November 30 ,2020
With the entry of each new government into office the electorate hears the same recitations about development. And by the time they leave office that development is still on hold. Nowadays voters are fairly cynical about their politicians, believing that most of them seek power in order to benefit themselves rather than the nation, a view which has probably become even more entrenched following the display of bad faith on the part of the AFC. Guyana’s tragedy is that voting patterns have an ethnic character, although it would not be so tragic if regular changes of government were possible. But in this country demographics is key.
As it is many electors probably see little difference in terms of integrity between the politicians of one side and those of the other. What guides their hand to mark the X on the ballot paper will either be ethnic considerations or, in a minority of cases, tactical ones. And the politicians for whom they vote act accordingly. They see their first obligation as being to their ethnic constituencies, and by extension regard it as their function to appoint loyalists to key positions.
As for their tendency to use power to look after their own interests, it is not that they do not seek to place the nation on the path of development; it is rather that they believe that self-enhancement is not incompatible with this goal. This is despite the fact that nearly thirty years after our first free and fair elections in a long time, it should have been apparent to them that any such assumption had no evidence to support it. Self-interested motives, however, are hard to override.
This time around our present occupants of the corridors of power probably think that things will be different, because with the anticipated oil bonanza, there will soon be enough money to go around to profit everyone and silence all critics in the process. Certainly Mr David Granger thought so too, which is one reason why he clung so desperately to power for so long. The Guyanese people, however, are not necessarily persuaded. They know all about impoverished nations which struck oil, and whose elites became obscenely wealthy while the poor remained wretchedly poor.
For those who seek change, the answer lies in a radical rewriting of the constitution. That, however, is not so easily accomplished. In the first place, as is often recognised by reformers, incumbents in office have no interest in reducing their own power and control. They will be amenable to any amendment they perceive as being in their interest, but after that it would be a question of tinkering and minor concessions.
There is something else too which inhibits any move towards real change, and that is the political culture of our two major parties, which, it might be noted, also contaminated the only truly viable third party this country ever produced. The PPP and the PNC have a historically antagonistic relationship, which for all of that is symbiotic at some level. What is wrong in the nation is explained in terms of the other, so the previous PPP/C administration blamed its own shortcomings on the state in which the ‘dictatorship’ (as it called it) had left the country. This was still being advanced as an argument many years after it had acceded to office.
The Granger government was no less condemnatory of its predecessor, bringing court actions against some former officials in relation to the Pradoville 2 housing scheme. That both governments have been guilty of corruption there is little doubt, whether that comes to light or not, and traditionally for the most part what are probably the most egregious cases haven’t. But our parties are formed of Cyclopes – members who see with only one eye. Wrong is what is committed by the other side, not by their own.
So vindictiveness is ingrained in the political psyche, and as mentioned earlier, when a new government comes in, officials appointed by the previous one are turfed out willy-nilly, whatever their gifts, as the case of Dr Vincent Adams in particular illustrates. In a country which suffers so much from the brain drain, and which lacks a critical mass of competent people, this is no way to pursue development. With a few notable exceptions, sycophancy and ability do not go together. And what the previous PPP/C government demonstrated was that it had no feel for talent.
That aside, it might be observed that no nation can develop which does not have a level of continuity from one administration to the next, at least where certain fundamental policies are concerned. Here, however, every government which comes in seems to want to start from scratch; there is no building on what has gone before and so development is inhibited. It is not as if the APNU+AFC administration did any better on the continuity front or in terms of retaining any proven competent officials in critical posts either. But then Mr Granger introduced an additional aberrant element into the PNC political equation: the military factor. He seemed to believe that he could run the state as the army was run, and so he appointed any number of inexperienced, ill-suited ex-military personnel to critical posts with predictable results. It was not even as if he was a populist; he hardly made himself available to the public except on official occasions and for the celebration of religious anniversary events. Even now, as the leader of the main opposition party, he is still virtually incommunicado.
The only thing his modus operandi in office and his actions last year and this have achieved is the precipitous decline of the PNC as a political entity, and his chosen successor, Mr Joseph Harmon, who also lacks political skills, will not be the one to revive it. The PPP is probably quite happy that it is witnessing what it believes could be the demise of its old opponent, which now appears to lack the power to put real pressure on it, despite the fact that the ruling party’s overall majority in Parliament is only one seat.
It should be careful, however, about premature rejoicing. The ethnic political nexus is so entrenched, that eventually someone will appear to speak for the African constituency, whether or not within the context of the old PNC. The fact that the party now lacks spokespersons of genuine experience and ability such as Mr Carl Greenidge, does not mean that this will remain the case indefinitely. The African constituency in this latest chapter of an old story is not suddenly going to become the new supporters of the present government, even if that government thinks they can be bought off with oil money.
And even if one thought that President Irfaan Ali was genuine in his patter about inclusiveness and the like, he is a product of Freedom House, which has a long-established system and some old political hands. It was founded in the days when the PPP was a Marxist-Leninist party (its constitution still is) and while most of its members probably no longer adhere to those views, the system still retains its hold. In short it is not geared for making the kind of compromises constitutional reform and inclusiveness would require.
It used to be thought that the first step to stabilising the country and edging it towards developmental mode, was to encourage the PNC to come within the democratic framework. In 1992 Desmond Hoyte appeared to be nosing it in that direction, and in 2011, that seemed to have been achieved. Mr Granger then sabotaged the achievement, and the PNC is now back to square one, finding itself at the lowest ebb in its history. This is not good for the country either. A democracy needs a viable opposition whose bona fides are trusted.
As for the PPP, it has always had a simplistic definition of democracy, amounting only to the holding of national elections. Once in office, then Freedom House thinking takes hold. As it is, Parliament has not met for nearly three months, and the public is being informed there will be no local government elections next year, when they fall due, because Gecom would first have to be reformed. This is nonsense, apart from reflecting an undemocratic spirit. It may take a good while before the PNC addresses its problems, but the PPP can address some of its own now. Most of all it should remind itself that history shows in this country that development cannot be achieved through the vehicle of party autocracy.