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Farewell President Richards
Tomorrow, President George Maxwell Richards will be given a grand sendoff. A day later, his successor, President-elect Anthony Carmona, will be welcomed with even more fanfare. The country owes President Richards a debt of gratitude for his two terms of service.
President Richards stood out as being a down-to-earth head of state. Indeed, both he and his wife, Dr Jean Ramjohn-Richards, endeared themselves to the public as patrons of several charitable organisations, while they also continued their work with their own charitable body, Max and Friends, which raised millions of dollars for needy causes.
Apart from this, President Richards, drawing on his experience as a teacher and principal at the University of the West Indies, also took the opportunity offered by his high-profile position to call for initiatives in the field of education to help develop the country’s competitiveness and its strengths in innovation. He constantly urged diversification. But for all President Richards’ good intentions, there were some bumpy moments during his tenure.
Without a doubt, the face of politics has changed drastically over the last two decades or so. As head of state, the President should be above politics. In practice, however, this now appears to be more or less impossible. On numerous occasions during President Richards’ tenure, too, he was subject to criticism.
The appointment of representatives to commissions proved a most contentious one during his term. The controversy which dogged the appointment to the Integrity Commission of chairman Fr Henry Charles—now deceased—and of members Jeffrey McFarlane, Justice Zainool Hosein, Gladys Gafoor and Lylla Bada, was one such example. All subsequently resigned to save the face of the commission and the President.
Later, President Richards’ decision to fire Police Service Commission chairman Nizam Mohammed over a statement he made about the ethnic composition of the Police Service was challenged in the court and Mr Mohammed won. Last year, President Richards signed off on the controversial Section 34, a move with which some sectors of the population found fault, while others argued that it would have been ultra vires the Constitution, as a non-executive president, for him to refuse to proclaim it.
The new President is likely to come under even closer scrutiny, and the pitfalls suffered by President Richards have made it plain that the incumbent must be provided with ample, expert legal advice to avoid or minimise embarrassing legal challenges or constitutional crises. While President Richards stayed away from contentious issues as far as possible, there is a significant non-political topic on which he could have spoken out but chose not to. That is the state of the historic official residence, President’s House.
Since he was inaugurated ten years ago, President Richards has never lived in or held functions in the building, which needed restoration. In the interim, it has gone from bad to worse: part of it collapsed three years ago and to date repairs have not even begun. The condition of the building is a disgrace, an insult to the head of state and a black mark against the two successive administrations which have done nothing to save it.
The building symbolises the position of the highest-office holder in the land, and it would have been fitting if he had championed its cause.
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