is cold, moody, in need of a more flexible public persona and improved social skills.
Then there is his challenger, the Women’s League chairperson, whose team promotes her as warm and amiable—but both characteristics have placed her in deficit.
Her critics say she is a work-in-progress and has no achievement record. Also, they claim she is potentially pliable, and they question her backers, hinting that she remains too accessible to a party clique led by former health minister Jerry Narace.
While much media attention is on that party rift, I was listening to the warning of former attorney general, Ramesh Maharaj that “T&T is on the verge of a precipice”, because of the unprecedented levels of Government corruption.
There were two immediate examples last weekend. There was the announcement by the Local Government Minister that since 2010 the Government paid $37 million in rent and security for an unoccupied building.
Significantly, chartered surveyor Afra Raymond last week revealed that the Government also had 1,329 million square feet of office space in five separate buildings in Port of Spain. These were to be the headquarters of Customs, Inland Revenue, the ministries of Legal Affairs, Social Development and Education—the space was left abandoned because that plan originated under the PNM.
The Government has pursued an alternative decentralisation policy which has translated into the renting of office space for State agencies from party supporters in converted buildings in San Juan, Central and deep South Trinidad.
Then there is the investigation into the purchase of $14.5 million in shares by an executive of First Citizens in that bank’s recent initial public offering, in spite of the bank’s limit of 5,000 shares per employee at a discounted price.
As the former AG pointed out, T&T does not present a respectable international image. A recent survey ranked us 28th in the world among the countries with illicit financial transactions.
Last year, the Financial Intelligence Unit intercepted suspicious transactions totalling $1.12 billion, and this was only part of the transactions listed under the categories—drug trafficking, tax evasion, money laundering and misconduct in public office.
A PNM rift, therefore, is not my focus right now.
I am more concerned with the approaches that either Dr Rowley or Mrs Beckles-Robinson, in preparing for office, will adopt to treat with corruption, but more so the expectations of the thousands who have been disadvantaged by the deliberate strategies of the UNC-led Government.
How will they deal with the imbalances or the invisible network that this Government has entrenched to ensure its continued ethnic dominance of the State should there be a change in administrations?
“Just look at the boards of the State enterprises. One ethnic group has been installed securely, the other marginalised. Look at the board of FCB. Do you think anything will come out of that investigation?” one person cynically asked.
Many times I have wondered whether the Prime Minister has considered sincerely the effects of her Government’s policies on the lives of the displaced. Also, whether the PM and her cabal believe that somehow they will escape the action-consequence precepts in the laws of karma.
The real challenges facing the successful candidate in that PNM contest will be twofold. On the occasion of either Dr Rowley or Mrs Beckles-Robinson taking office, there will be demands from persons who have suffered the effects of official corruption first hand and who will be seeking justice—swift and with little regard for the legal process.
Then there are those who have been marginalised and disadvantaged. In their hurt, they may demand a backlash i.e. the immediate reversal of State policies, with little regard for the disruptive consequences.
The T&T experience is in no way extreme. South Africa, faced with greater intensity at the end of apartheid, established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which has since become a template worldwide.
To deal with the demands for justice, Nelson Mandela established that restorative justice body which heard the charges of victims, and the counter-charges/explanations of the perpetrators.
Hopefully, somewhere in T&T there is a general national log, perhaps in the police files, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Integrity Commission, from which a succeeding government can detail the current flood of corruption.
This should not be seen as a race-based backlash or as plans to use naked force. But there must be a general understanding that there is a political obligation, using our legal process, to make wrongs right.
Hence, the fear of Dr Rowley perhaps?
• Keith Subero, a former Express news editor, has since followed a career in communication and management.