by Neville Duncan

[Reproduced from Caricom Perspective, July – December, 1990,

With the permission of the Caricom Secretariat.] 

In the contemporary period, among the several flashpoint incidents of political violence, two stand out - the failed revolution/coup of 1970 and the July 26, 1990 Muslimeen parliamentary hostage revolt. The revolts of 1970 and 1990 were cataclysmic and, perhaps cathartic. Were it not for the massive and unanticipated oil wealth which was generated through OPEC petroleum price increases, the “peace” since 1970 might not have held until 1990. That wealth was used in part to keep the poor, frustrated and angry Trinidadians at bay. With the victory of the NAR, the difficult economic situation it had to deal with, the hard economic decisions to take, and the internal dissension within the party, it was not particularly surprising that a major violent act occurred.

The “February 22nd Revolution” was highlighted by a march to Caroni, 28 miles long, which, reportedly, attracted ten thousand marchers and proved a tremendous success. The government’s initial response on March 23 was to raise, by increased taxation, TT$10 million to create work for the population. Marches proclaiming Black Power emerged in every part of the twin-island state attracting massive crowds. The Deputy Leader of the ruling party (PNM) resigned from the Cabinet on April 13. All these and other related events took place against a background of violence and arson. Quick marches organized by the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) in solidarity with various striking groups, kept the political situation at a boiling point.

On April 21, the Prime Minister declared a State of Emergency in the country and asked for the support of the USA government in putting down the mutineers. By this act, the government also forestalled a planned general strike which was to include the powerful Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union led by George Weekes. A revolution may very well have occurred if the government, at long last, had not moved decisively, with US assistance against the burgeoning popular forces aided by a section of the military.

The Jamaat al Muslimeen revolt and hostage taking was unanticipated by the government although the group was under observation by the security arm of the police force. On July 26 in the late afternoon, black Muslim leader, Imam Yasin Abu Bakr appeared on Trinidad and Tobago Television to announce that he had taken the Trinidad and Tobago Cabinet hostage and that he was now in charge of the country. The Red House (the parliamentary building) and the Television station were occupied by the Muslimeens and the St. Clair police station was bombed and set on fire. An indeterminate number of persons were killed in that attack and many injured.

“Negotiations” commenced the following day between the Muslimeen and government ministers and officials, Roman Catholic Archbishop Anthony Pantin and Anglican Bishop Clive Abdullah. During all this there was widespread shooting and looting in which at least 22 persons were killed and scores more wounded. Robinson spoke on short wave radio requesting the Chief of the Defence Force to cease firing weapons in the vicinity of the Red House and on the Monday both he and his Minister of National Security, Selwyn Richardson, broadcasted that an agreement was reached with the Jamaat al Muslimeen.

On the Tuesday, after 1:00 p.m., Prime Minister Robinson was released. During Wednesday, all the hostages were released and at 2:15 p.m. the Muslimeen surrender began to be effected, first from the Red House, and then, secondly, from the Television Station. Then it was all over. The report was that the group had surrendered unconditionally and were taken to Camp Ogden for detention.

The Muslimeen action took place against a background of severe difficulties in the economy, a swelling hostility towards the government and its policies since attaining power in 1986 and the emergence of new political and social groupings. Specifically, the Muslimeen were annoyed that the High Court had ruled against them in April that they had illegally constructed buildings on a plot of land at Mucurapo Road. The group was actually demonstrating outside the Red House while parliament was in session to bring attention to the complaints. Ironically, this made it easy for the group to amass its forces without arousing much suspicion of their damaging and illegal terroristic intention.

The aftermath of the failed attempt at restructuring the Trinidad and Tobago government was that the government refused to acknowledge that “negotiations” took place with the Muslimeens which should be honoured, regardless of the circumstances under which the process took place. The rebels were arrested, their supporters not directly involved in the violence were harassed and some arrested, a prolonged state of emergency was enforced, and many Muslimeens were charged with capital crimes in the Courts. It should have been evident that the announced agreement -- which among other things would have permitted the perpetrators of violence against the state to return free of any criminal prosecution to their compound and with their weapons -- was in many respects a ridiculous one. An unconditional agreement was, in reality no agreement at all. The very least one would have expected of a plausible agreement was the acceptance of unconditional exile from the Republic by the top leaders of the Muslimeens. As it eventuated, the government has reneged on the published agreement and are pursuing the normal law and order route. While there are interesting questions to be examined here, it is the larger one about the Muslimeen action and the liberal democratic state of Trinidad and Tobago which will be the main concern in this article.

An Analysis of Violence in Liberal Democratic Societies

Violence and conflict are pervasive aspects of all societies. Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Grenada, Dominica, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, with a history 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 a political revolution. Obviously, the response to the first has been shown by the latter experience 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 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 particular group.

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 a generalised normalcy had to be restored. The Trinidad and Tobago jails are 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 is noteworthy that many persons were engaged in looting during the revolt with virtual immunity. That says a great deal about the proclivities of people and the feeling by them that looting was almost justifiable.

The government must understand that more and more state violence and repression will 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 anti-systemic activities.

How the problem of violence is treated depends upon the diagnosis which governments and law enforcement agencies act upon. One response is to strengthen the law and order institutions and institute greater repression over segments of the population identified as potentially disruptive. It is a response which seeks to label and thereby treat and suppress what is defined as deviant or anti-social behavior. 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. There are so categorized in order to be dealt with using exceptional measures. These have been the normal response of our elites throughout our history. The governments, whether black or white, have always acted as though they have the right to pursue policies, even in the face of widespread and strong public opinion against such actions.

This is the understanding of what took place in the Muslimeen revolt which influenced the Trinidad and Tobago government’s response. I deem it to be an insufficient response.

Governments see force as the legitimate use of state power to prevent, restrain or punish breaches of the law and see violence, which lacks the legitimation of constitutional and legal sanction, as essentially arbitrary  [Paul Wilkinson]. This use by governments of force, is referred to as “structural violence” in circumstances when “a person is prevented by social deprivation of political repression from fulfilling his or her aspirations” [C. R. Mitchell]. 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 and police harassment.

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 on which they had illegally possessed, so why should they be singled out for the special attention of the state. These are all interesting questions within the framework of a liberal democratic order.

Violence, seen as “the illegitimate use or threatened use of coercion resulting, or intended to result in, the death, injury, restraint or intimidation of persons or the destruction or seizure of property” [Paul Wilkinson], is deemed particularly unacceptable and frightening in liberal democracies. The political systems under examination are practitioners of the Westminster variety of liberal democracy and have a 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’.’ [Wilkinson]. 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” [Wilkinson: 26], and one may find tolerable conscientious 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 conducted 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 normal practice, to have their grievances addressed. Although, presumably, the group had felt that this stage was reached after the decision of the High Court.

In the other situations 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 of justice within it. In nearly all respects, the group was not excluded from participation in the civil society of Trinidad and Tobago. They were not an ostracized group. They might have been looked upon with suspicion and might have been jostled 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 accompanied it.

In some of the 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 so characterized. 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 were done, the Republic would more than likely have been spared of the acute embarrassment of the hostage-holding situation in the international community and the extensive and long-term damage done to the economy.

Another appropriate response could have aimed for the inculcation of different sets of values, such as frugality and asceticism, within the group, induced by the government and/or the leaders of the group themselves. But, of course, there was no really prior negotiation between the two sides.

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, the deep national embarrassment could have been avoided if the institutions of government had been prepared to find solutions other than eviction of the group from the landed property on which it had squatted. History may not absolve the government. 

[Dr. Neville Duncan is Senior Lecturer,

Department of Government, U.W.I., Cave Hill.]