Professor Selwyn Ryan's Engagement with the World Ryan Recalls: Selwyn Ryan: His Memoirs (Book Review)Read Now
This review by Professor Compton Bourne was delivered at the Launching ceremony at UWI St Augustine on October 30, 2019. It is the most recent of Professor Selwyn Ryan's 27 Books. He has been prolific. His academic achievements have been outstanding at York University Canada, the Universities of Ghana and Uganda and then at UWI as Director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research, St Augustine. He contributed a weekly column in the Trinidad and Tobago Sunday Express for over 2 decades and presided over many prestigious Boards and Commissions.
See Ryan Recalls Paria Publishers, Trinidad ISBN 978-976-8244-40-6 Pages XV + 446 can be purchased through Paper base Book Store: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel 868- 625-3197 and Nigel Khan: email@example.com Tel: 868-235-3276
“Ryan Recalls” is a uniquely constructed massive book, 460 pages long. It combines in varying proportions the reflections and current comments of Professor Ryan on his childhood years in Princess Town [Trinidad]; his periods of residence in Canada, the USA and Africa and travel to many other countries; his adult life in Trinidad; excerpts from several of his major scholarly publications, newspaper articles, reviews of some of his scholarly publications by eminent scholars; letters exchanged with political leaders such as Ugandan President Milton Obote and the eminent global African Ali Mazrui; tributes from colleagues at the time of his retirement from the University of the West Indies; and numerous photographs of himself, his past and present family and friends. The book is a representation of the total man, as he evolved from childhood into the joyously multi-faceted individual that many persons in his native Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean, and the wider world were able to know and appreciate.
As is the norm for memoirs, Selwyn Ryan begins with the circumstances of his childhood, providing various snippets of life, including the coping mechanisms for families of modest economic means, in South Trinidad beset by inadequate infrastructure in the 1940s and 1950s. The reader learns of a happy childhood in which mother and father played different influential supportive roles. During those early years, he developed a love for dancing which he never lost as his accounts of later life and many of the photographs attest. His love for dancing was so great that in his own words, he couldn’t understand how people could waste good music.
Selwyn entered Naparima College in 1951 and stayed until 1954. It is useful to learn from his memoirs that his life of academic excellence started there. More instructive for most readers would be his observations about the college and South Trinidad. He recalls that Naparima College, despite being mainly Indian, was “ethnically and religiously inclusive”. Race was not an issue. Ryan concluded that “there is a qualitative difference between the people of the North and those of the South.” He believes that “the people of San Fernando are kinder, gentler and a more tolerant tribe and thus are well positioned to play an important role” … in the resolution of ”ethnic asperities and insecurities”. Many Naps alumni might demur at his additional assertion that the invention of doubles on the Hill is perhaps the College’s greatest contribution to national wellbeing despite the firm place of this food item in the daily diet of Trinis.
According to Ryan, the years 1955 and 1956 made him politically and socially conscious. Pivotal events were the development of the petroleum industry, immigration from the southern Caribbean islands which in his opinion “changed the character of Trinidad and Tobago”, and the emergence of political leaders like Uriah Butler, Roy Joseph, John Rojas, Ashford and Mitra Sinanan, and Gerard Montano. The most profound influence was Eric Williams with his “rousing political evangelism” and his indirect educational role in political philosophy. Readers of later sections of the memoir will be able to trace the lasting influence of Eric Williams’ politics and political ideas on Ryan’s professional life and writings.
The memoirs deal briefly with Ryan’s life as a student at the University of Toronto and Cornell University and as a professor at York University between 1956 and 1971.
From York, he moved to Ghana and Uganda. The material on the African experience is very informative, helping to shed light on the history of Uganda especially in the time of Milton Obote and Idi Amin. On 9 January 1971, President Milton Obote wrote Ryan a remarkably frank and full letter in which he sets out his views, some of which had evidently not crystallized, on the appropriate mechanisms for elections, including the position of President, in a one-party State; his own preference for not deciding on “each and every public policy”; his expectations of assistance from Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Malawi as the early leaders in the African one-Party State experiment; his commitment to the Common Man’s Charter adopted by Uganda on 9 October 1962; and his rather startling conviction that President Mobutu was overwhelmingly elected even though “either through enthusiasm or inefficiency some of the electoral officers in some areas filed returns which gave the President more than 100% votes.” Ryan’s reply on 20 January 1971 was diplomatic: “I am fully convinced that if led by the right people with the right ideology, the one-party system is the only answer to some of the problems which face African states at the present time.”
Pages 44-46 of Ryan’s memoirs present an interesting account of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by President Idi Amin. His interpretation is that the root of Amin’s actions was the re-Africanisation policy of Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere and Milton Obote. Ryan claims that Asians initially welcomed Amin’s coup against Obote in the expectation that he would reverse Obote’s Re-Africanisation policy but the initially close relationship was ruptured by accusations of profiteering, denied by the Asians, but presumably on which Amin acted. Ryan notes Amin’s later unsuccessful attempts to woo back the Asians in an effort to end the economic collapse precipitated by the mass exodus of Asian enterprise, know-how and financial capital. As Ryan observed during a much later visit, the Ugandan economic and political tragedy continued for many years.
Ryan in an influential paper titled “Civil Conflict and External Involvement in East Africa” published in the inaugural edition of The African Review in 1972 and referenced on page 106 of the memoirs discussed extensively and perceptively various causative elements such as religious diversity, tribal rivalries and antagonisms, geography and racial mixture and foreign economic and military involvement in the spread of civil conflicts in the Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.
Ryan returned to Trinidad and Tobago in 1973 and took up a Senior Lectureship at the UWI which he found “seething with ideological racial rage”.
Dealing with national politics and governance in Chapter 6, he found that in Trinidad and Tobago, the independence movement was in crisis or verging towards crisis. He discerned “serious challenges by powerful internal and external forces”, “near fatal systemic collapse”, efforts by “radical out-elites” to delegitimize incumbent political elites, vocal concerns about the appropriateness of the economic strategies being pursued, and the Black Power movement and its denouement into an unsuccessful miniscule guerrilla battle with the State. He comments on the emergence of political parties, leadership squabbles, his scepticism about the appropriateness of replacement of the first-past-the post electoral system by proportional representation which he saw as a concern for representation rather than democracy, and the disintegration of the National Alliance for Reconstruction in which “democracy ran riot.” There is a valuable discussion of the role democratic political parties are traditionally expected to perform and an assessment of those in Trinidad and Tobago against the standards. He concluded that the parties have performed satisfactorily with respect to the recruitment aspect but poorly in respect of providing opportunities for debate and discussion by members whose role has been limited to amplifying decisions made by the leader, official cadres or financial advisers.
The memoirs return to these issues and some related ones in Section 4 entitled Governance, Constitutional Reform and the State. The Section leads off with a short account of the circumstances of George Chambers’ seemingly reluctant ascension to the post of political leader of the PNM and Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, the risk-averse nature of the man, his fear of Eric Williams, and his perception that antagonistic powerful vested interests constrained his administration. Chapter 12 deals with proposals for an Executive Presidency associated with Prime Minister Patrick Manning, the related Draft Constitution Report prepared in 2006 by Sir Ellis Clark and others, the views articulated by The Principles of Fairness Committee, Professor John Spence and Lloyd Best, and the concept of constitutional consultation between President/Governor-General and Prime Minister which Ryan describes as a “dark hole” because it lacks precise meaning. The Executive Presidency issue is discussed in detail in a Ryan column reproduced in the memoirs.
Ryan had of course served between 1971 and 1974 on a previous Constitution Commission chaired by Chief Justice Hugh Wooding. His memoirs contain a letter to the Commission from John S. Donaldson, a senior member of the government, which has a radical proposal not known to the general public but worth highlighting here. Donaldson proposed that parliamentary privilege should not be granted in respect of parliamentarians’ abuse of private citizens or public servants. Evidently, the proposal got no traction but behaviour in many sessions of Parliament since then makes it still relevant.
In Section 4, Professor Ryan deals at length with contemporary challenges to Caribbean democracy. Some of the major ones are political clientelism and the perversion of democratic institutions and systems, economic collapse, international drug trafficking and emigration. In the excerpt from a Caribbean Affairs publication in 1990 which dealt with the Caribbean State in the 21st Century, he contrasts the onset of structural adjustment policies with the importance post-Independence leaders had attached to social welfare public policies and the consequential marginalisation of the State and rise in political disaffection. Ryan also notes the progressive deterioration of human capital, declining standards of nutrition and social polarization, all of which to his mind weakens the interest of the populace in competitive politics, undermines the integrity of public servants and law enforcement officers and diminishes the quality of elected representatives.
Referencing his 2002 journal article, Ryan provides on pages 212-216 of the memoirs a summary of his views on political power sharing. The summary serves as an introduction to the topic of electoral reform in which he itemises the arrangements for ensuring integrity in elections administration, campaign finances, diaspora voting and representativeness of electoral systems illustrated by the experiences of the Caribbean, Latin America and several other foreign countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Nigeria.
Section 6 of the memoirs reveals a growing unease about the social stability of Trinidad and Tobago. Influenced by the acute social problems of “peoples of African descent, but males in particular”, he appeals in 1998 for them to be “the prime source of affirmative action” for the future. Perhaps realising that his plea fell on deaf ears, Ryan between 2010 and 2013 published six articles dealing with the problem of gangs which were manifest in urban areas in North and West Trinidad and chaired two committees which analysed the modern gang phenomenon and made recommendations for reducing its incidence among young males.
I have selected just a few of the many matters of interest in Ryan’s memoirs. There is much more to read beneficially: the evolution of his professional career and the manner in which he became the quintessential public academic bringing to bear his scholarly skills and aptitudes with unfailing objectivity to many highly important issues affecting politics, governance and society in Trinidad and Tobago; his success in transforming the material explored in his public engagements into well-regarded scholarly publications; his pioneering of electoral polls in the country, first in collaboration with his colleague and good friend, Professor J. Edward (Eddie) Greene and then on his own, with the usual accompaniment of critical comments from whichever political party was disconcerted by the particular results; and his accounts of personal life, love, marriage, children and dear friends which together with numerous photographs admirably complement the material and recollections on his professional life.
Ryan Recalls (Selwyn Ryan: His Memoirs) is a remarkable book well worth reading thoroughly and well worth adding to one’s personal library.
Professor Emeritus (UWI)
October 30, 2019
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.