Tobago’s dream — internal self government

But more than 60 years after late Black Rock-born politician Alphonso Theophilus Philbert James first brought the issue of internal self-government for Tobago into the national consciousness, the island is yet to receive autonomy.

A member of the Trinidad and Tobago Legislative Council from 1946 to 1961, James had tried to galvanise support among people from all sectors of the island to pursue internal self-government status for Tobago.

His stints as leader of the short-lived Tobago Citizens Political and Economic Party (TCPEP) and the Tobago Independence Movement (TIM) were also aimed at stimulating the process.

James had made some headway but died from a stroke on January 5,1962, his dream unfulfilled.

Prior to his passing, however, Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson (a member of the PNM) had defeated James in the 1961 general election, but took up his cause by moving a motion for internal self-government in Tobago during a 1977 sitting of the House of Representatives.

Robinson, who was the leader of the Democratic Action Congress (DAC) at the time, later went on to become prime minister (1986-1991) and President (1997 to 2003). He died on April 9 at the age of 87.

During his term as DAC leader, Robinson had made an impassioned plea for internal self-government, one which bore aspects of James’ philosophy for greater autonomy.

He stated, “The purpose of this motion is to place a substantial part of the responsibility for the conduct of Tobago’s affairs fairly and squarely where it belongs; that this to say, in the hands of the residents of Tobago themselves.”

Unlike James, Robinson did not advocate secession in his motion but regarded the issue of internal self-government as a “matter of historical justice.”

“The purpose of the motion is to enable the people of Tobago to discharge their responsibilities to themselves and to the people of Trinidad in a united Trinidad and Tobago and to the Caribbean as a whole,” he said on January 14, 1977.

“What the motion seeks is a more just, a more realistic and, consequently, a more lasting basis of unity between the peoples of the two islands.

“A unity which is not based on justice, on human rights and on realism is no real unity and will not last. What the motion seeks is an enduring unity, a framework which could establish an acceptable model for unity in the Caribbean as a whole.”

Robinson spoke about Tobago’s under-development, suggesting that “no single island in the Caribbean, however large or small, would accept Tobago’s present status.”

“I challenge anyone to contradict that statement. Tobago does not accept it. Let the people of Trinidad know, let the people of the Caribbean know, let the people of the world know; Tobago does not accept its present status,” he added.

Decades later and likely to be a front burner issue in the run up to next year’s general election, internal self-government has eluded the island and appears to be the subject of an apparent tug-o-war between governments and opposition forces.

Is Tobago, then, truly ready to govern its own affairs? Or is the lack of political will impeding the process?

Retired head of the public service Reginald Dumas says he is fed up of attempts to institute internal self-government in Tobago.

“The movement toward internal self-government has not gone anywhere but in a circular direction,” he said during a recent interview.

“I don’t know where it is going because, essentially, the same elements are coming up.”

Dumas told Sunday Newsday that he was optimistic about the People’s Partnership Government’s attempt to reinvigorate the process for internal self-government in Tobago in the run-up to the May 24, 2010, general election.

In fact, months after the election, Dumas was among several prominent Tobagonians who were consulted in the formulation of Green Paper on Internal Self-Government for the island, titled, “Towards Internal Self-Government for Tobago.” The Law Reform Commission was mandated to oversee the exercise.

“It was the first time that any political organisation promised internal self- government in its manifesto,” Dumas said.

The document was subsequently put out for public comment in March 2012, months before the January 2013 Tobago House of Assembly (THA) election.

“What is prepared is a profound change in the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago. It will affect the entire nation, not just a part of it and the entire nation (Trinidad and Tobago) must therefore have the opportunity to express its views,” a statement issued by the Office of the Attorney General said of the Green Paper.

The document was greeted with skepticism largely because of its release close to the THA election.

Further, there was a general feeling that the document did not effectively represent the views of Tobagonians in moving forward.

Even before the document was circulated to Tobagonians, THA Chief Secretary Orville London had accused the People’s Partnership of attempting to impose on Tobagonians a blueprint for internal self-government that was inconsistent with the people’s wishes and aspirations.

At that time, an upset London dismissed the eight-page document as being “not worth the paper it is written on.”

He said, then, that the Assembly was prepared to do everything in its power to alert the people of Tobago of what was being done to them.

“I demand the right of the Tobago people to say what they want,” London had said during a news conference. Since April, 2013, London claims he has been calling for a meeting with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to resume talks on the issue. Those talks are yet to re-commence.

Dumas observes that while there may be a stated commitment to internal self- government on the part of the Government, the process appears to have reached a stalemate.

“There is division among the various groups and it does not look as if the required progress is being made,” he said.

Dumas also wondered about the position of the People’s National Movement (PNM) on the issue, in light of statements made by political leader Dr Keith Rowley, particularly in the run up to the party’s internal election, that the PNM will give Tobago more autonomy if it forms the next government following next year’s general election.

“One has to wonder what his definition of internal self-government is. Does it mean that Tobagonians can really look after their own affairs?”

Dumas contends that the issue of autonomy on the island may well be a relative one subject to various interpretations from different segments of the citizenry. Hence the need for consensus.

For instance, he said, much thought would have to be given as to whether Tobago has the infrastructure and human resources to manage its own affairs in several key areas.

Dumas’ most recent involvement in the compilation of a Green Paper on internal self-government represents familiar territory.

During Robinson’s term as prime minister (1986-1991), Dumas recalled that he was involved in the formulation of draft legislation for internal self-government in Tobago.

“But (Patrick) Manning had proposed amendments which was not the point of internal self-government.”

Years later, Dumas led a team which sought views from persons throughout Tobago. Subsequently, he said, two other teams were also carrying out consultations on the island — one led by retired permanent secretary Dr John Prince (commissioned by the then London-led THA) and the other by attorney Christo Gift.

“I deliberately did not make any recommendations when the time the report was handed over in 2007 because we knew that the Prince Committee had been set up a week after we had finished. I simply reported on what was found,” he said.

Dumas said he also wanted all three groups to come up with one position “to have coherence and avoid confusion.”

He claimed that London had opted to go with the views of the Prince Committee.

“He took the position that the Prince Committee was the only one that counted and was of any merit,” Dumas said.

Noting that the debate on the issue, at that time, had fallen by the wayside, Dumas stated, “I have nothing to do with it now nor do I want to have anything to do with it.”

However, he noted recent attempts by Tobago Development Minister Dr Delmon Baker and London to resume consultations on internal self-government in Tobago. Dumas asked, “How many times are people on the island going to be asked the same questions?”

He added, “There is a splintering of the efforts and do not know where the current exercises are going. I am fed up and I don’t plan to associate myself with any of the groups.

“We could have worked together since 2008 for one position but everyone wants to shine. It was really childish because the people of Tobago have been forgotten.”

As the debate simmers, the PNM appears to have taken a renewed interest in the exercise.

Speaking during the party’s post general council news conference at Balisier House, in Port-of-Spain, recently, London noted that attempts had again been initiated to bring internal self-government to Tobago through consultation with stakeholders and rival politicians, including his predecessor in the THA, Hochoy Charles, of the Platform of Truth, Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) Ashworth Jack and various non-governmental organisations and interest groups.

But while he regarded the discussions thus far as productive, London lamented that Jack, whose party was defeated overwhelmingly in the 2013 THA election, had stopped attending meetings.

“I am very concerned that the TOP has not decided to participate,” London had told reporters.

Historian Dr Jerome Teelucksingh believes that the lack of historical knowledge on Tobago has hampered the movement toward internal self-government on the island.

“That has been a major setback,” he said. Teelucksingh argued that Tobago’s political relationship with Trinidad also has never been a priority. “When governments change, the promises to Tobago also change and are often shifted to the back burner,” he observed.

“Politicians must stop using the issue of internal self-government as a ‘political football.’”

The formulating of the Green Paper in 2012, months ahead of the THA election, made many persons believe it was an attempt to fool Tobagonians in order to obtain votes in the THA election, said Teelucksingh, lecturer in the Department of History at the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies.

On the flip side, he said Rowley’s statement that the PNM will deal with the issue of internal self-government during its first six months in office, if it forms the next government, fuels the skepticism.

“Certain questions remain, ‘Why did the PNM, when it was in power, not give internal self-government to Tobago?” Teelucksingh asked.

“During his parliamentary career, how vocal was Rowley on this issue? Why is the PP government in the final year of its term now considering a White Paper?”

Given the existing realities - ongoing tensions between the central Government and the THA - Teelucksingh believes that internal self-government is attainable “but only in the long term.”

He said the onus was on Tobagonians to play a more radical role in achieving their desired political status.

“Tobagonians cannot allow apathy to prevail and believe that politicians will make wise decisions,” he told Sunday Newsday.

“Tobagonians must take drastic action- such as public marches on the streets, boycotts, sit-ins, to ensure the conflict ends and does not negatively impact the island. Tobagonians possess this potential and this could be seen in their active involvement in the Black Power movement in 1970.”

If all else fails, Teelucksingh said Tobagonians should consider seeking the assistance of the Association of Caribbean States or CARICOM to resolve the issue.

“If brave Tobagonians do not take the reins of this struggle for internal self- government it will either become dormant or fizzle out,” he said.

“Tobagonians must decide their future, they cannot allow Trinidadians to determine their destiny. And, the central government must stop treating Tobago as a little sister or brother. Only when Tobago is treated equally will there be any progress.”


"Tobago’s dream — internal self government"

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