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Raffique Shah


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Cry wolf, get a dictator

By Raffique Shah
July 20, 2008

Cry wolf, the adage goes, and you may just get your wish when you least expect it. I am reminded of the story of the little shepherd boy every time I read or hear someone say that Prime Minister Patrick Manning has morphed into a Mugabe. Are these people for real? I ask myself: do they really understand what a murderous, mindless dictator is, what he is capable of subjecting his country and people to?

I imagine not. They would hardly recall names like Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier of Haiti, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, or Pérez Jiménez of neighbouring Venezuela, to name just three of a phalanx of brutal dictators in the region. These animals seized and retained power by foul means, looted their treasuries big time, controlled death squads that tortured and murdered tens of thousands of citizens who dared to oppose them, all with the active backing of whoever was in power in Washington. In fact, most of the scores of dictators worldwide, if they survived their inevitable overthrow from power, took refuge in the land of the brave and the free-and ousted despots.

Manning may well be an autocrat within his party-witness his arbitrary dismissal of those who dared oppose him-and an overlord in Cabinet, especially the current one. He has also exhibited arrogance, dismissing valid concerns by citizens, especially those with no political agendas, but who have country at heart. Remember when, in the midst of the debate over two aluminium smelters, he vowed to build three such plants? Hindsight would tell him he should stop spewing "tatah": to date, only one smelter is being built, and I think I can say with confidence we'll never see another.

But is the PM's behaviour any different to his predecessors'? Ray Robinson elevated himself to the realms of royalty the moment he realised the NAR had obliterated the PNM back in 1986. His authoritarian approach to governance was a prime factor behind the early split in the NAR, and its eventual collapse and loss of power. Basdeo Panday was no different.

Indeed, well before he even smelt power, he brooked no opposition from those around him. The political graveyard, he has often boasted, is littered with the corpses of those who dared to disagree with the maximum leader. When, finally, he tasted office, he developed a voracious appetite for the trappings of power. So greedy was he (and his minions), he ate his way out of power and into the prisoners' docks of many a court.

Manning has been in politics long enough to have noted the fates of those who abused office or who casually dismissed the legitimate concerns of the majority of citizens. Power, however, is an aphrodisiac few men can resist. How they exercise it is what separates statesmen from politicians. Clearly, he is yet to distinguish the differences between the two (I suggest he seek an audience with Nelson Mandela, the quintessential modern-day statesman). He needs to understand why he is being painted with the same brush as Mugabe.

Proof of his dictatorial tendencies, his critics argue, came when he spelt out proposals for a new constitution, quoting verse and chapter, as Trinis would say. He spoke (I happened to be listening to the broadcast at the time) of plans for a change in the existing structure of government.

He said recommendations from an unnamed committee that drew up a "working paper" included the whittling down of the powers of the DPP, restricting the latter's absolute control to criminal matters. He mentioned that while the judiciary would remain independent in its operations, administration would be handled by a Ministry of Justice. And to my personal shock, he mentioned some political union between this country and St Vincent, yet undefined.

But after each recommendation, he repeatedly said: these are not Manning's ideas, they are from a "working paper". He said there will be wide public consultation before any such proposals are reduced to a draft constitution. Thereafter, the Government still has to go to Parliament and seek the requisite support of both chambers before any such document could become law.

Personally, I object to some of these "recommendations". But as a non-partisan citizen, I shall voice my dissent at the right time. For example, I think fundamental changes like the composition of Parliament, the powers of the DPP and any political union with another country or countries should be put before a referendum. This would entail making provisions for referendums in a new constitution. So Manning will have a fight on his hands to implement anything he spoke of at his party's convention.

I disagree with supposedly intelligent people who cry out that the man is a malevolent dictator in the making. He will never be allowed to become one, not by the sensible minority who register their dissent in reasoned arguments. And the cantankerous majority would eat him raw before he yawns. He knows it. That's the main reason he spoke of the decimation of the "PNM till ah dead" crowd.