Twenty-eight years ago on Friday July 27, 1990, the country experienced what to this day many described as its darkest hour, when armed insurrectionists stormed the country’s seat of democracy, the Parliament at the Red House, shot the then prime minister and held several people including a number of parliamentarians hostage.
Simultaneously, 72 other rebels attacked the lone television station TTT. Leader of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, Imam Yasin Abu Bakr, then appeared on TV and announced that the Government had been overthrown and he was negotiating with the army. Bakr urged calm and said there should be no looting.
The armed insurgents ordered then Prime Minister ANR Robinson to call off the security forces. However, he instead instructed the military to attack with full force. Robinson was then beaten and shot in his right leg.
Despite calls by the leader of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen for calm and no looting, violence and looting erupted in Port of Spain. Looters wreaked havoc in the capital city, with businesses being raided of appliances and food.
After six days of negotiation, the insurrection ended on August 1, 1990, with an amnesty granting the insurrectionists their freedom. By then, 24 people including Member of Parliament Leo Des Vignes was killed during the insurgency and Port-of-Spain was reduced to rubble and destruction. Apart from businesses being looted, buildings were also set fire.
An eternal flame which was set up in remembrance of those killed, burns no more and is now according to Parliament sources, in storage as the renovations at the Red House are yet to be completed.
Whenever those repairs are completed the eternal flame which once stood on the Abercromby Street side of the Parliament will be moved to the Knox Street side of the Parliament, where the remains of the first people will also be interred.
Joseph Toney, who was minister of National Security at the time said he was “shocked when the men walked in with guns, it was the last thing on the mind of anyone that individuals would arm themselves and storm the Parliament and claim the government.”
The Jamaat al Muslimeen, which led the insurrection, claimed they did it because of social conditions after IMF conditionalities were imposed by the then NAR government led by Prime Minister ANR Robinson.
Toney said, “When we came into government the treasury was virtually empty after 30 years of continuous PNM rule and after we had an oil boom in the 1970’s. We had no other alternative but to go to the IMF to get sustenance and programmes to take the country forward.”
He admitted that the IMF programmes were “harsh, there is no doubt about that.” But he said the then government shared in the burden. “People did make sacrifices and lost part of their salaries and cost of living allowances (COLA) but government ministers also took cuts in their salaries and gave up COLA,” he said.
Toney said while many saw the programmes as “tough and caused much pain,” they had the required effect “they stabilised the country and led us to a path of growth.”
Toney described the insurrection as “senseless, unwarranted, it solved no problems but created many, many more problems for the country. Many people needlessly lost their lives and many people lost their property.”
Twenty-eight years later Toney said he believes that the country is “reaping what was sown in the events of 1990.”
He said, “The use of guns became more prevalent after those events and certain individuals because they wore the Muslim garb, the headpiece, the gown and army boots, they felt emboldened and they felt they were untouchable.”
Toney defended the amnesty which led to the freedom of the insurgents and which led to the end of the insurrection four days later on August 1 saying, “I don’t know what would have happened had they not had the amnesty because that of course brought all the happenings at both the Red House and TTT to a halt. Now I don’t know if it was a turn of events that also saved the Muslimeen but I daresay I welcome it. It saved my life.”
After receiving the promise of amnesty from the government. The group was arrested and taken into custody. They were tried for treason, however, they were released as the Court of Appeal upheld that they were promised an amnesty.