Darcus Howe

A politician chooses jail and tips Trinidad towards all-out racial civil war

Basdeo Panday, former prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago and now leader of the opposition, sits in the maximum-security prison in Trinidad. On 31 May, he was entertaining visiting Indian politicians at his offices in Port of Spain when a group of police officers entered the building. After some delay, they read a warrant for his arrest on charges of corruptly receiving £25,000 to favour a company owned by a former MP - and major financier of his party - in a contract to rebuild the island's airport.

Already in custody were Panday's wife, Oma, and the two men alleged to have bribed him. All four defendants appeared before a magistrate and were placed on bail. Panday, however, refused to be bailed and released a statement saying that he would continue "the struggle" from his prison cell. Having lost the previous election, in 2002, his United National Congress has been in decline as its traditional support among citizens of Indian descent has dwindled. Bas, as he is affectionately known, seized the moment, presenting himself for martyrdom.

Events following his self-imprisonment moved rapidly. Thousands of supporters gathered at the UNC headquarters, threatening blood and hellfire. Racial epithets were hurled and the cry went up for civil war. Leaders of the party, sensing a return of their support, launched a campaign to remove the elected government from power.

The People's National Movement, the party currently in office, enjoys the support of the African population. Racial conflict, which has been simmering beneath the surface for more than a decade or so, now threatens to engulf the oil-rich island state. Yet Panday's men continue to stir their supporters along racial lines. A UNC motorcade mobilised thousands early this month, with some of his wilder supporters calling for the crowd to storm the prison and free him. A programme of nightly meetings in the areas in which the UNC holds sway threatens to unleash passions of the most destructive sort.

There is not much the party in power can do. Sources on the island assure me that the government is preparing to call a state of emergency should things deteriorate further. Speculation about the response of Indian policemen and soldiers is rife: will they or won't they remain loyal to the state? Conspiracy theories abound. Only a couple of weeks ago, a government minister resigned after bribery allegations were made against him by a member of his own party, and another minister, who also stands accused, remains in the doghouse. Panday's arrest, his supporters say, was set in motion only to distract people from the government's own corruption problems.

I have long predicted in this column a social explosion in Trinidad and Tobago. And yet not even I could have foreseen that it would be informed by base racial instincts.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, G8 protest: how far should you go?