June 10, 2003
In the last few weeks two prominent ethnic organisations have forthrightly expressed their concerns at public fora. Speaking at an emergency forum sponsored by the African Cultural Development Association (ACDA) at City Hall to examine the “African perspective of the crisis in Guyana” ACDA leaders said that African Guyanese live under a flawed system of governance and their political, social and economic repression can only be solved by changes to the present electoral system which promotes unsuitable governance for multi-racial societies and sustains racial triumphalism. The crisis, they argued, was multi-faceted, political, social and economic and stemmed from conditions such as AIDS, unemployment and crime including drug-related crime and extra-judicial killings. A resolution was passed to urge Africans to boycott the next elections if held under the same electoral system as the present one and to advocate power sharing at the executive level of governance.
At a symposium at the Hotel Tower hosted by the Guyana Indian Heritage Association (GIHA) at which a report on crime was presented speakers said that Indians were the overwhelming victims of the current crime epidemic and had suffered from ethnic terrorism and this had resulted in a transfer of wealth to the Afro Guyanese perpetrators. The report said the crime epidemic was a symptom of the struggle for power between the PNC and the PPP. It rejected what it said was the view held by some African intellectuals who sought to justify the criminal transfer of wealth from Indians to Africans on the ground that the PPP government favoured Indians and marginalised Africans. It said the violence had a political motive. It referred to the substantial spoils from the crime and the negative effect on investment. Speakers also said the media were hiding the fact of ethnic crime by not ethnically identifying the perpetrators, that police stations were like foreign territory to Indians and that Indians had an existential fear of being wiped out.
It would be wrong, as some do, to dismiss these statements as the ravings of ethnic extremists on both sides. Though these are strong views, starkly expressed, several of the ACDA and GIHA speakers are highly intelligent and believe in what they are saying. Moreover, some of what they say is true, or at least it contains accurate insights and perceptions of how some members of the ethnic groups they represent see Guyanese reality, through an ethnic prism. The main problem is there is no attempt at a redemptive vision.
Both Africans and Indians in Guyana are victims of the colonial experience. History, and imperial design, led them to play certain roles historically. Seen with the eyes of history it is quite possible for an African today to feel a sense of disenfranchisement at the fact that the party that represents him cannot win a fair election if ethnic voting patterns persist (and also to forget the long years when Burnham reversed the rules and held power by rigged elections), and to feel a sense of injustice that what had been seen as the inevitable inheritance of power at independence by the educated African middle class was upset by changing demographics in the first half of the last century.
It is also not surprising that Indians interpret what has happened in the last fifteen months as a kind of ethnic terrorism and crime of which Indians bore the brunt. There is an Indian security dilemma, many Indians feel exposed and unprotected, though Africans have also been victims of crime.
But the whole truth is inevitably more complex and these insights are partial. A substantial part of the current dilemma is due to the economic backwardness the whole country suffers from due to the massive emigration of skilled and competent people that resulted from the turbulent politics over the last half century and the economic collapse that followed the abortive socialist experiment. It is this poverty and unemployment that gives our politics such a harsh tint and tone, and turns groups against each other, looking for scapegoats. It is also true that there are differences of outlook and culture between the ethnic groups even after all these years of creolisation and standardised education. Some effort has to be made to understand this, rather than interpreting them purely negatively and contentiously.
The question these groups are posing is can they live together and on what terms and conditions. It is a dilemma faced historically by other groups in other countries, not always successfully. President Jagdeo and the Leader of the Opposition Robert Corbin have also understood this problem and have embarked on an extended dialogue which has already led to some important developments, parliamentary committees, new commissions and so on. This will certainly lead to more inclusive governance as the opposition will be more closely involved in parliamentary management, legislative oversight and review of executive action.
There are some, including ACDA, who feel executive power sharing is the only answer. It may be wrong to be too dogmatic about this. After all, there are some well known problems that can flow from this model (gridlock, the lack of an opposition, the strengthening rather than softening of ethnic cleavages) and there will still be a majority party within the power sharing coalition, so the problem is essentially pushed back from the streets to the cabinet (to the streets?). The PNC has done some useful work on this matter and has sought to deal with some of these issues in its power sharing proposal but the point to be recognised is that executive power sharing is not some magical formula that will necessarily solve all our problems, ethnic and otherwise. It has failed in Fiji and Northern Ireland (so far) but it should certainly remain an issue on the agenda, and the PNC’s proposal should at some stage be discussed in depth.
Mr Jagdeo and Mr Corbin are to continue their talks and hopefully too the various committees and commissions will start to function, thus giving flesh to their words. But there is no reason why this should be the only dialogue. Why shouldn’t ACDA and GIHA, as Mr Ravi Dev has suggested, engage in a dialogue of their own? They have already put their cards on the table, why not explore to see if they can find some common ground and seek answers to their concerns? Their dialogue can be even wider ranging than the dialogue between the two leaders and can include cultural matters, the preponderance of one group or the other in the disciplined services, the civil service, the sugar and rice industries and so on. It could be much more productive to talk to each other and explore their fears and insecurities rather than effectively shout at each other in public fora.