Every July 27 is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the principle and pursuit of democratic engagement and governance.
The Jamaat-al-Muslimeen’s fatal folly of attempting to overthrow the government by the gun proved that there is no short-cut to a democracy based on respect for the rights of all and that we must be ever alert against the opportunistic adventurism seeking to exploit our anxiety for change.
After 30 years it is completely immaterial whether or not Jamaat leader Yasin Abu Bakr chooses to apologise or not for his deadly assault on the nation. The over-inflated ego and delusions of grandeur that led him to expect thousands to rush out and support him and his bunch of naïve, misguided zealots do not provide the humility for inconvenient truths. For, the truth of the failed coup of July 27, 1990 is that Bakr and his crew of 113 saw an opportunity for advantage and seized it.
There is no denying the 1990 climate of hurt, anger and general anti-government sentiment which provided both fertile ground and cover for the Jamaat’s plot against the people and the state.
ANR Robinson’s expulsion from his cabinet of Basdeo Panday and other leaders of the United Labour Front which had propelled his government into office had fuelled massive distrust and anger against him and his government mainly throughout Central and South Trinidad. Along the East-West Corridor and elsewhere, the anger was compounded by the cut to the public servants’ salaries and other stringency measures necessitated by the collapse in oil prices that had spiralled into a recession.
Even without the Jamaat’s intervention in July 1990 it is unlikely that Robinson and the NAR would have been saved by the December 1991 polls that swept them from office. But the democratic path leading to elections did not suit the Jamaat’s agenda. Convinced that it was under imminent threat by the State, the Jamaat undertook a covert operation to remove the government by force. It sent a team for military training in Libya and, with the collusion of persons in strategic positions, imported an arsenal of arms and ammunition. On July 27 they struck, taking the Parliament hostage and seizing control of the country’s lone television station, TTT. Bakr announced that the government had been overthrown, the prime minister and his cabinet arrested and that “the revolutionary forces” were in control of the streets. None of this was true. The government was not overthrown; the prime minister and his cabinet were taken hostage and not arrested and the streets were under control of the police and army and not the “revolutionary forces”.
Five days later, Bakr and his men surrendered with the rest of the country watching the end of the madcap initiative from the safety of their homes.
The episode came at the high price of 24 non-Jamaat lives with an unknown casualty among persons related to the Jamaat. It has been a teaching lesson for all of us about the terms of political association and the fragility of democracy ungirded by strong institutions. Judging by its increasing eagerness to join the political mainstream, the Jamaat, too, seems to be showing itself capable of learning.