ALL societies are complex because human beings are complex. Some societies are more complex than others, largely because of the convergence of socio-economic and political forces over time. Guyana falls into the latter category. Many scholars and observers have argued that the country’s ethnic diversity and the context in which the various groups came here and have related to each other have combined to make economic and political development very difficult. Professor Clive Thomas and others have constantly argued that there can be no economic development outside of a political solution of our ethnic problem. I want to take that argument to another level by contending that simplistic and unimaginative approaches to our ethnic divide have served to exacerbate the problem.
We, all of us, have discussed ethnicity and ethnic politics in Guyana as an African-East Indian problem. In many regards, we cannot be faulted because that relationship is the epicentre of the problem. But in the process, we have made the Amerindian community invisible. Some commentators have even subtly and not so subtly suggested that Amerindian “neutrality” as the model for good ethnoracial behaviour. There is some justification for that view— Amerindians, far more than other ethnic groups, have over the years distributed their votes across the political board.
But Amerindian neutrality seems as if it is about to explode on the question of land, in particular the aggressive push by African- Guyanese leaders for ancestral lands. Those of us who study ethnicity know that one of the things which drives ethnic sentiments is the competition for common resources. The president’s announcement of a Lands Commission to look at all land issues without regard to ethnicity falls into the “race neutral” model that is consistent with the acceptable mode of governance in multi-ethnic societies. It is a politically correct approach that is aimed at presenting the president in an impartial light.
As I have argued in previous columns, African-Guyanese leaders tend to shy away from enacting policies that would overtly benefit their constituents. This Lands Commission falls squarely into that model. The real issue at hand is the African- Guyanese claim to ancestral lands that were bought by their fore- parents and to other common lands. The straightforward thing to have done was to set up an African- Guyanese Lands Commission, but I am sure that the government was fearful that such a move would be condemned as ethnic favouritism.
But, as we have now realised, that neutral approach has been read by Amerindian leaders as very partial. This is one of the problems of ethnic societies— groups accept neutral policy only if they give some form of advantage to them. In other words, it is almost impossible to have “ethnic-neutral” approaches to governance in ethnically divided societies. In the end, the government might have faced less hostility had it opted for an African- Guyanese Land Commission, instead of trying to be politically correct. I hope they learn this lesson.
The Amerindian leaders’ argument is both simple and subtle. As the “First Peoples” their claim to land must be looked at in that unique context. Their successful struggle for land ownership is settled and therefore any commission that includes their claims could lead to a review of the lands they have already gained. The subtle argument is that the African- Guyanese claim to land is not as fundamental as the Amerindians’ claim and should be dealt with separately.
For the record, I accept the view that Amerindians were first occupants, but I do not believe that that should be a qualification for disproportionate ownership of common lands. The way other groups, principally Africans and East Indians, arrived in Guyana and their massive contributions to the humanisation of the country entitle them to equal ownership of the land. I therefore view the African- Guyanese claims as equally legitimate.
The Amerindian leaders have gone one step further— they are threatening to withhold votes from the coalition. In the context of close elections, they have come to realise the value of their votes and are prepared to use them as leverage to get policy action from government. This is a very interesting development. Indian- Guyanese have been doing the same with sugar. African- Guyanese on the other hand have never mastered that art and tend to get less in terms of policy from governments for which they vote.
The Commissioner of Information Matter
There are two issues regarding this matter of the Commissioner of Information. The first has to do with the commissioner’s failure to produce reports on the work he has done and the manner in which he has treated with requests for information from the public. The second has to do with the effectiveness of the office itself as a democratic medium.
By refusing to heed requests by the government to present statutory reports of his work, he is in effect thumbing his nose at the government. This is part of the larger problem government faces with some State functionaries who are loyal to the PPP— these functionaries use their positions to frustrate the smooth operation of the government and to make it look bad. In my view, this is exactly what the current commissioner, a known and outspoken member of the PPP, seems to be doing.
The commissioner has also been accused of not responding positively to requests from organisations, claiming that the Information Act does not require him to respond to requests from organisations. This in my view is a very narrow reading of the Act that flies in the face of its overall spirit. Organisations are made up of citizens and residents and as such should not be blocked from seeking information about the government. I think this is a clear case of the commissioner undermining the mandate of his office.
Government has the responsibility to ensure that State functionaries carry out their designated functions in a satisfactory manner and to take necessary action when these functionaries are found wanting. The Commissioner of Information is a presidential appointment, so I suppose if the President is convinced that the officer is not adequately carrying out his functions, he could revoke the appointment. If the commissioner is indeed refusing to produce reports and is not cooperating with the government, then the President should remove him and find someone more suited.
But the government has to be careful because there is a second issue that has to be taken into consideration: has government done enough to make the Office of the Commissioner of Information an effective medium? The Commissioner of Information is tasked with ensuring that the public has adequate access to public information regarding government operations. This includes receiving requests from citizens and taking the necessary actions to address them. Since there are no formal reports from him, one does not know that he has been doing so.
The commissioner claims that since the current government took office, he has not received many requests for information. This then suggests that citizens are not taking advantage of the office. My view is that citizens do not know that the office exists and as such cannot take advantage of it. This is not the commissioner’s fault. The office of the commissioner is located at his private residence— this is ridiculous. But again, this does not seem to be the commissioner’s fault.
I think the president should set up a Commission of Inquiry to look into the matter to determine whether the present commissioner is undermining the mandate of his office and the extent to which the government itself has sought to make the institution accessible to the public. This is an important Sate institution that if properly advertised and staffed could enhance public accountability. In addition, too much money is being paid to one person for practically doing nothing.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org