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Raffique Shah


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An enemy in every protester's face

April 23, 2006
By Raffique Shah

WITHIN recent weeks Prime Minister Patrick Manning has displayed a certain kind of intolerance towards those who dare to disagree with his Government's policies. That is unbecoming of someone holding the office he does. In one case he charged that among the people who publicly oppose the aluminium smelter plants are those who have "hidden agendas". In another, he chided those who argue that the Government's construction frenzy is creating many more problems than it will solve. Then he launched a thinly veiled attack on UWI lecturers whom he accused of using academia for their own political pursuits. If he does not take stock of himself, he will soon come across as a man stricken with paranoia.

Or worse, he will find himself compared with the snarling Basdeo Panday who saw an enemy in anyone who so much as whispered what "de Bas" found unpalatable. Few people see Manning in the same mould as Panday. He has always come across as a gentleman-politician, notwithstanding his penchant for likening himself to the most consummate politician this country has seen, the late Dr Eric Williams. There was only one Williams: he did beget, but he will never be begotten. In his own right, Manning has the personality of a prime minister, albeit not a very exciting one, but certainly an acceptable and purposeful leader of government.

Power, as many have noted, can be a powerful aphrodisiac. Like Viagra, it can infuse life into the dead or make a mouse roar like a lion. But in both instances their potency is finite, limited, as so many ex-prime ministers have found to their dismay, and resurrected Romeos have learnt as they breathed their last, "coming and going" simultaneously. Manning has a golden opportunity to rise (no pun intended) above the ordinary. Riding the crest of an energy boom that was predictable, he can reshape this country, redefine development by putting human beings above everything else. In other words, he can be his own man, walking in no other's shadow, and in the process, etch his name in history.

This kind of leadership, however, requires humility and tolerance, qualities that few politicians can effectively combine with the courage it takes to lead a nation. One must serve even as one leads, a basic lesson every Sandhurst graduate is taught.

Take the people who are protesting the construction of aluminium smelters in their communities. They have good reasons for their stance and their protests, what with similar plants having ravaged the environment well beyond their boundaries, and having left the sites at which they operated scarred, polluted, unusable for generations. Alcoa must demonstrate beyond the shadow of doubt that the "new technology" it boasts of is in fact eco-friendly. Even better, the company may want to consider pumping money into agricultural ventures in the vicinity of the plant, owned and operated by farmers and co-operatives. And it must guarantee that at the first hint of pollution of the sea nearby, it must shut down operations and leave the country.

With regard to those who have raised their voices against the frenetic pace of government-generated construction, their concerns are valid. Indeed, the PM, caught in the maelstrom of a frenzy he created, now speaks of the once-unspeakable: the re-imposition of price control in building materials. That alone should signal to him that what people are saying is yes, we need houses and office buildings, but please Mr PM, set your priorities right. Give unto us houses first, roads and proper drainage next, then basic infrastructure - before you start looking at the Port of Spain skyline. No one is saying, "Don't build!" To the contrary, we need construction going at full pace .but not in overdrive. The fallout from the latter, we already see, can be painful to prospective home-owners.

As for UWI lecturers dabbling in politics, this is not new. The PNM has benefited from academia, both directly and indirectly. Lecturers like John Eckstein and Gordon Draper jumped from their classrooms into Cabinet! What would the PNM-in-government be without the services of energy-guru Professor Ken Julien? So if the PNM can secure advisors and ministers from academia, is it that other political parties must not tap into this talent? In fact, the stimulation of our national consciousness in 1970 was driven by the intellectual and physical interventions of both students and staff from UWI. Does Mr Manning want a "paper mill" instead of a university? Academic robots instead of academics who choose to engage in nation building?

No, Mr Manning, you can do much better than see an enemy in every protestor's face. Rather than alienate entire communities and condemn every critic, you should embrace those who dare speak out in defence of their patrimony, of this twin-island that is a potential paradise. Most are patriots who seek only a better Trinidad and Tobago, one that is crime-free and one in which our legacy for future generations is something we can be proud of.