He was the only prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago to have the unfortunate opportunity, and the strength of character, to defy Islamic terrorists.
With a gun pointed to his head during the 1990 coup attempt, Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson, the third prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, was given a telephone and ordered by Jamaat-al-Muslimeen insurgents holding him hostage in Parliament to tell the army to back down. Instead, Robinson shouted into the receiver, “Attack with full force!”
For his defiance, he was beaten by his captors and shot in the kneecap—an injury that would stay with him for the rest of his days.
Born on December 16, 1926 in Calder Hall, Tobago, Robinson became the first and only person to hold the three highest offices of Trinidad and Tobago: chairman of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), from 1981-1986; prime minister from 1986-1991; and president from 1997-2003.
Robinson studied law as an external student of London University and, after getting his LLB in 1949, moved to England two years later to attend the Inner Temple, where he passed the Bar in 1953. He then went to St John’s College, Oxford, and obtained a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.
Afterward, he returned to T&T and began working as an attorney. In 1958, he was elected as a member of the Federal Parliament in the short-lived Federation of the West Indies. A founding member of the People’s National Movement (PNM) led by Dr Eric Williams, Robinson was appointed the Minister of Finance after the Federation collapsed in 1962. He held that post until 1967, when he was shifted to the Ministry of External Affairs. By that time, he had come to be seen as a possible successor to Dr Williams, since Williams when he went abroad put Robinson to act as prime minister on several occasions. In 1966, Robinson was made the PNM’s deputy Political Leader.
Four years later, however, he and Dr Williams fell out. Robinson resigned from the PNM and later became leader of the Tobago-based party, the Democratic Action Congress (DAC), which would eventually defeat the PNM in Tobago. That defiance of the PNM’s seemingly monolithic hold on government would lay the foundation for Robinson’s later elevation to prime minister.
In these years, when he had a relatively minor role in national politics, Robinson was very active on the international scene, working with the Foundation for the Establishment of an International Criminal Court. After two decades of lobbying, the ICC was established in 1998 based on a motion brought by Robinson ten years before at the United Nations.
In 1977, Robinson, then Member of Parliament for Tobago East, presented a motion in Parliament which called for internal self-government for Tobago. Three years later, the Tobago House of Assembly was reconstituted under the THA Act, which specified the areas under which Tobago would run its own affairs. In 1981, the Organisation for National Reconstruction (ONR), led by attorney Karl Hudson-Phillips, another once-favoured son who had fallen out with Williams, ran against the PNM. Williams had died earlier that year, and George Chambers had been appointed prime minister. The ONR got 22 per cent of the overall votes but did not win any seats, and when elections were due in December 1986, that party formed a coalition with the United Labour Front (ULF) led by Basdeo Panday and with the DAC in Tobago.
Robinson was chosen to lead the new party, called the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), because he was seen as more likely to attract voters than Hudson-Phillips or Panday. The PNM retained just three seats out of 33 in that election, thus ending its 30-year record of successive electoral victories. However, one year later, Robinson and Panday fell out, leading to most of the ULF MPs opposing the NAR and forming their own party. But the NAR had enough MPs to continue in government.
On July 27, 1990, Robinson faced his greatest test when Muslimeen insurgents stormed the Parliament at gunpoint. He remained captive for six days until the Muslimeen were forced to surrender. Robinson’s heroism made no difference to the electorate, however, and in the 1991 election the NAR was soundly defeated by the PNM, retaining only its two Tobago seats.
This, however, would itself set the stage for Robinson’s next elevation. In the 1995 election, the PNM won 17 seats, the UNC won 17, and the NAR held on to its two seats in Tobago. The balance of power was thus in Robinson’s hands and, despite having started his political life with the PNM and despite his fallout with Panday just eight years before, he threw his support behind the UNC. As a result, T&T for the first time had a government led by an Indo-Trinidadian.
Two years later, Robinson resigned from his Tobago East seat so he could be appointed president by the UNC administration. This move sparked controversy, since it was the first time an active politician was to hold that office. Robinson was duly appointed, and became officially known as Arthur NR Robinson.
Ironically, despite concerns that as president he would favour the party he was allied with, several of Robinson’s acts caused ire in the government. But the crux would come in the 2001 general election, which resulted in an 18-18 deadlock that Robinson, as president, had to break.
After agreement by Panday and PNM leader Patrick Manning that the decision would be up to him, Robinson eventually selected Manning to be the prime minister. In doing so, Robinson said he was guided by the oaths of MPs, ministers and his own President’s Oath and, in his televised announcement, emphasised that the “moral and spiritual values” contained in the preamble to the Constitution were critical in assisting him in making his decision. This surprised some political analysts, given that the UNC had won 50 per cent of overall votes compared to the PNM’s 46 per cent. Nonetheless, in his autobiography published ten years later, Robinson would express surprise that some people failed to understand the basis for his decision.
Robinson died at 6 a.m. on Wednesday April 9, 2014. He was the holder of two international awards: The Distinguished International Criminal Law Award of 1977 and the Distinguished Human Development Award of 1983. He wrote three books: The New Frontier and the New Africa; The Mechanics of Independence; and his autobiography titled In the Midst of It.
In 1987, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honour from California Lutheran University. On a state visit to Nigeria in 1991 he was made Chief of Ile Ife by the Ooni of Ife. He was a Freeman of the cities of Los Angeles and Thousand Oaks and holds Venezuela’s highest award—the Simon Bolivar Award.
Robinson leaves two children, David and Ann-Margaret. His wife, Patricia, passed away in 2009.