West Tivoli Commission of Enquiry: Matters resume with Bruce Not Almighty

The Commission of Enquiry has resumed into what happened in Tivoli Gardens in May 2010, when the government mounted an assault on the area to try to arrest Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke. For me, it makes compelling television. I would be as riveted if it were on radio, because it’s all about words, though some of the action, limited though it is, is quite interesting.

The star witness on the opening days has been the former PM, Bruce Golding. I can’t help but assume that the lawyers who are able to question him are more than a little excited that they get to address someone who many see as at the very centre of the problem that is the basis of the enquiry. I wont presume anything about lawyers’ political preferences. It’s enough to have in front of you some ‘prime rib’ instead of the ‘stewing steak’ that other witnesses had represented, in a manner of speaking.

The former PM provides the best opportunities, so far, to get behind the official thinking that was at the heart of the State’s actions. In that regard, of course, his appearance is disappointing because he was not in operational charge of the security forces’ actions. That is more so, when one considers that his role as minister of defence is much less than that of a US commander-in-chief, and is really more like a desk-bound pen pusher than a field general.

That excitement amongst the legal fraternity and sorority becomes evident when one listens to the tone of their questioning. As the Commission Chairman noted yesterday, words are the essential craft of lawyers. However, so too is tone. That has been higher on the shrillness meter. I could make a few comments that suggest something sexist by noting that the female lawyers have taken the lead. But, I think it’s just the heightened emotions of the moments, and the prize that is in their sights. I mean, how often do you get the chance to be mean, rude, disrespectful or otherwise unpleasant to a PM? What’s great about proceedings like an enquiry is that a lawyer can say something nasty and offensive and then retract it at the request of the Chairman or after objection by a fellow lawyer. But, it’s only in the minds of lawyers that what was said is unsaid. Get stuck in!

Bruce, not glittering like gold, and not Almighty at all

No doubt, Bruce Golding has a lot to answer for and he may have a lot of answers, though by no means all. He has been grilled about the extradition order, the use of and request for, if any, of US surveillance, and how he interacted with the security forces. What’s been clear is that he has few, if any friends, on the lawyers’ bench. His lack of friends is as palpable with the lawyer representing the JCF as with the one sitting for the Tivoli Committee. They’ve all stuck in the boot, or stiletto heel, if I can use that gender-laden metaphor. Thankfully, the Chairman has been on good form and tried well to keep the decorum, if not apparent respect, for the former PM in tact.

Some of the questioning has been of the worst ponderous type, as when Debra Martin gave us a tour of her research into the meaning of ‘garrison’ communities and constituencies and into the nature of ‘dons’. Why use one word where a hundred would do? I smelt a trap being laid for the PM, and I suspect it was clear to him too, and he seemed to have avoided putting his foot fully into the loop. The existence and acknowledgement of these two well-known if not necessarily well-defined aspects of Jamaican social and political life is at the heart of the problems in Tivoli. I don’t think you need to be a very clever person to deduce that the kind of ‘state within a state’ that seemed to be part of the existence of areas like Tivoli go to the core of why Jamaica has certain political problems and why government actions seem to be on the verge of constant suspicion about motives and intent.

I think the lawyers tried hard to pin the tail on the donkey with the PM, but didn’t really succeed. Use of words like ‘massacre’ may taint his image and seem unlawyerlike, and need the Commission Chairman to remind the attorney to stay within the bounds of decent practice. Once said, they do stick. Many people’s minds are made up about what the PM did, knew, said, and wrote at the time. Many are also convinced that he will be less than truthful even in such an enquiry. But, is he under the spell of his ‘garrison’ and was he under the thumb of his ‘don’? He was asked if he was following a ‘code of silence’. Not amazingly, he said he was not. Was he really a no-count in his constituency, and was the real power housed in an unelected person? Those are awkward questions, to say the least.

What we learnt from the three days in the witness-box is that a PM in Jamaica is not as powerful a person as one might think. That may reflect the office or the person. I tried a few times to impose an image of another PM onto that of Bruce Golding and wonder if they would have acted as he did. I found myself struggling to think they would, which begs a big question about the former PM as leader, in my mind. Undoubtedly smart, but was he as strong as he should have been? Was his deference to the protocols that exist between his office and those who commanded the security forces as inevitable as he made it seem?

I’m not surprised that many things alleged to have taken place were not know by him at the time. His job is not to be like a Google map, seeking out and seeing and knowing everything. He has advisors and supporters who report to him and help him know what’s going on, but he’s reliant on them rather than his own observation. Despite what anyone may think, running a country doesn’t mean seeing and knowing everything first hand. Maybe, in Jamaica, people think it’s like sitting in the village square watching life go by.

The relative impotence of the nation’s political leader in times of crisis can be worrying. It’s clear from more recent events that have nothing to do with crises that the Jamaican PM may be a very standoffish and out-of-the-loop person: that’s clear with Portia Simpson-Miller’s actions or lack of them over the NHT/Outameni debacle. Why is that? Personality? Structure of real power in this little island? Combination of both?

The Enquiry also made clear, at least in the instances touched on, that truthfulness is not a precious commodity. The PM asked the Chief of the Defence Force about whether mortars would be used. He was told that what would be used would not cause destruction. After the event, came a statement from that Chief to the contrary–albeit, after a US news report. When cornered, the truth will out? But, not when the person in charge of the country asks?

We, in Jamaica, have lots of problems to deal with. The sight of duplicity in the corridors and barracks of power do not make for a comfortable perspective about what is really going on.