A federal republic

Stabroek News
May 6, 1999

The Guyanese Indian Foundation Trust (GIFT) has proposed that Guyana be reconstituted as a federal republic. In its submission to the Constitution Reform Commission GIFT proposes that the Federal Republic of Guyana will be composed of a federal government and state governments which will be distinctive, interdependent and interrelated. The States will be Berbice, Demerara, North and South Essequibo each of which will have its own state government. Executive power in each state will be vested in a Governor elected by majority vote. No State will have the right to secede.

As is the case with all federations some legislative powers are vested exclusively in the federal government. These will be banking, census, currency, federal elections, immigration, foreign affairs, international trade and commerce, national archives, national defence, national museum and the registry of births and deaths, as listed in Schedule I. In Schedule II are a list of concurrent powers of the federal and state governments in which they will both have authority (including education, environment, health, housing, planning and development) and in Schedule III powers reserved for the states, fairly minor things like certain types of licences, noise pollution, public markets and traffic but including sports.

GIFT also proposes a bicameral federal legislature. The senators for the upper house shall be elected by persons residing in the states from state constituencies by a simple majority. Members of the senate may "consider, pass, amend, propose amendments to or reject any legislation before the senate". On the face of that the senate can block legislation that comes up from the lower House of Representatives giving it effective veto power. GIFT also proposes a non-executive president as head of state with limited powers. The Prime Minister will be the chief executive.

In its introduction GIFT states that its submission is based on "the recognition that ethnicity is a reality, and that it has an objective existence. We must therefore openly and publicly confront the ethnic bases of Guyanese political culture and structures". It argues that the federalist school of thought allows for the devolution of power from the centre to the states and thus "allows for empowerment of the population in a geographical struture. This allows for a more equitable sharing of power and fuller meaningful participation of various communities in the governance of this country".

Many questions arise. Given current voting patterns the probable outcome of an election based on this model would be that the People's Progressive Party (PPP) would control the federal government and the state governments of Berbice and North and South Essequibo and the People's National Congress (PNC) would control the state government of Demerara. The seat of the federal parliament will be in the capital of Georgetown until "a new capital is established elsewhere on land which shall be designated a federal territory". The assumption is that the creation of separate states with independent state governments will reduce ethnic tension. The PNC will have power in the State of Demerara through an elected Governor and the PPP federal government will also be based in Georgetown. Will that in itself put an end to the squabble for federal power at the centre?

Is it also the assumption that there will be a movement of population between the various states in the interest of a reduction of ethnic tension? Or again, is it assumed that the mere fact of the devolution of power will reduce tension and thus give more protection to the minorities in the various states?

Does the creation of new state governments make sense in a situation in which the paucity of human resources already make it difficult to put together a credible national government?

GIFT also proposes that every effort be made to balance the composition of the disciplined forces ethnically. Each State will have its own police force and there will also be federal police, like the FBI in the USA. GDF headquarters will be based in the Essequibo.

One can readily understand what has motivated these proposals, ethnic insecurity and fear. Whether they are viable and make sense, even on their own assumptions, and whether they would lead eventually to the dissolution of the country is a matter for careful debate.