By Owei Lakemfa
It was like a seamless gathering. Diplomats and academics. Practitioners of two assertive professions: lawyers and journalists. Cultural ambassadors and traditional chiefs. It was evening in Abuja on Monday August 22, 2022.
We were gathered for the pre-independence 60th anniversary of Trinidad and Tobago, T&T, which comes up on August 31. The representative of the Nigerian government, the youthful-looking Ambassador Mustapha Tunde Mukaila, who is in charge of the world’s Regions in the Foreign Ministry described T&T as a small but mighty country. It was quite an apt description. T&T has a ‘very large’ population of 1.4 million which is no more than the population of a Lagos suburb. Its landmass of 5,128 kilometres is like a tiny speck if situated in Nigeria’s 923,768-kilometre landmass.
But it has the qualities of a mighty country. An oil-rich nation, it has over a century experience in oil and gas exploration and production. It has produced over three billion barrels of oil. Back in the early 1990s, it moved its hydrocarbon sector from an oil dominant to a mostly natural gas-based one.
In terms of purchasing power, T&T has the third-highest GDP per capita in the Americas after the United States and Canada. It is not surprising that it decided on a choice of an oil expert, Wendell De Landro, as High Commissioner to Nigeria. He had also worked in the Nigerian oil industry.
This Monday, he told the News Agency of Nigeria: “We have our gas development. I know for a fact that there is gas flaring in Nigeria and that is a sacrilege to me… Right now, Nigeria is flaring probably half to three-quarters of an LNG train … Nigeria has six trains and is working on the seventh. We (Trinidad and Tobago) have four. We are using our gas, our LNG and we sell. Nigeria is doing that but they can do much more by harnessing the flared gas.”
A cultural giant, T&T gave the world the calypso, Soca and chutney music and the steelpan while also producing famous musicians like Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener, Heather Headly and Nicki Minaj. On the steelpan, Ambassador Landro informed that the High Commission has been in talks with some Governors in Western Nigeria on the possibility of introducing the steelpan into the Nigerian school curriculum.
The country also produced sports greats like Brian Charles Lara and Hasely Crawford, along with the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Sir V.S. Naipaul. Indeed, the 1992 winner, Derek Walcot, had cut his literary teeth in T&T and made it his home.
When Africa and the Black World was repressed internationally, T&T gave us two of the greatest intellectuals and fathers of Pan Africanism who help reset the brains of the world in relation to the Black people, their humanity and right to independence. Cyril Lionel Robert, CLR, James, born in 1901, was father to generations of Black leaders across the world. He was a noted historian and writer who wrote books like The Black Jacobins, Toussaint Louverture – The Story of the only successful slave revolt in history, The World Revolution, Notes On Dialectics: Engels-Marx-Lenin’ and Every Cook Can Govern. His novel, Minty Alley, was the first by a Black West Indian to be published in Britain. In April 1939, for about one month, he met and discussed with the legendary revolutionary, Leon Trotsky in exile in Mexico. While Trotsky argued that a Bolshevik-like revolution would lead the African Americans to freedom, CLR argued that a self-organised Black struggle in the United States would birth a far larger radical social movement that would also emancipate Africa and the Caribbean. CLR in his famous book, A History of Pan-African Revolt, analysed the struggles for liberation in South Africa, the Congo, Ghana, San Domingo and the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya.
George Padmore left T&T to study medicine in the US but ended revolutionising Black people across the world. One of his mentees, Kwame Nkrumah, led the struggle for independence in Ghana and persuaded him to resettle in Accra. His 1931 book was The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers; the following year he published How Britain rules Africa, and a year later Africa and World Peace. Four years before Ghana’s 1957 independence, he wrote: The Gold Coast Revolution and in 1956, Pan-Africanism or Communism.
The Trinidadian population is 35.4 per cent African origin while another 15 per cent is of African-East Indian ancestry. Indeed, the first time I met Ambassador Landro, I told him that except for his ascent, he looked every inch a Nigerian, while there is virtually nothing to differentiate the Head of Chancery, Mrs Odette Peterson-Thomas from any Nigerian lady. Landro spoke to this close affinity with Nigerians: “It is also known that the Yorubas settled in their own ethnic enclave as a free community of Africans in the north-eastern section of Trinidad. Today, the Orisha tradition in Trinidad, is now numbering in the tens of thousands. The community now boast of an Orisha public holiday on the calendar of Trinidad and Tobago. Yoruba is one of the languages taught in the School of Languages at one of the nation’s top universities, UTT.”
On relations with Nigeria with which it established diplomatic relations in 1973, Landro said: “Trinidad and Tobago is home to a large Nigerian population who occupy top positions in the fields of education and medicine just to name a few. So much so that one can easily buy ‘suya’ in various parts of the country.”
The country’s journey to independence had been a hard and torturous one. It had existed 5,000 years before Christ. Its enslavement began in 1498 when Christopher Columbus visited both islands and claimed them for Spain. They were later occupied by the British, French and Dutch. In 1606, 470 slaves from Africa were brought by Dutch slave trader, Issac Duvern. The British, following the 1814 Treaty of Paris eventually took over the islands but continued the slave trade until 1838. The twin islands were incorporated into one political entity in 1889. It took T&T 464 years from the ‘visit’ of Columbus to be independent in 1962.
In looking back at the path his country had come, Ambassador Landro’s conclusion is that: “Over the past 60 years Trinidad and Tobago has grown by leaps and bounds, though a tiny nation with a population of just about 1.4 million Trinidad and Tobago stands on any world stage with the biggest and the brightest.”
As the socials kicked off with some diplomats and guests taking to the floor, the Nigerian cultural icon and former chief executive officer of the National Troupe of Nigeria and the National Theatre, Tar Ukoh, tried his hands on the steelpan.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), is a human rights activist, journalist, and author.