January 14 ,2021
I have spent my career crafting governance systems in states that are polarized and in some cases engaged in violent conflict. I have come to the conclusion that Guyana is an anomaly in terms of what we are willing to turn a blind eye to and what we are willing to accept There is no place as alive as Guyana and this in and of itself an anomaly. Like the plum tree growing out of the grave side, our roots dig deep, twisting and turning to find nourishment in pain and death. Slavery, indentureship and oppression fed us then, just as corruption and exclusionary politics sustain us now. So just like those burial ground plums, everything seems fine unless you chose to look below the surface.
It should be clear to us now that we cannot continue along our current political and social trajectory. Guyana is an ethnically diverse state with deep social and political fissures. These fractures, fifty-five years after independence have only widened, not narrowed. Change is possible however -but only if we have much needed and frank discussions on development, identity and politics. Today, I would like to take some time to discuss the latter. Guyanese have made limited demands for deep change or reform. Why is this? I think we don’t really want good governance, or multi-ethnic inclusive alliances to govern us- deep down we want to dominate one another. How else does one explain the overtly racist characters and parties whom the majority of Guyanese choose to represent us? Our politicians are not a Massacooramaan that comes out of the blaka to torment innocent villagers at night. They are part and parcel of our society. They are us. They know us and what we are willing to tolerate and inflict on our neighbours and they work within those parameters. Their vileness is a reflection of our own bigotry as peoples. Further-more, Guyana’s current political set-up is configured in a way that rewards exclusion and competition, rather than fostering the politics of concession and consensus. This reinforces the political culture noted above. There are few states in the world where a party can win 50.6% of the vote and govern without consensus building. The countries where this does take place are nothing like Guyana, culturally or politically.
While culturally Guyanese are more cohesive than many other multi-ethnic states, it’s our politics that fail us. Why is this? There are a number of reasons, but a key issue is the fact that our political system, constitution and other frameworks are out of sync with the nation we are. We are a nation of various communities, who don’t always see eye to eye on issues. We need a political system that forces us all to be better. That pulls us to consensus, not competition. Wishful thinking? No. Such systems exist and have been put in place relatively recently in places closer to home than we think. In Suriname, following conflict that pitted the Afro-Suri-namese (Creole) army and their indigenous allies against Maroons, the country adopted a new constitution as part of the peace process. There, the president and vice president are elected by a two-thirds majority of the parliament. In Suriname, like Guyana, no single party can meet this threshold, meaning that the party with the largest share must make alliances with other parties, who extract concessions or political horse trading as it is called. ‘We will back your candidate for president if we get the VP position and a certain number of ministerial positions’. In Northern Ireland, a province I have worked in for a number of years, the candidate of the leading party becomes first minister, the candidate of the party with the second most votes becomes deputy first minister. The two parties are forced to work together, with ministerial positions determined by a mathematical formula known as the D’Hondt method. More interestingly, a number of issues like the budget, security etc are designated ‘cross community issues’ and require a 51% majority from both major parties to pass legislation. Imagine a Guyana where the budget was agreed upon by both leading parties. Imagine a Guyana where the Vice President couldn’t wake up and determine the location of a major oil and gas pipeline without any studies or consultation with other parties and other stakeholders.
Guyana is also a dangerously centralized state, with development and decision making concentrated in Georgetown. There is a need for devolution of a greater share of the budget and decision making down to the regions. This would effectively mean a party can lose the national election, let go of power, but know that its constituency is free from undue political interference, harassment or mass firing directed from the centre. Ravi Dev, Vincent Alexander and Dr Henry Jeffrey have also debated the merits of various forms of devolution for some time. It’s time to translate ideas into action.
The models for a better Guyana are out there. They work and they are implementable. It is time for us Guyanese to have a frank dialogue to decide where we go. At the cusp of oil wealth and with our last election as a backdrop, it is time for a national dialogue that engages the bottom houses, university students, women, political parties and all of our various stakeholders. This is not about one party or another; it is not even really about elections and who wins. In fact, I am convinced there are no long-term winners in Guyanese elections. This endeavour at interrogating a more suitable political system is not only about minimizing political and social tensions; but also more importantly about ensuring stability, predictability, inclusivity and balanced growth that allows Guyana to reach its full potential as a nation. I am willing to work with any Guyanese individual or group – of whatever political persuasion – to get us to a better place. I know there are many others like me that are willing to contribute. The question before us is, do we want to change, or have we gotten so used to the taste of burial ground plums that we don’t want to think about where they come from?
Dr Kwesi Sansculotte-Greenidge