VOLUME 37, NOS. 2&3 JUNE SEPTEMBER 1991
THE 1990 MUSLIMEEN INSURRECTION IN
TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO:
ITS CAUSES AND A MEASURE OF ITS HEROISM
Part One: Junctural Analysis of Causes
1. The Crisis of Shock: The 1990 Muslimeen Insurrection in Trinidad & Tobago
13. The Trigger Pulled in the Name of Almighty Allah
26. Lessons to Learn from Anti-Government Uprising
33. "Get Something and Wave": The Rallying Cry of a Nation on the Mend
38. Abu Bakr's Perceptions of his Movement as Seen through an Analysis of his
Part Two : Historical Analysis of Causes
46. An Analysis of Violence in Liberal Democratic Societies: The Case of the
Muslimeen Revolt in Trinidad and Tobago
Neville C. Duncan
53. The 1990 Violent Disturbance in Trinidad and Tobago
63 Political Crisis in Trinidad and Tobago: Cause or Coincidence?
Dennis A. Pantin
83. Jamaat al Muslimeen Insurrection in Trinidad and Tobago, 1990
88. Power In the Street: The Muslimeen Uprising in Trinidad and Tobago
107. BOOK REVIEWS
121 Notes on Contributors
122.. Notes for Contributors
123. Books Received
UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES
The Hon. R.M.Nettleford, O.M.., Pro Vice-Chancellor, Professor of
Continuing Studies, Mona (Editor)
G.M.Rlchards, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Principal, St. Augustine, Trinidad
Roy Augier, Professor of History, Mona, Jamaica
Sir Keith Hunte, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Principal, Cave Hill.
Neville McNorris, Department of Physics, Mona
Veronica Salter, School of Continuing Studies, Mona (Associate Editor)
All correspondence and contributions should be addressed to:
School of Continuing Studies,
University of the West Indies,
Mona, Kingston 7, Jamaica.
We invite readers to submit manuscripts or recommend subjects which they would like
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University Centre in any West Indian Territory served by this University.
This double issue of Caribbean Quarterly focuses on the 1990 Muslimeem
Insurrection in Trinidad and Tobago which was led by Iman Yasin Abu Bakr and which
aimed at the overthrow of the legitimately elected government of that country.
A number of Caribbean scholars here seek in the wake of the event, to find cause
for and meaning in the phenomenon which took the form of a "hijacking" of the elected
representatives of the people of Trinidad and Tobago itself an unprecented approach
in the otherwise long established history of violent resistance to constituted authority
that is deemed to be oppressive.
The notion of "constituted authority" has changed meanings over time from the
prescriptive claims of property-owning legislators under slavery through protective
metropolitan based parental guidance under colonialism to indigenous democratically
elected decision -making in Independence. However persistence of a sense of power-
lessness among the mass of the population has continued to plague the realities of
governance throughout the Commonwealth Caribbean, and old resistance strategies
have therefore remained clear options among these who perceive the society to be
deprived of social justice and the proffered legacies of earlier struggles for freedom,
democracy and equity.
The appeal to violence has been one such strategy, not only in Trinidad and
Tobago but all over the region. The 20th century Caribbean (Commonwealth and
beyond) has known strikes, skirmishes, uprisings, coups and revolutions. Trinidad and
Tobago itself has memories of a February, 1970 "revolution" while nearby Grenada has
a successful coup in 1979 displacing a duly elected government (albeit a corrupt and
inept one) only to be followed by a violent overthrow of the "revolutionary government"
involving the assassination of members of the "constituted government".
If any doubts existed before, the experience of Grenada in 1983 indicated that
the Commonwealth Caribbean was not immune for such upheavals in meeting the
post-colonial demands of equitable distribution of scarce resources, of transferring
power to the mass of the population ('empowerment' in the vocabulary of the mar-
ginalised and dispossessed), and providing the kind of leadership for social transforma-
tion not only management capabilities but wisdom and a compassion and has no
stomach for traditional Establishment for repression.
Abu Bakr, like other alternative leaders" in the region, clearly felt that the
government of Trinidad and Tobago was not meeting those demands. A crisis in
governance was clearly perceived to be in place. The Muslimeem's repeated inflam-
mable encounters with the duly constituted government apparently promised no end to
the crisis. And the season of discontent in the wider society may well have emboldened
the resolve to strike against the 'enemy' in the hope of a groundswell of support from
the general populace for a just insurrection.
The following pages examine all this and more in an attempt to plumb the deep
social forces that continue to haunt the socio- economic and political realities of
post-colonmial Trinidad and Tobago and all of the post-colonial Caribbean all still
groping to make sense of their existential reality following on Independence.
Caribbean Quarterly welcomes guest editors Helen Pyne-Timothy and Herb
Addo as well as the other authors who have made this double-issue possible.
This double issue of Caribbean Quarterly focuses on the 1990 Muslimeen Insur-
rection in Trinidad and Tobago, which was led by Imam Yasin Abu Bakr and which
aimed at the overthrow of the legitimately elected Government of that country.
Contributors were requested to write in their individual capacities and to express
their professional interests and concerns on aspects of the insurrection that most
engaged their attention. It was then to be left to the Editors to gather the inter-connect-
ing threads of affinities and opposition into interpretative composite wholes of
problematic. The Editors found two problematic clusters.
The first problematic was that all the contributors dealt with the causes of the
insurrection, in their efforts to put the insurrection in its proper perspective within the
context of the evolution of the history of Trinidad and Tobago; and the second cluster
referred to the problematic of the measure of heroism that could be attributed to those
who undertook the insurrection.
2. The Problematic of Causes
We discerned that the contributions took the causes of the violence, and the
attendant dialectical rebellions, in the pre-slavery, slavery, colonial and indentureship
phases of this history to be well known. Such vile brutalities as the earlier phases of the
country's history perpetrated on the people can be attributed, without too much con-
troversy, to the human costs involved in the crude methods of capital accumulation in
the Centre and away from the Periphery of the emerging world-capitalist system. This
was done by the means of crude exploitation of cheap labour and abundant natural
resources as well as by painful mechanisms of social deprivation.
The silent question posed by all the contributions appears to us to be that while both
direct and indirect violence in the distant history of Trinidad and Tobago can be
explained, we are yet to find convincing answers to this question: Why is it that the
post-independence phase of the country's history, to date, appears to be characterizing,
or defining, itself by a high-gradient escalation of violent intents to either make the
Governments) "behave" or even seize Governmental power by the force of arms? This
is the causal problematic.
As the reader can see, the contributions have been divided into two parts: Part one,
JuncturalAnalyses of causes and Part Two, HistoricalAnalyses of Causes. Since it is the
same basic question that informs the two parts of this volume, the divisions cannot be
exclusive of each other. However, the several contributions deal with analyses in dif-
ferent senses and at different levels.
Some contributions are very much junctural and partial in their causal searches as
well as focused on contemporaneities in their analytic reaches. These are the contribu-
tions grouped in Part One.
In Part Two, we have those efforts that attempt broader inclusions of the aspects of
the country's immediate spread of multiple dimensions. In addition to this, the con-
tributions in this section hint at the analytic necessity to take the historical path of deep
backward sweep into the relevant past.
In order to situate the impressions of diagnoses and attractive outlines of possible
prescriptions in an efficacious context, we need to be auto-critical by adopting the
emerging conception of history as the product of the ever-present encounters between
and within cultures. As time unfolds, inter-reacting with events, big and small, it creates
cultural hybrids of the many forms, that we call (national) Societies and of which
Trinidad and Tobago is one.
In this mode of analysis, when we refer to culture, we refer to the Grand or the total
way of life by extending the usual meaning of culture beyond the limited and confining
realm of the aesthetic -- song, dance, cuisine, customs and rituals -- to embrace, inter
alia the substantial prominence of economic, political, and social beliefs and practices,
intellectual traditions, religious practices. It is only with such a comprehensive ap-
proach that we can match a Society's hopes and aspirations against its embedded
pathologies so that we can reveal the fundamental contradictions that must be con-
fronted trialectically in order to move somewhat assuredly on the uncertain paths
toward projected and desired future history for a society.
Societies tend to fall between a continuum formed by the two extremes of the
authentic and the corrupt. The extent to which a country is a corrupt hybrid-product of
the historical process, in all cases, is revealed by the extent to which the accepted
notions of what is to be done by its rulers reinforces the very reality that needs to be
changed. In other words, in such corrupt hybrid-societies, what needs to be done is
avoided in most instances and what needs to be avoided is nearly always done. This is so
for a variety of reasons; and it always betrays a huge gap between the aspirations of the
base of a society and the manoeuvres and implementations of its organizing apex.
Viewed this way, our causal problematic metamorphosizes from one form into
another, via a mediation. The mediation is whether Trinidad and Tobago is rendered a
corrupt hybrid-product by virtue of the mounting characteristic of high-gradient escala-
tion of violent actions aimed at the governments. And the problematic now becomes: if
indeed Trinidad and Tobago is a corrupt hybrid of a society, then what are the causal
pathologies for this?
Each of the following contributions attempts to answer this question; and, in the
end, the Editors collectively leave the reader to form his own opinion.
3. The Problematic of Heroism
There were many acts of clever disobedience, sabotage, and rebellions in the days of
slavery. All these actions, successful or not, were considered heroic by the slaves
themselves, for they were all aimed at winning freedom from slavery, by one means or
the other. Of all the actions meant to negate slavery, however, none was considered
more heroic than those of the Maroons. For these were people who did not wait to be
freed so that they could be free to free others. Each Marroon freed himself/herself,
fellow maroons, and showed the way to freedom for other slaves. Their acts were super
heroic because they embraced all the colossal risks involved in the related realizations
of the three elements of true freedom: self-Freedom, the first sense of Freedom; group-
Freedom, the second sense of Freedom; and collective-Freedom, the third sense of
History, as well as being seen as the process of the resolutions of contradictions
between and within cultures, may also be understood, in George Lamming's words, as a
very long season of adventure. This adventure is composed by a never-ending series of
moments of crisis, each critical moment calling for authentic agents of historical trans-
The basic historical contradictions of existing suppression and its opposition, to the
search for freedom, are supposed to refine themselves at higher levels of confrontation,
guided respectively by changing historical circumstances and rising historical con-
sciousness, as time unfolds. Against this background of shimmering historical motions,
the idea of the hero itself changes with time. An action that would have been con-
sidered in particular circumstances to be heroic may not be so considered in other
circumstances, because the action may not be desirable, necessary, or well-considered.
In other words, it is the historical circumstance that throws up and defines the hero and
not the other way around.
The contradictions of slavery yielded slave rebellions and the feats of the Maroons.
Emancipation and Colonialism produced Oxbridge and assorted leaders who rode on
peoples' power to gain independence only to be confronted by the revised contradiction
between neo-colonalism of the Westminster kind and the demands for authentic
government in the peoples' interest. In the process, false agents have always existed and
have always offered themselves.
The danger has been that false agents have always been counted among the most
active and the most articulate of would-be agents of transformation, when it comes to
misleading the people in the search for creativity in exposing real causes of suppression
and the imagination as to how to proceed.
Abu Bakr, no doubt, saw and offered himself as an authentic agent of transforma-
tion. But is he perceived as such an agent? To judge by the contents of this volume, the
answer is an unambiguous No! He did not have much support from the people. And
even then, such support as he appeared to have had, it is said and implied in this volume,
was more of anti-Government demeanour than pro-Bakr. This means then that on a
hero-villain scale, Bakr and his followers would be put much closer to the villain end of
the scale. Nevertheless, although Abu Bakr may not be the present day equivalent of the
super heroic Maroon, no honest consideration of the potential ideas of the present for
the future of Trinidad and Tobago can ignore Abu Bakr's action. This volume makes
this much clear.
4. Brief Intimations of Content
Part One begins with Herb Addo's "Crisis of Shock", in which he points to the
pathology of national self-deception. Addo argues that while violence of the Muslimeen
kind could happen anywhere to most countries in the world, the Edenic perception of
Trinidad and Tobago held by its nationals has led them, for too long, to believe that such
activities could not happen in the country. So strong was this belief that Abu Bakr was
not taken seriously when on several occasions he warned of the confrontational intent
to strike at the heart of the Governmental system, as soon as he could. Addo notes that
it took the deep and unexpected shock that the crisis unleashed to shake nationals into
realizing that such events could actually happen in their country. But even then, the
shock only changed the belief of immunity into one which holds that, while such events
could occur in Trinidad and Tobago, they cannot succeed there. He intimates that the
strong adherence to parliamentary democracy and the efficacious development of the
nation's historical sociology may not be enough to prevent the recurrence of this kind of
crisis in the future. Finally, Addo implies that, in order to avoid similar events, the
country must be both wise and humble enough to pay auto-critical attention to the huge
gap that separates its reality from its Edenic pretentions, which betrays the country's
Selwyn Ryan's chapter "The Trigger Pulled", is a fluid narration of the intricate
occurrences that led to the precipitation of the insurrection. It goes into much detail of
the meandering steps of the political and legal dance that seem to have left the Imam no
other choice but to strike at the heart of the governmental system. The immediate
junctural worth of this contribution is immense; and it implies in effect that some of the
steps may not have been necessary, if the objective was to avoid a probable crisis.
The next two contributions by Alfred Donowa and Meryl James-Bryan must be
considered as written in the cri de coeur mode. They agonize over the unenviable fate
that awaits their beloved country, if existing key institutions are not reformed and if the
present generation does not stop to take account of its responsibilities for the future
generations. Donowa settles on the institution of Parliament and its lack of account-
ability to the electorate. Once elected the Government is as good as unchecked; and
once he forms the Government, the Prime Minister is as good as an elected dictator. A
vote cast at the five-yearly intervals becomes a yoke, for the duration, for the voter.
Political parties in their present forms and functions do not help matters. And nothing
short of a sincerely radical look at these matters can save Trinidad and Tobago from self
James-Bryan laments for the youth of the country. She sees them as ignored and
forgotten, at best, seen perhaps, but not heard. The fact that many young boys took part
in the insurrection is a cause for worry, in that the pool of disaffected youth will always
remain a reservoir of recruitment for such seriously illegal activities. The youth will
oblige the recruiters so as to gain the attention and the respect that they need to develop
The last contribution in Part one is by Helen Pyne-Timothy. She asks the question
as to why the insurrection should have taken the Government's security network by
surprise. This should not have been the case, she argues, because Abu Bakr did not hide
his intentions and ambitions, or even the timing of his strike. By employing linguistic
analysis to examine the contents of some of Bakr's public speeches and pronounce-
ments, Pyne-Timothy is able to show that the increasing vehemence and the frequency
of reference to probable violent acts by the Muslimeen should have alerted the Govern-
ment to the high probability of something as serious as the insurrection itself.
Part Two starts with Neville Duncan's general treatment of Governmental obliga-
tions and the electorate's expectations under Liberal Democratic Orders of the
Westminster variety. Duncan argues that the fact that the Muslimeen insurrection
occurred shows that Governmental responses to earlier violent acts and intents in
Trinidad and Tobago were not adequate and that this fact raises suspicions as to the
nature and extent of democratic practices in the Republic. He states that it is the
tendency for Governments to employ higher levels of repression to deal with political
violence. In this regard, it is important to know that the use of higher levels of repression
only leads to more emboldened anti-systemic activities. He suggests that the security
forces who inter-face with the people should be sensitized by training and laws to deal
with citizens more respectfully, since without this only more emboldened violence could
occur. Development seen as social transformation can reduce the levels and number of
violence. In this sense, sophisticated repression in societies like Trinidad and Tobago is
no answer to the violent reactions to the real historical problem of social inequality,
sustained by the persistence of imperialism and exploitation.
John La Guerre sees the understanding of the Muslimeen insurrection as located in
the context of an emerging counter- political culture in the wake of a political vacuum
in Trinidad and Tobago. The political vacuum is created by a whole anthropology
involving the political culture of the urban masses (mainly Blacks), questions of black
identity, class positions, and Black heroes. This political anthropology is what is under
seige, for its Afro-Saxon elite leadership is no longer in favour and the mass culture of
the people are now leading them to judge governments not by the means by which they
achieve power, but rather by the abilities to make good their promises. This, among
other things, is what encouraged Abu Bakr and his followers. The political culture also
depicts political violence to the Indian population as mainly a family quarrel between
the Afro-nationals, since they see politics as mainly an Afro-national affair. The worry
is precisely that future Bakrs may be calculating that he almost made it and may even be
thinking of how to avoid his mistakes.
Dennis A. Pantin starts his contribution by debunking the belief that there may not
be a positive correlation between IMF agreements with Third World countries and
attempts to overthrow the Governments of these countries by violent means, such as
coups d'etats. Having done this, he analyses the possible relationship between
economic conditions in Trinidad and Tobago and the Muslimeen crisis. His main
hypothesis is that the economic foundations of the political crisis did not originate in the
IMF Agreements -- although they did not help -- but in the continued failure to
transform the Rentier Economy and State of Trinidad and Tobago Society. Pantin
defines Rentier Economy as one which services primarily out of the incomes accruing
from the exploitation of natural resources by foreign firms which either own the
resource based activities, the technology used, and/or the markets in which the output
is sold. The Rentier State is the dependent and not the independent factor in the
domestic economic equation. The State accrues the rents from the exploitation of the
natural resource -- in the case of Trinidad and Tobago, petroleum -- which it then
dispenses as income among groups in the society. In such economies, for as long as the
natural resource is doing well, the State is safe from overthrow intents at most times and
in most instances. As the author shows, the economic fortunes of the country have
fluctuated in consonance with the fortunes of petroleum in the world-economy. He
concludes that if future trends of the price of petroleum products are anything to go
by,then things look rather uncertain for Trinidad and Tobago economy and frightfully
unstable for the Governments to come. Political understanding and transformational
action to convert the Rentier economy into productive one may help matters, but the
author does not count much on this. All this is not helped by the debt burden that
Trinidad and Tobago is piling on itself.
According to David Abdulah, the Jamaat did not understand the issue of power,
nor was it equipped to challenge and transform the established neo-colonial structures.
Abdulah notes that the Jamaat was not an organised part of the swelling mass move-
ment that intended to confront the neo-colonial structures as they were represented by
the Robinson administration and its policies. The Jamaat came out as an opportunist
group, for it was when the mass movement against the Government was nearing its crest
that the Muslimeen intervened, mistakenly thinking that their action would have
received the automatic support of the people. They never understood that the actions of
the few could never substitute for the organised mass action of the many. The tem-
porary resolution of the crisis shows that it was the Security Forces that saved the
Government and not the Constitution or the much-touted democracy. The system has
not changed in any way, since the event, and therefore, it is safe to say that all the
ingredients are still there for another social explosion, in the not too distant future.
James Millette sees the insurrection as a salutary episode, despite the fact that it
failed, due to lack of support. This is because, as he sees it, at the centre of the historical
dialectic is the existence of two competing traditions that strive for political space in the
Caribbean environment. Westminster democracy competes with the older tradition of
resistance to the established order in the slave uprisings of old, which is represented
today by commitment to revolutionary change. Parliamentary democracy has lost its
appeal largely because its self-proclaimed historical agents could not meet the promises
they made to fulfill the articulated aspirations of the people. The viable option appears,
to the people, to be the adoption of the tradition of radical resistance. The Muslimeen
insurrection derives its inspiration and justification from this older tradition of resis-
tance. The insurrection failed because it was attempted at the wrong time and without
allies, and when the masses were even unconscious of the possibility that such an event
might take place. But there were moments prior to the event when it might have
succeeded. These moments are not yet lost; and the more the agents of Westminster
democracy show that they understand their obligations to be the business of pleasing
the remnants from the past colonial order and the satisfaction of outside powers and
powerful forces such as the IMF and the World Bank, the sooner will come the day
when a violent wrenching-break with the past will successfully occur.
HELEN PYNE TIMOTHY
CRISIS OF SHOCK:
INSURRECTION IN TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO, 1990
Nothing numbs the senses of a nation more quickly than the sudden occurrence of
unexpected violence that confronts the nation with its suppressed brand of vulnerability
to its own worst fears.
The shock is usually greater to the extent that the national sense of self-confidence
has lulled nationals into believing that political, economic, and other forms of social
instability are things that occur in other nations; and that, for some reason, that nation
is immune to such instabilities.
It is true that Trinidad and Tobago, in their separate and combined histories, have
seen their fair share, perhaps even more than their fair share, of violent events--Slave
Rebellions, the Canboulay Uprising, the 1937 Riots, the 1970 Mutiny in the supporting
role to the 1970 Black Power Revolution, as well as the infrequent but devastating
hurricane, and the less threatening, but no less spectacular, loss of the Trinidad and
Tobago national world-cup soccer team to the US national team, in November 1989.
All this notwithstanding, Trinidad and Tobago nationals have it firmly planted in
their national psyche that "this could not happen here", whatever the "this" of social
instability may be. And yet, Trinidad and Tobago is a small but a very complex society
that by all appearances and reckoning should be rife with all sorts of social conflicts.
The multi-racial composition of the society need not necessarily be problematic in
and by itself. It becomes problematic, if not explosive, however, when we compound the
racial, religious, and class diversities with the occupational imbalances in the society.
The Afro-nationals tend to perceive Indo-nationals as having monopolized the
commercial and the agricultural sectors of the economy and as rapidly taking over the
professional services, as well as having bought up "all" the lands in the country.
The Indo-nationals, in their turn, tend to think that politically they have been
ostracized, in that they hold that the Afro-nationals of the country have controlled the
government for far too long to their effective exclusion, qualified only by token par-
The Indo-nationals also seem to believe that jobs in the Public Service, including the
Protective Services, and the many State Enterprises, appear to have been reserved for
the Afro-nationals; and that this fact has been covered up by begrudged and benign
These perceptions and beliefs cannot be ignored, when we come to understand that
Afro-nationals and Indo-nationals divide nearly equally to account for about 90% of
the country's total population of 1.2 million. The remaining 10% of the population is
made up of Chinese, Syrians, and (local) whites,who are by all consideration compara-
tively small in demographic terms, but who happen to be seen as extremely influential in
the business, financial, and the commercial sectors of the economy.
In addition to this, practically all of the Afro-nationals and a sizeable number of the
Indo-nationals are Christians. Most of the Indo-nationals are Hindus, with the remain-
ing being Muslims, accompanied by a growing number, but still only a handful, of
Afro-Nationals who are Muslims.
The densely populated Northern part of Trinidad is largely occupied by Afro-na-
tionals. The Central and Southern areas are mainly settled by Indo-nationals. The much
smaller island of Tobago is populated and owned overwhelmingly by Afro-nationals.
All these considerations ought to point to an explosive mixture for socio-political
instability in Trinidad and Tobago. However, since the Second World War, excluding
the 1970 Black Power Revolution and the concomitant mutiny of that same year,
Trinidad and Tobago, the most socially complex country in the Eastern Caribbean, had
been remarkably stable and peaceful until July 27, 1990, when Imam Yasin Abu Bakr
and his followers struck. What accounts for this? Underneath all the potential ex-
plosiveness of the complex whole of Trinidad and Tobago, a beneficial phenomenon
has rapidly been at work. It is the lucky case that the evolution of its historical sociology
has been silently weaving a well-integrated multi-cultural society out of the congeries of
differences that exist in the society.
Nobody denies that Trinidad and Tobago, as a country, has problems. Nobody does,
except that the national psyche insists that the solving of the problems should be done
with strict adherence to the principle of rule of law and with the meticulous practice of
parliamentary democracy, toward the creation of a just society where every race and
creed has an equal place.
What is happening is that the unfolding of the historical sociology of Trinidad and
Tobago's society is pointing to the fast creation of a polyglot, but paradoxically a
harmonious, population. The different races, religions, and social classes share and
enjoy each other's festivals, holidays, foods and music. The love for liming, old-talk,
calypso, carnival, picong, and fetes is common to practically all nationals.
But, prior to 27 July, 1990, while historical sociology was busily at work, attending
the processes of the new national formation was the nervous suspicion that all was still
not well enough; and that "1970" could occur again, anytime. The various seminars and
conferences in April 1990, on the twentieth anniversary of "1970" displayed this concern
They all seemed to be saying one thing, loud and clear: that the objectives of "1970"
-- racial equality, cultural recognition, and social fairness -- had been under-achieved,
in that the rich remain relatively richer and the poor relatively poorer, in 1990, despite
the fact that the oil-boom years of 1973-1982 had brought the country an enormous
bounty, which appeared to have been used to benefit everyone in the country in one way
or the other. Inspite of all this, there were the apparent national feelings of growing
safety and security. Military take-overs occur only in Grenada, Haiti, and on the Latin
American mainland, electoral violence is the property of Jamaica, in the Caribbean,
and elsewhere in the world; and electoral fraud is not Trinidadian and Tobagonian
either. It may be Guyanese and West African.
Nothing socially destabilizing in nature could possibly be Trinidadian and
Tobagonian: All will be well and good, even if difficult, as the country sorts out its
problems. And so, "please, no violent insurrections. We are Trinidadians and
Therefore, one can imagine the depth of the shock to the national self-confidence
when at about 6.00 p.m. on July 27, 1990, Abu Bakr led his Jamaat al Muslimeen
followers to announce, on television, the overthrow of the legitimately elected govern-
ment of Trinidad and Tobago. So much did the nationals of this country believe that "it
cannot happen here" that when Abu Bakr forcefully took over the television station to
present himself, and to announce the insurrection, many people thought it was a "play
It took some time for it to sink in. And, when it did, it became clear that Abu Bakr
and his followers had actually held the Prime Minister, some Ministers, and some
Members of Parliament hostage in the Parliamentary Chamber and that some more
hostages were held in Television House. Later, it became known that the Prime Mini-
ster and some of his Cabinet and Parliamentary colleagues had in fact been shot and
were suffering from severe gunshot wounds. Meanwhile, a Policeman had been shot
dead at the entrance door to Parliament.
The curfew imposed, soon after the event displayed itself for what it was. It was as
inconvenient as it was frightening. Sitting at home at awkward hours, with family and/or
friends around you, you could see fires burning. Your were told that "the Boys are
looting and burning everything in town". And, of course, the "Girls" were with the "Boys"
all the way. The increasing intensity and regularity of gunshots did not help matters.
Moods became bleaker and bleaker, as despair replaced the initial bravado and
nonchalance of "well, they say they take over, let them take over, nuh? We go see what
they go do with it (the country)".
The most frustrating part of the Sir Days of Siege for most people was that they sat
there, not doing much, except trying hard to think about something about which they
knew so little, to the point where they must have thought that they were was making a
mockery of the very idea of thinking. There was no doubt that the confidence that
bound and contained the national psyche had taken a sharp, if not a precipitous,
David Rudder, the leading philosophical Calypsonian captured the depth of the
distress in one of his 1991 calypso tunes, which the journalist Keith Smith interprets in
the following manner: Rather [Rudder] shoves Bakr in our face, noting that he is
showing us the darker side of us and that this Edenic Trinidad of dancing, singing, souls
is no longer true if, indeed, it ever was.
From the moment that what was happening revealed itself unambiguously, those
who did not know the Imam began to pay close attention to his speaking style, to the
speech contents of his many pronouncements, to his gestures and mannerisms, as well
as to any discernible personality traits he might have revealed. One sought to gain some
insights into what Bakr could possibly have expected from his action.
Those who knew Abu Bakr before the event and those who observed him on the
occasion on TV seem to agree that Bakr was, or appeared to be, a devoted Muslim and
a man with deep respect for women and a deep sense of responsibility and love for
children. He is a soft-spoken and a mild-mannered person. Not even his revolutionary
pronouncements and gun-talk admonitions could obscure these personality traits.
One of his first "Executive Orders" was to abolish the VAT on all purchases.
He sat there, as the TV screen showed him, visibly upset, flanked by prominent
hostages and followers, guns clearly ready to shoot, recounting the sad tale of how
because of the long and notorious (medical) drug-shortages in the country's hospitals,
he had arranged for an un-named benefactor to donate tons of much needed medical
drugs free of charge to those who needed drugs but could neither afford them nor find
them to buy, only for the government to rebuff his magnanimous mediation.
The Imam may be a compassionate and a loving man seeking justice and social
equality but he is also a consummate believer in the fundamentalist interpretation of the
Koran. Is there a contradiction here? No, since each of the two traits can be the cause
of the other. In one case, it could be that the compassionate and loving part of the Imam
led him to be a fundamentalist Muslim, since the Imam was an adult convert to islam;
and in the other, it could be that his embrace of Islamic fundamentalism made him, as
an adult convert, into a compassionate and loving person.
2. Constructed Conjunctures
Was the Imam really determined to go through with what he and his followers had
embarked upon? What did he stand for, in terms of socio-political policies? Did he have
the gunpower to confront and outdo the Defence Forces? How big was his "army"
anyway? Did he have some collaborators in the Army waiting to give him support at a
later time, as he wanted us to believe? How big was his network of support among the
masses? What did he expect of them--mass uprising against the government and its
eventual overthrow, a la Haiti and Eastern Europe? Above all, did he expect to win? Or
was he just demonstrating, in a violent manner, with more than a touch of the dramatic?
How true was it that Bakr had wanted to launch his "offensive" in April 1990 to coincide
with "1970", and for it to be a tribute to his two revolutionary heroes, Makandal Daaga
and Raffique Shah, but had to postpone it for one reason or the other? How long had
Bakr planned this project of his? And what did he expect to gain from it, as the
We shall try to answer some of the questions raised above, but not necessarily in the
order presented, so as to create the context for locating the structured relationships
between some of the key factors that contributed to the pursuit of the project as it was
perceived by Bakr in terms of its worthiness and viability.
It had been said, and further elaborated by the expected grapevine exaggeration,
that Bakr and his followers had been stocking up on arms for some years before the
event occurred. Many Police searches at the suspected places revealed nothing and yet
the rumours persisted. And a Superintendent of Police is said to have told Abu Bakr,
after one of these searches, "because we didn't find any [arms] does not mean you don't
have". Those who knew the whereabouts of the arms would not talk and those who did
not know (for sure) insisted that it existed.
So finally, when Abu Bakr and his motley collection of soldiers wheeled out of their
Mosque to take hostages and to occupy the Parliamentary Chamber and Television
House, both a few miles away, those who knew for sure that Bakr and his followers were
amassing arms said they knew all along but could not say so for fear of agonizing
reprisals; and those who did not know but suspected the amassing of arms at some
vague somewhere simply said "we told you so".
After Abu Bakr and his followers had surrendered, and the guns and ammunition
had been seized and displayed, few people could say that they were not surprised by
their number, variety, and sophistication. Where did the arms come from? The Defence
Force and the Police may know, but they are not talking publicly. Some people say the
arms came from Libya and others say they were bought in Miami and smuggled into the
country, a few at a time, over a long period of time.
Whatever the case, it would be interesting to know when the Imam decided to turn
to military-like violence as a means of settling scores with the state of Trinidad and
Tobago, which, as we shall soon see, Imam Bakr saw as standing for all that he, the
Imam, stood against. Strange enough, there should not be any lack of information here
at all, since the Imam himself had broadcast it all about, even in Woodford Square, in
broad daylight and in the darkness of the night. He even gave newspaper and magazine
interviews on the matter; and yet nobody took him seriously. He was nearly-completely
ignored on this score. His warnings were treated as the "ineffectual ratings of a
powerless madman". The press patronized him on the rare occasions when he was in a
conciliatory mood. But the medium would not touch him, for if he was not an idiot, he
surely was a lunatic.
One thing is sure, nobody can say that the Imam did not give fair warning. All this
must have angered the Imam extremely to the point where, even without any discernible
immediate trigger of an incident, he thought it was both time and necessary that he rose
to the heights of his own words to prove himself to all, including himself. The message
was to be crystal clear: Imam Yasin Abu Bakr is not a joke; and he is not joking.
Kwame Toure (formerly Stokely Carmichael) claims to have known a year before
the event, saying to Keith Smith, "You know that man [Bakr] is building an army down
there [Trinidad]". Smith scoffs at Toure's lag time in the knowledge of this matter; and
he claims that it was five years before the event "that [his] journalistic instincts told him
that the Imam was trouble". Smith has his two interviews with the Imam, on which he
draw heavily in the next section of this essay, to prove his case.
What was it that agitated the Imam so much to the point of not only wanting to, but
actually attempting to, overthrow the legitimately elected government of the country by
force of arms?
Abu Bakr's deep-seated anger lay at two levels. First, it lay at the level of intra-Islam
quibblings and jealousies. Second, it lay at the level of the government, its socio-political
policies and its institutional dispensation of justice. It seems that Bakr believed that
once he took care of the second level, i.e. the government, the first level of intra-Islam
animosities would take care of themselves.
According to Keith Smith, Bakr sincerely believed that the other Muslims in the
country wanted to crush, to eliminate, the Muslimeen. Asked why this was so, Abu Bakr
Because ...we were seen as a threat by the people
who represent the Muslim establishment in Trinidad
Traditionally, ...certain members of the Indian community had what they viewed as
a hegemony on Islam and they felt themselves threatened by the emergence of a defiant
group of African Muslims "who were really practising the true tenets of the religion".
Asked how the Muslimeen could possibly be a threat to other Muslim organizations,
since his membership was very small, Bakr replied that:
Because religion is about quality rather than quanti-
ty. People like to follow the multitude and do wrong,
but it is true that there are people here who are
afraid that the quality of our religion can motivate
The Imam said to Keith Smith that there is the "Golden Rule" in the Koran which
mandates all Muslims "to stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses of God"; and that,
when people like the Muslimeen live in a society
like Trinidad and Tobago, they are operating in total
contradiction....Our courts are there to protect the
rich and protect the system that guarantees the op-
pression of the weak by the strong and we can't
stand for that.It is completely against this Golden
Rule. And unless this is changed, this Golden Rule
will put us into eternal conflict with the State.
In short, the government was charged, among other things, with the mismanagement
of the economy by adopting policies that favoured the rich and the privileged minority
at the painful expense of the poor and the underprivileged.
On the political front, the government was said to be ruling by discrimination. It gave
lands to those it favoured and it took them away from those it did not favour. The
government was even trying to dispossess the Muslimeen of their "legal" ownership of
the land on which their newly built Mosque stood, while even threatening to even destroy
the Mosque itself.
As long as people continue to feed their dogs with
steak and people have mansions and others have
nowhere to sleep, as long as people have fast speed-
boats and others do not have their basic needs like
food and shelter, this rule must be enforced.
There is more. The Imam saw Trinidad and Tobago to be no different from Sodom
and Gomorrah and the city of Shauin, "where incest, homosexuality, failing to give just
weights and measures...in other words and, for us [the Muslimeen] the die was cast".
Confronted with how pitiable the Muslimeen force was when compared to the
State's, this was his pithy response:
History will show that all the prophets defeated
whole armies. And when asked when the millennium
would come, this was the reply; I doubt that they can
go pas this year [September 1985] and that's giving
them a lot of grace.
What does all this mean? It means that, sometime before the fourth quarter of 1985,
Abu Bakr had made an unequivocal decision to confront State authorities violently and
frontally; and he had said that such a confrontation was not too far in coming. But, if
Bakr was disgusted with the legal society in which he lived, was violent confrontation the
only way to go, seeing that the contradiction between the Golden Rule and the eternal
conflict is open to other practical responses through other interpretations of the Koran?
One such interpretation is that when a person finds himself living in a socio-political
system that the person considers to be unjust and/or perverted, he must leave that
society for another which is more just and righteous, but only if the person is among a
minority who sees the system as such. However, if one finds oneself in the majority of
opposition, then one is doing the right thing to overthrow the corrupt and perverted
rule by invoking the "eternal conflict" principle which would then be theologically valid,
until a theocratically just and righteous system is put in place. This is the stuff of which
the dynamism and zeal of Islamic fundamentalism is made. It is that which encourages
prozelytizing toward the majority of opposition to transform the system to the liking of
This interpretation was all very well in the distant past when one could pick up
oneself to go and live in another place, which is to one's liking, without too much worry.
Today, such movements are severely restricted by strict geo-political and other socio-
economic considerations, intended to discourage them.
Therefore, Abu Bakr had options from which to make a choice, seeing that, to him,
the socio-legal entity of Trinidad and Tobago was neither loving and compassionate nor
fundamentalist enough in the right religion of Islam.
There are four objective options involved here from which the Imam could have led
his followers to make a defined choice.
The first option is the one where the Imam could have chosen to live a quiet life,
indulging himself in the pure severity of fundamentalist Islamic religiosity. But this is
really a non-option, in that it does not pose the challenge of choice. This is because this
choice is not allowed by Islam. It is viewed as a negative non-activity. In any case, even
if it were, the weight of Bakr's own fundamentalism would have rejected it as non-op-
The section option is that the Imam could have left Trinidad and Tobago together
with his followers to settle in some other place, where they could have joined a majority
to maintain an Islamic order of their liking; or to join a minority in some place else,
where they could bring change about without necessarily invoking the "eternal conflict"
principle to satisfy the Golden Rule. This would also be considered by the Imam as a
non-option, because the focus of his fundamentalist Islamic transformation is set
nowhere else but on Trinidad and Tobago.
So we have two options left from which the first real choice, could have been the
situation where the Muslimeen, ill-equipped and unknown to the people as an alterna-
tive force to be preferred, makes a bold grab for power. Such a move, whatever the
causess, would most likely fail miserably, and therefore, would have made Abu Bakr,
the leader of the Muslimeen, appear as a piquish adventurer who acted on impulse and
not as a careful reader of the objective and concrete situations that faced him. The cost
of the failure could be very high indeed, in both the short and the long-term.
As the fourth option, and the second real choice, the Imam could have set about
prozelytizing, taking advantage of the atmosphere of religious tolerance that seems very
much to be a property of the national character of Trinidad and Tobago, in order to
convert a critical mass of the population to his side, after which he could make his bid
for power either by the means of peaceful democratic elections, or by a calculated and
timely attempt to overthrow the government, in circumstances that optimized the
chances of success.
That Abu Bakr preferred the second of the two choices may be difficult to explain
to the full satisfaction of all, but from what can be discerned it appears that he did. He
was involved in"1970" and presumably subscribed to the Black Power Movement's
distate for violence and its embrace of non-violence as the most effective means of
protest for change. He converted to Islam after "1970", and as far as we can venture any
speculation, at the moment, it would appear that his ambition was no more than to
nurture the Jamaat al Muslimeen and to step up recruitment into the Brotherhood.
It was in the process of doing this that intra-Muslim animosities reared their heads
and the long arm of the law intervened to frustrate him and his followers. To frustrate
would be a mild verb for the Imam. He may prefer the strong verb to persecute. To him
the grounds for the persecution were false and therefore contrived and fabricated to be
The Imam must have been both frustrated and angry in those days. He must have
reconsidered his choice very carefully and must have come to the conclusion that the
first choice, in the circumstances of the near future, was no longer to be discarded as
unnecessarily hasty and costly. For he stood to lose all that he had built in the un-
declared war of attrition between him and his detractors. He saw that he could not even
salvage a shred of dignity as a religious leader and even much less as a political leader,
intent on changing the society through radical religious means.
In his agony of frustration and anger, the enormous handicaps that constituted an
assured defeat for the first choice of making a bold snatch for power began to look more
and more attractive and feasible, even if at best its chances of success resided in the
negligible realms of very very low possibilities. It was true his visible "army" was very
small, minuscule really, and largely inexperienced, even immature. And the arms?
Respectable, yes, but befitting only a pitiable "army". We do not subscribe to the view
that Abu Bakr's discourses were like the ratings of a madman, or that he was an idiot
or a joker.
Surely, he must have given deep religious and mundane logico-rational thoughts to
the choice that he was making. The religious considerations must have fortified him by
providing courage and confidence through inspiration. The Imam and his followers
must have had their spirits lifted by such beliefs as" "we are right and they are wrong!"
"God is on our side, and so we must win!" And of course, history shows that "all the
prophets defeated whole armies!"
On the mundane side of the calculations, even though defeat might be certain and
assured, there were some gains to be made in the here and now and more importantly
in the near future.
In the here and now, the Imam would have lived up to his words and by so doing
could gain the reputation of a courageous man, who did what he said he would do. He
and his followers would serve as revolutionary role models for the up and coming
generation. As the Imam believes, there are thousands of little Abu Bakr's all over the
country, who he would like to see grow up with his name on their lips and what he and
the Brotherhood stood for firmly implanted in their consciousness. If the transforma-
tion of the country is to take place, there must be sacrifices that look to the future for
hefty rewards. These sacrifices may well include the lives of some or even all of the
members of the Brotherhood, but that is not a problem, since death holds no fears for
them; and in particular, since they "have no problem with this death penalty business".
Another rational calculation must have derived from the present recession-devas-
tated state of the country's economy and the political discontent that it must of necessity
harbour. The Imam had expected that with his curiously cool but passionate appeals to
the increasing number of deprived people, he could have drawn the deprived masses
and others in their thousands to the streets of Port of Spain, and elsewhere, backed by
disaffected members of the Protective forces demanding positive change and the resig-
nation of the government and with him the Imam, finding himself, in the end, at the
helm of a new popular government.
Well, it did not happen that way. It did not happen at alL The Imam clearly
over-reached himself in anticipation of the much touted solid network of silent support.
In the end, he and his "army" were isolated by the National Army and the much
anticipated showdown between the Muslimeen and the State Forces did not
On Wednesday August 1, 1990,the 114 Members of the Muslimeen surrendered to
Army personnel. They are now behind bars, charged with criminal offences. Some are
undergoing trial and the others are awaiting their turn. In the end, the Muslimeen were
charged with eight counts of murder; and some others died as a result of defensive
action taken by the Protective Services in response to the insurrection. None of the
Brotherhood members died in the course of the hostage-takings.
3. The Return of Normal Resilience?
It is now eight months since the 1990 Muslimeen insurrection. In this short time, the
event has faded from most memories; many of the physical scars have been restored to
their former status, except where the looting and the burning took place; the Army has
retreated to the military camps; the Police has returned to their old chores of containing
and combatting crime; Parliament has resumed sittings; the TV and Radio stations that
were off the airwaves are back on; Carnival has come and gone without a hitch; Cricket
is drawing to an exciting end; General Election is in the air, and political parties are
oiling their political machines, politicians are busily making deals, dusting their long
and long-written campaign speeches, up-dating old election promises and adding bold
In short, normal life has returned to normal Trinidad and Tobago. And, of course,
some months after the unfolding of the event, some say that at no stage in the course
were they worried. Some would not even admit that the national psyche and confidence
were shaken, even a little. However, the prevailing mood of the country is refining itself
perceptively. Still trying to maintain the Edenic image of the country, people are saying
now that it is not so much that "this cannot happen here, as it is that this cannot succeed
here". It is true that nothing can stop a small group of persons, armed after a fashion,
from trying to seize governmental power in any country in this world. Whether such
attempts succeed or fail will depend on many different factors and reasons.
In the specific instance of Trinidad and Tobago, and with strict reference to the 1990
Muslimeen insurrection, it is true that the Protective Services did their jobs very well.
But what emerged above all, that was admirable to watch at work, was the maturing
efficiency of a phenomenon we referred to earlier: the still developing historical sociol-
ogy of the country.
As soon as the only surviving Radio Station was ready to receive messages and
announcements, the many social differences that we described as explosive for the
country's stability were forgotten and appeals for quiet and support for the nation came
in from all sections and from all parts of the country. What was generally being said in
unison was that, even though some of the Muslimeen's grievances were shared by many
others in the country, violent action by a very small extremist minority was not the way
to deal with them. The resonating note all through was that of "we don't do it so here, if
you don't like them, vote them out". It was not that the many differences were healed
into one homogenous unity. They were only cast aside for the timely necessity of
maintaining the integrity of the country. It was as if the realization had dawned that
without the socio-legal entity called Trinidad and Tobago, which contains the criss-
crossing complexities that make up the country, the complexities themselves had noth-
ing to hang on to and therefore had no real existential meaning. It was not said, but it
was known and accepted that when all was well again, the old competitive and dis-
criminating tendencies that derive from the many socio-political differences would
re-assert themselves, but hopefully, thanks to the invisible work of the historical sociol-
ogy of the country, at a much lower intensity.
One of David Rudder's songs for 1989 had these two lines in the lyrics: "1990 make
a believer of me" and "1990 make a liar of me". 1990 obliged on both calls. The
insurrection occurred and was solved quickly without too much loss of confidence in the
country. But then as the song repeats, "the more things change the more they remain the
same". Are we to have another insurrection in, say, another 20 years? If not, what must
we do to escape it with grace?
It is true that the normal resilience of the Country has returned, but can we depend
on the fledging historical sociology of the Country to rescue it each time it faces a crisis
of this nature. Since it is the presumed normalcy of the country that somehow erupts
into periodic crisis, it is reasonable to say that a time will soon come when the historical
sociology of the Country cannot save the country from itself. In the final analysis we
should realize that Bakr was only an agent of much more fundamental factors that
constitute the historical reality of Trinidad and Tobago. It is this reality that must be
critically examined and reshped into another that promises to be immune to seasonal
adventurers of instability.
THE TRIGGER PULLED IN THE NAME OF ALMIGHTY ALLAH
There is a great deal of controversy as to what prompted Abu Bakr to attempt to
seize power and to import weapons to do so. Was he acting as an agent of Libya which
was said to be encouraging and funding revolutionary activity in the Caribbean? Was he
an Islamic fanatic who had decided to embark on an offensive jihad the purpose of
which was to establish a state based on Islamic fundamentalist principles in Trinidad
and Tobago as Muammar Qaddafi and Ayatollah Khomeni had done in Libya and Iran?
Was he a radical social reformer with social principles which were shared by the radical
left in Trinidad and Tobago? Was he just a power adventurer who had spun a network
of deceit to conceal his true intentions which some claim were to seize the state and use
it to further his own crooked ends? Some deny that Bakr in fact had any blue print at all
as to the kind of society he wished to put in place of the old if he had succeeded in
seizing power, and argue instead that his sole aim was to stop the NAR from demolish-
ing the Mosque and other structures which housed his commune at No. 1 Mucurapo
which he had built without authorisation between 1983 and 1990. Whatever the under-
lying economic and social factors and circumstances which prompted Abu Bakr to
intervene militarily in Trinidad's politics, and whatever long term plans he might have
entertained to seize power in Trinidad and Tobago in the name of Islam, there is little
doubt that it was the bitterness engendered by the prolonged dispute which he had with
the municipal and state authorities over that piece of state land which triggered the
crisis. As he himself had said as early as April 4th 1985,
"that mosque is the trigger. If they pull it, boom! The
Jamaat al Muslimeen is now in a state of war. This is
the last warning to the nation before the real fire".
In 1969, a parcel of land at No.1 Mucurapo Road had been offered to the Islamic
Missionary Guild on which the latter was to build an Islamic Cultural Centre for the
propagation of Islam. For a variety of reasons having to do with intra-denominational
rivalries, the Guild was never given legal title to the land and as such was never able to
secure the necessary authorisation to erect the structures which they planned to con-
struct. Frustrated, the Guild eventually abandoned the site, leaving behind a number of
African Muslims. The latter were later joined by Abu Bakr who had returned from
Canada in the mid '70's. Bakr sought to use the disputed land as a base for the Islamic
Centre which he proposed to construct following his decision to disassociate from the
Masjid on the Western Main Road, St. James, following disagreements with some of its
members over a range of issues relating to patterns of Islamic worship. In 1983, Bakr
and his Jamaat al Muslimeen decided to construct a mosque, a school and other
facilities on the lands. In doing so, he provoked a storm of criticism from those who felt
he had no legal entitlement to do so. The City Council however decided to accept the
Jamaat's claims to the land, and in 1984, offered to regularise its tenure. The Clerk of
the Corporation wrote Abu Bakr on June 22, 1984 telling him that it was in the process
of regularising the tenancies of lands under its control at Mucurapo. The Jamaat, it
noted, was occupying lands there, but its name was not on the rent rolls of the Corpora-
tion as a registered tenant. In order to regularise this situation, the Corporation is now
considering the offer to you of a lease of a suitable lot at Mucurapo of an adequate size
to meet your requirements under such terms and conditions as the Council may decide
and subject to the consent of the President being obtained to the grant of such lease.
Abu Bakr, to his probable regret, and in retrospect the country's, scoffed at the offer
as well as the invitation by the then Mayor of Port of Spain, Stevenson Sargeant, to
attend a meeting to discuss the Council's plans for the area. His claim was that he was
not subject to temporal laws, only the "Laws of God". Abu Bakr in fact proceeded to
commence the erection of an unauthorised structure on the land on which, in the eyes
of the City Council, he was still a squatter. The City Council challenged Abu Bakr's
actions and sought the assistance of the High Court to force him to recognize its
authority to determine the use to which those lands should be put.
In December 1984, the Corporation wrote its Attorneys, Clarke and Hannays,
seeking their assistance in obtaining an ex parte injunction from the Court. The City
Council wished to have the Courts give an injunction against the occupiers restraining
them from continuing the unauthorised construction works. The ex parte injunction
restraining Abu Bakr from trespassing on the plaintiffs land was granted by Justice
McMillan on December 29, 1984. Justice McMillan however went further and or-
dered the defendant to demolish and/or remove the columns and steel beams that had
been erected, an order which the Council had not sought.
The Mayor in fact explicitly noted that the Corporation "never challenged the
occupancy... We challenged their unauthorised structure. There are intricate matters
related to the title of the land and we want to ensure that people do not put up
Bakr not only refused to demolish the unauthorised structures, but defiantly con-
tinued to build. When the matter was heard fully on January 17th, 1985 by Justice Jean
Permanand, the Court declared that Bakr was in contempt of Court and sentenced him
to 21 days in prison. The City Council was again empowered to demolish the structure.
The City Council however noted that it did not have the equipment to demolish the
structure and sought the help of the Ministry of National Security. It noted that the
Ministry's help was necessary given the "unpleasant" circumstances which were ex-
pected to arise when demolition was attempted.
The attempt on the part of the Court to secure Bakr's arrest was frustrated by the
latter who surrounded himself with the women and children of the Jamaat. According
to Superintendent Elton Keith of the Western Police Division, when a party of six
policemen, accompanied by the Deputy Registrar of the High Court, sought to execute
a warrant for the arrest of Yasin Abu Bakr, they found the gates locked and a large
crowd gathered near the gate with women and children prominent in the crowd. The
latter were being used as virtual "hostages", according to Keith. The officers' lives were
also threatened with violence and one officer was warned that if the Imam was taken
prisoner, his organisation would consider him a "prisoner of war". Given the presence of
the women and children and the possibility that there might be violence, Sup. Keith
considered it prudent to withdraw rather than use the force which he felt would have
been required to give effect to the Court Order. Bakr and his men denied that there
was any confrontation. According to them, "the Police left after having talks with the
Interestingly enough, the then Minister of National Security, Mr. John Donaldson,
wrote the Commissioner of Police on January 22, 1985 commending Sup. Keith for the
"sensitive" manner in which he handled "a very delicate situation". According to
Donaldson, Keith showed tact, good judgement and acted civilly and humanely. His
action was also deemed worthy of emulation by other police officers who might have to
deal with similar situations wherein members of the public might be endangered and
where recklessness might be fatal To quote Minister Donaldson: "when there is
provocation or loss of face involved, this restraint on the part of the police is even more
Donaldson's action provoked a storm of protest from the Trinidad Guardian and
from other elements in the society. The Guardian, which claimed it was threatened, but
would not be cowed into silence, lamented the fact that Court documents relating to the
matter had mysteriously disappeared. It also felt that the precedent being set was a
dangerous one. Anyone was entitled to say in the future that "if the Imam could play,
who is we". The Guardian in fact called upon Mr. Donaldson to give up his portfolio if
he was terrified by the threats of the Muslimeen. Hand over your portfolio to someone
who is prepared to act decisively and forcefully in preventing a piece of our country
from becoming the first part of a fundamental Islamic republic (with the help of Mr.
Gaddafi, who knows?) and those misguided fanatics who occupy it as a law unto
Former Minister of Home Affairs, Dr. Patrick Solomon was also critical. To quote
Seldom have we been treated to the spectacle of
someone not only breaking the law but defying an
order of the court and getting away with it. The case
of the Muslim Leader, Abu Bakr is therefore making
history, and it is not the type of history that does
credit to a nation, however young and immature,
especially a nation which was brought up under the
British legal and judicial system and voluntarily
adopted it as its own at independence. We cannot
therefore plead either ignorance or inexperience.
The facts themselves are not in dispute and indeed
the original cause of the dispute is hardly relevant. If
a basic injustice has been committed ab initio, there
are remedies before the courts themselves, the very
courts which are now being brought into disrepute
by a flagrant flouting of their orders and, up to the
present, with impunity....
The Minister of National Security commended the police for acting "civilly, humane-
ly and appropriately", but there my commendation ends. The first withdrawal was
undoubtedly justified. The police had come up against a situation for which they were
not prepared and had they persisted there could and probably would have been
injury to innocent children and misguided women, who were probably not aware that it
is an offence to obstruct the police in the discharge of their duty. But that should not
have been the end of the story.
Solomon assumed that the Police failed to follow through because they were follow-
ing instructions from a "higher authority". The Law Society of Trinidad and Tobago also
expressed astonishment and deep concern. It considered any attempts to settle the
matter amicably as being constituted contempt. Such attempts would also in the long
run undermine national security. It noted that the power to order the arrest of a citizen
was not a power derived from any Act of Parliament but one which emanates from the
inherent jurisdiction of the Court. The Trinidad Express was less strident in its
response. It noted that.
the Jamaat had been doing some good work both at
Mucurapo and elsewhere in the community and it is
a pity that that things have come to such a pass,
particularly when even in the absence of what it
considered a legal claim, the City Council was
prepared to make some kind of mutually satisfactory
It however felt that it had no alternative, of course, but to support the law of the land
but we believe that here is a case where bureaucratic bungling and the failure to act
early has'combined with religious intransigence to set the stage for a tragedy.
The Mayor of Port of Spain, whose family had been threatened, was equally unhap-
py about the response of the Police and the Minister of National Security. He con-
sidered Sup. Keith's remarks to be "rubbish" and evidence of the "unwillingness of the
Protective Services to assume the responsibility of serving the country".
In his view, the reasons given by the Police were further examples of the "irrespon-
sibility and lawlessness which had become the accepted norm in the society. Imagine the
Police do not know when and how they should act! A Superintendent who makes such
a statement should be fired because he clearly does not know how and when to act". The
Imam, he noted, was "now hiding behind women and children and was doing so in
collaboration with a Police Service which will not act".
Minister Donaldson however said that he was not seeking to protect Bakr but to
avoid bloodshed. The Police, he noted, were not prepared for what they encountered
and had acted wisely. He also noted that a visit by the Pope was only a few weeks away
and it was deemed important to avoid any confrontation with a religious group that
might give rise to embarrassment.
Efforts were made to defuse the issue by urging the Imam to purge his contempt by
apologising and throwing himself on the mercy of the Court by promising to show
respect for the legal system in the future. This option however required him to be first
arrested and taken to prison. Bakr refused this option, saying that the order was made
on a matter in which the wrong legal decision had been given. Bakr denied that he was
a squatter and produced a document sent to the Muslimeen by the Ministry of National
Security dated May 12, 1982 assuring the Muslims that the occupation of their land by
Moonan/Raken, building contractors engaged in laying sea water mains in the city,
would be investigated. The latter referred to financial claims against the firm of
Moonan/Raken which received $2,000 per month for use of "your property located at
No.1 Mucurapo Road, Port of Spain".
Complicating the matter was a letter written to the City Clerk by Mr. Abdulah
Hosein of the Islamic Missionary Guild on December 20, 1985 in which it was said that
the Jamaat al Muslimeen were "bona fide members of the Islamic Missionary Guild to
whom the land had been granted in 1969 ". Hosein's letter also urged the City Council
"to finalise the long outstanding matter without further delay". The City Council had
claimed in its affidavit to the Court that the JAMAAT was not a member of ASJA and
was a splinter group acting contrary to the Islamic principles of ASJA and the IMG.
The President of the Guild, Masjeed Ali, claimed otherwise and signed a joint state-
ment with Abu Bakr which claimed that the Jamaat al Muslimeen were members of the
The Guild was split on the issue. Some members disputed Ali's claim and asked him
to explain when and in what context the Jamaatal Muslimeen had become Guild
members. They claimed that the latter had never attended Guild meetings or identified
itself with it in any way. They also asked the President to explain his statement that the
Guild had not given up its claim to the lands at Mucurapo. He was likewise asked to
explain why the joint statement was published in the Muslim Standard and not the Torch
oflslam which was the official periodical of the Guild.
In response to the charge that the Guild had no authority to cede the land to the
Jamaat, the Jamaat and its supporters in the IMG replied that the original grant was not
made to any specific Muslim group and that the only specified purpose was that the
land should be used for the propagation of Islam. This view was articulated by Riza
Khan, a member of the Guild, who criticised those who alleged that Bakr and his men
were not true Muslims and were following practices which were not in accordance with
Khan said that the Guild would ask the Saudi Arabia Government to intervene to
prevent the Mosque from being pulled down since there was no precedent for pulling
down a place of worship in any part of the world. Khan also warned the City Council
that pulling down the mosque would create an international atmosphere of injustice
among Muslims worldwide which would "result in international reprisals against the
Government of Trinidad and Tobago, even if they are right according to the legal
system of Trinidad and Tobago". The Wazir of the Jamaat al Muslimeen (Protocol),
Bilaal Abdulah, also criticized the evidence given by the City Council to the Court. The
City Council's affidavit, he noted, had five headings:
Item (a) states that ASJA (Anjuman Sunnatul Jamaat Association) is the repre-
sentative for the Muslims of Trinidad and Tobago. This is contradicted by the fact of the
existence of several registered and unregis-tered Muslim organizations that have no
affiliation whatsoever with ASJA.
Item (b) claimed that the Islamic Missionaries Guild is the missionary arm for
ASJA, a fact that is easy to refute by a casual examination of the documents of
incorporation of the two organizations. Furthermore, in its public statement of January
1st, 1985, the Islamic Missionaries Guild clarified its independence from ASJA.
Item (c) relates to the location of the land.
Item (d) claimed that "no written permission was ever requested of the Corporation
by ASJA to obtain a lease of the said lands or to build thereon. This directly contradicts
the fact that on October 1984, a letter applying for the land was written to the Mayor of
Port of Spain and signed by Zainool Khan, First Vice-President of ASJA. This letter
bears the stamp of both the Mayor's office and the City Clerk's office.
Item (e) states that Imam Yasin Abu Bakr and Jamaat al Muslimeen 'are a splinter
group acting contrary to the Islamic principles of ASJA and the Guild'. The Guild's
public statement of January 1st, 1985 states that we are no splinter group. Furthermore,
in the copy of Imam Karimullah's letter to the City Clerk which was printed in the
Trinidad Guardian of January 22,1985, Imam Karimullah stated that he never made any
of the alleged statements to the City Clerk about Jamaat al Muslimeen.
In the Wazir's view, the evidence given which led to Justice Permanand's order, was
based on falsehoods. He thus felt that the City Corporation should withdraw the action.
The Wazir further observed that seven Mosques had been built in Trinidad in the
last 25 years as were several churches in Port of Spain, and no plans were required for
constructing these houses of worship. He noted too that the Jamaat had since submitted
plans to the relevant authorities as a precaution, and "could not be expected to take the
blame for not having received them". The Wazir ended his letter by noting that Surah 22
Verse 40 of the Quran forbids people to pull down Mosques and other places of
worship and warned that: If forced to choose between submitting to Allah and submit-
ting to an unjust order to demolish the House of Allah, we would choose confrontation
[with the Court] rather than with Allah.
He also noted that the Imam was the shield of the Jamaat, and war would be fought
for his defense. The Judge's order, in his view, "was based on lies, and all God-fearing or
rational persons would agree that it was unjust for the Imam to serve time in prison for
the alleged offense".
Bakr himself felt that he could not pull down the Mosque as he was ordered to.
"Compromising a principle is a difficult thing for a man to do. Once you compromise a
principle, where do you stop?"
In his view, the Jamaat was being wronged and discriminated against. "I never heard
of any land being given to the Catholic Church and being taken back", he lamented. He
warned that if anyone were to touch the Mosque down at Mucurapo, "rivers will flow,
but not with crystal clear water".
Bakr also warned the police who had come on their premises in 1983 looking for
guns and ammunition that "one of these days, the same guns they were looking for in the
private parts of our women may be pointed straight in their faces". Bakr told the Police
that "they would be taken in their sleep". Also threatened were a number of PNM
Bakr was also critical of Indian Muslims whom he said were unwilling to accept Afro
Muslims. He was critical of Kamaluddin Mohammed, the Minister of Agriculture and
his brother Sham Mohammed, a former Minister of Public Utilities for not assisting
them. "If they were real Muslims, they would help us". Asserting that Islam began in
Africa, Bakr opined that no one talked about black Catholics or black Anglicans. The
same should apply to Muslims.
A Muslim is a Muslim no matter what race or colour. Allah does not give any race
or tribe rights over anybody else. A Muslim is not an Arab or anything else. A Muslim
is any person who believes in God.
Bakr affected to feel that God would guide him as to what he should do. Noting that
he had refused the offer of Karl Hudson Phillips to take the case free of charge, he
noted that Allah "had given us a sign that he will deal with them". Asked whether he was
not afraid that he might eventually have to go to jail, he replied somewhat incredulously
to Ria Taitt, the reporter who interviewed him, "Oh woman of little faith!" In the end,
the Police did return with reinforcements and took Bakr away to serve his 21 day
The land issue remained more or less in abeyance until 1987 when the NAR sought
to resolve the issue. In its Manifesto, the NAR had promised that "all squatters on State
and State enterprises land will be given a moratorium period in which not a single house
will be demolished". One is not certain whether this amnesty applied to the Jamaat, but
Bakr assumed it did. After some initial hesitating, the Prime Minister agreed that the
Jamaat's tenure should be regularised and the Ministry of Local Government and
Community Development was advised to do so. Blame was put on the PNM for the
delay in regularising the Jamaat's tenure. On August 1, 38 SELWYNRYAN
1987 the Minister, Dr. Brinsley Samaroo, met with a six man delegation of the IMG
which urged him to regularise the Jamaat's tenure. Following the meeting, the Minister
declared that he too would "like to see the issue resolved in their [the Jamaat's] favour
and regularise their position on the land which they occupy". One condition of
regularisation was incorporation of the Jamaat as a legal entity. It is claimed that the
leader of the Jamaat was reluctant to pay the $3,000 fee required to effect the incor-
portion and that this unwillingness delayed the implementation of the agreement.
Samaroo also noted that the Indian Muslims would agree in Bakr's presence that the
lands should be given to the Jamaat but would sneak back into his office to urge him, as
an Indian, to look after the interests of fellow Indians who still had an interest in land.
Despite the entente between the Jamaat and the NAR, conflict continued between
the Jamaat and the Police which had reason to believe that the Muslimeen were
engaged in subversive activity. The Police claimed to have obtained information that
several members of the Jamaat had visited Libya for extended periods of military
training and for other purposes which were not "innocuous". The Commissioner of
Police also indicated that the Police were in receipt of information about criminal
activity affecting national security on the compound of the Jamaat. Police in fact
searched the Jamaat's premises on November 16th, 1988 and December 2, 1988.
In 1989, a renewed effort was made to resolve the issue once and for all. In
September 1989, the new Minister of Decentralisation, Dr. Carson Charles, met with
Bakr following which he proposed to his cabinet colleagues that the Government
should proceed with plans to regularise the Jamaat's tenure. He did "so in good faith on
the assurances of the representatives of the Jamaat that they were not engaged in
further unauthorised construction activity". The Jamaat responded by proceeding to
have their organisation incorporated legally. This hurdle was cleared in November,
1989. The Minister however complained that the Jamaat had broken its word. The
Minister told the Court in an affidavit that in April 1990, he was advised that the
Muslimeen were again involved in illegal construction.
The Minister of Justice and National Security Mr. Selwyn Richardson, was also in
receipt of reports that illegal activities were taking place at the Mucurapo lands and was
determined to intervene. The Minister indicated that he proposed to act under the
authority of the injunction granted by Justice McMillan in 1985 since he considered the
matter one in which he should take immediate action to preserve law and order in the
country. the Minister decided to use "self-help" to affect the order i.e. entry on the lands
by the Police and Army and to have the latter demolish structures other than the
original buildings and the mosque. The Minister was advised by Counsel that such a
right existed, but was warned that such action was always "fraught with danger and was
generally not advisable". The Minister was however determined to act and was
moreover determined to have the army occupy the lands permanently thereafter. On
April 21, 1990, (during the holy monthof Ramadan and six days before the festival of
Eid ul Fitur) the Minister proceeded to billet some 100 army and police officers on the
land justifying the action on ground that the Jamaat was a trespasser. The move was also
justified on grounds of National Security.
The Jamaat, through its lawyers, argued that the law did not permit the state to enter
upon lands with unauthorised structures to demolish such structures without getting
orders from the Court under the Public Health Act or the Town and Country Planning
Act. It was also noted that the Jamaat had spent some TT$1 million to fill and prepare
the land which was hitherto a mangrove swamp and that buildings had been erected on
the lands with the knowledge, consent and/or acquiescence of the said Government
from about 1972. A legitimate expectation of it being granted the land had been created.
The buildings included a primary school, a secondary school, a medical centre, a
mosque, a garment factory, an Islamic grocery, a boutique and residential quarters, the
value of which was given at some TT$2 million.
The Jamaat's lawyers advised the Government that it was a criminal offence for the
state to attempt to forcibly take away lands from its subjects and cited the case of
"Prakash Singh v. The Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago (HCA No. 2443 of
1982 Deyalsingh J, 20th day of May 1983).
The Jamaat lawyers also cited a number of cases decided by the House of Lords.
It is worth noting that at a meeting with the Mayor and the City Council on April 23,
1990, the Imam admitted that he had erred in starting construction without permission,
but explained that he had been in contact with the Ministry of Decentralisation since
November 1989 and that he was promised a deed by officials of that Ministry. He
therefore expressed surprise that the army and police had been planted at Mucurapo
since the Government was aware that negotiations were taking place between his
organisation and the Ministry on the very matter. He thus felt that the State had acted
in bad faith. He however sought to justify his own error on the basis of "past experiences
with respect to the preparation of the relevant deeds". It was noted that the building on
which construction had begun without proper authorisation was a composite school.
Acting on the advice of its lawyers, the City Council replied that it was aware that
steps were being taken by the Jamaat to submit plans for the existing unauthorised
structuring for approval by the relevant authorities. The Council undertook to withhold
further enforcement action consequent upon the notice of May 8th 1990 pending the
deliberation of the relative bodies with respect to the submitted plans and communica-
tion to the Judge of the findings of the relevant authorities.
Abu Bakr might well have found the entire legal procedure dilatory and frustrating.
The planting of the army and the police at Mucurapo was a challenge he felt he could
not ignore. Other supporting Islamic groups felt similarly. The Mujadeen of Islam
expressed shock when he learnt of the occupation of the commune by the army. He saw
it as an insult to the Muslim community of Trinidad and Tobago, especially since the
occupation took place in the month of Ramadan. The Mujadeen told the authorities
that it stood firm "with our brothers and sisters of the Jamaat al Muslimeen" and
expressed the hope that never in the history of our nation will bloodflow to settle a matter
that could be dealt with peacefully. Another Muslim organisation told the City Council
that its patience was running out. "Our international brother groups are pressuring us to
get this matter settled without the use of the barrel of a gun".
The Jamaat's ex parte application for judicial review of the issue was refused by
Justice Mustapha Ibrahim on May 1st, 1990. The Judge concluded that there was no
arguable case for granting the reliefs sought and denied leave for judicial review. The
Court of Appeal however granted leave 2 weeks later, and the matter was heard by
Justice Ivol Blackman on July 16th after Justice Crane had disqualified himself from
hearing the matter. During the proceedings, the Commissioner of Police and the
Commander of the Defence Force deposed that they were instructed by the Minister of
National Security to take control of a portion of the said lands "for reasons touching and
concerning national security". The question of trespassing on state land was also cited.
The Jamaat's lawyers urged the state to remove the army and police failing which
proceedings would be initiated under Section 14 of the Constitution for declarations
that their fundamental rights were being infringed viz the right to the enjoyment of
property, the right to security, the right to the protection of the law and the freedom of
religious belief and observance.
After hearing the matter, the Judge on July 23rd, dismissed the application on the
ground that the matters should have been brought as a "private law matter," and not as
a "public law matter" as the state's lawyer had in fact argued in a preliminary objection.
In dismissing the case, the Judge however condemned the military style operation
used by the state to enter the lands and stressed that the law provided machinery for the
latter to apply to the Court to get an order to enter the lands.
The Jamaat's lawyers filed an appeal against Justice Blackman's ruling and an
application was being prepared requesting the Court to hear the appeal as a matter of
urgency. Their argument for treating the matter as one of public law was that the joint
army police operation involved a public element and that the public had an interest in
knowing the basis of the state's action. Moreover, they also felt that the Judge had the
power to continue the matter under private law since all the evidence was before the
Court and the latter could have continued the matter and determined same if it so
Two days after Justice Blackman's ruling, the Jamaat al Muslimeen stormed the Red
House and ITT. Clearly the Court's ruling was the straw that broke the camel's back
and not the Prime Minister's announced plan to build a monument to Gene Miles for
$500,000. Despite the fact that the Jamaat's lawyers had advised that they were going to
appeal Justice Blackman's judgement, Abu Bakr had come to the end of his patience.
What took place at the premises of the Jamaat al Muslimeen in the hours before the
attack was launched? Why did the Police and Army did not detect unusual activity given
the fact that they were on site? According to one member of the Jamaat, the mosque
was very full on that "fateful morning". Shortly after an extended Juma ended, the
women and children who had not left the compound the night before, left the com-
pound in maxi-taxis. Most of these vehicles headed for the South. There were a lot of
people milling around, but those who were not involved in the planned operation were
asked to leave. Some did, while others remained, resentful that they were being left out
of whatever was being planned. Some of them thus became involved in an affair, the
precise details of which they knew nothing about.
Shortly before 6 p.m. Bakr came out of his office, shouting: "Allah U Ackbar!
Everybody, let's move!" People went in various directions in groups, not at the same
time. Reportedly, a Police vehicle passed the compound and suspecting something
unusual, decided to circle. It is not clear what the officers in that vehicle did sub-
sequently. The Jamaat member became aware that something was due to happen
earlier in the week. "Everybody at the Jamaat was fasting for three days something
that does not happen very often. So we knew that something was about to happen".
There was evidence even before then that something was about to happen. On June
13, the Jamaat was given seven days by the City Council to show cause why the
unauthorised structures to the East, West and South of the unauthorised mosque
should not be pulled down. Bakr was angry at this demarche, specially since the matter
was before the Court of Appeal and was scheduled to be heard on June 21, 1990.
Believing that confrontation was imminent, the Jamaat held a day of solidarity on June
16. Several representatives of Muslim organizations from all over the nation gathered
and "punched the air" in response to calls for action. The objects of hostility were said
to be the IMF and the Minister of National Security, Mr. Selwyn Richardson. The
decision to call the rally was also prompted by the fact that a state agency, the Port
Authority had also demolished the nearby Mecca entertainment complex on the
Mucurapo Foreshore on the ground that the structure was unauthorised. Bakr's fear
was that having destroyed Mecca, the state was now planning to demolish "Medina". He
was also smarting over the fact that in April, the state had also earlier demolished
Jamaat structures in John John, Caura and at the Beetham Estate.
Attacks on the IMF and the NAR were also levelled by Bakr at the Labour Day
Rally in Fyzabad on July 19, a rally that was said to be one of the largest seen for
sometime. Bakr was lustily applauded and one trade unionist overheard one of Bakr's
lieutenants remaking that "we must take out these guys (i.e. the NAR) soon".
A multitude of errors were said to have occurred during the operations and there
were complaints about "betrayal". It is claimed that persons who were scheduled to be
involved in the operation did not come out. The member of the Jamaat referred to
above was also puzzled as to why the Police did not detect that something was taking
place given the fact that they were on the compound all the time. The fact of the matter
is that the Police and the Army were not sent to spy on the activities of the Muslimeen
and were not watching them at all. Their instructions were to prevent further un-
authorised construction on state lands. Their tents were therefore not pitched in an area
which would have facilitated espionage. It also appears that no Special Branch officers
were attached to the group. The report about the Imam's reactions to the an-
nouncement about the proposed monument to Gene Miles appears to have some
foundation. As the informant put it:
"the Imam went berserk when he read this. He is not
one to throw tantrums. He has good control, but he
was really upset that Thursday morning". Asked
what he thought about the Imam and the conse-
quence of the coup for the spread of the Islam
among Africans, the Muslimeen allowed that he
would always remain loyal to Bakr regardless of the
errors which occurred. He also felt one of the
Imam's flaws "was that he embraces everyone with
The informant expressed concern about the future of the Jamaat in the wake of the
coup. "It will break the spirit of some people who wanted to embrace Islam. The Jamaat
was trying so hard to break down its bad image". There have been assertions that
"foreign Muslims" were involved in the attempt coup and that SOPO was also involved.
The informant however insisted that there were no foreign Muslims involved in the
attempted insurrection as alleged. Nor was SOPO involved. According to one source, it
was the Imam's recognition that he would get no justice in the courts which prompted
him to act.
Why did Bakr fail? One reason is that the popular uprising which he anticipated did
not take place. Kwesi Atiba, the Jamaat's Wazir of Information, was quite explicit in his
view that failure was due to this unanticipated development. "We expected the people
to take some kind of action. Some did and some didn't. In a struggle, many things
happen that you cannot control".
Bakr himself was enigmatic when leaving the Red House. He declared that: "we will
speak to the people at the right time. But we do not owe the people anything. It is the
people who owe us their freedom". Asked about the damage done to the economy by
the looters, he replied: "that's what I have been saying. The people owe us their
Another member of the Jamaat, Jammal Shabaz, also opined that "time will tell if we
have accomplished what we set out to do". So too did one of the wives of the Jamaat al
Muslimeen who claimed that the "women were not aware of what was being planned
since Muslim women do not question their men". Her claim was that the people of the
country were being oppressed and that somebody had to make the sacrifice for some-
thing to happen in this country. "The Muslimeen took it up as their fight. Don't mind if
they are in prison. They've won, I tell you".
LESSONS TO LEARN FROM ANTI-GOVERNMENT UPRISING
ALFRED L. DONAWA
When I got the first wind of the storming of Parliament on the evening of July 27,
1990, I was approaching Arima from St. Augustine on my way to Guyaguayare. By the
time I had come to Sangre Grande, most of the nation had been apprised of the
storming of Parliament by members of the Jamaat al Muslimeen and the holding of
cabinet members, including the Prime Minister, and some Parliamentarians as
hostages. Most amazing to me was the rejoicing and the apparent happiness with which
this news was received by the public from Sangre Grande through Ortoire and Mayaro.
On the days following, I was to travel through Caroni and Cunupia along the Southern
Main Road to Chaguanas and San Fernando. The response was similar in all these
places. Some of the statements I heard included "it had to happen", "ah Hope dey get
Robbie and Sello", "de man too wicked and vindictive", "Bakr is ah hero". Over the
period of four days, I heard only four persons express any form of objection, and these
were objections about the way in which the Prime Minister was apparently ousted, not
that they objected to his removal. These expressions were "that is not the way to do it".
"Bakr is just a murderer" and "Bakr is a terrorist who sells drugs to fund his dirty work".
There has been no study done to determine the popularity of the uprising, but based
on my observations and the sentiments I have heard expressed, I regard it as the second
"popular" uprising against the Government of Trinidad and Tobago in twenty years.
Most commentators have made statements denouncing the way in which the attempt
was made to remove a democratically elected government, but apart from Mr. Trevor
Sudama and Canon Knolly Clarke,I am not aware of anyone suggesting investigations to
determine the cause or causes of these uprisings. It is my view that if this were to be
done, appropriate adjustments could be made to reduce the incidence of these occur-
rences, and the population can take consolation from the benefits that arose from the
loss of lives.
Since the non-democratic-removal of a democratically elected government appears
to be the area of concern, I choose to address here, our form of democratic government
to determine whether there are any deficiencies in it that have resulted in attempts to
overthrow democratically elected governments.
The primary role of any government is to seek the welfare of its people. To achieve
this, various forms of government have been used over the years, each desirous of
ensuring the welfare of its people. In Trinidad and Tobago, we use democracy as the
form of government. The first definition of democracy that I ever heard was "Govern-
ment of the people, by the people for the people. To this day, I maintain that that is the
truest meaning of democracy, so that if any one of the three elements is lacking in a
government, then that government is not democratic.
Because of the impracticality of every member of the electorate participating
directly in governing the nation, representatives are elected by them from among them
to govern for them. These representatives are elected to a term of five years. In order
for the electorate to choose its government, political parties present manifestos outlin-
ing their concerns and if elected to form the Government, the manner in which they
would handle those concerns. Based on the manifestos, the electorate will choose the
political party that it regards as the one that will best serve its interest. If after a political
party has been elected, it decides to ignore the manifesto that was responsible for its
election, and do other things which may not be in the interest of the people or may even
go against the welfare of the people, there is no mechanism that would allow the
electorate to recall the government. The electorate will just have to "take de jammin"
for the five years. Although the Government has disregarded the third, and to my mind
the most important element in the three-clustered elements of democracy, it is within its
right to call out the people's protective services to defend it against the people if the
latter were to attempt to abort its contract.
Perhaps, it might be relevant and worthwhile to compare the management of a
business enterprise with that of a government. With the former, the Board of Direc-
tors(the employer) employs a manager to manage the affairs of the business on a five
year contract. However, there are contingencies built into that contract so that, if the
business is not being successful, the Board can curtail the contract giving perhaps five
months notice. If on the other hand, the manager (the employee) is found doing things
to the detriment of the business, the method of separation could be more drastic. It
could be the form of dismissal without notice. With our type of democracy, this is not so
because the employee (the Government) makes the laws to protect his position and the
employer (the people) has to watch his business take a slide and can do nothing about
it. In fact, if he asks the employee to give an account of his management, he can be
simply ignored, or can be told "if you don't like it get to hell outa here", among other
things. Let us determine why normally responsible citizens would support the over-
throw of the democratically elected NA.R. Government in our democratic society.
In 1970, there was a popular uprising against the then PNM Government. Ap-
parently, the people were not happy with the pace at which things were moving par-
ticularly with respect to jobs in the Banking Industry and ownership of enterprises by
Africans and Indians. Within a short period of time, there was a drastic change in the
colour of faces and hair texture appearing in the banks, and, the Government quickened
its pace in the acquisition of business enterprises. These moves were regarded as
tremendous gains by the electorate to the extent that the PNM was catapulated into the
Government for three more consecutive five-year terms until insensitivity, complacency
and corruption overcame them by 1986. In December, 1986, the PNM were almost
annihilated at the polls at the hand of the N.A.R. Apart from the weaknesses in the
PNM referred to above, decreased unemployment, decreased income taxes and in-
creased housing with the Sou Sou land programme playing a leading role, were some of
the goodies offered in the N.A.R. manifesto and were responsible for the landslide
victory. Peoples' hopes and spirits were high, expecting movement after the inertness
exhibited by the PNM.
On assumption of the Government, a non-elected businessman was given a very
prominent position in the government and, not long afterwards, several of the peoples'
representatives were thrown out from the governing Party for daring to criticize the
Government. There was no mechanism in our democracy that would allow the people
to do anything about these moves. It appeared that once he was elected democratically,
the Prime Minister could do anything including dismissing the people's democratically
elected representatives and employing whom-so-ever he wished to govern the people.
Later,not addressing any of the priorities that were part of the manifesto, the Govern-
ment embarked on a programme of divestment of the potential money earning state
enterprises. One must recall that these were benefits that the people had acquired by an
uprising less than twenty years ago. This move by Government could clearly be
regarded as governing against the people. Health and Education, two services for which
the population had always sacrificed, were taking a beating because of a lack of funds.
However, in this money-deficient environment, the Government thought it wise to
spend money to erect a monument for Gene Miles. It appears that this was the
proverbial straw that broke the camel's back and resulted in the popular uprising. What
has been mentioned above are just some but by no means all of the unpopular actions
that were taken by the Government since it came to power in 1986.
If a Government is inert, that is, doing nothing, so that the people are not achieving
any progress, one might accept that one could be tolerant and await the expiration of
the contract and change the Government. However, if the Government was instead
doing things to the detriment of the people, human nature dictates that something has
to be done to stop it immediately. Obviously, divestment of the state enterprises which
the people saw as benefits achieved by the 1970 revolution, was regarded as action
detrimental to the welfare to the electorate. There are no mechanisms provided in the
Constitution that will allow the latter to take any legitimate action. It appears that the
Constitution regards the democratically elected representatives as paramount even at
the expense of the welfare of the people. It is my view that the welfare of the people is
paramount and the democratic election of representatives is simply a means of achiev-
ing it. If the democratically elected personnel cannot function to the satisfaction of the
electorate, some mechanism has to be provided for their immediate removal or for the
cessation of the actions that are deemed detrimental by the people.If no mechanism is
provided for the electorate to address what comes over as the insensitivity of govern-
ments, uprisings against governments will continue to be with us, perhaps even with
greater frequency, and the lives that were lost would have been lost in vain.
Just as there are reasons for members of the public rising up against governments,
there must be reasons for governmental actions that would stir up the public to revolt.
These latter things must be identified before one can make appropriate adjustments to
the constitution to curtail the occurrences of anti-government uprisings.
It appears that the quest for political power is the major factor motivating people to
run for parliamentary positions. Although manifestos are prepared, the marketing of
these manifestos and of the parties play a significant role in determining which political
party is elected to govern. To procure effective marketing that is likely to bring success,
money will have to be spent. Cognisant of this, special interest groups finance the
campaigns of the participating political parties. There is little doubt that when a
business concern spends money, it is regarded as an investment on which returns in the
form of profit are expected. When a political party forms the government, it is difficult
for that party not to respond favourably to its benefactor. Invariably, this happens at the
expense of the welfare of the electorate.
The five-year tenure of government is the security that permits special interest
groups to invest in a government and allow enough time for returns to accrue. Whatever
constitutional changes take place, must provide the electorate with the wherewithal to
address the government's performance, and to make appropriate changes, during the
five year term.
Of course, I would be terribly surprised if any of the present or aspiring Parliamen-
tarians would support this or any alternative suggestion that would give the electorate
greater participation, since they would see it as a means of depriving themselves of the
perks that the positions might offer. They would not see these measures as being really
closer to democracy than the present system. Instead, they will attempt to highlight the
performance of instability. However, they must be made to recognize that they are not
put there to do what they want, but what the people want them to do. If they do the
latter, then the people will keep them in the government and there will be no ap-
pearance of instability either because of too frequent changes or by armed revolt. Any
resistance to measures that would give the electorate greater participation in governing
their affairs should be looked upon with suspicion and the resistors kept far from the
forum of Parliament.
People need to arm themselves with the definition of "democracy" and compare it
with what we have as our method of government. When I do so, I find it difficult to fit
our method of government into the definition. Of course, there are those who say "well,
you really cannot be democratic, you know". I have no argument with that statement,
but then, do not, at the same time, talk about our sacred democratic government. A
government cannot be partly democratic. It is either democratic or it is not; and to my
mind, apart from the electoral process, nothing about our form of government is
"GET SOMETHING AND WAVE":
THE RALLYING CRY OF A NATION ON THE MEND
In his outstanding tome, Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad Calypso
historian Gordon Rohelhr "treats the Calypso both as a mirror that reflects, often in
distorted fashion, and as a lens that either magnifies or reduces the phenomena on
which the nation's restless and excitable psyche feeds". It is the reason that Calypsonian
Super Blue's (Austin Lyons) supreme domination of the roads on the carnival days of
1991, with his calypso chorus "Get Something and Wave", must be taken seriously in any
attempt to read the writing on the walls of post-July 27 1990 Trinidad and Tobago. For
the impact of the Calypso was more of an orchestration of the collective determination
and patriotism of a people, a recognition and celebration of their resilience, and' a
stubborn pledge to persist, than a merry jingle to sustain the excitement of tired
revellers. The accompanying waving of something, and anything, was more a public
testifying to the collective intention to rally around flag and nation, to participate and to
build, than the usual Carnival finger-pointing salute. It is a major accomplishment, for
Super Blue has been able to reverse (even if temporarily) the fragmentation of the
Trinbagonian society that was clearly evident in the events of July 27.
Abu Bakr and his Muslimeen, Robinson and his Cabinet colleagues, even the
hapless TIT employees were not the major players. Every Trinibagonian had a role,
and each, as the popular saying goes, played himself/ herself. Perhaps the greatest
players of all were the Middle-class, who, so studiously distance themselves from any
action that might ever so lightly hinder their upward mobility, that their greatest role is
passivity. And so, on July 27, they hid behind their burglar-proofs, sipping their Old
Parr and Royal Oak, waiting for the people ... the radicals ... the dispossessed, the
workers and their unions, who after all, had been the most disadvantaged, and the most
Waiting perhaps even for the women, those nurses who had been disturbing the
peace weeks before in their just claims for decent working conditions and a better
health care system for citizens. But the people, the disadvantaged, the dispossessed, the
workers and the women had all had enough, and they too remained under cover,
perhaps even hoping silently that the change for which they were marching had arrived.
And even those who in privacy argued eloquently against the violation of the Constitu-
tion were publicly silent. Where was the support, if not for the Government, for the
Constitution which was being trampled upon? Where was the action of the business
sector, a powerful community, in whose interests the Government was perceived to be
acting to the detriment of other social sectors? Perhaps the most decisive were the
looters. They were intent on evening the scores, and moved to suit. Having lost con-
fidence in Government, irrespective of political party, they were prepared to take
matters into their own hands. And, they did.Contrary to all reports, they came not only
from the disadvantaged or depressed areas, or from lower economic groups. They
represented the broad spectrum of Trinidadian life in gender, colour, class, and age. It
was in the involvement of youth, acting under direction either by word or example from
adults, that the most distressing image of Trinidad emerges. This, of course, introduces
the high level of representation of young people among Abu Bakr's Muslimeen, and
their extremely visible role in the attempted coup.
The youngest of the Muslimeen was eleven. A number of them were schooled at the
elite colleges. While many were indeed from impoverished and disadvantaged back-
grounds, some too came from middle-income environments. The one thing which ran
through their young lives, however, was their alienation from the society. It is indeed a
serious concern not only for the youth of Trinidad and Tobago, but for all Caribbean
youth. For regardless of socio-economic status, young people are bombarded with
foreign images which do not reflect their realities, and which, at best, result in confused
and embattled psyches. Add to this the frustrations of high unemployment, the dearth'
of public fora for expressing their views, and the lack of strong cultural groundings and
heroes, and the recipe for participation in the July 27 Insurrection can easily be cooked
up. It is evidence of the erosion of the cultural identity or nam, to use the concept
developed by Edward Brathwaite, resulting in the fundamental threatening of any
moral and spiritual reinforcement. Hence, the survival of the group is placed at risk.
Thus in their quest for personhood, which was denied by the overall society, some young
Trinidadians ended up at Abu Bakr's Mosque.
Abu Bakr became the hero the media refused to provide. And, whether the com-
pound was a refuge from drug-loaded environments, or, an alleged point of trade for
drugs confiscated from the streets, there is no doubt about the strict discipline to which
youngsters were introduced at the Muslimeen Mucurapo Road compound. In that
discipline, they discovered the sense of self-worth, self-confidence, belonging and iden-
tity that had escaped them in their lives before Abu Bakr.
Of the many stories which came out of the besieged Red House, one is that of a
teacher who had attended that session of Parliament in the Public Gallery. Recognising
one of her former students among the Muslimeen rebels, and summoning up the
courage to question his presence, she was told: "Miss, I came out of school after five
years and couldn't read or write, and nobody knew or cared".
Rohlehr is indeed right about Calypso being a mirror of Trinbagonian society. The
other mirror, as in all societies, is its youth. So, while politicians, and other so called
societal exemplars express horror and frustration at the involvement of young people in
the attempt to overthrow the Government, they must, if they are true to themselves,
examine the role models they have set for young people. They must also honestly
examine the messages, some overt, some subliminal, that are being imposed on young
impressionable minds. Blame must fall not only on the breakdown of the family struc-
ture, but on the persistence of institutional frameworks and policies which have failed
to keep abreast with a young and dynamic society. Similarly, because little work has
gone into overhauling and updating societal values to match the reconstruction neces-
sary for post-Colonial societies, these values, images, and perceptions remain un-
changed, and hence unfit for the mission of post-Independence Trinidad and Tobago.
Education, for example, continues to be perceived as a means for achieving social
and occupational mobility, and the accompanying prestige and status. From an ex-
tremely tender age, the process of acquiring a good education throws students into
fierce competition and rivalry, that is matched only by the sense of hopelessness
experienced, if they fail to qualify for one of the prestige schools. Such failure processes
students through "Comprehensive Schools" structured to provide a mix of academic and
technical training. However, associated with these schools is the stigma of social and
intellectual inferiority which students carry into their working lives.
In addition, it excludes them from the milieu of perceived achievement and suc-
cess, and throws them into the breeding ground of failure, low self-esteem, hopeless
desperation and frustration, anxiety, confusion and anger. The perception of the supe-
riority and higher status of the "collar and tie" job, a direct hold-over from the period of
Colonial rule, leaves little room for perceived success in other areas both, in the eyes of
young people, and in a society which has not redefined the whole concept of work as an
essential ingredient of nation-building. For neither education nor occupation has yet
been viewed as a basis for the self-transformation and societal transformation necessary
for creative reconstruction. The result is an unbalanced mix of education and training,
often producing inappropriate mixtures and levels of skills contrary to those needed in
the labour market. (Demas: 1977)
This is the dilemma in which the youth of Trinidad and Tobago have been trapped.
Those who are uneducated and/or improperly trained for the job market are invariably
those who possess neither the social skills nor economic and political power to elicit
favours and patronage from the society's power brokers. Educated youths, on the other
hand, particularly those who have graduated from foreign universities,are viewed as
threats by the more mature professionals. In many cases they are squeezed out of the
job market by retired professionals who are able to get plumb consultancies through
long-standing "contacts" and participation in the "Old boys' network". Instead of freely
allowing young people access to their knowledge and experience and ensuring an
effective succession plan, many of these mature or retired professionals use their power,
influence and expertise in occupational politics to block the progress of youth, thus
adding to their disenchantment and frustration with the society. The links between race,
class, colour and gender to accessing economic power further complicate this scenario.
It increases the exposure of low-income youth to lives of crime, and leaves young
women, particularly single mothers, open to sexual exploitation.
These problems of young people had been observed long before July 27. There
exists a proliferation of youth programmes initiated by business, Government, and
Non-governmental organizations. One of these, the Government-sponsored Youth
Training and Employment Partnership Programme (YTEPP), is specially targeted to
meet the needs of young men and women between the ages 15-25, who are out of school
and unemployed. YTEPP's remedial education and job skills training programmes are
free of charge. With great vision and wisdom, the Programme focuses on self-reliance
and self-employment as a permanent solution to the problem of widespread unemploy-
ment and disenchantment. However, YTEPP, not unlike other youth programmes,
reflects the lack of understanding and support from the overall society. It suffers from
inadequate linkages to other Government programmes, and the business sector, and
hence youth are often subjected to unnecessary Government bureaucracy. Moreover
while young people have accepted self-employment as a viable alternative and have
risen to its varied challenges, adults, still plagued with the syndrome of dependency,
hand-outs, favours and political patronage, continue to divert and subvert the thinking
and energies of young potential entrepreneurs.
Undoubtedly it is the education system and the media which have joined forces in
the most disastrous conspiracy against young people. What one might have done by
omission, the other continues to do by commission. And together, not only have they
reinforced and institutionalized the alienation of young people, but they have filled the
vacuum created, with self-doubt, self-negation, self-hate, and a notion of violence that
could make Abu Bakr's mission appear to be a romantic escapade. And so, in a moment
of coldness, the seizure of the Trinidad and Tobago Television, could appear to be just
comeuppance. For even adults have been trapped into this vast wasteland of imposed
foreign image and values. While police tactical squads battled against the invaders of
the Parliament, on 27 July, television-addicted Trinis applauded and hailed: "Mac-
The worst and most damnable part of the whole experience of the attempted
Coup has been our failure to learn in the wake of the violence, and the threat to
personal and national freedom. Trinidad has reverted to its well-known habit of spree-
ing and feting out its problems. We have remained steeped in the belief that the events
of July 27 are enigmatic to the easy-going lifestyle and everlasting eudamonism of
Trinidadians. Young people, however, have become more assertive. There appears to
be a greater interest in locating their own problems within the context of national issues.
They seem to want a more serious role in finding those solutions. Youth feel that they
must have a voice and a greater degree of power and influence. It does not appear to be
a passing phase and failure to recognize and acknowledge this new and growing serious-
ness among young people can produce a more radically politicized youth population.
There still needs to be serious planning coordinating and linking of youth programmes.
For the feeling persists among youth that these programmes exist more to keep youth
busy and out of trouble, than any serious attempt at preparing them for continuing the
important work of national development. It is a bind in which most Governments are
trapped. To what extent should youths be seriously prepared for accepting the baton of
responsibility? For the possibility that such preparation might become a political threat
to the rule of any existing Government cannot go unnoticed.
The newly established National Youth Service represents an important move in the
direction of educating and socializing young nationals into their responsibilities and
obligations to the society. At the same time, it trains youth for productive roles. Herein
lies a critical acknowledgement of the existence of youths as valuable and productive
human resources. Hopefully, it will be accompanied by a commitment to ensuring their
full participation and integration into the society. If, too, the National Youth Service
becomes fertile ground for instilling national pride, culture and social values that
underpin group solidarity, commitment and responsibility, to self and nation, then
Trinidad and Tobago will indeed have something about which they can merrily wave...
DEMAS, William "Employment Strategies and Youth Movements in the Caribbean", Bridgetown: Carib-
bean Development Bank, 1977.
JAMES-BRYAN, Meryl "Youth in the Anglophone Caribbean: The High Cost of Dependent Develop-
ment" CEPAL Review, No. 29,1986.
ROHLEHR, Gordon Calypso and Society In Pre-Independence Trinidad. Tunapuna, Trinidad: Gordon
ABU BAKR'S PERCEPTIONS OF HIS MOVEMENT AS
SEEN THROUGH AN ANALYSIS OF HIS LANGUAGE
After the outbreak of hostilities directed against the Government of Trinidad and
Tobago and the Jamaat al Muslimeen on July 27, 1990, there appeared to be a general
and widespread astonishment.
(a)that the event should have taken place at all;
(b)that the Muslimeen should have initiated the event; and
(c)that Abu Bakr leader of the Muslimeen should have expected that the people of
Trinidad would have supported his activities and rushed to his side against the Govern-
There has been, and will no doubt, continue to be speculated as to the relationships
between these matters. As other studies will show, there have been various approaches
to the analysis of the event, in order to put forward one explanation or another. This
paper looks at the language of Abu Bakr and the Muslimeen on three selected oc-
casions in the three months immediately preceding the month of July 1990.
The purpose of this investigation is to determine what meanings were being sig-
nalled by Abu Bakr through his writing and his speech at this time of the attempted
coup, and whether such an analysis can fruitfully assist in providing additional insight
into the causes and other relevant dimensions of the crisis.
The materials to be used in this paper are:
(a)April 1990 and May 1990. Copies of The Light newspaper printed and published by
Jamaat al Muslimeen.
(b)Taped copy of speech delivered by Imam Abu Bakr on Labour Day, June 19, 1990.
This speech was given on the occasion of the Labour Day Celebrations organi- sed by
the Trade Unions of Trinidad and Tobago and Imam Abu Bakr was speaking to a
crowd of largely 'workers' or Trade Union and labour movement supporters and
In the April issue of The Light, the column entitled "The Imam Speaks" appears on
page 4 of the tabloid-size paper. This particular column was written at the time of the
Eid-ul-Fitr which is the day marking the end of the period of fasting, sacrifice and
prayer known to Muslims as the Holy month of Ramadan. Normally Eid-ul-Fitr is a day
of feasting and celebration; but the Imam's column is entitled "I am not happy this Eid".
The text itself begins by setting the Imam's frame of mind as being unsynchronised
with the minds of the other Muslims who were in a frame of happiness and celebration.
The key to his unhappiness is revealed:
I have in the last month felt the pangs of hunger and
thirst and I know that is what so many deprived men,
women and children are experiencing for days on
end with no hope in the future in this Trinidad and
The Imam's article uses the conventional beginning which we would expect from a
cleric on the anniversary of a religious festival. But the conventional greeting, "Beloved
brothers and sisters, peace be with you", does not lead to a passage of calm or joyful
exhortation to the flock, rather it continues to identify the distress of hunger with
destitution and with criminal behaviour.
This link is not regarded as inevitably or merely regrettable development due to the
economic state of the country. Rather the call becomes one for social action; and
further reveals a fighting spirit directed at the ills of the society. The problem of hunger
and destitution is precisely blamed on the failure of the political leadership:
There are some things fhat cannot be learnt
academically and hunger is one of them ... our
leaders ... do not respond to the cries of the un-
employed and the destitute. They do not understand
that our jails are overcrowded because people can-
not stay hungry forever, and without water to drink
while swimming pools are over-flowing.
In the above extract, there are several interlinked motives operating. First, there is a
concern for social action to help the plight of the destitute, to feed the hungry and
therefore to ameliorate what appears in Abu Bakr's mind to be a cause and. effect
situation, the rise of poverty and the rise of criminality.
Secondly, there is an overt allocation of blame for the economic situation. It is due
to the irresponsive/unsympathetic nature of the political leadership. Finally, there
emerges a political consciousness which is radical in its orientation. The economic gap
which exists between rich and poor is symbolize by the glaring and the unacceptable
contrast of overflowing swimming pools as against shortage of drinking water. This is
highlighted and subliminally, at least, used to justify criminal action. It invites the reader
to raise questions as to what is illegal in the society. Justice and injustice are enhanced
in secular and material terms while yet recalling all the religious metaphors and images
associated with the phrase "water to drink".
Subsequently, Abu Bakr moves to the notion of self-denial. The Holy Month of
Ramadan exalts the practice of self-denial for Muslims and this is perceived not merely
as enhancing the awareness of the problem of hunger, but also makes the faithful
sensitive to the evils of an unbridled sexual appetite, which to him is the cause of such
crimes as child-abuse. Once again Abu Bakr is attempting to establish a causal relation-
ship between spiritual limitations and social ills which appear to him to afflict Trinidad
The solution, however, cannot be simply a raising of consciousness/con-
science/spirituality. The call is not to prayer, but to action:
No newspaper column nor political jargon nor
religious rhetoric can solve the problems of Trinidad
... The West Indian cricket team did not win the
series by talk.
Who feels it, knows it! To know is to do!
Leaders, you cannot do and will not do, until you
The final exhortation to fast must be understood as operating on several levels of
meaning. It is not merely abstention from food in order to understand hunger but for
leaders to "curb (all) unbridled desires" especially greed. Abu Bakr lists a litany of
conventional sins, both spiritual and physical: "hatred", "malice", "deception", as well as
"drug abuse", "prostitution", "drunkenness". And again there is to be no escape from
these things by fasting and prayer alone but also by swift and sure physical punishment.
The point here is that the call to fast can also be read as a warning that there will be
retribution if certain changes were not made by the political leadership to correct the
ills of the society. This does not represent passive resistance but hints at a militancy.
Finally, an intriguing question is whether the call to "Fast!" is meant to valorise the
Islamic system. Is there some suggestion here that the entire society, or its leaders,
should follow the dictates of the Koran? Certainly it is possible to postulate such a
reading after the event, because the act of fasting is not a spiritual matter so much as a
matter of adherence to the dogma of a particular faith. Whatever that may be, the
intention is essentially shrouded here.
In the May issue of The Light, "The Imam Speaks" column, on page 3, is an angry
one, because it was published immediately after armed police and soldiers entered the
compound of the Jamaat al Muslimeen and occupied it in the attempt to stop the
construction of another large structure on the site. The question of the land dispute has
already been fully treated elsewhere in this publication. But how did Abu Bakr himself
respond at the time to what was virtually an occupying force?
As is to be expected, the column sub-titled "Set-up To Kill" contains emotionally
charged visual images. In one corner there is an illustration with clenched fists amongst
bristling guns and with a Star of David peeping out of the background. Immediately
under the headline "Set-up To Kill" there is the face of a Muslim baby boy drinking milk
from a baby's bottle. But the most prominent illustration is that of a defiant and angry,
bare-breasted male, head erect, shouting "Allah Akbar!!!" as the muzzle of a huge gun
pointed straight to his heart seems to bend or curve.
These illustrations graphically portray three of the ways in which the Muslimeen
perceived the beginning of the Government's action against their community. The first
conveys a politicallinternational conspiracy in which, somehow, Zionists are involved.
The second enshrines the moral tone connected with the horror of the "slaughter of the
innocents". The third highlights the belief that the conventionally unarmed and defense-
less Islamic person, can face guns in the secure knowledge that divine protection is his.
Indeed, while on the same page, there is an article involving the details of the land
dispute, which had culminated in the occupation of the Compound by Army and Police,
the Imam himself speaks only to the "meaning" of the "invasion". And the same three
notes evident in the visual ways are struck:
The real reason behind the invasion of the Jamaat
was not to stop the building of a school, but to set the
police and Army at our throats, while the Prime
Minister, his Minister of National "Insecurity" and
his Police Commissioner were politicking in
Here is the moral tone: the setting of the armed against the unarmed conveying
injustice; the unarmed presumably seek to do good, they are building a school; but the
virtuous are defiant. By the use of the word "Insecurity," he parodies the function of the
Minister of National Security in effect asking the question: "whose security?". Further,
by using the letter "k" in the work "politicking" he indicates the legitimacy of the actions
of the three officials named and imputes to them the traits of hypocrisy, disdain, and
heartlessness. There is even a suggestion of cowardice: they desert the scene of the
"crime" and go about the only business they are interested in, "politicking" in Tobago.
The tone in the above passage may best be described as an angry sneer; and carries
over the implication of illegitimacy. In the next paragraph he removes the problem from
the confines of the Jamaat and asserts its national and international implications there-
by widening the arena of conflict to suggest the involvement of the entire nation. He
even implies that the Army and the Police are the dupes of these leaders and that they
ought to see themselves as making common cause with the Muslimeen as "citizens" of
Trinidad and Tobago. He says:
for setting up innocent citizens of this country
(Police, Army and Muslims) to kill each other in
order to create and excuse for a State of Emergency
in accordance with IMF directions.
Bakr goes on to state the hard heartedness of the leadership who do not care how
many innocent lives are lost on both sides because "they cared only to serve their
master's wishes, and their narrow political ambitions". He then commends the Appeal
Court for "their foresight in sensing the explosiveness of the situation and doing their bit
to defuse it". He ends on a religious note:
I have always been firm in my conviction that
ALLAH will bring a just and decisive conclusion to
this sordid chapter in the history of our beloved
country. GUNS AND MALICE CAN NEVER CON-
Despite the anger of the Imam, and the appearance that he is speaking out against
injustice, some words are carefully chosen and their meaning is shrouded. For example:
what exactly does he mean by the phrase "their master's wishes"? Who is the master?
The IMF? or some other "master"? From July 27, 1990 it might be said that when he uses
the phrase "the explosiveness of the situation" he has violence and defiance in mind. But
at this stage the picture is not clearly drawn.
What is interesting here, however, is the fact that the Imam does not see the Jamaat
as an isolated or marginalised minority who must fight back on their own. Rather, there
is a supreme confidence that their cause is just and that this is self-evident. It is also
clear that he sees the movement as working within the law and that the Law (the Appeal
Court) must recognize the legitimacy of their claim. He includes also the Police and the
Army as "innocent citizens of this country" not the natural enemies of the Muslimeen.
In other words, we see Abu Bakr coming to separate in his own mind, the political
leadership, especially the Prime Minister, the Minister of National Security, and the
Commissioner of Police from the people and from the rank and file of the protective
services who become just another group of innocent citizens being duped by the
From hindsight, we know that at a later stage the Appeal Court judgement went
against the Muslimeen in the matter of the land dispute and it is quite ironic that the
State of Emergency which he accuses the leadership of wishing to create was
precipitated by the events of July 27, 1990. This notion of the Jamaat al Muslimeen and
the country being at one against the leadership did not change from May to July.
In fact, the speech given on Labour Day, June 19, 1990 reveals some of the same
ideas. The June 19th event is a large celebration organised by the Trade Union Move-
ment normally held in South Trinidad. At this event, Abu Bakr chose to speak to the
crowd about yet another area of conflict with the political leadership and especially the
Prime Minister. Briefly, this dispute arose when the Imam using funds donated by
sources in some (unnamed) Islamic countries purchased shipments of drugs in short
supply in the hospitals in Trinidad, and brought them in to be donated to the Ministry
of Health. In the speech he claimed that this action had been taken with the full
concurrence of the then Minister of Health, but that when the shipment arrived its
acceptance was blocked by the Prime Minister who, he alleged, refused to accept the
What is important in this speech is the clarity with which Abu Bakr appears to
perceive and to express the belief that-the polarisation of interest between the people
and the person of the Prime Minister had become paramount. He speaks as if a chasm
has opened between them. The actual words are important as is the fact that this speech
takes place outside Port of Spain, and that it was well-received in that the people
apparently stopped their celebrating, listened and gave a cheer at the end.
Bakr begins with the conventional "Beloved brothers and sisters, Peace be with you".
His earlier words, however, are ominous:
All talk and no action would bring no results... There
must be action in order to back up what you say and
to get results.
He then goes on to commend the Nurses who had engaged in lengthy and vocal
protests, not as they said, merely for more pay,but because the conditions in the
hospitals did not provide the tools with which they could act professionally and give
patients the best care. The Nurses particularly highlighted the shortage of drugs in the
hospitals. In Trinidad and Tobago the hospitals are financed by the State and drugs for
those who are hospitalized and attend out-patient clinics are also provided free of cost.
Abu Bakr commends the militancy of the Nurses' actions and then goes on to detail his
arrangements with the Minister of Health for the provision of drugs, especially those for
childhood diseases such as leukemia and other forms of cancer...
The detail is punctuated by some emotional exhortations alleging that the Prime
Minister was the only one of the group who personally blocked the receipt of the drugs
by the health authorities. He charged that the Prime Minister refused
... the free gift to the people of Trinidad and Tobago
... So till today it is the Prime Minister who is
preventing all the nurses from doing their jobs
without no medicine ....
Crucial to the argument is the positing of a solution:
[This is] ... colonial garbage [we have] ... a
dilapidated medical service.
He absolves the Minister of Health, then say:
... in come Mr. Napoleon Robinson. 'Robin in the
sun' came and say he don't want no doctor, no
medicine, nothing at all from anybody who name
Abu, much less Bakr...
The term 'Robin in the sun' is calculated to expose the Prime Minister to ridicule.
The punning and word play on the name Robinson would of course appeal to
Trinidadians who constantly play with words; it also conveys that image of an ineffec-
tive chirping by a harmless bird.
As the Imam goes on to speak it becomes clear that he is placing the focus of blame
squarely on the Prime Minister and separating him from the Cabinet and singling his
person out for ridicule and for drawing battle lines:
This matter is before you... The medicine in El
Socorro don't belong to Napoleon Robinson... The
Medicine belongs to you... so is your medicine that
Napoleon have. All you 'fraid Napoleon? Mr.
Napoleon had an end at Waterloo! Just create a
Waterloo and that is the end of Napoleon... Friday
when we go to demonstrate in front of Parliament is
to tell Napoleon we want our medicine and if
Napoleon refuses then we go in the Customs for
what is ours.
Noteworthy here is the use of the pronouns we, you, ours. Again, Abu Bakr projects
himself as being at one with the people. The note which is struck here is similar to that
recorded in the extract from the April issue of The Light: that the Imam has a personal
and abiding concern for the suffering of the people and that he is willing to act on their
behalf, selflessly and for their greater good. On the opposite scale now stands the lonely
figure of the Prime Minister, deliberately, reinforcing the peoples suffering and the gap
between them and Mr. Robinson. Of course, he also implies that these decisions are
due to the Prime Minister's dictatorial and arrogant nature (Napoleon).
This text however, makes a quantum leap in relation to the type of solutions to
problems which are mooted. First, there is the suggestion to march and protest outside
of Parliament on the coming Friday. (July 27 was also a Friday). Then there is the
resolution that if the members of Parliament do not listen the people must take the law
into their own hands and seize their medicine. This is surely an expression of anarchy
which is also accompanied by the extremely suggestive statement: "Just create another
Waterloo and that is the end of Napoleon".
In hindsight, it can certainly be said that Abu Bakr had begun at this point to put
forward the idea of violent action (with the people) to achieve what he conceived of as
a more just, more humane, and more equitable Trinidad and Tobago; and that he was
forming a conviction that the major obstacle to the achievement of this goal was the
figure of the Prime Minister.
During the attempted Coup, Bakr's pronouncements highlighted the following:
(a)the heartlessness of the Government;
(b)their unconcern for the suffering of the people;
(c)their illegal act in sending the Police and Army into the Jamaat Compound.
(d)their failure to accept the freely given drugs to alleviate the suffering in the hospitals.
These issues were referred to in all his previous speeches.
One can speculate therefore that if the powers that be had considered Bakr's
pronouncements seriously, they might have perceived that over the months April June
he was moving more and more towards radical and violent action and away from
dependence on faith and righteousness to protect him and his group from marginal-
isation, away from the rest of the people of Trinidad and Tobago and the Muslimeen's
conversion into an isolated an fugitive movement. He obviously wished to see himself as
a part of the solution to the social and economic problems evident in the society, and
claimed that he wished, as the case of the provision of drugs shows, to work with the
Government to help the people. Instead, with the occupation of the lands at Mucurapo
he was becoming more and more a part of the problem. Perhaps the event was an
attempt to overcome that unacceptable status which he apparently believed was being
forced on him by the Prime Minister.
AN ANALYSIS OF VIOLENCE IN LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC
THE CASE OF THE MUSLIMEEN REVOLT
IN TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
NEVILLE C. DUNCAN
Violence and conflict are pervasive aspects of all societies. Caribbean Societies, with
histories of conquest, slavery, colonialism and petty capitalism have been no freer from this
persistent threat to orderly society. It is of the greatest significance that Trinidad and
Tobago in the past 20 years has experienced two major acts of violence which might have
led at least to a change in government, and perhaps even to a political revolution. The first
occurred on February 22, 1970 and represented a failed coup/revolution. The second
occurred on July 27, 1990. Obviously, the response to the first has been shown by the latter
experience (The Muslimeen revolt) to have been inadequate and raises the question as to
the nature and extent of democratic practices in the Republic.
It would be a mistake to say that the Muslimeens are only a peculiar and particular type
of a religious "sect" and that their actions should only be seen as aberrant. The violence
represented only the tip of the iceberg of the underlying potential for anti-state violence
existing in the society. A successful response cannot merely be one of exorcising the
Challenges to the established order have been met with appeals for law and order and
by increased coercion. As an initial response, the heavy law and order approach was
appropriate since at the minimum, the previous conditions had to be restored.
The Trinidad and Tobago jails are now much fuller than before. Nevertheless, there is
no reason to expect that the level of violence and crime in the society will diminish. Indeed,
it should be noted that during the revolt many persons were engaged in looting with virtual
immunity. An assertion that says a great deal about the proclivities of people and the
feeling held by many that looting could be justified. Such an attitude prevails significantly
only in a situation where there is considerable de-legitimation of the government and
only simply begin to undermine the very values it was seeking to defend and a sense of
failure is promoted in the long run which further emboldens those wishing to engage in
The Treatment of Violence
How the problem ofviolence is treated depends upon the diagnosis which governments
and law enforcement agencies act upon. To be wrong about this diagnosis is to make an
inappropriateresponseOneresponse is to strengthen the law and order institutions so as to
bring about greater repression over segments of the population identified as potentially
disruptive. The police force is augmented in numerical size, made more mobile, given more
communications systems, and trained in para-military techniques of riot control and in-
It is a response which seeks to label and thereby treat and suppress what is defined as
deviant or anti-socialbehaviour. In this perspective, people become criminals, preachers of
violence at all social levels, outcasts, terrorists, mad people, drug addicts and pushers,
wildcat strikers, guerrillas and rebels. They are so categorized in order to be dealt with
usingexceptionalmeasures.Thesehavebeenthenormalresponses four elites throughout.
our history. The governments, whether black or white, have always acted as though they
have the right to pursue such oppressive policies, even in the face of widespread and strong
public opinion against such actions.
The Trinidad and Tobago Government's response to the Muslimeen revolt reflects a
traditional method of responding to violence. I deem it to be an insufficient response.
Governments see force as the legitimate use of state power toprevent, restrain or punish
breaches of the law and see violence, which lacks the legitimation of constitutional and
legal sanction, as essentially arbitrary. This use by governments of force, is referred to as
"structural violence" in circumstances when "a person is prevented by socialdeprivation or
political repression from fulfilling his or her aspirations".
From the perspective of the Muslimeen group, they were likely to lose their place of
worship, of livelihood and of residence by this structural violence of the state, manifested
in diverse ways such as the High Court judgement which denied them use of the property
and by police harassment. The Muslimeens had squatted on what was originally swamp
land, building a Mosque and other buildings housing business enterprises and dwellings.
They undoubtedly felt they had earned the right to continue to use the land free of cost or to
be able to purchase it. This rejection of their appeal by the High Court became the
proximate cause of the violence although other causes were broadcast by the Muslimeen
The aggrievement of the Muslimeen was high, notwithstanding the fact that they were
illegally squatting on lands not belonging to them and not available for sale. As far as they
were concerned, they had rescued what was originally swamp land and brought it into
productive use. Additionally, in the context of the State, previous. squatters eventually
acquired legal title to the property which they had illegally possessed so why should they
(The Jamaat al Muslimeen) be singled out for the special attention of the State. This, to the
group, smacked of deliberate persecution. These are all interesting questions within the
framework ofa liberal democratic order.
Violence, seen as "the illegitimate use or threatened use of coercion resulting, or
intendedtoresultin,thedeath, injury, restraintorintimidationofpersons orthedestruction
or seizure of property" is deemed particularly unacceptable and frightening in liberal
democracies.Thepoliticalsystemsunderexaminationarethosethat arepractitioners ofthe
Westminister variety of liberal democracy and which have particularly sound record of
liberal democratic practices. Such models of government have been lauded for their
capacity "to tolerate, respond to and harness the forces of popular protest and discontent".
Indeed, the process is seen as one of managing political conflict and the liberal democratic
mode is deemed as being peculiarly suited for this.
In this view, it would be normal to expect modes of conflict which are "essentially
non-violent, un-institutionalized and spontaneous"; and one may find tolerable conscien-
tious objection and/or persuasive (as opposed to coercive) civil disobedience. There is an
implied right to break the law provided that a group is prepared to accept the punishments
after due process of the law and provided that it does not attempt to coerce or intimidate
others. The line was crossed by the Muslimeen group.
By resorting to political violence, blackmail, and intimidation the Muslimeens con-
ducted activities which were incompatible with the rule of law and liberal democratic
theory. There is a further reason. The group had not exhausted all the possibilities, within
the law and normalpractice, to have their grievances addressed. Although, presumably, the
group had felt that this stage was reached after the decision of the High Court.
In another situation of violence the characteristics were those of civil, partisan and
ethnic strife, which contestations were not so much about the inappropriateness of the
liberal democratic framework as about the achievement of justice within it. Methods
contrary to the law such as coercion, intimidation, arson and murder were used but overall
there was little explicit contradiction with the liberal democratic principle. The question to
be asked is whether the revolt of the Muslimeens had elements ofjustice within it.
In nearly all respects, the group was not excluded from participation in the civil society
of Trinidad andTobago. Theywere not an ostracized group. They might have been looked
upon with suspicion and might have beenjostled by the security forces but not more so than
people living in poor areas of the Republic. It would be hard to find sufficient reasons to
justify their use of violence, using illegally acquired and sophisticated weapons, in their
hostage-holding escapade, and the shocking level of violence and looting which accom-
panied it. The very fact that the group went to such trouble to obtain and conceal such a
large quantity of weapons was evidence of malicious intent which went beyond the mere
In some situations of conflicts, there was a high degree of instrumentality in which
violence became, for some groups, an acceptable though regrettable way to rationally
pursue goals in conditions of scarce resources. The Muslimeen violence in Trinidad and
Tobago, from the perspective of the Muslimeens themselves, could be, in part, so charac-
terized. In this kind of perspective an appropriate response of the government would be to
manage the problems through resource distribution by the State (such as the grant of or the
opportunity to purchase the land on which the group was squatting). It is more than
interesting to note that if this had been done, the Republic more than likely, would have
been spared the embarrassment it caused itselfbefore the international community and the
extensive and long-term damage done to its economy, as a result.
Another appropriate response could have aimed at the inculcation of moderate sets of
values, within the group, induced by the government and/or the leaders of the group
themselves. But, of course, there was really no prior negotiation between the two sides.
Instead, there was a history of confrontation in the courts, with the police, vigilante action
against drug pushers, and the like. The atmosphere was not one in which normal political
intercourse and negotiation could take place. At least one side had to bend the rules of the
game somewhat, if a peaceful resolution was to have been forthcoming. Regrettably, that
did not occur and the hostage situation emerged. What is worse, after the surrender by the
Muslimeen to the authorities, it is evident that the Government is determined to pursue a
solution which may well, eliminate the top leaders of the commune/movement. The
Government does not appear as yet to be moving toward understanding what caused the
problem in the first place.
In Trinidad and Tobago, after the failed coup/revolution of 1970, the government
responded by using some of the massive increase in earnings from the petroleum industry
to carry out a substantial welfare-oriented redistributive policy. It, however, was not
sustainable when the return to protracted low oil prices threw the economy out of kilt and
the resources to sustain the policy were depleted. Indeed, many of the commitments to
general welfare had to be severely cut. It was against this background of retreat from
welfare in which the land-hunger problem of the Jamaat al Muslimeen led to the 1990
violence. Presumably, in these unhappy circumstances, the deep national embarrassment
could have been avoided if the institutions of government had been prepared to be flexible
inthesituation,it couldhavefoundothersolutions thanthe threatenedevictionofthe group
from the landed property on which it had squatted. History may not absolve the govem-
Democracy as Self-government and Liberal Democracy:
The Questionof Violence
John Burton argued persuasively that legitimacy is a notion which was based not on
legality but "upon the view that legitimacy is measured by the degree to which authorities
and institutions serve those over whom the authority is exercised and, in particular, by the
degree to which they promote the identity and fulfillment of the people". Based on this
understanding, there would be the obligation to re-think our notions of force and violence.
is normally seen as the legitimate use of state power to prevent, restrain or punish breaches
of the law. violence, on the other hand, is seen as lacking the legitimation of constitutional
legal sanction and which is therefore essentially arbitrary. Once the real measure of the use
of force by the state turns on whether or not the ontological needs and wants of people are
satisfied then state force does not necessarily have to be seen as legitimate even when a free
and fair electoral process determineswho are the authorities.
If there are certain human needs which are concerned with development as well as
survival and are thereby ontological and universal, then it must be understood that in-
dividuals or groups will "use all means at their disposal, legal or illegal, to pursue these,
constrained only by the values they attach to relationships with others in society". Much
violence in anglophone Caribbean society occurs because of system failures in meeting
needs and wants of people. This means that a predominantly law and order response may
only settle for a while but not resolve the underlying causes of conflict which lead to violent
The underlying factors, in all our cases of violence seem to be based upon the fact that
our societies have developed to a greater degree beyond mere decolonization and formal
independence. There are nowinescapable demands for increased participation, increased
assertion of human rights and needs, and a recognition of the lessened abilities of central
authorities to control behaviour of greater and more complex population groups with
means of violence readily at hand.
Merely exercising the franchise periodically is not now enough. As is now well ac-
cepted, exercising the franchise is unhappily to renounce it. The representative principle
steals from individuals the ultimate responsibility for their values, beliefs and actions. If we
were to, pragmatically, seek a democratic form of government in which all of the people
govern themselves in at least some public matters at least some of the time, then we might
were to, pragmatically, seek a democratic form of government in which all of the people
govern themselves in at least some public matters at least some of the time, then we might
go some way towards achieving this sense of salience in the citizenry.
The answer to how to achieve this is, of course, political education. It is most effective
on a level which challenges the individual to engage co-operatively in the solution of
concrete problems affecting himself or herself and his or her immediate community.
Facilitating conditions include civic education, leadership, religion and patriotism. Limit-
ing conditions include the problem of scale, structural inequality, rights and the ultimate
uncertainty of all human vision and of public vision in particular in a world where no
knowledge is certain, no grounds absolute, and no political decision irrevocable.
Strong democratic practice requires a political programme and a political strategy.
Neither ideas nor institutions are self-implementing. They demand a base: a political
movement composed of committed democrats who understand themselves to have an
interest in the realization of strong democracy.
Notwithstanding all this, the immediate situation of violence and rebellion have to be
tackled. Anglophone Caribbean Governments' responses to situations of violence and
rebellion have been mainly those of establishing draconian laws on the statute books and
the impulse to seek to strengthen the region militarily. The Dreads Act in Dominica, the
Public Order Acts throughout the region and the Gun Court Act in Jamaica are some
examples of this. This is not to deny that some tougher laws are necessary at times and that
so is some degree of militarization.
Nonetheless, both responsesmayand havebeen causing moreproblems than thosethey
have solved. The military has often proven to be the quickest way to state power. It was not
a coincidence that the military in Dominica and in Grenada sought governmental power in
its own name.
Secondly, strengthening and arming the police to be better able to cope with civil
violence is also fraught with danger. The experience with police and military behaviour
under states of emergencyin respective Caribbean states cries out for an adequate protocol
of acceptable conduct: dress and stated purpose of their actions when they accost civilians
and the latter's personalproperty. The current experience ofpolicebehaviour inTrinidad is
one where unnecessary hostility is meted out to citizens stopped at roads blocks by
un-uniformed officers carelessly wielding rifles. Jamaicans, in cordoned off states of
emergency areas in Western Kingston, experienced similar problems previously.
Both for the police and military, the uppermost consideration should be to find and
establish mechanisms of civilian control. It is manifestly unjust to the citizens to have
police and military officers investigating charges of abuse, torture, murder and property
destruction that have been levelled against these same establishments. Assuredly, the ideal
requirements for civilian control include the presence of "of widely supported
political institutions such as parliament or political party, coupled with a self-imposed
and maintained sense of restraint by officers and politicians alike in which the military
is not actively solicited for resolving domestic political conflicts, but is assigned to carry
out relatively restricted, internationally oriented activities". [Claude Welch, Jr., 1976: x]
In both the police and the military forces, in the Caribbean, there is the need to
inculcate in each person an acceptance of the ethic of subordination to the legally
established authorities and the acceptance of the duty of service to the people. The
"take over" of the elected government by the Suriname military in Suriname in January
191, in Grenada in 1983, and in Haiti after the 1987 elections are recent examples of
how important this is. The appropriate sets of behaviour which constitute "profes-
sionalism" should be carefully "drilled" into members of the armed forces. Institutional
means to ensure compliance with, and the maintenance of, the proper standards must
be established, preferably with majority and broad-based civilian membership.
Political violence has occurred in the anglophone Caribbean but it has largely been
demonstrated that the liberal democratic system has withstood the test. This does not
mean that all is well with the extent of democratic functioning within it nor that a law
and order response is sufficient to contain violence. The violence has served to indicate
the need for substantial changes in the political economy and sociology of the Carib-
bean. In Caribbean political history, violence has led to all the significant changes. It
should be possible to develop institutions of change which can deal with problems of
transformation of these societies before change is brought by calamitous violence.
1. Paul Wilkinson, Terrorism and the Lberal State, London: Macmillan Press, 1977, p.23.
2. C.R.Mitchcll, The Structure of International Conflict, London: Macmillan, 1981, p.19
3. Wilkinson, 1977, p.23
4. Ibid., p.26
6. John Burton, Global Conllct, Sussex Wheatsheaf, 1984, p.12.
7. Wilkinson, 1977, p.23.
9. Paul Sites, Control, the Basis of Social Order. London: Dunellen 1973.
10. Burton, 1984, p.8.
11. Benjeman Barber, Strong Democracy: Political Participation fr a New Ap.Brkly Univeaity of
California Press, 1984.
15. Caude Welch, Jnr. 1976, px
Barber, Benjeman Strong Democracy Political Participation for a New Age. Berkely:
University of California Press, 1984.
Burton, John Global Conflict Sussex Wheatsheaf, 1984
Galtung, Johan "A Structural Theory of Integration", Journal of Peace Research, 5:4, 1968
Mitchell, CR. The Structure of International Conflict, London: Macmillan, 1981.
Sites, Paul Control, The Basis of Social Order, London: Dunellen Publishers, 1973.
Wilkinson, Paul Terrorism and the Liberal State, London: Macmillan, 1977
THE 1990 VIOLENT DISTURBANCE IN TRINIDAD & TOBAGO:
JOHN LA GUERRE
The events of July 1990 in Trinidad and Tobago must be seen in the context of an
emerging counter political culture in the wake of a political vacuum in Trinidad and
Tobago. It is accordingly necessary to understand some of the foundations of Trinidad and
Tobago's political culture and the vacuum that has existed for some time.
It is not easy to classify the events of July 1990. Conventional wisdom on the topic of
coups d'etat suggests that they are undertaken bya select group from the armed forces of a
country. Many countries have a traditions of coups; and coups are attempted for a variety
of reasons. In some countries it provides an opportunity for social mobility on the part of
the middle classes, thus providing an alternative elite to rule the country; in others a coup is
sometimes undertaken to prevent a new government (generally leftist) from assuming
power. In yet others, coups might represent a means by which one tribe settles a score with
another, or as a means by which 'modernisers' come to power to rescue a country from
recognize that coups have occurred in both poor and industrially advanced nations. The
common ingredient in most coups lies in the inadequacies or patent failure of the many
different political processes. The fact that neither Abu Bakr nor his immediate lieutenants
were actually located in the army rules it out as an attempt at conventional coup.
The Jamaat al Muslimeen is better conceived of as a social movement combining some
of the strategies of terrorist groupings along with some characteristics of an army organisa-
tion. Although its leader was once a 'man-on-horseback', there can be no doubt that, for
much of its existence,.the Jamaat was a social movement operating very much like the
NJAC (National Joint Action Committee) did during the period 1970-1972. There are
differences, no doubt. NJAC had a mass following among most sections of the community.
Even the government, against which it was directed, was sympathetic towards some of its
aims. NJAC also fashioned for Trinidad and Tobago the doctrines of'Black Power' which
it elaborated in a document Unconventional Politics or Revolution. Although the theoreti-
cal premises contained in that document represented an amalgam of cultural nationalism
and Marxism, it did represent an alternative model to the fashionable Westminster system
on which the political system of Trinidad and Tobago was based.
NJAC's fundamental message however was that the Westminster system was not
working; that it was flawed in its basic premises and that a root and branch reform of the
entire social and political system was needed. For NJAC the alternatives were either
"unconventional politics" or "revolution". According to NJAC, the root cause of the
political problems of the day whether it had to do with corruption, racial rivalries, the
failure of political parties, law and order, or basically apathy belonged to the political
culture of Trinidad and Tobago. Theywrote:
The political culture we have described dominated by
white racist values and contempt for black people,
which produces alienation of the people from
authority, non-participation by the people inovern-
ment, authoritarian leadership, racial conflicts be-
tween the Black races and unbearable corruption, is
inseparable from the economic and institutional or-
ganisation of society.
In short, for NJAC, it was the total system that was flawed. It therefore needed a
fundamental re-organisation and a new philosophy of social and political life. What were
neededwere newconcepts of leadership, peoples parliaments, participation by the people
and black togetherness. For NJAC, one of the achievements of 1970 was not only to turn
the Negro into an African, but also "a man with an identity, a past, a heritage .... In the vast
humanity of the mass movement we were able to discard the sickness of capitalism and its
anti-people values. We were in tune with our inner selves. That was the blackness of our
As will become more apparent, these views would be some of the very sentiments that
would provide the impulses behind the Muslimeen's projection of itself on to the political
stage. In 1970, it must also be recalled, an army mutiny coincided with the Black Power
uprising. Although the leaders of the mutiny denied any relationship with NJAC, there is a
widespread belief that there was more to the relationship than was admitted. It was not
surprising, however, that NJAC soon lost a great deal of its original appeal. Its heavy
emphasis on African symbols and on name-changing alienated the African middle classes,
who were prepared to go only as far as the Afro-hairdo. The Indians, for their part, were at
first puzzled by what was perceived as a family quarrel and subsequently felt that after the
whites,itwouldbetheirturn.Addtothese factors,the facts that the Government responded
positively to the proclamation of"a people's sector" in the economy, and to the setting up
of a commission of enquiry into racial discrimination in the private sector and one can
understand why NJAC soon gave way to the National Union of Freedom Fighters (NUFF)
who were convinced that the heavy emphasis on cultural symbols was a mistake and that
only by violence would a new order emerge.
The attempt by NUFF to overthrow the Government was no doubt a failure, but it
revealed for the first time that violence, as an alternative to the Westminster model, was
being considered by the younger elites. It was not that violence had appeared for the first
time in the history of the country. In the view of one writer, slavery and indentureship had
already set the stage for political violence in Trinidad and Tobago's society.
Yet, there had been in the country for some time a political vacuum. By the late sixties,
it was clear that the Westminster system was not working in the way it was assumed to
work. Parliament and political parties were no longer aggregating the wider interests of
society. There were doubts too as to whether the two-party system was working, as racial
rivalries were being channeled into political parties, a situation made worse by the increas-
ing inability of the official opposition to articulate the grievances of substantial sections of
the community. This was the vacuum which NJAC attempted to fill. The intervention of
NUFF was just one more instalment in the continuing decline of confidence in
Westminster-style politicsparticularlyinurbanised circles.
This was the legacy to which Abu Bakr was heir. The rise of the Jamaat to social and
political prominence has its own mysteries, but there canbeno doubt that the behaviour and
performance of the various Christian denominations as well as the attitude of the estab-
lished Muslim organizations did not attract the alienated, and and therby helping to further
the cause of the Jamaat as a serious social movement. The seeming approval of the Peoples
NationalMovement (PNM) and the NationalAlliance for Reconstruction (NAR), bytheir
public stances, further enhanced the political status of the Jamaat. It is important to recall
that NJAC had also criticised the attitude and role of the established Christian religions.
Their verdict was that, "the Christian Churches have done the most to destroy the message
of Christ. They have made it a virtue to be oppressed, to content the Black man with his
suffering while the Church is in the control of the affluent white oppressors in the society."
Yet, there were other factors involved in the attraction of Islam. Islam satisfied the
search for identity on the part of the African,-a search that was inextricably bound up with
slavery and its aftermath. Just as NJAC's ideology offered an interpretation and vision of a
social and political system, so too did Islam in Trinidad and Tobago provide an alternative
model. It is for this reason that Omowale B. Muhammad (formerlyAndyThomas) acknow-
ledged the contribution of the Black Power Movement to the rise of fundamentalist Islam
in Trinidad and Tobago. First, noting that Africans in Trinidad and Tobago had begun to
realise that their heritage was Islam, he saw that there were more basic divisions in the
Here in Trinidad and Tobago, however, racial antagonism is hindering the proper
assimilation of African and Indian Muslims. And since the African Muslims are ill-
equipped to exist on their own, many of the organizations they formed are weakening.
Quite a few of their members left, having not been properly grounded in Islam. Some have
even become communists and Rastafarians as they continued to search for an identity. And
just as NJAC had failed to integrate the Indians into their movement, so too did the Jamaat
attract largely an African following, especially among the alienated youth. Whereas NJAC
was of the mass, Abu Bakr and his Jamaat werefor the mass.
In large measure, these considerations determined the responses to July 27,1990. Abu
Bakr went on television to announce that the Government of Prime Minister Robinson had
been overthrown; and that harm would come to no one. Byway of justification of the coup,
he argued that he could not stand idly by while the economic crisis deepened, while the
poor went hungry and while games were being played with the issue of corruption. Drugs
and prostitution were some of the evils to which an uncaring government had driven many
people. Race relations were at their lowest ebb. Although he was critical of the half million
dollars allocated to a monument, in memory of Gene Miles, a white activist who had fought
corruption, nothingwas said about the decision ofgovernment to spend $8 million on a Pan
Theatre, a largely African activity.
Thereactionstotheattemptedcoupwere,however, fundamentallydifferent from those
that greeted the Black Power uprising of 1970. The immediate reaction to the Black Power
Movement of 1970 was that it was either a movement of racial assertion, or an omnibus
umbrella under which any one with a grievance could find a sheltered place. Generally,
however, it was believed that NJAC had a point, but that its methods were at fault. Indeed
legislation between the period 1971 and 1980 could be described largely as a response to
NJAC's programme. In the case of the Jamaat, however, it was clearly a movement rooted
in the urban African milieu, generated and driven by substantial African aspirations. It is
true that it subscribed to the Islamic principles of fundamentalism, yet the Jamaat was very
much in the tradition of Black urban and radical protest in the Caribbean. In the past, the
protest had taken the form of a syncreatic religion such as Bedwardism in Jamaica. It was
often remarkedtoo that thesereligious movementswereverymuch influencedbyChristian
doctrine. But it was also argued that Christianity and the missionaries were part and parcel
of the infrastructure of'white domination'. For these reasons there was a conscious search
for a doctrine that was more indigenous and relevant to the'African personality'. Islam and
the Black Muslims in the United States and the Caribbean, answered these fundamental
Viewed this way, the nature of the organisation that was the Jamaat, its actions and
reactions to its attempted coup become consistent. Yet there can be no question that the
Jamaat was a social welfare movement. While it offered a new vision of society, it also
provided education in its schools, medicines for the ill as well as shelter and clothing for the
under-privileged. In an urban environment experiencing the traumas of adjustment on the
onset of economic crisis, an organisation such as the Jamaat was bound to attract a number
of adherents. The question to be answered is why it transformed itself to and went beyond
its purely religious function to attempt to take over the State. Wilkinson has suggested that
such religious movements as the Jamaat adopt the following political strategies:-
1. Intervene as a social welfare agency in areas neglected by the state.
2.Lobbying at international and national level on behalf of specific policies.
3. Forming their own parties or trade union movements.
4. Attempt to socialize politically the young through educational work, religious schools,
5. By involvement in revolutionary resistance.
Applied to theJamaat of Trinidad, there can be no doubt that the Jamaat was very much
involved in social welfare, even in areas where the police and other agencies seemed
ineffective. It did attempt to get representatives from the Black Muslims of the United
States to intervene with the Trinidad Government on their behalf; it became involved with
the Trade Union Movement through the Summit of Peoples Organisations (SOPO) just as
it attempted to socialize the youth into an alternative political culture.
It must be recalled, however, that NJAC in its day had substantially behaved in a similar
manner, but hesitated from taking over the state by violent means. Indeed, soon after 1970,
NJAC became a political party contesting elections and has remained so ever since.
Abu-Bakr also acquired a measure of political legitimacy by his appearance on formal
occasions alongside personalities such as the Chief Justice, and on political platforms and
demonstrations with some of the leading figures of the radical establishment He also
publicly promised to take out relevant ministers in their sleep; and both the PNM and NAR
seemed incapable of dealing with what was regarded as an unauthorized presence on state
lands at Mucurapo. In the view of one critic it seemed that the rule of law had collapsed
under both the PNM and NAR. That critic wrote:
People have been squatting on state lands for years,
ignoring requests and defying threats and eviction or-
ders; some have been handsomely compensated for
surrendering what was not theirs in the first place.
Vendors have been blocking roadways on the plea that
they have a right to earn a living, and obstructing
others to whom they would deny the same right.
People in essential services have downed tools and
taken to the streets, placing the nation's health and
survival at risk. All this has been permitted to continue
with a tolerance which quite clearly has been
misinterpreted for weakness- so Abu Bakr struck.
In this view then Abu Bakr was part and parcel of an emerging counter-culture which
rejected the basic assumptions behind policies based on 'law and order'.
Later reactions to the attempted coup also came in phases. The first reactions were
concerned with issues such as whether there was duress, whether an amnesty had been
agreed upon, and whether thegovernment should honour any agreements reached with the
Jamaat or not. There was also some concern with finding 'the facts' of what really
transpired.As thedustbegantosettle, otherquestions begantoemerge. Was theattempted
coup an 'aberration'? What were the basic causes? How could the Muslimeen soldiers
leave under the very noses of a joint army and police patrol to wreak havoc? And whether
international forces were at work? What was striking though was the timing of the various
condemnations of the attempted coup. It was only then it was abundantly clear that the
police and army were in complete control of the situation that the congratulatory messages
to the government and the condemnations of violence began to pour in. It was almost as if
the politically astute were adopting a wait-and-see attitude before declaring their sym-
pathies, a position, it should be noted, that is usually adopted in the early stages of an
attempted coup. And there was finally the question of the extent of the support for Abu
Bakr and the issue of looting.
Indeed, discussions surrounding the issue of looting tended to interpret it in terms of
the urban African community, there by seeing it as a racial issue. Such a view gains strength
when the attempted coup by the Jamaat is conceived of as yet another African attempt to
capture the state. However it is instructive to observe that the looted businesses were quite
close to depressed, urbanised, communities in which the African presence dominated. It is
also important torecognise that'Umbala'sSupermarketwas also looted and that areas such
as La Brea, Point Fortin and Tobago with predominantlyAfrican populations were exempt
from looting. It has also been reported that sections of the middle classes, includingwhites,
were also seen as looting, thus making the issue a national rather than a racial one. It was
also reported that the lootingwas part of the Muslimeen plan to distract the security forces.
Whatever the truth of the matter, whether Africans were the predominant looters or not, or
whether looting was part of an overall strategyby theJamaat, the fact is that it revealed that
some of the basic foundations for the operation of the 'Westminster system' were in
According to the theoreticians of Equality the impulses behind 1990 were similar to
those of 1970, 'only the garbs had changed'. In 1970 the uniform was the dashiki, in 1990
it was exchanged for army fatigue. EqualityalsonotedthatRobinsonhadfailedtocondemn
the invasion of the Parliamentary Chamber in Fiji by Colonel Rabuka. Indeed, they
argued that the Jamaat newspaper The Light, though funded by an Indian Muslim, carried
mainly articles and photographs of Africans. They concluded:-
It is not surprising, therefore, that Abu Bakr's choice
of negotiators on the hostage crisis were non-Indian,
that is neither Muslim, nor Hindu. For him it was
Black first and Muslim afterwards. Like the Black
In short, as in 1970,1990 was for Indians a family quarrel. More importantly, however,
they argued that 1990 developed out of a crisis in legitimacy. In their reasoning the Cabinet
had eroded its moral right to govern, since it was now made up of senatorial nominees
bereft of the popular mandate. Yet the issue of legitimacywent much deeper, reaching the
very foundations of Trinidad's political culture.
This is the issue which Lloyd Best probes in his postmortem of the abortive July coup.
For him "legitimacy, not majority, is manifestly the issue". According to Best the problems
started with the manner in which Robinson was chosen as leader. The failure to open up
"vital issues" deprived Robinson of legitimacy. Robinson, in Best's view, was not properly
validated by the NAR. Best argues that what was required was a "collective act by a college
of leaders and a coalition party of parties". Robinson, instead was marketed as the "man
with the plan". Caribbean man, indeed as a charismatic leader. Abu Bakr, for Best, merely
imitated the alliance campaign of 1986 by "simply exploiting the rage of the general public
over the political management". And Best is right to observe that neither Robinson nor his
colleagues within the NAR had been prepared for the burdens of office they inherited. He
In no sense had Mr. Robinson and his colleagues
prepared themselves for the rigours of office: not in the
quality of the cadre elevated to the ministry; not in the
machinery put in place [for] resolving conflict in the
unitary party; not in the view that the ethnic fragments
had gained of the relation of each to the wider collec-
tivity; not even in the project for society that the from
bench had cared to put on offer. Nor had the popula-
tion been effectively alerted to the impending rigours
Robinson's failure, according to Best was the result of a broader failure to deal with
party questions and to alert the electorate about the issues and strategies that they would be
forcedtoadopt. Robinson hadthus not educated the peoplebefore taking office. AbuBakr,
Daaga and Robinson were part of a mainstream political tradition in Trinidad and Tobago.
Best concludes that there is "nothing essential differentiating the methods employed in
yet a whole history of political thought turns on that difference. Political change and
succession if it takes place by "street agitation and armed insurrection" begets a cycle of
coup and counter-coup. Change by electoral means leads to greater stability.
The Westminster system is based on electoral participation, but that system is not only
about elections. It also includes a free press, an informed public opinion, pressure groups
and organizations cutting across ethnic lines and a relatively homogeneous society. It also
presupposes a functioning two-party system, with a fairly regular oscillation between
government and opposition. The truth is that only some aspects of the Westminster system
obtains in Trinidad and Tobago a free press, judiciary, free and fair elections. Critical
ingredients are conspicuously absent. One party was in power for thirty years, while the
political parties are largely vehicles for communal interests. Pressure groups and associa-
tions seldom cut across communal lines. The intelligentsia is itself aligned.
There has always been two political cultures in Trinidad the culture of the mass and
that of the Afro-Saxon elites. When politics was largely a contest between and among the
elites for the 'achievement' ofindependence therewas no problem. But once independence
was achieved and radically different problems were put on the agenda, the elites could no
Best is right to point out that the tale goes beyond Weekes, Joe Young, Robinson and
the Imam. It in fact goes back to the irresponsibility of Crown Colony government. The
great mischief of Crown Colony government was that by giving the elected member office
rather thanpower, itbredprotest leaders, cults, and millenarian movements. Crown Colony
government generated the "fantasies of the corridor". Cipriani defined his political thought
as simply "to oppose and depose'. Kwame Nkrumah was in that tradition, when he declared
before his assembled followers "seek ye first the political kingdom and all other things will
be added unto you." Job quotes an imaginary Muslimeen sympathiser:-
You cyah see it now ... the chirren will worship Bakr
as a Black hero ... now they know dey cyah mar-
ginalise black people ... give we pressure, destroy all
Williams build up for we ... only talking a lot ah ...
about corruption ... Black people starving and dey
want to build a monument for a ... dey go take we
serious now ... dey know we go mashup de place
anytime ... all dem capitalist suffering black people ...
Babylon fall ... black man go rule now ... every baby
born with blood flowing ... black man go have respect
What this quotation reveals is the whole anthropology involved in the political culture
of the urban masses, questions of black identity, class position, black heroes. Until 1970,
the hero was the returning colonial laden with degrees, and professing an Afro-Saxon
culture the balisier mixing with the tie. This is why so many commentators have insisted
that the attempted coup was an aberration. Complimentary remarks by visiting British
politicians no doubt feeds the belief that the region is solidly committed to parliamentary
democracy. Yet, there was a successful coup in Grenada in 1979 and a counter-coup in
1983; in Dominica, Patrick John was jailed for his role in a coup attempt; in Union Island
there was an attempted uprising; and in Surinam, coup followed on coup. Over the years
there have been several reports of attempts by mercenaries to infiltrate territories in the
Caribbean. It was not surprising then that the assembled Caricom leaders should bravely
condemn the coup attempt in Trinidad and Tobago and should take steps to strengthen
regional security systems. For what has been clear for some time is that the old verities are
no longer present. This is why in Trinidad and Tobago there was so much controversy over
the conventions applicable to Cabinet government. The hesitations over the calls to con-
demn the violence of attempted coup and the ideological somersaults to which those
appeals gave rise suggest that for a substantial number of elites the methods of achieving
power are not all that crucial. It is not without significance that after the ritual condemna-
tion of the Grenada coup of 1979, Bishop was admitted into the councils of Caricom shortly
Reports claim that in the opinion of some, Abu Bakr "made a good move". It is likely
that what was meant was that the NAR was shaken out of its complacency. How popular
that move was, one may never know, since a state of emergency was declared the next day.
The established and largely conventional Indian Muslim orgnisations did in fact condemn
the coup attempt as well as another organisation speaking on behalf of Black Caribbean
Muslims. Some of the initial euphoria with Abu Bakr no doubt had to do with the promised
abolition of VAT. Such sympathy as Abu Bakr received was more of an anti-Robinson
statement than a pro Abu Bakr declaration. That the responsibility for the harsh economic
measures was fixed on Robinson and the IMF rather than on the Cabinet or government as
a whole revealed one aspect of the political culture of Trinidad and Tobago.
Best argues that the coup might not have taken place if Robinson and the NAR had
opened up the issues before taking office. Had they done so they would never have taken
office and accordingly never been provided with an opportunity to change the political
culture. Electorates even in the advanced countries, are not as rational as the convinced
democrat may wish. In communally divided societies, politics is about who rules, gets what
and how. Rational appraisal and discussion of issues by the voter is largely a figment of
Lockean imaginations. From Kingston to Port of Spain politics is about rewarding fol-
lowers. For this reason, there will always be a vacuum in politics. The size of the vacuum
determines the political style that would be adopted to fill the vacuum.
The attempted coup in Trinidad and Tobago by Abu Bakr was undertaken for various
reasons. It was the carry over from 1970 through NUFF and into 1990 of the
grievances which 1970 ushered on to the political stage. The harsh economic measures
adopted by the NAR government as well as the collapse of the coalition, no doubt eroded
the legitimacy of the government; but it was evident too that a new political culture was
emerging. The cult of the Ox-bridge hero was also vanishing, especially among the youth;
and in its place was emerging a new style of leadership. Millenarian movements, especially
was the final opportunity. What has become clearly evident is that the vast majority of
people will in future judge governments not by the means by which they achieve power but
rather by their abilities to deliver the goods. Regardless of the philosophy of self-reliance,
governments will be judged and possibly removed on the basis of the capacity to meet their
expectations; and violent urban protest will continue to be largely African-dominated if
only because they comprise the overwhelming majority of the urban sector. Islamic fun-
damentalism will continue to attract the black youth, so long as unemployment remains a
problem. The most that governments could do is to alleviate unemployment. They can
never eliminate it. The State will nodoubt embark on programmes to increase employment;
it will introduce some form of national service and attempt to alienate the poverty of some
In much the same way, the PNM in the post-1970 period legislated a people's sector of
the economy into existence. But things have changed forever. Parliament and the office of
the Prime Minister are no longer sacred symbols. Potential Abu Bakrs might already be
calculating that Abu Bakr almost made it and may even be thinking of avoiding his
mistakes. The future however depends on the shape of the party systems and the kind of
political leadership that emerges in the next elections, constitutionally due by March 1992.
POLITICAL CRISIS IN TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO:
CAUSE OR COINCIDENCE?
DENNIS A. PANTIN
"Do IMF Agreements lead to revolutionary upheavals in the Third World?" This is
roughly the title of a newly arrived book brought to my attention by the UWI Library on, of
all days, July 27, 1990.The coincidence was uncanny since essentially the same question
was asked by several local and foreign journalists in the week following July 27,1990: Was
the Muslimeen uprising a political fall-out from the IMFAgreements signed in late 1988 by
the Trinidad and Tobago Government? It took over a week to access this book when the
University library eventually resumed normal operations after the end of the extensive
daily curfew periods which prevailed before the release of the Parliamentarians and
journalists in the television station. The book itself turned out to be a disappointment. The
author utilised econometric technique to test the possible correlation between IMF agree-
No conclusive correlation was found in the sample of countries studied between IMF
agreements and attempted coup dr etats. A closer correlation was found, however, between
prior attempts to overthrow Governments in the sampled countries, over a prior 20 years,
and later coup attempts. In short, the study found that if a Government so happened to have
signed an IMF Agreement within 20 years of having experienced an attempted violent
overthrow, this evidently was likely to be repeated.
This, on the face of it, is a silly conclusion. It begs the question, for example, of what
explains the first attempt to overthrow the Government? However, ironically, 20 years
earlier, in April, 1970, there was an army mutiny in Trinidad and Tobago in the context of
a mass "Black Power" social upheaval.
Interestingly enough, the Social Sciences Faculty at the St. Augustine campus of the
UWI organised a Conference in April of 1990 on the "1970 Black Power Revolution: 20
years later." The organizers invited the current Prime Minister, Mr. A.N.R. Robinson to
give the Feature Address. It was felt that Mr. Robinson could benefit from reflecting on the
causes of the 1970 Revolution given the instinctual feeling that the society was bordering
on some of the same generic conditions which triggered that earlier event.
Mr. Robinson was well placed to provide such a reflection. He was a Minister in the
then ruling People's National Movement (PNM) and had resigned in early 1970 in dis-
agreement with the way the Government responded to the street demonstrations which
began the 1970 "February Revolution". Unfortunately, Mr. Robinson declined the invita-
It is also remarkable that Mr. Robinson became Prime Minister in December 1986 as
leader of the coalition National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) which campaigned,
inter alia, with the warning that if the incumbent PNM was re-elected it intended to enter
In fact, in the first Budget Speech of the newly elected NAR, presented after a little
over a month in office, in January 1987, Mr. Robinson, in his capacity of Finance Minister,
warned that one of the three "dragons" which the country needed to avoid was that of the
As has so often happened elsewhere in the Third World, less than two years later, in
November 1988, Mr. Robinson was eating these words and justifying the signature of a
Stand-byAgreement with the IMF.
The remainder of this paper will therefore analyse the possible relationship between
economic conditions and the political crisis of July 27, 1990.
The main hypothesis of the paper is that the economic foundations of political crisis of
July 27 did not originate in the IMF Agreements, although these did not help, but rather in
the continued failure to transform the Rentier Economy, and hence State and society.
This hypothesis will be supported by the following four Sections of the paper. The first
Section will involve a discussion of the elements of the political crisis which, as we shall
see, extended beyond the mere Muslimeen uprising. The second Section will elaborate
upon the concept, and political implications, of the Rentier economy and State. The third
Section will comprise a review of the post-independence performance of the Trinidad and
Tobago economy to illustrate the workings of the Rentier Economy. The fourth and final
Section of the paper will attempt to hazard some scenarios with regards to future economic,
and hence political trends in Trinidad and Tobago.
1.The Elements of the July 27, 1990 Political Crisis in Trinidad and Tobago
There were three main elements to the July 27, 1990 political crisis. The first was the
Muslimeen uprising which led to the seizure of mainly Government parliamentarians
present at the sitting of Parliament, as well as of journalists and support staff in the
country's sole television station.
The second element was the widespread looting; and the third was an even more
widespread lack of sympathy for, if not wished for demise of the Governmental hostages.
Were these elements caused thenbythe fall-out from the IMFAgreements? Let us look
at each in turn. The Muslimeen justified their action on the basis of an expressed revulsion
at a perceived existence of widespread corruption, including a drug trade which it claimed
was tolerated and actively supported by some in the NAR Government. These charges did
not however, originate after the NAR was elected to office in December 1986. The same
accusations were made of the previous PNM Government during the oil boom. The oil
boom period, 1974-1984 certainly coincided with the growth of cocaine abuse within the
Acceptance of the moral rationale for the Muslimeen action can only lead to the logical
conclusion that this motivation would have led to similar action even without.the existence
of I MF Agreements, and even under economic boom conditions, if corruption and drug
traffickingwere perceived tobe rampant.
A more skeptical approach would consider the action of the Muslimeen to be that of a
political group, defined as one seeking political office. In this perspective, its action could
be seen as that of exploiting the fall-out from the IMF conditionalities to seek office by the
means thought to be most appropriate for the political resources of the organisation. In
which case, the conclusion could only be that the IMF Agreements were coincidental to an
action thatwould have been attempted, once the political conditions, whatever their causes,
The second element of July 27, 1990 was the widespread looting which took place
primarily in Port-of-Spain and the adjoining East-West Corridor region. The question is
whether the fall-out from the IMFAgreement caused the looting? The conclusions here are
more difficult to support.
Casual empiricism indicates that the looters came not merely from the under-class but
also included the middle class. However, the overwhelming majority of the looters came
from among the unemployed, particularly youths. While the looting was concentrated in
Port-of-Spain and bordering areas of the East-West corridors, there is, again, some casual
evidence that looters came from all parts of the country. The moot question is whether
similar looting would not have occurred in similar conditions of a break-down in law and
order, as for example after a hurricane? The qualified answer has to be in the positive.
Certainly during the oil boom there were two large fires in shops in Port-of-Spain which
sparked lootingbefore alarge-scale security response could be mounted.
The third, and final main element was the fairly widespread lack of sympathy for the
seized Government parliamentarians and sometimes even an expressed desire for their
demise. This mood prevailed both during and even after the first two events had come to an
This last element is the most important of the three. The first element could perhaps be
explained byspecific religious and ideological factors. Looting, the second element, occurs
in many societies where there is a clear break-down of law and order. How do you explain
the fact, however, that a large proportion of the population then held, and still holds,
extremely unsympathetic attitudes towards the seizure, and what one journalist has
repeatedly described as the torture, of the Prime Minister, other Ministers, and some
Parliamentarians? It is this third element which defines July 27,1990 as a political and not
a security crisis.
This unsympathetic, ifnot hostile, attitude to the NAR Government is no doubt partially
the result of the sense of betrayal felt by an electorate which was persuaded to vote for the
NAR on its promise of applying an economic break to the decline which had already set in
during the previous four (4) years, 1982-1986, of the PNM Government, and also of
engendering an economic turn-around. The main economic spokesperson for the NAR on
the Opposition benches, 1981-1986, for example, repeatedly called for a reflatingg" of the
The split in the NAR coalition Government along racial lines in 1987 has also con-
tributed towards the unpopularity of the ruling party. But the evidence suggests that the
antipathy towards the Governmental hostages transcended the two major racial groups in
This widespread social attitude cannot be explained simply by the animus towards the
NAR regime, widespread as that may be, but by more subterranean currents which have
long run in the society. Without being mechanistic and economistic, it is impossible to
understand these currents without addressing the peculiar nature of the Trinidad and
Tobago economy as a Rentier Economy and State par excellence. It is to this issue that we
2.The Nature and Political Implications of the Rentier Economy and State
A Rentier Economy may be defined simply as one which services primarily out of the
incomes accruing from the exploitation of natural resources by foreign firms which either
own the natural resource based activities, or control the technology used and markets in
which the output is sold. Open Petroleum Economies are Rentier Economies par excel-
lence. Analysis of the peculiar tendencies of such economies is widespread in the literature
under the rubric ofthe "Dutch Disease".
There is a much earlier contribution to this literature with particular respect to oil
exporting economies in the Third World by Seers which is much more relevant to our
discussion than the Dutch disease literature (Seers 1961, 1978). Seers' 1961 work is of
particular relevance. It was based on the empirical case of Venezuela, but Seers saw a more
general applicability to other oil exporters, including Trinidad and Tobago, and even
Seers sought to explain two apparently contradictory and dual tendencies within such
open petroleum economies. First, the coincidence of high positive economic growth rates
alongside large pockets of poverty and rising unemployment. Second, high and intractable
unemployment alongside high and rising wages.
Seers, and later the "Dutch disease" literature, explained these contradictory trends as
flowing from the negative impact of enclave oil sectors on the non-oil sectors of the
economy. High oil rents contribute to consumption of imports since foreign exchange is
abundant. This is encouraged by over-valued exchange rates and a fiscal buoyancy which
contribute to the growth of urbanisation and public sector employment. Non-oil sectors,
particularly agriculture, and export-oriented activity find it difficult to compete both in the
labour and product markets. In the case of the labour market such non-oil sectors face
competition from high wages in the petroleum sector and in bloated public sector opera-
In the product markets, such non-oil sectors are faced with two choices. One, either
treat with open competition from the widest possible range of imported consumer goods,
includingthebest known metropolitan brandnames; or offer similargoods under franchise
and other contractual arrangements with foreign firms under conditions ofimport substitu-
In effect, oil earnings in their high-rent phase crowd out productive activity in the rest
of the economy. This is what distinguishes the Oil Rentier Economy from other natural
resource based Rentier Economies in the contemporary period where the quantum of the
rents from other minerals, arable land or scenic land and water (tourism) are not as
substantial or as sustained as that from oil in this century.
The point is that an oil boom eventually comes to an end, or as Seers put it in 1978,
there is a life cycle to a petroleum economy. It is when the high rent phase is exhausted that
the underlying inequities in income distribution and employment come to the fore. Seers
was to note in 1961, almost prophetically in relation to the political crises in both
Venezuela in 1988 and Trinidad and Tobago in 1991 that:
"... if oil exports level off .... The conflict of interests
between petroleum companies, trade unions, local
farmers, manufacturers, importers and the unem-
ployed, which can be accommodated in a rapidly ex-
pending economy is suddenly exposed, and tensions
mount. A petroleum economy has a potentially ex-
plosive character .... One is tempted to say that the
mechanism of a petroleum economy resembles a
bomb." (Seers, 1961:236)
The limitation of the Dutch disease literature and, to a lesser extent, of Seers' contribu-
tion is that it could lead to the misleading conclusion that there is some mystical force
which leads open petroleum economies to function in the peculiar ways described above.
The construct of the Rentier Economy and State permits the negation ofthe tendency to
reify these economic manifestations of explicable human behaviour.
The most significant feature of the Rentier Economy is that the State is not the
dependent but the independent factor in the domestic economic equation. Rents from the
exploitation of the natural resource, in this case, petroleum, accrues firstly to the State
which dispenses of this rental income among groups in the society. Katouzian notes
correctly therefore that the normal relationship between the State and domesticeconomic
sectors are reversed in the petroleum economy:
"In fact, the historical position is reversed, it is the
domestic economic sectors, including the private sec-
tor, which are dependent upon the State for direct and
indirect welfare gains through the latter's disburse-
ment of the oil revenues." (Katouzian, 197 :6)
The major conflicts among groups in the Rentier society is therefore, for control over
the distribution ofthe rentier income:
"In these circumstances, the most clear cause of social
stratification between various classes is neither their
relative earnings, nor their common relation with the
means of production. On the contrary, it is the com-
mon relations with the State the chief supplier of the
means of consumption which determines the relative
welfare, position and status of different socio-
economic groups." (Katouzian, 197 :6)
Such a society is dominated by parasitic, non-productive elites. In the era of adult
suffrage, however, this reality needs to be disguised, The majority of the electorate must not
be permitted to understand that the Rentier Economy is non-sustainable and that they, by
definition, must receive a declining proportion of oil rents. The danger is that if they
understand, theymight thereby seek toensure the maximum investment of the income from
The objective policy goal, consciously or otherwise, of those in control of the distribu-
tion of the rents is to corrupt the majority of the electorate into the sense of worthlessness
which then engenders the patron-client model of political behaviour. The client knows that
he/she is being bribed by the patron and demands material largesse, or a share of the rent,
in return. Edie for example, captures this reality in a study of the persistence of clientelistic
"... hundreds of demands are made daily on public and
political figures in the urban areas of Kingston and the
rural parishes .... The M.P. (Member of parlia-
ment/local Government Councillor) constituent
partnership is based on an exchange of favours: I vote
for you so you find me a job." (Edie, 1989:1)
In the Caribbean, and certainly in the case of Trinidad and Tobago, one needs to
understand the evolution ofthe Rentier State. Under conditions ofcolonialism, thecolonial
elites were in charge of the Rents. Adult suffrage and political independence reduced but
did not eliminate that control.
The three most important factors in continued control are the political party, the
constitutional "rules of the game", and the media. All three continue to be stacked in favour
of the old elites and those "nouveau arrive" in politics, business and the professions who
have had tobe accommodated.
The first factor in control is the political party. Party contributions meet no criteria of
public disclosure, even of ceilings, moreso of named contributors. By the time a party
comes to power, therefore, it is already compromised by the fact that large financial
contributors now seek to influence public policy.
It is interesting to have read a report in one of the daily newspapers, for example, that
the ruling NAR signed an agreement to buy a new party headquarters on, of all days, the
morning of July 27, 1990 for TT$450,000. The story quoted party officials as noting that:
"The building was purchased with the assistance of an
NAR party activist... but declined to identify the per-
The second factor in control is the Constitution. The borrowed Westminster system
turns out tobe really a model of Electoral Prime Ministerial dictatorship. Once elected, the
Prime Minister has virtually unlimited powers in the economic sphere, as well as in other
respects. The notion of Parliamentary Representation is turned into a mockery. Small
Parliaments mean that the elected Government normally has only a small majority. The
smaller the majority, the greater the probability that all the Parliamentary representatives
of the ruling party must be given some ministerial office, regardless of their competence.
There istherefore littlepossibilityforaroleof"independent"backbenchers. Parliamentar-
tarySecretaries, remaining in power, not for their constituents or country as whole. In the
case ofTrinidad and Tobago, supportingActs ofParliament permit the Finance Minister to
oversee the running ofState Enterprises with no need to involve Parliament in the purchase
or sale of State Enterprise assets. Foreign borrowing is limited only by a ceiling on
aggregate borrowing. The conditions of such loans, and their repayment terms remain a
"State secret" in the sense that the Government may volunteer information but one cannot
insist legally, and hence constitutionally, on disclosure. In effect, once the electorate has
cast its vote, it has no real role in the running of the country, even in terms of simply being
informed. The electorate's only power is at the next polls. The lack of information, of
education on the issues, and the subtle corruption of some lead to a political cynicism on the
party choices of election candidates and hence reduces the electorate to either large-scale
abstention from the exercise of the franchise or to picking from among parties which, in
varying measure, already have been compromised by the contributors to party election
The third means by which the Rentier elite maintains itself in power is through the
virtual absence of popular economic or political education. Very little, if any such educa-
tion is conducted by any agency of the State.
The mass media are primarily-owned either by the large nationally owned firms,
so-called conglomerates, which pre-dated economic independence, or by the State which
exercises an even closer form of control and censorship over free discussion and reportage
than the privately owned media. This media control is even more subtle in that the
journalistic cadre is dominated by those who have little or no in-depth education on either
economic or political issues a fact which is in inverse proportion to the certainty with
which they express their opinions.
Business groups, and even many labour organizations, are also marked by little attempt
at genuine economic or political education as opposed to the protection of their shares of
The decks are therefore stacked against the transformation of Rentier Economies into
productive economies. In periods of boom, the rental income is sufficient to"trickle down"
to the base. In periods of decline and slump, it is the most vulnerable groups who must bear
the brunt ofthe"adjustment".
It is in the period of declining Oil Rent that the Open Petroleum Economy begins to
exhibit what Seers called both its "explosive character" and the resemblance of its
mechanism to that of"bomb". (Seers, 1961:236) We need to add to these characteristics the
specific, though not unrelated, social consciousness of the mass of the population. The
struggle for human rights under slavery and indentureship finds a continuity in the 20th
century struggle for trade union rights and for representational rights of one man one vote.
This social consciousness is marked by two pronounced features in the case of the Trinidad
and Tobago Open Petroleum Economy. First, is an instinctual sense of equity. Second, is a
social threshold of pain beyond which some form of social upheaval is inevitableThe
Trinidad and Tobago experience shows that in this century there has been at least one
unequivocal slump period during the 1930s which led to the so-called "labour riots" of the
In 1956, the PNM led a social movement for improvement in social conditions in the
context of a degeneratingcolonial political order.
In 1970 the "February Revolution" occurred in the context of a combination of shrink-
ing rents and hence worsening economicconditions, and disappointment with the failure of
the PNM to deliver on its promised decolonisation of the society following political
independence in 1962.
In each of these three historical examples, cited above, the attempt to impose an overly
inequitable burden on the most vulnerable breached the society's pain threshold leading to
the so-called 1937 Riots, to the rise of the PNM, and to the 1970 Black Power or "February
Revolution". It is only in the second case, that the social upheaval resulted in the achieve-
ment of political power.
The 1990 political crisis also coincides with a substantially reduced rent and efforts to
shrink the share going to the most vulnerable groups since as early as 1982. The detailed
description of these economic trends comprises the following section of the paper.
3.Economic Trends in Trinidad and Tobago: From 1962 to 1970
Three broad sub-periods can be identified in the analysis of economic trends in
Trinidad and Tobago, since political independence in 1962. They are 1962-1973, 1974-
These three periods will be analysed in relation to empirical trends detailed in Tables
1-3. These tables attempt to capture the critical indicators of performance of the open
petroleum economy. Table 1 therefore begins by reviewing the empirical trends in two
primary and linked sets of indicators. First, the indicators which treat with the role of the
hydrocarbon sector in the economy; and second those which treat with the trend in
Government's fiscal account.
1962 '66 '70 '72 '73
1. Oil Products
(Mn barrels) 48.9 55.6 51.0 51.2 60.6
2. Oil Exports (US$ Mn)
289 334 372 434 576
3. Oil Exports as%o Of Merchandise Expo
85% 81% 79% 79% 83%
4. Oil Price
(US$) n.a. n n.a n.a. n.a. 2.7
5. Oil Revenue as % Govt.'s Current Revenue
29% 23% 20% 19% 33%
6. % Change of Oil Revenue
1982 '83 '84 '85 '86
1. Oil Products (Mn barrels)
64.6 58.3 61.8 64.3 61.6
2. Oil Exports (US$ Mn)
S2709 1955 1737 1705 973
3. Oil Exports as %Merchandise Export
90% 86% 83% 82% 72%
4. Oil Price (US$)
33.5 28.5 28.5 27.5 14.0
5. Oil Revenue as % Govt's Current Revenue
50% 38% o 42% 39% 32%
6. % Change of Oil Revenue
23% 25% 12% -11% -31%
Govt's Fiscal Account
1966 '70 72 '73 '74
1. Current Govt Revenue (US$ Mn)
125 161 208 243 597
2. Current Govt Expenditure
(US$ Mn) 152 182 218 227 326
3. Balance on Current Account
(US$ Mn) -10 17 271 437
Govt's Fiscal Account
1982' 83 '84 '85
1. Current Govt Revenue
rJS$Mn) 2974 2633 2730 2696
. Cusr nt Govt Expenditure
(US$ Mn) 1744 27812735 2679
3. Balance on Current Account
(US$Mn) 1050 -148 -51
'74 '76 '79 '81
68.1 78.6 78.2 62.1
1773 2005 2400 3396
90% 92% 93% 93%
9.8 11.5 17.3 32.5
65% 62% 62% 62%
667% 15% 37% 2%
'87 '88 '89
56.2 55.2 54.5
1041 834 962
75% 59% 63%
17 18 18
37% 31% 42%
16% -21% 31%
'76 '79 '81
874 1518 2780
437 978 1724
'86 '87 '88' 89
1454 1454 1258 1137
1598 1566 1542 1187
-144 0112 -284 -50
TABLE 1. ROLE OF OIL IN THE ECONOMY. Source: Trinidad and Tobago
Handbook of Economic Statistics, 1962-1985. and compilations from other sources in
Table 2, on the other hand, turns to the key external account indicators. These in-
dicators, follow from the trend in the oil and fiscal trends of Table 1.
External Accun c L 2A 1973 1974 1976 1979 1981 1982
1. Overall Balance of Payments
$ n) -30 -14 294 199 366 569 219
2. Foreign Debt (US$ Mn)
102 223 157 770 1050 1203
3. Foreign Debt Service Ratio
4.5% 3% 5.4% 3.2% 4%
4. Foreign Debt Service as % Govt's Current Revenue
4.2% 4.8% 7.7%
75. Net Capital Flow with Rest of World
6. Foreign Exchange Reserves
58 34 341 871 2016 3203 2983
7. Import Cover (Mths.)
1.6 1.0 4.4 12.1 15.9 19.5 12.9
8. Exchange Rate TT$ =US$
1.92 1.96 2.05 2.44 2.4 2.4 2.4
1983 1984 1985 1286 1987 1988 1989
External Account Indicators
1._ Overal balance ot Payments
F n D 901 -729 -107 -663 -25 -16 -145
2. Foreign Debt (US$ Mn)
14381643 1807 2065 2293 240 2380
3. Foreign Debt Service Ratio
10.6%7.4% 9.7% 17.8% 28.8 33.2% 22.0%1
4. Foreign Debt Service as % Govt's Current Revenue
8.6% 6.1% 8.8%/ 21% 28.8% 33.2% 21.3%
5. Net Capital Flow with Rest of World
-232 -306 -31 -172 -52 -27 -297
6. Foreign Exchange Reserves
2083 1189 1461 329 80 -6 113
7. Import Cover (Mths.)
9.9 7.4 11.5 2.9 0.8 0 1
8. Exchange Rate TT$ =US$
2.4 2.4 2.45 3. 3.6 3.93 4.25
TABLE 2 EXTERNAL ACCOUNT INDICATORS.
Source: Trinidad and Tobago Handb.ook ofEconomic Statistics, 1962-1985. Port-of-
Spam: Central Bank, 1989; and completions from other sources in progress
Table 3 treats the key indicators of unemployment and price trends and it also depicts
the impact of the trends covered by the first two tables, on the people in the society. Table
3 also provides, almost as a footnote, trends in National Income, which have limited
analytical value in an open petroleum economy.
This period is marked by a virtual stagnant trend in earnings from oil exports which
grew from US$289 million in 1962 to US$372 million, eight years later in 1970. As a
result, over the same period, 1962-1970, the share of oil exports in merchandise exports fell
from 85% to 79%, while the oil sector's contribution to Government's current revenue
declined from 29% to 20%. Government's fiscal revenue also reflected a similar stagnancy
to that observed with regards to oil export earnings.
This first period is marked by the absence of any serious external imbalances as Table
2 reveals. The foreign debt was insignificant while the balance of payments was only
modestly in deficit.
Table 3 shows, however that unemployment remained stubbornly fixed at around 14%
of the labour force and in absolute terms grew from around 46,000 in 1962 to 59,000 by
1973. This period, 1962-1973, was one of political and social adjustment to the experience
of political independence. It was marked by an early split in the Peoples' National Move-
ment. The "radical" wing, whose mentor was C.L.R. James, broke away from the ruling
PNM. By the late 1960s, the radical movement began to mobilise popular support on the
basis of impatience with the slow rate of dismantling of the colonial social and economic
order. This political 'highlight' of the period was the 1970 Black Power "Revolution",
already discussed above, and an incipient urban guerilla movement which developed in its
Dr. Eric Williams in 1973 a decision that was quickly reversed following the coincidental
rise in oil prices towards the end of that year. When Dr. Williams resigned the country's
foreign exchange reserves were down to 3 weeks of import cover, and the incipient urban
guerilla movement the National Union of Freedom Fighters (NUFF) was making the
headlines with a series of daring robberies and even an attack on a rural police station.
Sub-period 2: 1974-1981
The 1973 Yom Kippur War dramatically changed the social and political climate. The
process of maturation within an environment of political and social conflict became
irrelevant in the context of a massive oil boom. Table 1 shows for example that oil export
earnings leapt from US$434 million in 1972 to US$1773 million by 1974, two years later -
an increase of a little over 300%. By 1981, oil earnings were up to US$3400 million -
approximately US$3billion greater than that earned sixyears earlier.
The share of oil exports in merchandise exports grew to a little over 90% during the
1974-1981 period, while oil revenue's contribution to Government's current revenue
soared from 19% in 1972 to a little over 60% during the same period. As a result the
Government ran budget surpluses inspite of a substantial rise in its expenditure. The
country's external accounts also exhibited extremely healthy signs. The balance of pay-
ments was in surplus throughout the period, 1974-1981. As a result the country built up
substantial foreign exchange reserves which, by 1981, were worth US$3.2 billion. These
reserves provided an import cover for virtually two years some 20 months, as opposed to
the one month cover of 1973.
In this boom environment, unemployment fell close to a single-digit 10.5% as Table 3
illustrates. Given abundant opportunities for self-employment, one could argue that this
unemployment actually overstates the level of idle labour and that Trinidad and Tobago
was operating close to the full employment reality of metropolitan economies. The price
trend was also relatively moderate over the period and Gross Domestic Product recorded
The oil boom period was marked by political quiescence. Radical groups lost the mass
following which they were beginning to galvanise in the early 1970s. Many "radicals"
turned in their dashikis for jackets and ties and joined the "system". The ruling PNM won
the 1976 General Elections with little difficulty. In March 1981, Dr. Williams died, and his
successor, Mr. George Chambers was able towinthe September 1981 General Elections on
the wave of grief and sympathy engendered by the death of the "father of the nation".
Sub-period 3: 1982-1990
The oil boom came to an end in 1981, although it took another three to four years for
this fact to dawn on the population. Table 1 shows that oil exports fell from an oil boom
high of US$3.4 billion in 1981 to a record low, to date, of some US$1 billion by 1986, five
years later. In its wake, the share of oil in merchandise exports declined from its high of
93% at the turn of the 1980s to some 70% in 1986. Similarly, the share of oil revenue in
Government's current revenue plummetted from the 62% of 1981 to 33% in1986.
The external accounts reacted equally badly. Balance of payments deficits have been
recorded since 1982. In fact, between 1982-1987, the country spent some US$2.2 billion
more than it earned. These deficits were financed bydrawing down on accumulated savings
and by foreign borrowing. As a result, the US$3.2 billion held in foreign exchange reserves
by 1981 had virtually disappeared five years later, in 1986. The country's foreign debt also
jumped from some US$1 billion in 1981 to US$2 billion by 1986. Naturally, the import
cover provided by these foreign exchange reserves were soon down to the 1 month cover of
1973 when Dr. Williams resigned.
In the wake of these negative trends, as Table 3 reveals, unemployment grew from the
10% of 1982 to 22% by 1987. In absolute numbers, unemployment more than doubled from
44,000 in 1982 to 107,000 in 1987. These unemployment rates have been sustained up to
1962 1966 1970 1972
1. Unemployment 45,500 49,140 47,270 53,200
2. Unemployment % 14% 14% 13% 14%
3. Price Trend (Retail Price Index)
1982 = 100 2.2% 3.8%
1979 1981 1982 1983
1. Unemployment 49,200 45,500 44,100 50,280
2. Unemployment % 11% 10.5% 9.9% 11.1%
3. Price Trend (Retail Price Index)
1982 = 100 8.5% 11.1% 10.1% 16.6%
1. GDP (MP)
2. Net National Products as
Source: Trinidad and Tobago Handbook of Economic Statistics, 1962-1985, Port-of -Spain: Central Bank, 1989
; and compilations from other sources in progress
TABLE 4. THE EVOLUTION OF POVERTY IN TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
A. INCOME APPROACH-1 1971/2 1975/76 1981/82 1988
% Households below 2
Poverty Line 26 n.c. n.c. 20
No. of Poor 257,000 n.c. n.c. 242,300
B. EXPENDITURE APPROACH 2
(1) Absolute Poverty
% Households n.c. n.c. 3.5 14.8
(2) Relative Poverty
% Households below
(i) 40% median per capital Exp. n.c. n..c. 18.2 20.3
(ii) 50% median per capital Exp. n.c. n.c. 18.2 20.3
Absolute Poverty 38,300 179,300
40% criterion 136,700
50% criterion 199,000
TOTAL POPULATION 988.0 1017.4 1091.9 1211.6
n.c. not calculated
1 Derived from R.Henry (1975) and R.Henry & J.Melville (1989)
2 There is one significant difference between the 1971/2 and 1988 Poverty studies being compare d here.
There being the exclusion of accommodation expenditure from the 1988 survey.
3 Derived from R.Teekens
early 1991. The increase in prices averaged some 12% points between 1981-1987 being
particularly steep in 1983-1984 to 16.6% points and 15.2% points, respectively.
IMF/World Bank Policies, 1988-1991
In December 1986, the PNM was literally swept out of office after a 30-year reign by
the coalition NAR which captured 33 of the 36 Parliamentary seats. The NAR was elected
on a Manifesto that promised to turn around the economic decline which had begun to
exhibit itself from as early as 1982. Two trends dominated the first two years of the NAR
in office. First, the perhaps unavoidable errors of learning, given the fact that only two of
the NAR Ministers had any prior experience of holding office. Second, an increasingly
bitter internecine struggle among members of the coalition, culminating in the expulsion of
most of those who were previously associated with the predominantly sugar and the East
The corrosive trend in the country's external accounts were ignored until mid-1988,
when it became clear that foreign debt service payments could not be sustained. It is in this
The policy conditionalities attached to these IMF Agreements, as well as a Structural
Adjustment Loan from the World Bank, have had a, by now well-known, negative impact
on the most vulnerable groups in the society.
It is interesting to note that by 1988, before these policy conditionalities had begun to
take serious effect, studies were already recording a worsening of poverty trends. Table 4
The first study utilised the Income Approach and conservatively estimated that some
20% of the country's households (in 1988) were living below an equally conservatively
estimated poverty line in 1988. The second study, utilised an Expenditure approach and
found that the number of people living in absolute poverty increased from 3.5% in 1982 to
close to 15%(14.8%) in 1988.
These poverty trends are likely to have worsened since 1988 for several reasons. First,
a Tax Reform exercise implemented in fiscal 1989 and 1990 has shifted the tax base to a
regressive form of indirect taxation a 15% Value Added Tax. Strictures on Government
expenditure had led to a temporary 10 percent cut in public allowances, a freeze on merit
increases for Public Servants and the non-implementation of a 6% wage award granted by
the Industrial Court. The Health and Education sectors have been negatively affected, as is
the norm in other countries experiencing similar policy conditionalities.
4 .Conclusions and Prognosis for the 1990s and Early 21st Century
The major focus of this paper has been on the mechanism of the Rentier Petroleum
economy which provides the most powerful, and consistent explanation, of the recurring
political crises of Trinidad and Tobago, including that of 1990.
In a sense, the events of July 27, 1990 provide more of a warning than of an example of
social upheaval. The very peculiar militaristic nature of the Muslimeen operation distin-
guishes it from 1937, 1956 and 1970. It is not the Muslimeen action which provides the
comparison with the earlier breaches of the society's social threshold of pain. Neither can
this be provided simply by the evidence of looting. It is the antipathy towards the
Governmental hostages which indicate that there is a widespread sense of non-repre-
sentation and of inequity in the economic measures being implemented. The solution
cannot come from a mere changing of the guards but requires a fundamental restructuring
of the constitutional rules of the game. Such constitutional change needs to reduce, if not
remove, the three pillars of the Rentier economy noted earlier: non-accountability by
political parties, biassed media, and a constitutional system which permits of Prime Mini-
The prognosis for the 1990s and early 21st century depends on two things. First, on the
trend in oil income. Second, on the trend in political understanding and hence action which
seeks to transform the Rentier economy and State into a productive one. It is difficult to
In terms of the first oil income this is dependent on production, price trends, and tax
rates. In terms of production, there is now a major exploration drive currently underway,
involving several foreign firms in joint venture with the two state-owned oil companies. It
is left to be seen whether these exploratory efforts yield results similar to the find byAmoco
off the east coast of Trinidad in 1968, whose onstream production coincided, fortuitously,
with the jump in oil prices from late 1973. It is difficult to imagine that at least someaminor
finds will not occur to ensure that oil production, at worst, maintains a level close to the
current one of some 160,000 barrels of oil per day.
Predicting trends in oil prices is a notoriously difficult task at the best of times and the
Gulf War further complicates the picture. Will the United States seek a "war dividend" in
terms of sustained levels of lowered oil prices? Time will soon tell.
Several oil futures studies conducted internationally in recent times have predicted a
new oil boom by the mid-1990s. There are several grounds on which to suspect these
projections, without taking the Gulf War into consideration but these need not detain us
here. The point is that if oil prices do rise on a sustained basis, then Trinidad and Tobago
will be able to retain political and social stability by the oil strategy of some "trickle down"
of the Rents. If oil prices do not increase, or more importantly, if they decline significantly
on a sustained basis, even the "trickle" will disappear.
The third factor which will influence oil income is the level of oil taxation. Tax rates are
important at present, in that virtually half of the crude oil production in Trinidad and
Tobago, and the more lucrative half in fact, is controlled by the US oil company, Amoco.
This factor couldbecome much more important if any, or all, ofthejoint venture companies
begin to increase their share of domestic oil production.
Oil taxation rates have been effectively lowered in recent years to encourage explora-
tion and augmentedproduction efforts. These changes have not beenwithout somevalidity.
The tax changes have however been predicated on assumptions of declining oil prices and
Trinidad and Tobago has therefore not been able to benefit quickly from any price jump, as
that which occurred during the Gulf crisis of the latter half of 1990.
There is an even more important concern. This is the growing dominance of free market
theology which harkens after lowrates of taxation. The headquarters of this theology lies in
the quadrilateral(?) institutions, mistakenly titled multilateral(?), based in Washington -
The IMF and the World Bank. Their acolytes however tend to be well placed in State
bureaucracies and the private sector in Third World countries. The laissez-faire world to
which they all aspire prevailed prior to political independence and permitted a small elite to
control the Oil Rents. The struggle for independence undermined the validity of the
laissez-faire strategy. However, the new post-colonial elites did not attempt to transform
the economybutmerelyto redistribute the rents.
The ability to implement such laissez-faire strategy depends, in the contemporary case
of Trinidad and Tobago, first, on the level of oil rents, second, on the size of the foreign
debt burden, and third, on the clarity and political skill of those who seek alternative routes,
not simply in increasing their control and hence share of the Oil Rent, but, in transforming
We already have dealt with the possible scenarios in terms of the oil rents. The foreign
debt burden, as far as can be established from the partial evidence available, will soon loom
larger. As a result of its IMF Agreements, Trinidad and Tobago was able to obtain a
moratorium on the principal payments of its foreign debt for four years, 1988-1992. Come
mid-1992, therefore, debt service payments increase.
Table 5 shows that between 1992 and 1997, the country will have to find at least US$3.5
billion to service its foreign debt, an annual average of US$594 million. This is an estimate
based on figures provided by the Finance Minister in March, 1990. To date, this Minister
and his Government have ignored several public calls by this author and others including
newspaper editorials to confirm the validity of these projections in terms of several
unknowns. This is quite consistent with the constitutional rules of the game.
Year Before Reschedules After Rescheduling
1980 US$ 563 MN US$ 420 MN
1990 657 341
1991 535 315
1992 599 512
1993 475 672
1994 505 673
1995 418 608
1966 328 542
1977 355 560
TABLE. DEBT SERVICE PROJECTIONS (US$MN)
SOURCE: Ministry of Finance as reported on Trinidad and TobagoExpress, March
7, 1990, page 3.
The final factor which will influence the future, as noted earlier, is the clarity and
political skill of those groups which seek genuine transformation of the Rentier economy
into a productive one as opposed to achieving control of the State and hence of the
distribution ofthe Rent.
The obvious examples of such actors are the political parties and the People's sector
made up ofTrade Unions, Credit Unions, genuine productive national firms in agriculture,
manufacturing and services and other non-governmental organizations. A full analysis of
the capabilities of these organizations deserves a separate study. The preliminary con-
clusion being made, however, is that the political parties exhibit limited understanding of
the nature of the Rentier economy, and even less understanding of effective strategies for
Trade Unions and credit unions also tend to generally perceive themselves as operating
in the social environment of their metropolitan counterparts and not therefore as having a
key catalytic role in transforming the societyvia popular education and advocacy to change
the rules of the Constitutional game. The same holds for most non-governmental organisa-
tions which tend to focus on micro, or communitybased initiatives rather than on the macro
economicsituation. There are examplesofproductive national private sectorfirmsbut they
have not been able to achieve dominance in their respective sectors.
The important difference is that the July 27, 1990 crisis whatever its causes, and one's
attitude towards each of the three main events, traumatised the society. It is only the
calypsonian/artistes who have attempted to come to grips, to date, with the experience.
Carnival 1991 has been dominated by calypsoes which either directly, or by inference, have
attempted to exorcise the July 27, 1990 experience.
Do others in the society have the understanding to engage in discourse at other levels?
The elites have shown no such historical capacity. Following the 1937 "Riots" which
spread throughout the English-speaking Caribbean, the colonial British Government estab-
lished the Moyne Commission to investigate the causes of the popular uprising. No such
enquiry followed 1970. In fact, when the University of the West Indies Social Science
Faculty organised a commemorative conference, 20 years later, its validitywas questioned
within the university, in the press, and by many sectors of the society. This conference was
held on April 19-21, 1990. Three months later, on July 27, 1990, a society with a penchant
for amnesia looked at the past,(?) and the nature ofits Rentier Economy, State and Society,
ark in the face. Let us hope, and pray that we begin to remember.
1. The fact that I was repeatedly asked this question may not have been unrelated to the fact that in
November 1989, I published a monograph critical of INF and World Bank policies in Trinidad &
Tobago. (Pantin, 1989)
2, The three co-organisers of this Conference were Professor S.Ryan and Dr.RReddock both then
at the Institute of Social and Economic Research and myself.
3. Statements to this effect were repeatedly made by Musllimeen spokesmen prior to, and during
the July 27 crisis.
4. One of the stories which has continued to be told is of female bank employees participating in
the looting of one of the jewelry stores in Port-of -Spain.
5. Representatives of Winston Dookeran whose major role as Minister of Planning has been to
negotiate a deflationary Structural Adjustment Loan with the World Bank.
6. See for example the articles and references in IDS "Bulletin Mineral Exporters in Boom and
Slump", October1986. See also van Winjnbergen, 1984.
7. The emphasis is on this century since there were periods when cocoa or sugar was 'king'. The
work of Best and Leavitt on plantation economy has identified the movement of the sugar economy
from "boom" to "gall and wormwood". (Best and Leavitt, 1975).
8. From a discussion of the optimal utilisation of the rental income from the depleting oil reserves,
see Pantin, D.A. 1980.
9. Trinidad Guardian, October 13,1990. p.3.
10. See Corporation Sole Act, 1973.
11. In March, 1990, for example, the Ministry of Finance provided data on debt service projections
to 1997. Efforts to confirm the veracity of these projections and/or to obtain more recent data have
elicited only one response: deafening silence.
12. In the case of Trinidad and Tobago, for example, the two daily newspapers are each marked by
major shareholding by the two main private sector "conglomerates" or their dominant role as adver-
13. See W.A. Lewis (1939) for a description of the prevailing economic conditions during the
1930's. See also R.D.Thomas (ed.) 1987.
14. See Ryan, S.(1972) for an account of the rise of the PNM.
15. See D.A.Pantin (1990a) for an analysis of evolution of the country's foreign indebtedness.
16. See Pantin, D.A. (1990a) for an analysis of evolution of the country's foreign indebtedness.
17. This table comes from a larger study on the Social Debt situation in Trinidad and Tobago. See
Pantin, D.A. (1990b).
18. The 10% cut was reinstated in January 1991.
19. This follows from the fact that the crude oil controlled by Amoco commands premium price
given its 'light', low sulphur composition.
20. Four key developed economies control the vast majority of voting power in these Washington
institutions USA, UK, Germany and Japan. Third World Member Styates may seek to influence
the decision-making process but have little voting power.
ASSET,(1989) The Role of IMF in Trinidad and Tobago, Vol.7, No.2.
Best, L. (1968) A Model of Pure Plantation Economy, Social and Economic Studies, Vol.17, No.3
Caribbean Economy, In G.Beckford (ed.) Caribbean Economy Dependence and Backwardness,
Edie, C. (1986) From Manley to Seaga: The Persistance of Clientelistic Politics in Janimca, Social
and Economic Studies, Vol.38. No.1
IDS Bulletin, (1986) Mineral Exporters in Boom Slump. Vol.17. No.4.
Katouzain, Moma (1985) The Political Economy of Development In Oil Exporting Economies:
An Analytical Framework. Studies in Economics. University of Kent at canterbury, U.K
Lewis, W.A. (1977) Labour In the West Indies : The Birth of a Workers' Movement New
Beacon Books, London
Pantin, D.A. (1980) Resource Depletion Theories and Planning in Mineral Exporting Countries
with Particular Reference to Petroleum Exporters. OPEC Review Vol.V No.4 (Winter)
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JAMAATAL MUSLIMEEN INSURRECTION IN
TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO, 1990
To understand the events of July 27th, 1990 one needs to examine the social,
economic, and political scenario that was unfolding in the years leading up to the action
by the Jamaat al Muslimeen. The central thrust of our position is that the Muslimeen,
led by Imam Yasin Abu Bakr, did not understand the issue of power, and therefore,
would have been unable to take power or accomplish the more difficult task of trans-
forming the society.
It is our view that only a popularly organised mass movement encompassing the
working people, unemployed, youth, women, self-employed and other nationalist
groups in the society can effectively challenge the established neo-colonial structures
and transform these structures. No single group, no matter how well intentioned or
how well armed and trained can by itself carry out the task of transformation.
This is precisely what the Jamaat al Muslimeen attempted to do in July 1990. While
it is true that a mass movement was developing, there was no organised link between it
and the Jamaat. The Jamaat's "politics" therefore was not really the politics of the mass
movement. As a result, rather than carrying the mass movement to the point of it being
able to challenge for power, the Jamaat's action derailed the mass movement.
In 1986 the population expressed its dissatisfaction with 30 unbroken years of
Peoples National Movement (PNM) rule by voting out that party en masse. On a wage
of anti-PNM sentiment the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) won the
biggest electoral victory in the political history of Trinidad and Tobago.
What did the new Prime Minister, ANR Robinson, and the NAR do with this
historic moment, this unique opportunity? They certainly did not fulfill the hopes and
expectations of the people for a new and better Trinidad and Tobago, and to build a
trusting relationship between Government and people. They displayed no confidence in
the capacity of the citizenry to be involved in deciding policy. Nor did they seem to have
faith in the people's ability to perform. Instead, the new Government led by Mr.