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Turning democracy upside down

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 04, 2024

During the early days of our democracy, Eric Williams and CLR James, founding fathers of the People's National Movement (PNM), cited Greece as the quintessential example of what a functioning democracy should look like. Williams developed this theme in his address to the Black Writers Congress in Rome in 1959.

"Nowhere in the history of Western civilisation can a better example of this truth [the relation between politics and culture] be found than in the case of ancient Greece. Even though that civilisation was based on the fundamental fact of slavery, it had, notably, a passion for liberty, the active, direct participation of the people in the government of the city….

"The symbol of that highly civilised democracy was recognition of the political leader as a man of culture—not abstract culture or intellectual refinement, but the culture of an entire people, of an entire city-state whose representative he was."

James examined a similar theme in Every Cook Can Govern where he discussed the relationship between ordinary people and their government. "Perhaps the most striking thing about Greek democracy was the administration… organised upon the basis of what is known as sortation, or, more easily, selection by lot. The vast majority of Greek officials were chosen by a method which amounted to putting names into a hat and appointing the ones whose names came out."

The Greeks refused to believe an ordinary citizen was "unable to perform practically all the business of government….For the Greek, the word isonomia, which meant equality, was used interchangeably for democracy. For the Greek, the two meant the same thing."

In How the World Made the West, Oxford University professor Josephine Quinn demonstrates how democracy was practised in the fifth century BCE. She quotes Herodotus to support her point: "When the people rule… offices are held by lot, office-holders are held to account, and all resolutions are put to the commons." She concludes: "The basic principles of ancient democracy were that every free male [females were not allowed to vote] had a direct say in government; could be called by chance to serve in government, whatever his class, views or experience; and would then be held to account."

Every man regardless of his professional status had a say in his government on a daily basis. No one was allowed to serve for more than a year or so. They had to account to their constituents at the end of their service and could be exiled if their constituents were dissatisfied with their answers.

We see things differently today. The Leader of Our Grief jumps on a plane, goes to a party in Ghana, and returns home with a message that there are good business opportunities for Trinidad and Tobago citizens in Ghana. He then goes on to India to talk about building a cricket academy while the Indian prime minister was busy with his own elections. He returns to the island, takes away the site that was given to Pan Trinbago to build its national headquarters, and gives it to the Indians because a small committee of Cabinet says so.

Who authorised that small Cabinet to give those lands to an Indian businessman or businessmen, to erect a cricket academy? No one seems to know. Cabinet does it and it must be right. I don't think any citizen was consulted about that matter.

The African National Committee in South Africa is paying for such hubris now after its president, Joseph Zuma, sold out their country to three Indian entrepreneurs.

In the midst of their war against Russia, Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskyy fires his defence minister because he was not achieving his goal of defending the motherland. Vladimir Putin, head of the Russian empire, faced with the possibility of losing its war against Ukraine, makes a similar change because his country was not achieving its war objectives. Our Minister of National Security has been falling down on the job for the past seven years. He still remains the head of National Security.

T&T is going to the dogs with regards to crime. A white Canadian YouTuber (Christopher Hughes) came to the island and within two weeks, locates and videotapes some of the "baddest" men on the island. He is charged with sedition. His crime: "He allegedly posted videos featuring individuals professing to be gang members." He did what our law enforcement officers could not do over the last ten years.

Question: How can a stranger to our shores, with a camera, locate the scenes of trauma and heartache, while our long-serving enforcement officers sit in supine ignorance of these goings-on? Or, are they?

Has our democracy lost touch with the people? Have our professional politicians failed to include the ordinary people in the governance of this land? It's a question that all of us must answer.

—Prof Cudjoe's e-mail address is He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe