With Trinidad and Tobago's national elections due to be called later this year, the country has already braced itself for silly season, but no-one quite expected the new low to which politics — not to mention logic and common decency — have sunk.
During a contentious debate in parliament, Vernella Alleyne-Toppin, a female parliamentarian from Tobago, made the distasteful accusation that opposition leader Keith Rowley was the product of rape — and that this inauspicious beginning has made him “aggressive”, “arrogant” and in her opinion, unfit for public office. Alleyne-Toppin actually used the words “dubious” and “dangerous” to describe Rowley's leadership qualities.
It all began with the flailing People's Partnership government's no-confidence motion against Dr. Rowley in Wednesday's sitting of parliament. The remaining parties in the coalition government — which have now been whittled down to the United National Congress (UNC) and the practically defunct Congress of the People (COP) — were focused on trying to oust Dr. Rowley based on the controversy surrounding the appointment of Police Complaints Authority Director David West, an appointment to which the prime minister readily agreed.
Members of the People's National Movement (PNM) responded by walking out of parliament, calling the debate “vacuous” and “absurd”. While the government shuttled its party faithful to the parliament building in droves for a show of support, the opposition did the opposite, as if in an effort to dismiss the entire motion. Unfortunately, their walkout made the opposition bench miss Alleyne-Toppin's outlandish comments during the debate.
As jaw-dropping as her accusations were, most netizens dismissed it as sour grapes from a woman whom Rowley accused of abusing her government-issued credit card for non-work-related purchases — but it did not stop them from being astounded at the banal level of political debate.
As usual, satirical blogger Mr. Live Wire at Wired 868 was on top of the situation, calling the outburst “the most vile perversion in the Parliament’s history”:
The Trinidad and Tobago Parliament was yesterday the scene of the most spectacularly unsuccessful revenge mission since a one-armed bounty hunter cornered ‘Tuco’ in a bathtub in the classic western movie, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.’ […]
Like a suicide bomber who decided to do a test run, Tobago East MP and Minister of the People and Social Development Vernella Alleyne-Toppin blew herself to smithereens while stunned observers watched on, unsure whether to laugh or cry.
He maintained that the ploy backfired, observing that “the People’s Partnership dug a hole for the Opposition Leader and then fell into it themselves.”
Facebook user Shaz Hudson echoed this sentiment:
worse is that this whole scenario was backed up like it was a good thing by the other members present… did no one feel like this was wrong?… these are the ppl making decisions on my behalf and in my best interest?? seriously?
Rhoda Bharath was so offended that she mused on Facebook:
Consider this for a moment…today we made legislative history as the first Caribbean country to have the govt debate a No Confidence Motion against its Opposition Leader….and the records of that debate will show one MP discussing the alleged rape of the Opposition Leaders mother as if it is factual and seemly.
Study that good. We make history today. And that will be our lasting record.
In a subsequent update, she called on civil society groups to speak out against what transpired in the halls of parliament. Rape victims were the first to do so, describing Alleyne-Toppin's comments “irresponsible, disgusting and abhorrent” and calling the fact that her outburst even happened “part of the problem”. One survivor of rape said:
There is no apology that can forgive what she said. Vernella has offended every victim of rape and sexual abuse, every child born out of rape and incest. […] As a woman, she should know better. I am appalled and disgusted.
Facebook user Sherron Walker-Harford was distressed over what took place:
Every day I am more and more ashamed of my Nationality. This is clearly an attempt to hurt Dr Rowley. Not to discredit. If this is true, it means that his mother so loves life that she chose to keep a baby conceived in the worst of circumstances and bring him up to be a husband, a father of daughters, and a highly educated professional man. What a woman. What an example for us all to follow.
I am an officer of The Shelter [a halfway house for victims of domestic violence] and I am disgusted that any female would see it fit to use an alleged rape to supposedly discredit the child conceived in that act. Toppin is more barbaric than any rapist. A disgrace, trivial, evil and vindictive. I am ashamed to have the same passport and gender as that person
The Women's League of the People's National Movement, however, said that the claims were unfounded and condemned the minister's “unfortunate contribution”, saying it was “disturbed this latest assault on the character of Dr Rowley could have taken place with impunity within the walls of the Parliament”.
Criticism continued to flood social media. Even Christlyn Moore, a former Minister of Justice in the People's Partnership government, and herself a Tobagonian, posted a public status update about the issue on her Facebook page:
Whether Vernella’s truth is a truth at all, or a truth that needed to be told the public will judge but I fear that with regard to her the jury has already returned a round and robust cry of absolute condemnation. More that that, she by her own public admissions, a victim of various insults and abuses, both politically and personally, should know how abhorrent it is to shame the victim.
The public outcry finally became so overwhelming that on Thursday, Alleyne-Toppin issued an apology “to everyone who felt uncomfortable or outraged because of parts of the statement I made in Parliament”. But Breaking News T&T reported on its Facebook page that Alleyne-Toppin maintained:
I do, however, hold firmly to the view that incidents such as these, happening in our own country, must never be swept under the carpet. As difficult as it is, these are conversations we must be having as a people, if we are to protect young girls from experiencing this kind of horrific violation.
And while I apologise from the heart to anyone who felt hurt by my statements, I intend to stand my ground and will insist that questions that have been asked of the Leader of the Opposition must be answered.
Facebook user Patricia Worrell, in trying to make sense of the “apology”, mused:
I think what it is is that the $h*t hit the fan; she swallowed some of it, and is now regurgitating….
Alleyne-Toppin also alleged that Rowley himself raped the mother of one of his children; the woman, Roselyn Alleyne (no relation to the minister) has since come out publicly to denounce the claims, saying “it's all lies” and tantamount to slander. One netizen has even started an online petition for Alleyne-Toppin to be fired from her post and expelled from the ruling party.
It's official. Silly season is in full swing. Mr. Live Wire vocalised what many netizens must be thinking: “Just call the bleeding elections already!”