January 13, 2002
By Raffique Shah
THE political dilemma that we find ourselves in today has nothing to do with newly appointed Prime Minister Patrick Manning. In fact, even ex-Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, for all his faults, is not to blame. Nor, for that matter, must President Arthur Robinson be seen as the root cause of the crisis because he exercised his judgement (in naming a PM) in a manner that most political analysts deemed unconstitutional. The main problem, if we must be brutally frank, is that we, as a people, have failed to come to grips with nationhood, to free our minds from the bondage of colonialism, to exercise our rights as the real repository of power.
Manning has been criticised for certain ministerial appointments he made, for the size of his Cabinet, for naming his wife, Hazel, as a minister, and for "playing Prime Minister" in a situation where he has no clear mandate, what with the 18-18 elections' results. Panday faced similar criticisms during his tenure of office for bringing into his Cabinet persons whose interests, or conflict of interests, made them wholly unsuitable for ministerial positions. And now Robinson is being flayed from all sides for allegedly breaching the Constitution by naming as PM someone who does not appear to "command the support of the majority of members of the House (of Representatives)".
If I may begin with the latter, those who claim that Robinson was wrong in appointing Manning as PM, or would have been wrong if he had named Panday for the post, must enunciate an alternative that the President might have resorted to in the circumstances. To suggest that he should have both leaders agree on "sharing Cabinet appointments" is to live in a dream world. There was no way Panday, had he been appointed PM, will have accepted PNM MPs in his Cabinet-except if he believed they were up for sale, that he could buy them with ministerial appointments. May I remind readers that Panday had embraced Robinson and Pamela Nicholson of the NAR in the aftermath of the 1995 tie, only to spit them out as soon as he got Rupert Griffith and Vincent Lasse to cross the floor, giving him a clear majority.
President Robinson was forced to "toss the coin" after the two leaders failed to reach agreement on that point. They threw the ball into his court, and unless he was intent on sending the nation back to the polls, defective lists notwithstanding, he had to choose one of the two men. Returning to the polls with the existing electoral lists would probably give us the identical results we got last December 10. So what's the purpose of reliving that expensive nightmare once every three months? Sure, we must return to the polls soon, but not before all parties feel comfortable with the electoral lists.
So the President acted in accordance with his judgement, his interpretation of his powers under the Constitution. If we have a problem with his choice, then we must also have a problem with the Constitution. And therein lie some of the causes of the political crises we have faced since independence-which I'll address shortly. Regarding Manning's choices for ministerial portfolios, again, we have to examine the flawed Constitution. Once someone is named Prime Minister, he wields absolute power in selecting people to form his Cabinet. In fact, if he were to exercise his powers as outlined in the Constitution, he would be acting within its boundaries if he were to appoint a Cabinet comprising only senators, except in his own case.
The Constitution, therefore, has many flaws, almost all of them emanating from the colonial mindset of those who framed it, and those in Parliament who approved it and made it the cornerstone of our democracy. Really, with the greatest deference to persons like Sir Ellis Clarke and the late Sir Hugh Wooding, among others who had inputs in the Constitution, their minds were trapped in the confines of one of the most influential institutions in history (except for religions), and that's colonialism. It's a pity I do not have the space here to share my thoughts on the lingering and deleterious effects of the latter that manifest themselves in so many ex-colonies. But let me point readers in two directions: firstly, Robert Mugabe and what's happening in Zimbabwe, and secondly the India-Pakistan conflict, both of which are rooted in colonialism.
Outside of the Constitution, let me briefly examine how we, the people, contribute to the crises. In most parties, before elections, the executive or some committee oversees its operations, including the selection of candidates for elections. But in all parties-and we have only three that we can use as examples, the PNM, the NAR and the UNC-the executives have no say in the selection of ministers! Now, isn't that an anomaly of horrendous proportions? Shouldn't the leader of the party consult with his executive (and others) before naming his Cabinet? Would it not be ideal if, when the new PM goes to the President with his list of ministers, it's a list that was approved by his party?
So the Constitution is flawed, and the way parties operate leave room for leaders to become dictators if they are so inclined. In the end, though, it boils down to apathy on the part of the citizenry, especially members of parties. It is they-and I refuse to accept any personal blame in this regard-who allow the leader to become a virtual colonial Governor, even a dictator, as was the case with Dr Eric Williams (to a certain extent), or with Panday within recent times. Manning's Cabinet is also a creature of this "one-manism" that both the Constitution and the people allow.
Let us not, therefore, look for scapegoats in Panday and Manning and Robinson and Oswald Wilson. Who allowed Panday to become a virtual dictator, not UNC members, among them members of what is now known as Team Unity? And why has the PNM, boasting of a 45-year history, not put in place mechanisms that would enable its duly elected party officers-and members-to have a say in the composition of the Cabinet? Until such time as the masses understand their powers in such matters, we shall remain mired in a mess, not just the racial divide that is eating the soul of this multi-ethnic nation, but also the imposition of a colonial governor through seemingly democratic institutions.
Which is probably why I remember a war cry of the 1970s, only the people can free the people.
Copyright © Raffique Shah