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Listen to this, Sir Ellis

June 10, 2001
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe

SOMEONE of stature had to make such a statement: Trinidad and Tobago is more "an elective dictatorship than a democracy". Although I would not put it in quite those terms (there really can be no such thing as "an elective dictatorship"), the essence of the political phenomenon that former president, Sir Ellis Clarke, describes remains clear: the robust, participatory democracy that we established over the past 45 years is slowly succumbing to the authoritarianism of persons who have little faith in our citizens or their autonomy.

And it is not so much that the shareholders (the general public) cease to intervene in the political process after they cast their ballots every five years. It is that citizens do not prosecute their rights and responsibilities actively during that time and therein lies the reason for the advancing cancer within the bowels of our "elective dictatorship".

Not for one moment do I wish to challenge the wisdom of Sir Ellis, one of our most distinguished citizens. Yet, he makes a mistake that most well-meaning citizens make when he implies that the values enshrined in the preamble of our Constitution have a life of their own. He seems to suggest that once we enshrine principles in a document, they become self-sustaining entities that bubble with life once we repeat them regularly and often enough. Perhaps, the question he ought to ask is this: what does it take to ensure that the preamble lives and becomes a meaningful part of a society's political existence? Unless we literally live that document and boldly challenge those who choose to ignore its precepts, the preamble would become dead letters, merely to be mumbled by somnambulists in their sleepwalking state. We would be lucky if any of our CEOs repeated at all in the next 39 years.

Unless Sir Ellis undertakes concrete activities to demonstrate the truth of his convictions, he is likely to hear the values of the preamble articulated less and less. One only has to turn to the activities of Bertram Russell who engaged in civil disobedience in 1960 to alert citizens about the dangers of nuclear weapons to understand why rhetoric without action is blind. At the age of 88, Russell was imprisoned for standing up for his beliefs. In 1961, he condemned the control the rich and powerful had over public opinion and was even more scathing about those who suck up to government for the profits and privileges they received.

Lord Russell stood for what he believed even though it landed him in prison. He demonstrated that there are times when distinguished citizens must forego their comforts and take part in civil actions that alert fellow citizens to the perils they face and to persuade "them to join in opposing the insanity" that affects us all. Such was his bravery, he declared: "I will not pretend to obey a government which is organising the massacre of the whole of mankind. I will do anything I can to oppose such governments in any non-violent way that seems likely to be fruitful, and I should extol all of you to feel the same way."

Although the sins of our "elective dictatorship" cannot be compared with the annihilation of humankind, the fundamental principle is the same: actions (performance) beats ole talk every time.

Many citizens respect and admire Sir Ellis. He knows better than I the little respect that Basdeo Panday and Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj have for preambles and constitutions. To them, preambles and constitutions are words to be twisted to achieve their ends.

To them, justice, fair play and the creation of democratic institutions matter little. Theirs is a pragmatism that justifies the support of the advancement of their kind, regardless of the language used or the strategy perused to achieve those ends. As Jack Warner prophesied and Carlos John learned to his dismay: "Them fellars would be racial and nasty and kill."

As the PNM continues to behave as a glorified pressure group and a political party without politics, distinguished statespersons have an obligation to join the battle for liberation and truth. Sir Ellis and those of his ilk have a right, nay an obligation, to lead the moral charge against this "elective dictatorship". In clear and concise language, they must make the society know that Panday and his cronies are doing everything to entrench an elective dictatorship. By deliberate acts of civil disobedience, they must let these "elective dictators" know that they are willing to engage in concrete acts of defiance to lead the society back to good governance and democracy.

There are countless statespersons who, on seeing law used to enslave and subvert the will of the stockholders, rose up in righteous indignation and acted. One can think of the examples of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Fidel Castro and Toussaint L'ouverture. Even the Americans who now claim there is no virtue in political activism, (except, of course, when it comes to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadaffi), took up arms to affirm the principle: no taxation without representation. When the elective dictatorship of the British king tried to enforce his unjust rule, all women and men in the British colonies in North America defended their rights as equal citizens in the eyes of God and man.

An "elective dictatorship" always leads to a more repressive state. Alerting the national stockholders to such a danger is a necessary first step. It cannot be considered the totality of Sir Ellis' responsibility towards his follow citizens. Although his words should make us more alert and more determined activists, his children would sing his praises until the third and fourth generations, if he demonstrated a determination to back up his words with concrete actions. If he did so, he would be remembered always as Saint Ellis, the Beneficent, the ancestor who gave his life so that his children may live a life free from the perils of an elective dictatorship.

A greater love hath no man, they say, than he who gives his life for his brothers, his sisters and his friends. Is Sir Ellis listening?

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