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Robinson’s life in politics

From Tobago nationalism to global jurisprudence
Published: 
Sunday, April 13, 2014
death of a statesman
November 3, 1991—Prime Minister ANR Robinson receives an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree at a special convocation ceremony at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Lle Ife, from Chancellor of the University Alhaj Umaru Sanda Ndayko.

On January 24 1956, ANR Robinson, then a young barrister-at-law, entered active politics when he was presented at Woodford Square as the Treasurer of the People’s National Movement (PNM) together with the rest of the executive of the country’s newest political party. 

 

 

In September 1956, Robinson entered electoral politics when he contested the single constituency (at that time) of Tobago in the general elections as a candidate of the People’s National Movement (PNM). He lost to APT James by a margin of 5,774 to 5,529 votes. His desire to represent Tobago led him to stand again for election, this time in the March 1958 Federal elections, and he was successful in becoming one of the 45 elected legislators in the Federal Parliament.

 

By 1961, he turned his attention to one of the two Tobago constituencies that had been created for the first time, namely Tobago East, and he was victorious. He was appointed Minister of Finance in the Cabinet of Dr Eric Williams.

 

In 1966 he was reassigned to the Ministry of External Affairs from which he resigned in 1970 at the height of the Black Power uprising. Robinson never hid his support for the movement and he had clear differences with Williams on the matter. He subsequently formed the Action Committee of Dedicated Citizens (ACDC) and created an alliance with Vernon Jamadar, the then leader of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP).

 

Robinson made a political gamble in 1971 when he announced that the ACDC-DLP coalition would not contest the May 24 1971 general election because of suspicions about the use of the voting machines. The PNM won all 36 seats. 

 

 

He entered a period of political hopelessness during the 1971-76 period as he called for civil disobedience as a means of challenging the Government in the absence of any real opposition. However, his political stratagems were not over as he formed a new party, the Democratic Action Congress (DAC) in 1976. He made a definite turn towards Tobago nationalism as a means of defeating the PNM in Tobago and it worked when the DAC won both Tobago seats in the 1976 general election. 

 

The creation of a Tobago nationalist movement that was not separatist, but rather developmental, opened a new vista to a political movement that would earn him considerable political success. Williams was badly wounded politically and his decision to relocate the Ministry of Tobago Affairs to Trinidad as an act of political vendetta against Tobagonians for voting against the PNM played right into Robinson’s hands. 

 

The PNM’s Achilles heel had become Tobago and Robinson’s continued promotion of Tobago nationalism led to a concession by Williams to create a Tobago House of Assembly (THA) by 1980. The DAC won the first THA election in 1980. 

 

 

Williams would die the following year and the PNM remained unable to answer the Tobago nationalist movement that Robinson had cultivated and nurtured with clear policy success. There was much more work to be done if Tobago was to attain its development goals in the context of an overall national agenda.

 

By 1986, Robinson was made the leader of a coalition of parties that came together to form the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR). That single-party experiment of being “the party of parties” was highly successful in the December 1986 general elections. 

 

 

However, one size could not fit all and the single party called the NAR started to crack under the tension of an inability to cater for dissent within an expected mainstream of party discipline that was not sustainable because of the political diversity within its own ranks.

 

With Basdeo Panday and some of his supporters separating themselves in 1988 to form the Coalition for Love, Unity and Brotherhood (Club 88) which later became the United National Congress (UNC) by 1989, a new political nemesis for Robinson was about to emerge. However, his darkest hour would not come from Panday, but rather from Imam Yasin Abu Bakr who would lead an armed insurgency against his government on July 27, 1990. 

 

While being held captive in the Parliament, Robinson represented the last line of defence between the insurgents of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen and the preservation of democracy. His now famous words “Attack with full force!” uttered with the barrel of a gun pointed at him will forever be a clarion call that showed the mettle of the man in the face of personal death or civil surrender.

 

The fact that Robinson would be defeated at the polls in December 1991 by virtue of a split between himself and Basdeo Panday in which the NAR and the UNC would facilitate the PNM to win a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives with only 45 per cent of the votes cast would teach both of them a lesson.

 

The early general election of November 1995 saw the remarkable reunion of two political foes—Robinson and Panday—with the post-election formation of the UNC-NAR coalition. Robinson enjoyed a highly dignified status as Minister Extraordinaire, but it soon became apparent that his eyes were set on the presidency and Panday was willing to let him go.

 

Robinson tilted away from Panday during his presidency and the public disputes between the two over appointments to a variety of offices became standard fare between them until Robinson removed Panday as prime minister in a moment of constitutional vulnerability on Christmas Eve 2001.

 

He eventually completed his term of office in March 2003 and was succeeded by Professor George Maxwell Richards as the Electoral College could not have been convened the year before owing to the fact that no one held the office of Speaker following the inconclusive 18-18 tied general election of December 2001. 

 

The creation of the International Criminal Court in the The Hague has been regarded as Robinson’s seminal contribution to world politics and jurisprudence and will forever remain the hallmark of a man who started out in Castara, Tobago, and lived a full life of public service extraordinaire.