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Raffique Shah


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Surprise me, Prime Minister

May 15, 2005
By Raffique Shah

AFTER much speculation last week that Prime Minister Patrick Manning would assume the portfolio of National Security in a Cabinet reshuffle, the PM dismissed the idea outright when he spoke at a conference. In last week's column I had suggested he take control of the fight against the crime-tsunami that has engulfed the nation. I wrote then that we are involved in war-war against elements that, though few in numbers, are bent on reducing this potential paradise-of-a-nation to a people cowering in fear. During the past week, we witnessed a police officer being shot when he and his colleague answered a robbery-in-progress call. Besides being shot, he ended up dying a horrible death in a marked police car that some say was hit by a hand grenade.

Whatever the cause of PC Omah Marajah's death, the fact that the bandits who attacked an official Customs bonded warehouse came to kill in order to get what they wanted, speaks volumes about "new" criminal mind or mindlessness. It tells of a "wild breed" out there that will shoot their mothers for a dollar. Or in which a mother will see a 16-year-old with a gun and say or do nothing about it-then weep litres of tears when her son is felled by a bullet from the same gun. Two men, we know not if they were criminals, shot dead while sitting in a car in Belmont by an accomplice or friend, who presumably was in the back seat of the vehicle. Citizens in crime-ridden districts "hear bullets being fired", but never even report it; they wait until daylight to find corpses in their neighbourhoods.

What more does Mr Manning need to signal that the nation is in a deep crime crisis? That he could just shrug off the mayhem-cum-murders with a wry smile, says much about his naivety, or worse, about his uncaring attitude towards the citizens he was elected to lead. I trust the PM did not read me literally when I spoke of "strapping on his holsters" and leading the battle against crime. What I inferred was that he should be seen to be in control, whoever the National Security minister might be. And leading from the front does not imply literally going on patrols, being involved in on-the-ground battles to rid the country of criminals.

I remind the PM that US President Franklin Roosevelt was elected to office in 1932, a time when the Great Depression had America on its knees. He boldly instituted measures that rubbed the rich and the establishment the wrong way, but his New Deal programme rescued some 13 million unemployed Americans and an economy on the verge of collapse. He went on, from his wheelchair (he was stricken with polio at an early age), first to lend immense material support to the Allied powers that fought against Nazi Germany and Japan, and later to make a decisive intervention in the war. Sadly, he did not live to see VE Day. Winston Churchill, too, came out from the back bench to lead Britain during its darkest hours, when Hitler's forces were pounding away at London Bridge.

It is no accident that to this day, here in Trinidad, we have the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway. Both men, whatever their negative character traits (Churchill was a racist supreme), earned the respect of their people by leading from the front during perilous times.

That's the hallmark of good leadership. Today, the nation is crying out for help, for rescue from the "wild west" situation we are in, and our leader says much but does little or nothing! Sure, he is keeping the economy on a fairly even keel, but even so, with the price of oil being what it is, as Finance Minister he seems incapable of reining in inflation, which, like crime, hits ordinary citizens like bullets to the stomachs. So even if our reserves are high, unemployment is down, and more money than we have ever known is flowing through the country, the poor get poorer and the rich richer. Top that off with runaway crime, and you have a richly endowed nation that's rolling downhill when it should be cresting the hill of success.

The Police Service cannot seem to rise above the bribe-by-bottle image it has long borne. While there were always dedicated policemen, men who were (and many continue to be) fair and fearless, more and more we are seeing drunken bullies, eight-to-four pen-pushers, and outright corrupt cops become the norm rather than the exception.

I shall use a simple example. I dare anyone to poll communities in which police stations are located and ask people if they feel safer, if they are satisfied with the service they get from "their" cops. Ask them if they have confidence in their stations-meaning the officers who staff them. They will most likely point to a few good law officers. But my guess is the answer will be so negative, there might well be a call to disband the service and start all over again.

That's not what we want to happen. We cannot throw out the baby with the bath water. But we must clean up the service before we can fight crime effectively. How can you begin to battle crime when so many cops are on the payrolls of criminals, be they drug pushers or crooked businessmen? One can ask, for example, how and why, hours before arrests were made in a high-profiled murder case, two prime suspects fled the country? Am I making sense? Does Mr Manning not see the imperative for him to take charge? For the sake of country, I hope he does. But knowing politicians as I do, I shan't hold my breath. Surprise me, Prime Minister.

Part I