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Raffique Shah


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Ministers Must Show Decorum

By Raffique Shah
July 04, 2010

Break, as a boxing referee would say. Last week I sought to re-open some old wounds that have returned to haunt us-to wit, the tragedy and gross injustice of the Bhopal disaster of 1984. Oftentimes we become so absorbed with our immediate problems, we ignore the plight of people less fortunate than we. In their trauma lie many lessons for us, not the least of which is a sense of justice.

In this regard, I have always lived by the creed of a very special human being who inspired me when I was young, Ernesto Ché Guevara. After he left Cuba in 1965 to fight for justice and freedom with oppressed people from the Congo to Bolivia, he wrote what would be his last letter to his young children he had left behind in Havana.

Exhorting them to study hard (he was, himself, a medical doctor), he wrote: "Above all, always be able to feel deeply any injustice committed against any person in any part of the world. It is the most beautiful quality of a revolutionary." So I shall return to where I left off, hopefully very soon.

But urgent national issues demand my attention. Specifically, I want to deal with the unseemly conduct of new Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, his public castigation of Acting Police Commissioner James Philbert. The AG embarrassed both Philbert and his Cabinet colleague, the National Security Minister, Brigadier John Sandy.

I think it necessary to bring the AG to heel, to let him know he holds a most important portfolio in Government and that he should act with decorum. He needs to look no further than Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissesar's handling of certain sensitive issues. But first the matter that led to this sorry pass. Ever since it surfaced that a cathedral-like edifice was being constructed under suspicious circumstances at Guanapo, the public demanded answers from ousted prime minister Patrick Manning.

Like most controversial issues that arose during his last tenure as PM, Manning was less than forthright with his answers. It happened with almost all projects that fell under the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago (UDeCOTT) and Calder Hart, until he was forced to appoint the Uff Commission. When Jack Warner alerted the nation to the Guanapo cathedral, Manning sought to distance himself from the project, but he later admitted that the elusive "prophetess" Pena, who apparently "owned" it, was his spiritual advisor.

Anyone, even a PM, is free to flaunt his folly, though not at the expense of the public purse. We do not yet know who funded the now-abandoned $30 million Guanapo project. If evidence emerges that State funds were siphoned into its construction, then those who did the crime must be made to do the time. Until such time, the presumption of innocence holds good, as Ramlogan well knows.

Shanghai Construction abandoned the work-site in the immediate aftermath of the elections. "One time", as Tinis would say, suspicions mounted. And in a flash, looters descended on incomplete edifice in a display of lawlessness that rivalled the virtual annexation of State lands at Cashew Gardens in Carlsen Field. Within days, the huge structure collapsed, much the way Manning's fortunes did.

Now, I agree with those who suggest that the police should have intervened, if only to ward off the looters. Philbert may have a point in relation to ownership of the structure, and the authority of the police to make arrests. He, and the State, could have run into a legal quagmire if all the looters claimed they were the rightful owners, that they were exercising their rights. The project was left in legal-limbo, which made policing it a difficult proposition.

Again, Ramlogan, who fought and won many a court battle in similar circumstances, knows very well that the law can often prove to be an ass–a costly one at that. But even if his knowledge of the law suggested that the police could have acted, protocol, not to add common decency, demanded that he summon a private meeting with Sandy and Philbert and let them know how they should proceed.

Should one or both men fail to act, then the AG might have sought other recourse–maybe have the PM intervene. One does not publicly upbraid office holders of this calibre unless they commit outrageous acts. That not only undermines their authority. It creates unnecessary friction between the executive and vital State institutions–as happened when the Manning administration ran into conflict with ex-chief justice Sharma and several other senior judicial officers.

Recently, US President Barack Obama had cause to summon one of his top generals, Stanley McChrystal, and relieve him of his Afghanistan command. Note well, Obama did not fire the general: I don't think he has the authority to so do. McChrystal's sins were serious. He and some of his aides, in a published interview, had made derogatory remarks about the Vice President and other senior Pentagon officials.

Obama showed how these matters are handled–with aplomb. McChrystal publicly apologised to the President. Philbert fired back at Ramlogan. That's the kind of unnecessary conflict the new Government can do without in its early stages in office. I have no idea whether PM Kamla had her new Cabinet go through orientation sessions where they are schooled in governance, in their interaction with senior public officers.

The discordant notes emanating from Cabinet suggest otherwise.

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