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Political Cleansing

May 26, 2002
By Raffique Shah

IT started back in 1986 when, after 30 years of continuous PNM rule, the NAR swept the polls and riding a tide of discontent against the only party-in-power that generations had known, the new government moved to dislodge PNMites from high positions they'd held for much too long. Since then, with changes of government coming after almost every general elections, the process of "political cleansing" has made the children's game of musical chairs seem like child's play. It was bound to backfire, of course: you fired my supporters when you came to power, I'll fire yours now that I'm in charge.

More than likely, except perhaps in mature democracies in Europe, this is a worldwide trend, especially in developing countries that have not experienced centuries of party politics and peaceful changes of government. In fact, the tradition of changing faces and places is rooted in American politics, with each in-coming administration putting its nominees in key positions, displacing those appointed by the previous government. And while the Westminster system of government that we pretend to adhere to allows for an independent civil (or public) service, few will argue that that demarcation of power has been breached in Britain and in its former colonies.

When the NAR came to power in 1986, especially after it had all but obliterated the PNM from Parliament, there was tremendous pressure on Prime Minister ANR Robinson to remove from office and boards anyone who was remotely connected to the PNM. For the first time we saw ministers having party supporters as "advisors", hired and paid for by government. These high-profiled men and women virtually circumvented the roles and powers of permanent secretaries in ministries. The NAR argued then, not without justification, that certain key personnel in the public service had been there for so long, their loyalties lay with the PNM, not with the new government. So the question of trust, of what a minister could or could not discuss with his PS and other senior public servants, came to the fore.

The process of "political cleansing" was thus introduced into our political culture. Thereafter, every new government that followed felt it necessary to put its own people in sensitive positions. Indeed, the game of "musical chairs" became almost a joke. When the PNM returned to power in 1991, it changed directors on almost every state board and continued with the NAR's system of hiring advisors to ministers.

Structures in both the public service and state companies were subjected to a virtual earthquake, with reverberating after-shocks, when Basdeo Panday became Prime Minister in 1995. And now that Patrick Manning and the PNM are back in the saddle, we see the exorcising of UNC "devils" from a number of key positions they'd held when their party was in power.

This is a tragic fallout from the intense bout of politiking we have had for 15-odd years. Ask anyone who is knowledgeable in government and he will tell you how disruptive such changes could be. When Panday arbitrarily decided on "free secondary education for all", for example, the Ministry of Education was thrown into a tailspin, trying to find room for thousands of children, most of whom were not ready for secondary education. The result was a fiasco. The "Model School" was a near-disaster, and many other problems are still cropping up from what was clearly a political move, not one to uplift the standard of education in the country.

It's worse in state-owned companies, many of which are operating at marginal levels of profitability, and others losing big. One senior executive told me he didn't know how to function, what policy to pursue, since with every change of government there seemed to be a change in policies. New board members have to familiarise themselves with the operations of companies they are assigned to, which takes time. By the time they get to know the company and settle down to work there is a change in government, they are out, and new members come in to take their places. And so we go, round and round in not-so-merry circles, which explains why we can't move forward.

To add to our woes, the UNC is now claiming that the PNM has instituted "ethnic cleansing" at state enterprises-conveying to their supporters the impression that only Indians are targeted at these companies. When the UNC had assumed power in 1995, a number of Afro-Trinidadians who held senior positions in those very companies and utilities were fired or shoved aside to make way for UNC supporters. The cry from the PNM camp then was: "Another Black man bites the dust!"

Really, where are these politicians taking the country with this extremism in party politics? What does Panday hope to achieve by his charges of "ethnic cleansing"? In fact, does he understand what that term connotes? If people were appointed to positions to for which they were not qualified, or if during their tenure they either performed miserably or engaged in irregular financial transactions, was there not justification to have them removed? Panday says that Hazel Manning was made Education Minister only to boost the Manning family's monthly income. Was Adesh Nanan better suited to that portfolio than Hazel is? Yes? The "para-dig-im" man?

At NGC, Panday axed Malcolm Jones as CEO. Neither he nor the board proffered any reason for firing Jones, one of this country's experts in the energy sector. Within weeks of him being fired by the UNC, a Canadian company grabbed Jones and made him head of Titan, the biggest and most modern methanol plant in the country. Ken Emrith, no nutritionist as far as I know, was fired as head of the Schools' Nutrition Company shortly after the PNM assumed office earlier this year. I don't know that any food producer or processor has broken down Emrith's door to have him head their operations.

But tit-for-tat has no place in this country. I have heard of instances in which PNM party hacks are being planted in plum positions in certain state enterprises, and I have seen the URP programme take on a distinctly racial tint. The Prime Minister has a duty to ensure that no such discrimination takes place. He should ask all state enterprises to submit the names of senior persons hired since January and go through them with the proverbial fine-teeth comb. He would win tremendous goodwill, not to add political support, if he comes down hard against partisan appointments. Or he could do like Panday, close his eyes to political exclusion (while shouting "inclusion") and lead us down the road to self-destruction.

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