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The Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland and a largely governance team recently visited Guyana to have discussions with the government, opposition, Guyana Elections Commission, etc. Surprisingly, what I gather from the media coverage is that her discourse with the government had largely to do with the position her organisation took during the still-disputed 2020 general elections in Guyana. Here, however, I am concerned with her meeting with the Leader of the Opposition (ag), Roysdale Forde, for the press release emanating from this office exhibits both the political limitations of the opposition’s current stance and an opportunity that the new leadership of the PNC could exploit.
We are told that, ‘At the aforesaid meeting, important issues of national concern were raised and addressed, not limited to the necessity for a new list of electors, ethnic and political discrimination, the role and expansion of civil society, the reemergence of dictatorial and authoritarian conduct of the People’s Progressive Party/Civic, and the wanton disregard for the Rule of Law as evidenced by the numerous and flagrant breaches of the Constitution of Guyana, … the malfunctioning of the Parliament of Guyana was (also) discussed, particularly the repressive conduct of the Speaker in seeking to muzzle debate, his refusal to permit debates on Motions of urgent and national importance, and the rejection of hundreds of questions.’
In a sensible context, these are all very important issues, but they can easily lose their value and the opportunity they offer to harness support to break with the past, if they are not, as they appear to be, properly situated. All the PNC delegation appeared to have done is to request that the Commonwealth pressure the PPP to behave more democratically in the same old political context. Indeed, the PNC’s contention contains the suggestion that a moderate majority of the Guyanese people is likely to believe that given the opportunity the PNC is likely to behave better. It is more likely that, as is common in the political sphere, Guyanese will be split evenly on this matter and this cannot be good for development or national building.
Socialised in the Westminster-type governmental system and with little understanding of the ethnic political complexities of their context, the PNC delegates found themselves ‘between a rock and a hard place’, complaining of behaviour that it is at present demonstrating in its own organisation. Indeed, apart from the banalities that all previous politicians have been idiots, thieves, racists, etc. and that what Guyana needs is a new generation of politicians only to find that they act similarly, this is the usual conceptual and practical predicament of all those who fail to properly grasp the Guyana context.
What scholars call the “equality approach”, i.e. the strong legal affirmation of the principle of equality and the prohibition of discrimination to ensure that all ethnic groups are treated equally, does not work in deeply divided societies, and the ethnic struggle for power usually remains the predominant driving force in politics. Even in places like Rwanda, where partly because of its history of vicious ethnic violence, the politicians went to the extreme and made it illegal to officially reference ethnicity, the Minority Rights Group stated, ‘The current government’s attitude that everyone is Rwandan and there are no minority ethnic groups in the country does not address the deep rooted tensions that continue to exist in Rwandan society. In fact, it allows a situation to develop in which a group can enjoy a de facto situation of privilege, but people are not allowed to challenge it. This provides fertile ground for frustrations which can be exploited by movements wishing to challenge the state through violence’ (https://academic.oup.com/icon/article/11/2/414/753618).
If the political elites in the PNC cannot grasp that the pretence that Guyanese constitute a nation is not a fact but at best an aspiration that can only be properly nurtured in a conflict-free context, the future remains bleak. Indeed, over dinner, the governance officials in the SG’s entourage after the discussion could have reasonably concluded that the British has really ‘done a job’ on the colonial mind. After seven decades of conflict that have cost many lives and underdevelopment, the PNC still believe in a dysfunctional system although they have been warned and shown alternatives by many neutral people and institutions. This is extraordinary, for even in their multiethnic neighbour Suriname the government would have had to think twice before it behaved in the manner that has been outlined to us. Not because Surinamese are more moral and smarter but because they have better institutional checks and balances. For example, the president must be elected by two thirds of the parliament and in recent times no single party has ever been able to muster this kind of support.
If Guyana is to ever become a progressive democratic nation appropriate institutional checks and balances will have to be established. One good outcome of Aubrey Norton taking the leadership of the PNC is that he has not for some time been a PNC governmental insider and given his will to succeed where all others have failed, he could legitimately break with the programmatic past of the Granger regime that promised but did not substantially try to deliver a truly inclusive Guyana.