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On March 6th, 1980, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham consolidated power by introducing a brand new constitution that replaced the 1966 constitution. The spin was simple: we need to break away from the chains of colonial rule and to govern in the best interest of the people, a President must be able to do so free of opposition interference. Amidst all the grandiose legal transformational language, all that mattered in the document was the unchecked power placed in the new title of an Executive President. Ever since, debates, discussions and political wrangling have surrounded the question of the 1980 Constitution which was deemed as fraudulent by one side of the Guyana divide. Since its inception, promises to discard, modify or curb the autocratic powers of the President have been part of the political firmament.
THE 1992 PROMISE
The core argument has always been: the 1980 Burnham Constitution is fraudulent and illegal because it was never approved by a fair referendum. From 1978-1992, Dr. Jagan consistently committed to replacing the Burnham Constitution which he believed reflected the whims and fancies of a dictator. Every sinew in his vocal muscles was strained to proclaim that the first act of government by a PPP administration would be to throw away the evil document.
In 1992, Dr. Jagan became the 4th and first President of East Indian descent and the anti-1980 Constitution camp led by the likes of Bisram et al immediately demanded the discarding of the diabolical charter. With Pele-esque skills, President Jagan juggled the political football by stating that it was too radical to make the changes he promised and gave his commitment not to abuse the autocratic texts carefully crafted with jurisprudence erudition by the 1980 Minister of Justice and Attorney-General Dr. Mohammed Shahabaddeen and Desmond Hoyte, Minister of Economic Planning. In addition to this, the President sought refuge under nationalistic argumentation by suggesting that he would not want to discard Burnham’s Constitution and revert to the British imperialist Westminster-type canon. Despite this seeming posture of betrayal of the anti-Burnham constitution flock who demanded a completely dashing and smashing of the legal diktat of 1980, the historical record will show that his party carried out numerous reforms in the aftermath of the 1997 elections.
THE 2015 PROMISE
On May 15th, 2015, David Arthur Granger was sworn in as the 9th President of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana and the Reformists were confident that this was their man. Understandably so, the change of government came against the backdrop of 23 years of intransigent monolithic governance and the APNU+AFC 2015 Manifesto stated, inter alia:‘ In the Cummingsburg Accord, the APNU and AFC are committed to the establishment of a Constitutional Reform Committee with a mandate to complete consultations, draft amendments and present same to the National Assembly…’.
These proposed reforms included transformational goodies such as power being shared in the Cabinet by parties which received 15% of the vote, the powers of the President to be reduced and increased powers for the Prime Minister which included authority over the Cabinet. The nation was anxious about the prospects and it felt like the fall of the Berlin Wall mystical air was blowing across the land. However, I was skeptical because I know power concedes nothing unless there is a cataclysmic upheaval. My skepticism was swiftly validated.
The Office of the Prime Minister moved expeditiously to establish the Constitutional Reform Steering Committee (CRSC) which was chaired by prominent Attorney-at-Law Nigel Hughes. The committee produced the Constitutional Reform Report which formed the basis for the Constitutional Reform Consultative Commission Bill. Two years after consistent concrete steps, the game of political football began. The Prime Minister’s Office kicked the ball over to the AG’s Chambers and the AG Chambers passed the ball to the National Assembly’s bi-partisan Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reform which they argued was key to any reforms. This Committee met once and there was never any submission made to Cabinet to begin the enactment of the reforms. No goals were scored and the 2015 promised died due to knocks and tackles in the game of political football.
A pattern has become evident. When one party is not within the halls of power, they feel the wrath of the Constitution and they passionately campaign for reforms. Once power is acquired and red carpet fever hits, there is a tendency to forget reforms and maximize the power accorded by the document. In this, the game becomes deadly because, besides concerns about the unfettered powers of the President, Reformists have argued for modifications to address the critical question of Ethnic Security Dilemma (ESD). Lowe, Khemraj et al have posited that there needs to be a Constitution that addresses the fears of the various ethnic groups through power-sharing arrangements that would bring an end to the ‘winner takes all’ system.
These cries have fallen on deaf ears and it seems for us to reach the promised land of the reform of the Constitution, Guyana may have to eventually bear witness to the words of John Pym (1584-1643): ‘the form of government in any state cannot be altered without apparent danger of ruin to that state’.