Feb 18 2019
The article `The Ethnic Security Dilemmas and Power-Sharing’ (SN, Feb 10) by Dr. Tarron Khemraj, offers a persuasive assessment of the current political problem in Guyana. The ethnic security dilemma (ESD), as we have defined it, refers to the fact that both major ethnic groups, Africans and Indians, since the Burnham-Jagan split, have attempted to capture state power at the expense of the other, resulting in electoral outcomes embedded in zero-sum political games where winner takes all. National electoral politics tend to acerbate primordial sentiments and the latent herd mentality takes hold of the rational thinking voter who then casts his ballot in support of “his own” to keep the “others” at bay. One simply has to take a look at the many blogs where Guyanese freely exchange ideas behind fictitious handles to get a fair sense of their real intentions. Otherwise, barring elections, Guyanese of all ethnic stripes interact freely in the market place without fear of the other.
To be sure, Guyanese politics has never been so divisive. There were moments in the 1950s and the 1970s when Guyanese enjoyed a “detente” relationship in a struggle against an oppressive political system (colonialism, Burnhamism). And, during the 1947 general elections, Dr. JB Singh won the Demerara-Essequibo constituency, which registered only 42 per cent Indians and during the electoral campaign to represent the constituency of Eastern Demerara, labour union leader, Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow appeared on Daniel Debidin’s political platform and publicly gave his endorsement and support to Debidin (who defeated John Carter). Political entrepreneurs, and the institutions they have created, however, have played a major role in perpetuating a fraud and a deception. More than ever, race and ethnicity have resulted in a deeply bifurcated polity, with the potential for grave instability during and after the next election, ironically, at a time our economy is set to embark on the next stage of development. The political fraud centres on the fact that leaders of the two major parties are in denial that politics in Guyana revolves around the issue of race and ethnicity and political leaders perpetuate the falsehood that they represent multiracial political parties.
The ethnic security dilemma to which Dr. Khemraj was referring is very real. It is different for Indians and Africans. He posited that the two dilemmas are “codetermined by economic security concerns”, and he concluded that “the crucial problem facing the PPP/C and Mr. Jagdeo is he does not have symmetric power to undermine the government of the day once the PPP/C is in opposition”. Traditionally, the PPP had relied upon electoral politics tied to its majority Indian support, while accepting the misguided premise that race consciousness and ethnic pride will disappear as “false consciousness” during the ensuing class struggle. Since the PPP leadership believed that class trumps race, the party has not legitimately confronted the ESD. The PPP’s insistence on its “multi-racial” composition, harking back to the period before the Burnham-Jagan split was used to provide legitimacy for the exclusion of the Africans from controlling executive power.
The changing demographics have altered the political game. It is less likely today that the PPP, given the declining Indian population, can prevent Africans from capturing executive power in a competitive and fair election. This reality is borne out by the 2012 national census which showed that Indians now represent 40 percent and Africans compose 30 per cent of the population. The faster growing populations are “Mixed race” (20 percent) and Amerindians 11 percent). In reality, Africans and the PNC have addressed their security dilemmas by positioning themselves to be able to win a free and fair election and by controlling the largesse of the state and its institutions. Previous calls for power sharing by PNC operatives like Aubrey Norton have slowly disappeared in preference for a coalition of convenience and “social cohesion” under the African-led government.
When Jagdeo on the campaign hustings in Berbice made comments about the army knocking on people’s doors at night, he was accused of racial incitement. He was also exploiting a real fear related to the Indian ESD. At a live town hall meeting via skype (Feb 16, 2019) with Dr. David Hinds and myself, we discussed the security dilemmas, electoral politics, the race/ethnic problem, and offered some possible solutions to move the country away from its current conflict. At that meeting, I pointed out that because the ESD is not frontally addressed by politicians, Jagdeo’s references to the army intimidating Indians was not something extraordinary. There is a real fear among Indians regarding the disciplined forces (seizing ballot boxes, stopping and harassing people at the toll gates during the Burnham dictatorship, composition of 90 % Africans, etc).
In 1965, when then President David Granger enlisted as a 2nd Lieutenant, the British Government had commissioned an ICJ study that recommended that the disciplined forces should reflect the population. Professor George Danns, has documented the role of an expanding, and abusive disciplined force used to ensure PNC’s power and domination in Guyana.
In 2004, a Report of the Disciplined Forces Commission submitted to Parliament, of which Granger was a commissioner, recommended “streamlining”, “professionalizing”, “decentralizing” and “balancing” the forces. Indians remember all too well Desmond Hoyte’s references to “kith and kin”, the promise of “slo fiah, mo fiah”, and the violence against Indians on January 12, 1998, documented by the GIFT report. Balance in the disciplined forces implies that a targeted-outcome should be established rather than a quota system. After all, the law enforcement officers and defenders of the nation ought to be “fit and propa”. This has been, and continues to be a real security dilemma for Indians.
The coalition, in pursuit of what can be construed as an affirmative action plan, has rightfully rewarded its supporters with scholarships, 20 per cent government contracts, a $2 billion in IDB loan to develop agriculture in the Buxton, Ithaca, Mocha and Beterverwagting area, and a relaunching of the People’s Militia. At the same time, 7,000 sugar workers (mostly Indians) were fired from the closing of 4 out of 7 GUYSUCO estates, with no safety net for the workers or their families. During the town hall meeting I cautioned Dr. Hinds that it was dangerous for Africans to spread the myth that rich Indians control the Guyanese economy and that many Indians were engaged in the narco-trafficking economy. Dr. Ramesh Gampat, citing UN figures, had previously debunked the myth about the wealthy Indian controlling the economy of Guyana.
Taken to its logical conclusion, if the two major political parties had confronted the ESD, Guyanese would have been exposed to a more honest and democratic political culture. Given the existing racial/ethnic dilemmas, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to note that should the PPP win the upcoming election, the tensions and the mindset cultivated in the political realm, promises political unrest, and the potential for disruption that will make it difficult for the PPP to govern.
What Guyana needs is an honest assessment of where we are, and a reminder that the national patrimony belongs to all Guyanese. Constitutional reform and tempered statements from politicians will help, but there are three things that ought to be on the table. One, policies and their implementation have consequences. The government should establish an assessment of its policies through Ethnic Impact Statements to promote equity, diversity and fairness and to be able to address the perception that the largesse of the state is not being unfairly distributed. Sherwood Lowe has also made similar calls in the past. Two, Guyana urgently needs a Government of National Unity, made up of all the victors at the next election who win proportional seats to enter Parliament.
A National Government can govern for 5 years until the next election, working together to reform the constitution to take Guyana into the next phase of its economic development. It will be the first time that young people, who make up the majority of the electorate, can see our elder politicians working to craft a new constitution that promotes inclusiveness for future generations. Finally, the formation of an “Amerindian” party under Lenox Shuman’s leadership is a welcome development because it has the potential to become a power broker, if its leaders, unlike the AFC, maintain their independence and vote their conscience. Such a party adds a new dimension to politics in a multi-racial society.
Dr Baytoram Ramharack