This year’s emancipation observances come in the midst of political turmoil in Guyana. The two political sides are locked in battle over the consequences of the No Confidence Vote (NCV) passed in December 2018. Almost eight months after that vote, the matter is still not fully settled.
At the heart of the impasse is which Voters’ List should be used at the imminent elections. While the PPP wants to use the current list which legally expired a few months ago, the Coalition prefers a brand new one arising from House to House registration. The matter is now before the High Court in what could well be the start of another journey to the CCJ.
The reason for this back and forth is simple—these elections are the most consequential in the country’s post-colonial history. At stake is the expected wealth from the production of Oil and Gas scheduled to begin next year.
Given our history of ethno-political competition, it matters which political force gets to manage the distribution of that wealth. So, while elections have always mattered in Guyana, this one has taken on added significance. How that wealth is managed could decide the fate of Guyana for decades to come. And given our ethnic dynamics, who governs in the initial period could determine whether the oil-wealth serves as a medium for ethnic equality and equity or for a resurgence of hyper ethnic domination.
I have argued before that there is not much that could be done at this moment to curtail ethnic voting among the vast majority of the electorate—it has become too entrenched. But in my interaction with African Guyanese communities, I have detected a healthy development. There appears to be a critical mass of voters who while resigning themselves to the prevailing ethnic voting pattern, are putting a greater premium on their vote—they are demanding assurances that, if re-elected, the APNU+AFC Coalition would do a better job at responding to the needs of the community. Critically, they are also demanding policies aimed at tackling the structural problems of the African Guyanese collective.
Of course, this development coincides with my long-held view that African Guyanese reluctance to make sustained demands of governments for which they vote has contributed to them being taken for granted by their leaders. Except for the early Burnham years, the African Guyanese governmental leaderships have been reluctant to advance policies aimed at correcting the structural ethnic imbalances in the political economy.
The PPP leadership, in the process of empowering sections of the Indian Guyanese community, have added to the imbalances. These imbalances were not created overnight or during the PPP’s reign; they are a product of our long history of ethnic domination beginning with plantation slavery. Because African Guyanese have endured a longer period of denial of basic human rights, they are today the most challenged group developmentally.
The fact is that elections matter, because they determine who governs, and it is the governors who ultimately decide who gets what, when and how. That is a truism in politics that African Guyanese only take seriously when the opposite party holds office—they make demands of the PPP which they do not make of PNC or PNC-dominated governments.
During its current term in office the APNU+AFC government has not adequately addressed the deep-seated problems of their base, and the base has not made enough demands of the government. This has led to some degree of alienation, particularly among the youth. But this negative appears to have led to the positive development which I referred to above.
The vote is one of the most precious resources available to the individual, the family and the community. It is a resource that was fought for over centuries. While its use has not always resulted in socio-economic transformation, it remains a defining tool in the hands of citizens.
African Guyanese have been guilty of not always appreciating its value, which has led to lower voter turnout among the group. But this election challenges the group to reverse that trend by thinking of the bigger picture. There is an incentive to vote and attach demands to it. The outcome of the next election could determine the extent to which African Guyanese and the working poor benefit from the expected wealth.
So, there is need for a conversation on how to vote for policies within the context of the existing voting patterns. The Buxton First of August Movement (FAM-Buxton), to which I belong, has decided tofrontally address this issue at its annual Eusi Kwayana Emancipation Symposium to be held in the village today. The topic of the symposium is “The coming Election and the African Guyanese Emancipation Agenda.”
FAM-Buxton intends to ignite a conversation within the wider community on the linkage between ethnic voting and policy demands. In other words, ethnic voting should not eliminate demands for policies aimed at addressing the immediate needs of the ethnic group and the poor and powerless of all groups.
I know that the critics would be ready to say that government should not address ethnic demands but the general concerns of all Guyanese. But it seems to me that if all ethnic groups make demands of governments, we could have outcomes that include both ethnic specific and general policies. For me, that would be a superior model to one that only accommodates general one-size-fits-all policies that only benefits the group that fits the general size. We are a diverse society that is unevenly underdeveloped—a fact that policy makers tend to ignore.
So, come to Buxton today to begin the conversation which will be held at Friendship Primary School at 6pm. The cast of speakers include Former Foreign Minister, Carl Greenidge, Attorney and Human Rights activist, Nigel Hughes and Political activist, David Hinds. Buxton is a space that has had a long history of political activism and is steeped in African Guyanese liberation praxis. So, it is apt that this public conversation begins there.
Last year’s symposium was the launching pad for Clive Thomas and the WPA’s Cash Transfer initiative, which changed the discourse on what to do with the revenues expected from the coming Oil and Gas economy. In many regards this is a continuation of that discourse, since the coming election is linked to Oil and Gas.