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Last week, a friend asked me for the address of the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA). I told him and then enquired why he wanted to know. He said that a relation of his was planning to hold a birthday party, wanted to use the local community center, and needed to get permission from the GRA. These are relatively poor people and so I thought that the friend was perhaps very popular and intended to use the occasion to make some money. This was not the case: apparently his friend, who works in the hinterland, usually comes home on his birthday, and holds a free party.
I then enquired why he needed to go to the GRA. He sucked his teeth in disgust and exclaimed, ‘na only GRA I gat to go’. He then took out his cell phone and began to read the list above. I was taken aback. I knew one had to get a police clearance but how the hell could any local authority worth its salt put this level of burden upon a poor – or indeed any – community member to hold a simple birthday party at a community centre. With the above level of central government control, the centre no longer belongs to the community and this, I was later informed, applies to all Neighborhood Democratic Councils (NDCs), was introduced about two years ago and applies to events that are to be held at the local community playground.
But let us assume that the nature and consequences of these burdensome regulations grew imperceptibly and are not the machinations of an autocratic regime: here is the rub. During my enquiry, I was told that in a meeting with a government minister NDCs were informed that application for permission to build a simple house, that now allows the NCD to keep a small part of the processing fee, will soon have to be made directly to the Ministry of Housing. Since former slaves bought their villages and the national local government and planning systems were established, local authorities have had some say in what is being built in their communities.
One does not have to be a genius to design a far less punishing local arrangement, for the effective and safe use of local facilities, that can also build solidarity around environmental, security and other concerns. Instead, what we have here is a system that encourages disunity and administrative corruption as people traverse multiple agencies to obtain the required letters. Of course, people at the local level believe that the administration has arrangements in place to prevent its communities and supporters from having to go through the rigmarole and get or avoid compliance.
For a very long time talk of local democracy has been just talk and the changes the coalition government made during its term in office were essentially cosmetic. For example, it curtailed the powers the responsible minister had to intervene in local authorities and gave similar powers to a local government commission over which the government can easily exert control. It is just that, as former US President Jimmy Carter observed some time ago, the present PPP government is prepared to take ‘full advantage’ of the dictatorial room Guyana’s Westminster-type political system affords. Indeed, the issue being discussed here provides one of the clearest concrete expressions I know of the difference between the PPP and PNC, not only in relation to local democracy but, more importantly, between the parties’ conceptions of governance in general.
Ironically, a similar difference exists between the current PPP and that of 1992. Then, the PPP began to organize community groups in the NDCs to get a handle on what was taking place and win local support by cooperating with the NDCs. The present regime is attempting to undermine and take them over. Remember, too, that after blaming the perceived lackadaisical behaviour of its supporters for it losing the 2011 elections, the PPP claimed that the coalition government rigged and 2015 election and filed elections petitions to that effect, but I cannot recall the coalition government refusing to communicate/cooperate with the opposition in any political sphere.
Note again, Guyana returned to democracy when the PPP took government in 1992, and as one expected from a democratic government, local government elections were held in 1994. However, Cheddi Jagan died in 1997 the PPP and among other undemocratic things, failed to hold any more local elections.
Politicians look for political advantage, but they usually placed limits upon their use of the permissiveness the Westminster-type system allows. But what Guyana is now seeing at the general and local levels is that expression of the Westminster-type system that led one prominent British politician, Lord Hailsham, to refer it as an ‘elective dictatorship’.
The PPP badly miscalculated and totally lost the 2015 elections, so it came back in 2020 with a vengeance and a dangerous, undemocratic, determination to do whatever it takes to never again lose an election. The PPP is prepared to state quite openly that it will not be cooperating with the elected parliamentary representatives of the African people and is doing all it can to subvert the opposition by attempting to go behind its back and use undemocratic methods to win support.
When the utopian ideological foundations of the PPP and PNC fell away with the fall of world communism, the caustic racist political reality remained and is still the major problem Guyana faces today. Called upon by the powers that be to end its drive for political/ethnic dominance and adopt a more inclusive democratic vision and not wanting to do so, the PPP is seeking to pivot out of this dilemma by concocting a ‘One Guyana’ vision that allows it to pamper and hold on to its ethnic base as it deliberately makes the African people poorer to enable it to herd the economic and psychologically vulnerable into its rank!