March 10, 2002
By Raffique Shah
FEW people rank Patrick Manning as their favourite politician. In all the polls conducted over the past 15 years or so, when respondents were asked who they favoured to be Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Manning's ranking was second at best, and sometimes lower than that. In fact, even inside the PNM, which he has led since 1986, he in nowhere as popular as his two predecessors. Yet, in this hour of reckoning, at this critical juncture in our politics, I do not believe the nation could have asked for someone better than Manning.
Before Lloyd Best blasts me to smithereens, and Denis Solomon and some other political analysts question my sanity, let me explain. Manning may not possess the charisma that 50 years of "doctah politics" has left us yearning for, or the sense of timing that characterises astute leadership. But he is neutral enough to steer us through a period in our political history that demands neither of the above qualities. Besides running the day to day affairs of government, what are the issues he must address urgently?
Firstly, he must do all within his power to ensure that when next an election is called, it must not only be free and fair, but it must be seen to be free and fair. And secondly, he must bring to justice those who have pillaged the Treasury, those politicians and their unholy allies who not only stole from the people's patrimony, but who borrowed more money in the people's name and proceeded to steal from that, too. All that is required of a prime minister to fulfill these needs are a basic understanding of governance (which Manning has), honesty, and a will of steel that can withstand the verbal and other assaults that are sure to come as he pursues these goals.
His detractors may question whether he has any of the above-mentioned qualities. Time will tell-and he does not have much of that to prove it. Let us, however, be realistic in assessing the man, and among "us" I include strong UNC supporters. If the scandal surrounding the Biche Secondary School has not shocked the nation into numbness, into accepting that all was far from well when Basdeo Panday was Prime Minister, then I don't know what would. That alone should send signal to everyone who was misled by his tart tongue that Panday was at best a negligent leader, and at worst....well, I'd better not venture there.
Really, that Biche school scandal is so outrageous, it defies explanation. When Colm Imbert, who was in opposition at the time, queried the locations of some of the schools being built under the IDB-funded programme, including the one at Biche, he was dubbed a "douen". Now we have other evidence before us that support Imbert's views about the remote areas in which some of the schools were located. A consultant hired by the IDB, one Kenric Burgess, all but concurred with Imbert regarding the siting of some of the schools. Today, the Biche building (I don't know that we can afford to label it "school" or even "structure") is crumbling proof that the UNC's highly-touted performance team sent $30 million down a fissure in the earth, never to be recovered.
What is curious about this affair is that the two ministers who presided over the project claim to know nothing about the site being unsuitable. Kamla Persad-Bissessar told the media that the site had already been chosen when she took office as Minister of Education. Her predecessor, Adesh Nanan, also denied knowledge of problems with the site. Persad-Bissessar claimed she had never seen the Burgess Report, which was sent to Panday government since last July. On the other hand, ex-Finance Minister Gerald Yet Ming said he'd seen it and had taken certain steps to ensure that the IDB funds were not badly spent.
So, returning to the scene of the crime-and believe me, there can be nothing more criminal than frittering away money borrowed in the name of the populace-we have to question who is lying and who is telling the truth. If Yet Ming read the damning report, surely he must have alerted the Prime Minister? And why not the Minister of Education, since the building fell under her portfolio? If he didn't, if he kept the report secret, then he must be held liable. But I don't believe that. Yet Ming may be a UNC-til-ah-die type, but he does not strike as being so dishonest as to cover up a major scandal that would put his reputation as Finance Minister, and as a professional, in jeopardy.
What we can deduce from the evidence produced thus far is that the UNC was so bent of portraying itself as a performance-driven government, the Cabinet could not be bothered with trivial issues like the selection of sites for several schools. Biche just happens to be the most scandalous of the lot. But the Tableland School was also built in an area that every fool knows is prone to massive landslips. The Blanchissuesse School is in the midst of a forested area that makes security a nightmare. Worse, the Biche building already shows signs of fundamental structural problems, which is why I shall not refer to it as a "structure".
To compound the criminal negligence displayed by the former government, up comes Bill Chaitan, geophysicist by claim, saying that he "looked and the site" and reported back to Cabinet that all was well. Really, were they playing "dolly house" in Cabinet? The scandal surrounding these schools, among them significant cost over-runs, stinks. And to think that there are one-eyed midgets out there who see nothing wrong with what the UNC government did, or failed to do. This is where Manning's resolve must come into play.
President Robinson's decision to appoint him, not Panday, as PM, was fortuitous. Because if Panday had remained in office, we'd hear nothing about these multi-million-dollar scandals. Now, not a day passes that we don't hear of the trickery we were subjected to by him and his ministers. Manning's mission, therefore, must be to bring to light what the UNC kept in darkness, and to bring to justice those who were criminally negligent-or wholly corrupt-in dealing with the people's money. We do not need a rocket scientist to accomplish that.
The ball-and balls-is in his court. We tolerated Panday's grossness for six years. Can't we allow Manning one year to restore some integrity in public life?
Copyright © Raffique Shah