When, in 1988, the great Trinidadian calypsonian Black Stalin sang “We could make it if we try,” that his country was facing its “darkest hour,” referring to the economic crisis of the time, he obviously could not have foreseen the more serious trials and tribulations to come. The phrase has, however, been appropriated by one commentator after another, including many politicians, to characterise successive crises in Trinidad and Tobago, sometimes with some hyperbole, other times with some justification.
The latest horror to be visited upon our sister CARICOM state is the assassination of former independent senator and Senior Counsel, Dana Seetahal, in the wee hours of May 4. It is no exaggeration to say that what appears to have been a well-orchestrated hit has shaken the country to the core, most especially because of the chilling message that was sent – no one is immune and out of reach of the long arm of the criminal gangs that appear to operate with impunity in Trinidad and Tobago.
Amidst the outpouring of public grief and outrage and the cries that the country has plumbed new depths of darkness, however, there is the sobering thought that there is a certain twisted logic, if not inevitability, to this most recent tragedy. After all, as some analysts and bloggers have already pointed out, the country has, what might be called form in this respect. That is to say, Ms Seetahal’s murder is not so much a wake-up call as confirmation that the country is wallowing in an abyss of lawlessness and depravity and has been doing so for some time now.
The attempted coup by the Muslimeen in 1990 is generally regarded as the country’s loss of innocence, the aftermath of which is held up by some as the unleashing of the scourge of murderous criminality, with hardly any accountability, as the country has descended into a spiral of violence and mayhem. The Muslimeen were, after all, granted an amnesty for their treasonous and lethal assault on democracy, with some of them becoming ‘community leaders’ and even being awarded government contracts.
There have been numerous other gruesome landmarks along the downward path the country has trodden over the past two decades, most notably the unsolved assassination of former attorney general Selwyn Richardson in 1995 and a list of other high profile murders, similarly unsolved and as Trinidad Guardian columnist Ira Mathur wryly notes, forgotten – forgotten, that is, until the next atrocity. And all the while, the country has racked up one of the highest murder rates in the world, with 160 murders to date in 2014 already.
If Trinbagonian commentators are to be believed, it seems that the populace has become almost inured to the daily toll, mainly because the dead are assumed to be gangsters. But there have been horrific murders of children and women, many involving unspeakable abuses and all pointing to an underlying sickness in a society blessed with oil wealth though perhaps cursed by the inability or unwillingness of successive governments to attack the root causes of crime and the socio-economic problems that have led to a greater societal malaise afflicting the land.
All this is compounded by the weaknesses of the country’s criminal justice system. As the Sunday Guardian’s editorial on May 11 put it, “The problem that the country now faces is the inability of the criminal justice system to deal with cases of this nature whereby the trail eventually goes cold, as happened in the Selwyn Richardson matter, or the State is unable to obtain a successful conviction for a murder. This kind of process has become the hallmark of the post-1990 criminal justice environment, and it cannot be tolerated further.”
It is clear that serious judicial and police reform is necessary to address the challenges posed by organised crime, not to mention policy measures to tackle the socio-economic conditions that breed crime. But that can only be achieved over the medium to long term. In the short term, the Trinidad and Tobago public want the kind of reassurance that only swift action to bring Ms Seetahal’s killers to justice can provide. The air of cynicism emanating from the twin-island republic, however, would suggest that people aren’t holding their breath and it remains to be seen whether Ms Seetahal’s killing will prove to be a catalyst for change. Hopefully, she did not die in vain.