MY opposition to the president’s unilateral appointment of the GECOM chair is not based on his lack of authority to make the appointment. I do not share that view. My reading of the letter of the constitution is that he has that ultimate authority and power. My opposition is against what I see as the premature use of that power and the political liability of its use.
Having said that, as I sought to establish in my interview with Demerara Waves, I think in the context of the trend set by previous presidents and opposition leaders and in the spirit of the constitution, the process should allow the president the space to choose a chair that he has confidence in. The Carter mechanism does not allow for a chair that is simultaneously acceptable to both sides. My simple test is that the person should not have any overt affiliation or demonstrated activism on behalf of the parties.
There is the usual elephant in the room, which we are desperately trying to avoid—race. Before I get to the meat of the matter, some preliminary comments are in order as a kind of context. Somebody just drew my attention to a Facebook post in which the author seeks to make the point that “Guyana does not have a race problem.” As proof of his thesis, he contends that if Ravi Dev, David Hinds, Rhyaan Shah and Eric Phillips and other “tribalists” were to meet, they would have fun over a bottle of rum. Such sentiment from some Guyanese is not new, and I suspect those who express them generally mean well. But that does not erase the fact that it is really a simplistic understanding and expression of the meaning of race.
I teach a course titled “Race and Racism in the African Diaspora” and the very first thing I try to get over to my students is that race as biology is a myth, but race as politics, economics and social marker is real and powerful. To help with my introduction, I use a documentary, “Race the Power of an Illusion.” Race is an idea rooted in almost four centuries of history and a narrative that is grounded in law, policy and social behaviour. As such, it often determines where one lives, the type of education one gets, where one is employed, the level of one’s wages and ultimately, who governs.
I make these observations, because, as I have learned from the political praxis of Eusi Kwayana and Walter Rodney, you do not decrease the negative impact of race by ignoring its devastating effects, but by first acknowledging them and then look for ways to contain and if possible eliminate them.
In Guyana, it pains to hear so many well-meaning people talk about ending race while exhibiting an ignorance of the phenomenon both as history and idea. It’s one of the reasons that we have, except for brief moments, made little headway in educating our young people about the need for racial reconciliation.
As I hinted above, the current impasse over the selection of the GECOM Chair is steeped in the politics of race, yet if you listen to the commentators you would believe it is all about law and democracy — period. Yes, it is about law and democracy, but to discuss a matter that has to do with elections in Guyana outside of race and ethnicity is to be dishonest and politically dumb.
We are naïve if we expected that after an Indian-Guyanese dominated government chose three Indian-Guyanese from lists that included African- Guyanese, an African-Guyanese government would not want to and should not be expected to choose an African-Guyanese of its liking.
I have no problem, in the interest of ethnic balance, with the current GECOM chair being African-Guyanese, so long as it is done within the letter and spirit of the constitution. I notice my colleagues in the African-Guyanese organisations have come out in support of the president, but it would have been more effective if they all had passed a resolution to that effect at the last Cuffy250 forum held in August and presented it to Mr Jagdeo and President Granger.
The fear of being tagged racists often push African-Guyanese organisations to lead from the back, which is what they are doing on this issue. Had I suggested this back then, many of those leaders who are not hollering in support of Granger would have told me that our organisations cannot be political. And those in the coalition parties would have told me that we can’t bring race into it.
But race is at the centre of it and has always been that way, even if it was not said aloud. When Dr. Jagan presented the first list in 1990 to President Hoyte, it included the following persons: Ambassador Rudolph (Rudy) Collins, Jules DeCambra, Joey King, Edward Luckhoo, Brynmore (Bryn) Pollard and David Yankana. Note there were no known PPP members or sympathisers on that list and importantly, it included African-Guyanese public servants in the mould that are generally acceptable to the PNC and African -Guyanese elites. Hoyte promptly chose Collins, who fitted the bill—he was not known as a party man, he was Black, respectable and he was not known to be hostile to the PNC.
When it was Hoyte’s turn to submit lists, he included one Indian-Guyanese, on each list, two of whom were proposed by the WPA. The PPP leaders promptly chose the only Indian-Guyanese on the lists. It was clear that for the PPP, the Indian identity of the appointee was paramount, even if that person was not known to be partial to the PPP. The unspoken trend was set. Both Steve Surujbally and Doodnauth Singh were nominated by the WPA. What is key is that while both men were known to be anti-PNC, Hoyte still included them on his lists.
Do we really believe that any of the three GECOM chairs chosen by the PPP was the first choice of the PNC? But they had to live with it—they accepted the unspoken reality, that the sitting President would choose someone that fits his or her idea of “fit and proper.” What is the point I am making? It is the responsibility of the party that is putting together the list to ensure that it does not sabotage the process by leaving the president with no option but to reject the list.
But that is not what Jagdeo did; he went against that spirit—unlike Dr. Jagan and Mr Hoyte, he gave Mr Granger lists that comprised PPP members and sympathisers and others whom a PNC leader would not have confidence in. Mr Jagdeo, in effect, compromised the spirit of the Carter Formula by intentionally presenting impossible lists.
For me, any legal opinion on Granger’s rejection of the lists and his reaching for the “nuclear option” of unilateral appointment would have to take the nature of the lists presented to him into consideration. In other words, did the lists meet both the letter and the spirit of the constitution? They may have met the letter, but certainly not the spirit. My argument is that the burden of the integrity of the process lies with its initiator, namely, the opposition leader. For example, did Mr Jagdeo consult with representatives of the African-Guyanese community—ACDA, Cuffy250 etc.- and include their nominees in his list?
So, what is the outcome? I opposed the president’s use of what I agree is his ultimate power for two political reasons. First, I felt and still feel that in doing so he has played into Jagdeo’s hand. Second, I feared what has now become obvious in one short week—the country has now retreated into its iron-clad ethno-racial camps replete with all the attendant racial unreason and hate. This development has plunged our country into an all-out racial Cold War that could have hot consequences.
When Jagdeo calls for non-cooperation with the government, he knows fully well the ethnic implications for the economy, for race relations within and between our communities. This is not new for the PPP—they mounted a similar campaign following the 1973 election. Already we are seeing the negative effects. The Indian-Guyanese community is treating the matter as one geared to deny their party getting back into power in 2020—that is a powerful incentive not to cooperate with the government and by extension its supporters. All their organisations are lining up to issue statements of condemnation of Granger and some have predicted doom. The PPP has started its election campaign.
The African-Guyanese community, despite misgivings about the performance of the government, is lining up behind Granger—they see the situation as one geared to take power from their representatives. Note the statements emanating from ACDA and other Black organisations. In our ethnically charged environment, telling African-Guyanese that the president’s action is an assault on democracy is tantamount to throwing water on a duck’s back.
I don’t see how we can recover any semblance of “social cohesion” in the short term. It is clear that the Carter Formula has run its course. The only remedy seems to be constitutional change that forces some form of consensus on the leaders. But even that, calls for some give and take which for the moment seems elusive.
More of Dr. Hinds’s 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