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Raffique Shah


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A crisis of confidence

May 14, 2006
By Raffique Shah

ONE week in this carnival country of ours must be the equivalent of a year in most other countries, and decades in some boring, politically stable states. Over the past few weeks the jailing of Basdeo Panday grabbed newspaper headlines and dominated the cacophony that passes for "talk shows". By early last week, Panday was all but forgotten, displaced by bigger actors. The Prime Minister, the Chief Justice, the Chief Magistrate, the Attorney General-one can hardly go higher than that-became embroiled in an imbroglio that made editors and newsroom heads happy. As we'd say in any news department's engine room, "Copy for days!"

First there is the ongoing TSTT-Digicel advertising war. Now there's welcome, eye-popping "copy" that's just a phone call or a "leak" away. Even columnists like me have some new scandal to write on every week, guaranteed by those holding high office. As a citizen, though, I must ask: what the hell is happening to our once-revered institutions? If 25 per cent of what we read or hear is true, then they are not merely collapsing, they are rotten to the core! George Street of yesteryear could hardly provide better street theatre, its crooks and jamettes put to shame by the jacket-and-tie characters in this fiasco. Really, it's vintage "he say, she say", abundant food for calypsonians, chutney singers and comedians.

At the core of it all, though, those of us who manage to keep our feet firmly planted on native soil must wonder where the hell this country is heading. For the second time in as many years Prime Minister Manning has referred Chief Justice Sat Sharma to the President for allegedly attempting to influence a matter before the courts. Meanwhile, Chief Magistrate Sherman McNicolls admitted to being involved in a million-dollar land transaction, details of which confuse me. The PM is reported to have told the CJ: "Senor, you see that dark cloud over yonder? When it reaches here it's going to rain. You don't want to be around to get wet!" Well, not quite the PM's reported remarks, but close enough to that quote from a western movie.

Sharma fired back, his twin-carbines blazing. McNicolls is lying, he charged. It was he who came to me to say Panday's defence was solid. "I offered no advice," he added in response to McNicolls' "potow-pow". Then he proceeds to give details of the Chief Magistrate's land deal, calling the names of several senior Clico managers as co-dealers. Meanwhile, McNicolls was not answering his telephone, according to reporters who tried to reach him for comment. Not to be left out of this high-level brawl, the Law Association let loose some stiff "cuffs" at the PM, saying if newspaper reports of his remarks to Sharma were true he must be condemned for compromising the independence of the judiciary or words to that effect.

When those who occupy lofty positions engage in such conduct what can one expect from ordinary citizens, or worse, from your below-average-intelligence deviants and gangsters running amok in the country? Will they not see this as licence to further "mash up de place"? I wonder if the goodly gentlemen-and I use that word rhetorically-don't recognise what they are doing to the already damaged fabric of our society? I often harp on leadership qualities, some may think too much so. But I can't help it, since I was brought up in a home in which character and values counted for something. And I was trained at an institution where honesty, integrity, courage and discipline were qualities drummed into me, quite literally.

When, therefore, I see my country facing what must be its darkest days, not because of economic misfortune or natural disaster, but because all its leaders are exposed as having feet of clay-or worse, I feel betrayed, angry. What compounds the crisis is that we do not know who we can trust, who is lying, who is abusing office.

Put another way, if the PM is to be believed (he did report the matter to the President), then it means we are saddled with a CJ who cannot be trusted, and by extension a tainted judiciary. If the CJ is telling the truth, then what we have for a Prime Minister is a power-crazed dictator who is prepared to destroy anyone or any institution that stands in his way.

If the Chief Magistrate is lying on the CJ, then all persons convicted by him, including Mr Panday, should be freed from prison and exonerated. If the Attorney General is involved in political persecution and prosecution, then he, too, should be dismissed and disgraced.

The problem is we do not now know nor may we ever know, who is lying and who is telling the truth. The country is facing the most serious crisis of confidence in its history. If this crisis persists, it can only invite instability, maybe worse.