WORLD

A coup that went awry

Rebels give up after a five-day standoff

BARBARA WICKENS August 13 1990
WORLD

A coup that went awry

Rebels give up after a five-day standoff

BARBARA WICKENS August 13 1990

A coup that went awry

WORLD

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO

Rebels give up after a five-day standoff

Under the levelled guns of nervous government troops, a tall, white-clad figure emerged last week from a television station and into a rain-swept street in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. Above his head, he held an automatic rifle, which he slowly laid on the sidewalk. “Allahu akbar [God is great],” shouted rebel Black Moslem leader Yasin Abu Bakr as soldiers moved forward to take him into custody. Then, 70 of Abu Bakr’s followers trooped out into the tropical rain, stacked their rifles with his and followed him into captivity. Shortly afterwards, another 42 rebels gave up their armed occupation of Trinidad’s colonial parliamentary budding, the Red House, which they had stormed at the same time as they had the state-run television station five days earlier. The rebels also freed 46 hostages, including about half of the cabinet of Prime Minister Arthur Robinson. The day before, they had released Robinson, 63—who was shot in both feet at the start of the uprising on July 27—in what one rebel called a “humanitarian gesture.” It was a strangely subdued ending to the attempted

coup in the Caribbean island republic.

Abu Bakr’s aborted revolution resulted in at least 38 deaths and nearly 300 injuries. An orgy of looting and destruction by citi2ens unrelated to the coup laid waste parts of the capital—despite an 18-hour-a-day curfew enforced by government troops with strict orders to shoot to kill. Abu Bakr and his followers, members of the Jamaat al-Muslimeen (Society of Moslems), had ended their tense standoff after they reached an agreement with their captives. Many of them appeared genuinely surprised at the rough treatment they received after surrendering, as soldiers spread-eagled them against nearby walls to check for other weapons. The rebels shouted that they thought they had been granted amnesty. Indeed, government spokesman Gregory Shaw admitted late last week that officials held hostage obtained their freedom by signing agreements with the rebels that they did not intend to keep. Said Shaw: “It is foolish to quibble about ethics with people who have done these things. Why not promise them the moon? You had hostages under gunpoint.”

Abu Bakr, a resident of Toronto in the early 1980s and a self-proclaimed admirer of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, had accused Robinson of running a corrupt government. He also said that the prime minister was responsible for the widespread poverty among the country’s 1.3 million people, who five on the two islands of Trinidad and Tobago, seven miles east of the Venezuelan coast. Robinson, Abu Bakr claimed, had agreed to step down and hold an election within 90 days, instead of the originally scheduled 18 months. But Shaw said that those agreements would not be kept. Indeed, defence forces spokesman David Williams added that the rebels would be charged with murder, kidnapping and treason, a crime punishable by hanging.

The greatest damage to the normally tranquil country resulted not so much from the coup attempt itself, but from the looting and rioting that occurred during the siege. In the near anarchy that prevailed for five days, residents of the capital emptied many stores and burned down others. Indeed, in New York City, Napier Pillai, an official in Trinidad’s consulate, issued an urgent appeal for provisions. Said Pillai: “Food and medical supplies are desperately needed because the capital has been cleaned out.” At week’s end, the curfew remained in effect throughout the island of Trinidad, and state radio broadcast warnings that stiff measures would be taken against violators.

The chaos left by the looting, and an exodus of frightened tourists, were a severe blow to the Caribbean country, which is trying to recover the prosperity it had before oil prices plummeted in 1986. Covering an area slightly

smaller than Prince Edward Island, the twoisland nation has proven oil reserves of 600 million barrels. In 1989, exports of crude oil and refined petroleum products accounted for 25 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. Slumping oil prices since 1982, however, caused unemployment to soar to 22 per cent from nine per cent and boosted the government’s budget deficit. Over the same period, per capita income dropped to $3,000 a year from $6,800. Robinson, the prime minister since December, 1986, and head of the liberal National Alliance for Reconstruction party, had tried to stimulate the economy by diversifying the industrial sector, boosting exports of other commodities and devaluing the currency. As well, tourism was playing an increasingly important role in the nation’s economy. But it could be some time before the tourists return. Ted Morris, a spokesman for Air Canada, said that the curfew made it difficult to resume normal flight schedules. He added, “It's a waitand-see situation.”

Even after he was in custody, the strident but charismatic Abu Bakr remained an enigma. Some Trinidadians claimed that he was a terrorist, but others maintained that he was an altruist—although with admittedly unorthodox methods. Born Lennox Phillip in 1942, he was one of 11 children raised by a soldier and his wife in the ramshackle suburbs of Port of Spain. His older sister, Irma Phillip, a devout Roman Catholic who lives near the capital, describes him as having been a gentle and loving child and a good student. He could not afford to go to university, she said, and as a result, he went to work as a mounted police officer for nine

years before he moved to Toronto in the early 1980s.

A spokesman for CBC television confirmed that a “Lennox Phillips” had worked part time in Toronto as a TV props painter. It was during his stay in Toronto that he converted to Islam and changed his name. He returned to Trinidad in 1984 determined to spread his newfound religion and founded Jamaat alMuslimeen, which authorities now say has up to 300 members. He was also determined to help the island’s poor and he built a mosque, supermarket and primary school on a disputed eight-acre site just outside Port of Spain. The government claimed that the mosque was built on public land, while Abu Bakr argued that the land belonged to another Moslem sect that had never used it.

While Abu Bakr’s activities led to trouble with the authorities, it also earned him praise. Haroon Salamat, who is head of the Toronto and Region Islamic Congregation and who has known Abu Bakr for five years in both Canada and Trinidad, described the rebel leader as a man who is committed to social justice. Said Salamat: “He wanted to feed the poor, get people off the streets and off drugs.” Still, few condoned Abu Bakr’s attempted coup. Said Shazan Ali, a Moslem businessman in Port of Spain: “I see him as an idealist, but the methods he uses are not the kind we are accustomed to in a democracy. They are the methods of a terrorist.”

Abu Bakr’s image among some critics was further clouded by his avowed admiration for Gadhafi. Abu Bakr said before the coup attempt that he had made several trips to Libya, and police officials said that members of his Moslem group had received military training there. “The Libyan connection has been established,” government spokesman Shaw added, but he did not elaborate.

Still, some analysts questioned the role that Libya might have played in the coup attempt. Barry Rubin, a scholar with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Maclean ’s that it was highly unlikely that Gadhafi was directly involved. “He has provided arms and cash, but I am not sure that it matters all that much,” said Rubin. “The Libyans have been trying for five or six years to get a foothold in the Caribbean by giving money to a number of groups.” Robert Hunter, a Middle East expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that he, too, thought that the Libyan connection was inconsequential. Hunter added, "There are causes that have nothing to do with Gadhafi.”

For her part, Irma Phillip said that her brother probably knew that he would not succeed in overthrowing the government. “If you ask me,” she added, “he just wanted to shake things up.” Indeed, during the siege, Abu Bakr told a local radio station that the coup attempt was “a small family squabble.’-’ Clearly, however, that squabble has cost Trinidad dearly.

BARBARA WICKENS with

WILLIAM LOWTHER

correspondents’ reports