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Raffique Shah


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When greed leads to grief

By Raffique Shah
July 27, 2008

The dovetailing of two incidents last week laid bare reasons why, in spite of its immense potential, this country seems to be destined for self-destruction. First, there was the execution of a reputed gang leader, Mervyn "Kojo" Allamby, in Aranjuez. Note I did not use the generic name Cudjoe, an Anglicised version of the African name that even those who bear it are unaware of. It's a bastardisation similar to Cuffie or Cuffy, the African root being "Kofi", and among Indians, "Maha-beer", a European version of "Maha-bir".

But back to Kojo's killing: that he was supposedly lured into his death-trap following another double murder is testimony to two aspects of underworld living-and-dying. One is the ease with which gangsters and gang leaders are "taken out", often by their accomplices who know them well. And the other is the brazen manner in which such killings occur, the killers confident they can commit serial offences without police intervention. It's the same with bandits who commit serial robberies, again knowing police response time allows them to escape unscathed. Acting CoP Philbert may want to look at this gaping loophole in crime fighting and try to plug it.

Following Kojo's death, a mass of people from the East-West Corridor erupted in spontaneous sympathy that was mixed with seething anger and a genuine sense of loss.

Why was there this outpouring of grief over the death of a man who seems to have been both feared and loved in the communities that knew him, felt his touch? Listening to many people comment on Kojo's life, the majority of them wondered who would give them money and material things he did.

A few admitted he'd led a life of crime but suggested he had "turned his life around", that he was now a peace-maker, not a law-breaker. Having sifted the many comments I heard or read, I deduced that Kojo will be missed mainly for the material things he doled out to those for whom a dollar is a dollar, matters not where it came from.

That people can be so insensitive to those who suffered or died in order for them to enjoy handouts, defies explanation. I have repeatedly written about bandits and thieves not adorning themselves with tonnes of stolen gold-which suggests others, including "respectable" jewellers, benefit from banditry. Parents know their children are robbing hapless people. But as long as they benefit, they accept the loot. How many more hide guns-hell, maybe even corpses-for their criminal offspring? So while crimes are committed by a handful of criminals, their support-bases are huge, driven not so much by poverty as by naked greed.

The other event of note was the collapse of the Hindu Credit Union (HCU). I know little of the early development of this institution, which existed for years before Harry Harnarine became the driving force behind its rapid expansion. Harry must take credit for moving the HCU from a hole-in-the-wall operation to the empire into which he transformed it. But by similar token, he must also shoulder blame for its demise. What bothers me is that it did not take a Harvard whiz to see where Harry was going wrong. This country suffered from the collapse of many big financial institutions in the 1980s, all because of poor financial strategies and management.

Financial institutions that accept short-term deposits at higher-than-average interest rates, but use the money garnered in long-term investments, tread on very dangerous waters. That is what happened to Harry and the HCU. Having cornered people's money by offering eye-popping returns, he soon acquired almost the entire thriving borough of Chaguanas. He bought everything in sight, and much out of sight. The HCU offered property owners way above what they expected to get for their properties, so they sold and the HCU acquired.

As he went on to spread his wings into ventures not normal for credit unions, he soon saw himself-and was seen by others-as King of Central Trinidad (sorry, Mayor Suruj: you didn't quite make the cut!). He ventured into commercial enterprises, supermarkets, media houses, plans-for-housing, and more. His empire, much like Kojo's, attracted greedy people from high-to-low, especially when he lured them with bigger bucks they'd ever seen. I was amazed at the calibre of people I saw kow-towing to this "Rajah", addressing him as "Mr. President". Harry had arrived into the stratosphere of society. Or so he thought.

A fool could have told him and his fawning followers that the HCU was a disaster-in-the-making. But greed blinds the greedy to the perils of their folly. Now that "Mr. President" has been evicted from his palace, I don't know that he has learned anything. And I fear the foolish have lost everything.