Reviewing the 1990 Coup: Is Abu Bakr’s number up?

Columnist Earl Best refuses to shoulder arms as he revisits one of the most controversial periods in Trinidad and Tobago’s history

History is replete—littered is more appropriate since the dung heap of history is where we find them—with characters who make no distinction between fame and notoriety. Adolf Hitler, Jack the Ripper and John Wilkes Booth come immediately to mind on the foreign front while Dole Chadee, Mano Benjamin and Boysie Singh are easily accessed local examples.

Now add to that list Yasin Abu Bakr.

Photo: Jamaat-al-Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr. (Courtesy Jyoti Communication)
Photo: Jamaat-al-Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr.
(Courtesy Jyoti Communication)

The 24th anniversary of the 27 July 1990 coup has come and gone without incident. But it is really alarming how, more than two decades after he had his men storm into the Red House and hold the country’s political leadership hostage, Bakr can still threaten us all with impunity. Or think that he can.

Last week, 24 years after the real thing, the imam sent his lawyer son to the parliament building to rain blows on effigies of the (female!) prime minister and the opposition leader. And to make a few noises about how conditions in T&T were coming more and more to resemble those existing in the nation just prior to the 1990 aborted coup but highly successful cock-up.

Not satisfied with that, Bakr senior got on TV to tell the three men directly in charge of the national security forces that he would take “appropriate action” if they continued to detain Jamaat members without just cause. And to declare to the Express that, unsummoned by any of them, he was himself going to see all three gentlemen on the next day.

In July 1990, those responsible took all of six days to break the stand-off and get their hands on the insurgents. One brave move came from NAR Attorney General Anthony Smart, who had the presence of mind to put on a dress and walk—or was it RAN?—out of the building with the cleaning ladies.

What does it tell us about the then AG, I have often wondered, that nobody noticed him?

True bravery was displayed by Prime Minister Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson who, despite finding himself unarmed, tied up like a pig in an abattoir and in hostile hands, could come up with “Attack with full force.” A real man, not so, Mister Smart?

Photo: Late Prime Minister Arthur NR Robinson (right) is greeted by then Cabinet colleague Basdeo Panday. (Courtesy Trinidad Guardian)
Photo: Late Prime Minister Arthur NR Robinson (right) is greeted by then Cabinet colleague Basdeo Panday.
(Courtesy Trinidad Guardian)

Anyway, today, 24 years later in 2014, things are different, very different.

For one thing, the high-profile Smart is Colonel Rodney Smart, the man at the helm of the country’s army. So, should the big-talking Imam—or anyone else for that matter—try anything like that, his attempt would last no longer than the Red House fire. According to Minister of National Security Gary “Motor Mouth” Griffith (GMMG), in 24 hours, things would be back to normal.

What Motor Mouth was thinking but did not say is that part of the Jamaat might be in Carapo and another part in Mucurapo—not 114 divided into two contingents of 72 and 42 but 114 blown apart into little pieces.

Griffith, mind you, is now an ex-captain whose promotion to the rank, if we are to judge by his pronouncements on military matters over the last few months, might well have raised as many eyebrows as another ex-captain Darren Sammy’s. He genuinely believes that he is God’s gift to the local military.

This man, whose utterances are a challenge for even the best editors to punctuate sensibly, had the effrontery to tell Ralph Brown that he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

Talk about pitch calling ashes black. Sammy questioning Clive Lloyd’s credentials?

Anyway, listening to GG shoot off his motor mouth, I got to thinking first about Earl Lovelace’s latest novel Is Just a Movie and then about some significant numbers associated with that black day in 1990.

So here goes…

Photo: Yasin Abu Bakr (right) speaks to fellow Jamaat-al-Muslimeen members shortly after their release from prison in 1992. (Copyright AP)
Photo: Yasin Abu Bakr (right) speaks to fellow Jamaat-al-Muslimeen members shortly after their release from prison in 1992.
(Copyright AP)

72:  The number of insurgents deployed to storm and commandeer TTT.

It is also the number of virgins the insurgents were told they would each have to themselves in Paradise if they happened to give their life for the cause.

45: The number of years ago that Abu Bakr claims to have formed the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen.

42: The contingent of insurgents deployed to storm and commandeer the Red House and hold the duly appointed government of the nation to ransom literally at the point of a gun.

40: The minimum length (in metres!) of the pole GMMG (not to be confused with the movie studio MGM) would need to have a chance of touching Major General Ralph Brown or Brigadier Joe Theodore as a military brain. Remember the Major General’s testimony to the CoE in which, with a GMMG statement about 500,000 rounds of ammunition having been used in July 1990 in mind, he spoke these words: This is not a comic book… This is not a movie. This is serious stuff.”

32: The amount of money (in millions of dollars) the courts have decided the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen owes the GORTT for the destruction of the Police Headquarters on St Vincent Street, which was the first act in Abu Bakr’s megalomaniacal play for the political leadership of the country.

30: The number of people, according to the Express, who were on the night shift at the Red House on Coup Day; two of them did not see the morrow but the records mention nothing about virgins.

24:  The total number of people who lost their lives in the attempted coup as well as the number of years that have now passed since that day.

Photo: Major General Ralph Brown.
Photo: Major General Ralph Brown.

21: The number of years that elapsed between the end of the coup attempt and the start of the official enquiry into the events of that day.

14: (Plus 100): The number of Jamaat-al-Muslimeeen members who were charged but then foolishly acquitted by Justice Clebert Brooks, bereft of the independence and the imagination to come up with the necessary jurisprudence.

11: The number of Jamaat properties the PP Government, indulging in window-dressing that fooled no one, put up for auction to recover monies the Court determined was owed to them.

7: The time (pm) at which Abu Bakr announced on national television that “At 6pm this afternoon, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago was overthrown.”

6: The number of days it took for it to be “all over.”

5: The number of major installations Abu Bakr will have to storm and commandeer if he hopes to succeed the next time around. The optional two are The Teteron and Camp Ogden Barracks but that would involve a level of military sophistication and planning not to mention resources that the amateurism of 1990 says clearly the Jamaat did not have at its disposal. And there is Wallerfield and Cumuto. (See THREE)

It is also time (pm) around which Police Headquarters went boom and burst into flames

4: The Report of the CoE singles out FOUR people as being the target of more punishment and brutality than all the others. Their names are Robinson, Selwyn Richardson, Selby Wilson and Winston Dookeran.

3: The least number of additional installations the insurgents needed to storm and commandeer Piarco Airport, TTEC and 610 radio along with the Red House, TT and Radio Trinidad. But megalomania often adorns one with blinkers so instead of opting to lead the troops down at Abercromby Street where the NAR leadership was and call the shots from there, Bakr chose to be at the television station. (See SEVEN)

Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Ministers Basdeo Panday (left) and Patrick Manning have a chat at a Presentation College reunion. (Copyright Taran Rampersad/Flckr)
Photo: Former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Ministers Basdeo Panday (left) and Patrick Manning have a chat at a Presentation College reunion.
(Copyright Taran Rampersad/Flckr)

2: The number of prime ministers who were MPs on that date but curiously were not in the parliamentary chamber when the insurgents burst in. One was said to have been seen talking to a group of Jamaat members mere minutes before the action started; the other one was not sick but lay a-bed with two pillows at his head that evening.

“Wake me when it’s all over,” he is reported to have told his wife.

TWO is also the number of females, Mrs. Jennifer Johnson and Mrs. Gloria Henry,among the Red House hostages and the number of the 114 Jamaat members, Jamaal Shabazz and Kala Akii-Bua, who have so far offered a public apology for their actions.

1: The number of people who had the cojones to openly defy (“Attack with full force!”) the “ruffians, murderers and torturers” in the Red House. And the time in hours GMMG says would be needed to quell any coup attempt if it occurred today.

Cro Cro’s “We are still the best” is a memorable number but there is only ONE truly great calypso made on the events of that fateful day, not “1990” but “Hosay” sung by David Michael Rudder.

ONE is also the amount of courage, (in ounces), it would have taken for Clebert Brooks to do what any sensible, unbiased citizen would have done and declare the amnesty invalid as the Privy Council eventually did.

Finally, ONE is also the number of people in Trinidad and Tobago who believe anything that MGGM says!

Photo: National Security Minister Gary Griffith. (Courtesy Ministry of National Security)
Photo: National Security Minister Gary Griffith.
(Courtesy Ministry of National Security)

And I want to end with an appeal to Lovelace who told us long ago that The Dragon Can’t Dance.

Please, tell the Dragon. Please. Before 24 more—plus another 114!—have to die…

Besides, 114 multiplied by 72 is 8208. That is plenty virgins to find at short notice—one hour.

Even in Paradise.


Editor’s Note: Click HERE to listen to David Rudder’s memorable calypso “Hosay” or HERE for Cro Cros We are still the best.

And you can also click HERE for the Mighty Sparrows Abu Bakr.

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  1. Trinis have learnt from that and they will never say things cant happen here ever again…..once you push a person enough one day he will turn and fight you….It was a wake up call and an eye opener for all Trinis…..

  2. The attempted coup was a disgraceful period in our history for many reasons. Even in San Fernando people were anticipating the insurgency spreading here, so every so often, we heard rumours that they coming. My uncle, unassuming and always polite was about his business at the GBU,in the red house and was somehow killed. I can still hear the pain in my father’s voice when he said they found Mervyn and he had to identify the body. The condition it was in. Hmmmm when they hoisted the ‘hero’ on their shoulders, the crowd visually told me, crime will go to another level thanks to the new poster boy for evil. I shall never forget

  3. Was in my apartment in NJ when my brother called to tell me there is a coup led by Abu Bakr, to which I replied “Who is Abu Bakr, who is Jamaat (when you living in the US, T&T seems so far away and you really don’t keep up with the details), where is the Police, where is the Army, what about the government …” machine gun pace questioning. I spread the news all over NJ, NY, and other parts of US and Canada, we had a lime/wake at my apartment with people from as far as upstate NY, we called Dennis McComie who gave us a report (we did not clarify who we were so he thought we were a US news entity and he proceeded to narrate a news summary and told us to call later for more if we wanted to). Next few days, we were the ones giving news to the people home from the BBC/CNN newscasts and we were about to march in NY and DC for help, send petition to US/Britain etc, and then it was all over.

  4. did anyone see the interview on Vice News? please check it out on Youtube ..

  5. Around this time, ms. Nadine Wiltshire was teaching us literature from the books the silver sword and a kestrel for a knave. The coup brought the environment from the silver sword and the emotion from a kestrel for a knave to life. There wasn’t any net, cell phone, cable; not as much connectivity as today. Nonetheless, persons got together to do wrong things. Persons hired maxi taxis from Far East maybe south to go into town to loot. Some came back with only left sided shoes. Some used the excuse of the black power movement to plunder the rich. The government I think raised their own salaries, took out cola, put in vat and shut down dewd or lidp, had a negative list for imports, devalued the dollar to deal with the economy. The people felt victimized, the muslimeen felt victimized and acted on this. Soldiers beat people and people beat each other for stolen goods. Some may argue the same law keepers changed their clothes to loot then changed back into uniform! Others chose to make money by throwing parties. I cannot remember any great internal humanitarian effort. After the coup, there was no evaluation done, the pronounced socialization skills were anarchic and apathetic. The country never healed. No one put things in place to do so. The country was never counseled. Kids grew up with knowledge that stealing was ok if you did not get caught, and also you can party whilst others are suffering in all in the face of the law. More than one religion was used as a tool to impact society one passively aggressive and the other actively aggressive. This was the example set. Why do you think crime is the way it is today?

  6. I was one of a handful of journalists inside the parliament chamber when the attack came. I remember the initial blast across the street at Police headquarters and the gunshots that grew louder and louder as the attackers approached the chamber. Skip to the negotiations (some of which I overheard back at 610) and the absolute professionalism of then Col. Joe Theodore. Many have claimed undeserved hero status since then, but my personal hero is Col. Theodore. The late prime minister’s astounding but, in some quarters, scorned admonition to the attackers was another heroic intervention. Partisans on all sides of the political landscape would do well to reflect more intently on the failings that led to the tragedy of July 27, 1990. For the record, unlike what has been published in one book on the aborted coup (not Raoul Pantin’s), I was not cowering at home throughout the period of siege. I was in parliament at the time of the attack and later returned to work at 610 as head of news and current affairs where a small team of us attempted to produce accurate newscasts and bulletins under extremely difficult conditions.

  7. But reflecting on that Privy Council ruling, I doubt very much it would have ruled that way had that uprising taken place in England!

  8. Steuuuuupsssss

    What is the big deal?
    It’s almost August, just now will be the anniversary of the greatest national tragedy in T&T history and I have no doubt we would be commemorating it with the appropriate sober reflection befitting a mature and united people.

    Yes I’m referring to September 11, the day Al Qaida brought down the World Trade Center buildings in New York City.
    I remember the shock and horror experienced by Trinidadians on that day, whereas during the curfew imposed in response to the 1990 coup club owners scrambled to organize coup parties so that we would not miss out on the opportunities offered by an excuse not to go to work.

  9. No need to pretend anymore. Election won, inquiry completed, Robinson dead.


  11. This slime lives on borrowed time.

  12. It came and went without incident, not even the gov’t acknowledged it, none attended the ceremony…

  13. I was in Toronto and with help of many others organized 144 boxes of medical supplies (packed, labelled) and got BWEE to bring them to the Red CRoss. I sat at a desk and dialled numbers and talked to people and directed the effort for 48 hours nonstop. Trinis and a few other Caribbean people did not hesitate. Ian Bertrand was great..
    The truck to Pearson broke down at 2.30 am on the highway….another trini sent a replacement truck and all 144 boxes had to onloaded and put on new truck…in pouring rain.

  14. Actually, while the Privy Council ruled the amnesty invalid, it also ruled since four years had passed it would be in keeping with “due process” to have the insurgents all rounded up, charged and put on trial for their crimes. So they remained free…

  15. Things that make ya go hmmmmmmmm

  16. The Privy Council apparently ruled the amnesty invalid. But the Gov’t decided not to re-arrest.

  17. Did he get a presidential pardon under duress? And how does that stand?

  18. “This man, whose utterances are a challenge for even the best editors to punctuate sensibly,”… Lol!

  19. I was in Rio De Janeiro for my brother’s wedding and my wife and four small children were here in Trinidad. We couldn’t get a flight back for some days and the anxiety was terrible. I remember that we were actually getting more news on the foreign media than those back home (the news even made it to the Brazil television stations). The first news we heard was that the PM and AG had been killed in the Red House, news than thankfully later turned out to be untrue. Sad days in our nation’s history that should never be forgotten.

  20. It was like a scene out of a hollywood movie. We got the report from day 2 or 3, I think. I remember seeing soldiers positioned around the Red House, hearing about Police Headquarters, but can’t remember vividly, all I know it was a melodramatic report. I switched over to the Beeb from there on and their coverage was more of an insurrection but the Jamaat, which was unpopular/not supported by the people. That was 24 years ago and from then on I don’t know about CNN. Didn’t know the details until I came home end of August for 2 weeks.

  21. What was CNN saying? I was listening to Trinidad and Tobago play in the Caribbean Cup on the radio.
    And I was convinced that TTT had staged an odd skit during news time when I say Abu Bakr make his bizarre statement.
    It was only when the match was abandoned that I realised something really big was happening.

  22. I was living abroad and heard it on CNN, after watching some of the footage and hearing differing reports from family here, I never watched CNN again!

  23. I was just 14 years old at the time of the coup. So I’m interested to hear other viewpoints on this,

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