On Wednesday last the public was treated to a brilliant and expansive lecture by the former Chancellor (ag) of the Judiciary and now Distinguished Jurist-in-Residence at the University of Guyana, Carl Singh. The subject was “The Constitutional Guarantee of Fundamental Rights and the Citizen. The lecture, to a packed hall and attentive audience at Herdmanston House, was the third in the series “Conversation on Law and Society.” Chancellor Singh started by pointing out that while citizens may not always be cognizant of what their right are, they are certainly aware that the Constitution guarantees them, which they are often prepared to aggressively defend. He related the story of a visitor to a hospital in Georgetown who was being prevented from entering because the visiting hours had come to an end. During the argument between the visitor and the hospital staff, the visitor loudly proclaimed that it was her constitutional right to enter the hospital to visit her relative!
Chancellor Singh explored a wide range of issues, not all of which can be examined here. A few are selected.
Divided societies like Guyana suffer from a phenomenon whereby historic events which, when they occurred, gave rise to allegations of ethnic bias, never seem to go away. The West Indies Federation, which lasted from 1958 to 1962, is one such. It is an historic event which is hardly relevant to contemporary Guyana today. Yet the debate on Jagan’a attitude to the Federation rages, as if the event occurred yesterday, and not more than 50 years ago. It is contextualized to the current ethnic controversies, one of which is to seek to continually paint Jagan as a racist, or at least to allege that he was motivated by ethnic considerations. His role in the establishment of the University of Guyana has become another. But that is for another time.
An editorial in the Stabroek News of December 19, 1986, on ‘Regional Integration’ stated that ‘…others, notably Eusi Kwayana (then Sydney King) attributed Jagan’s opposition [to the Federation] to his unwillingness to be swamped in a predominantly African grouping. C.L.R. James is also reported to have made a similar assertion. In response to the Stabroek News editorial, Jagan replied as follows:
Cheddi Jagan returned from studies in the United States to a British Guiana in 1943 that was a cauldron of poverty. The report of the Moyne Commission, which investigated poverty in the region in the 1930s concluded that “for the laboring population, mere subsistence was increasingly problematic.” The report was so explosive that it was not published until 1945. It weighed heavily in subsequent developments. In 1946 Cheddi Jagan, Janet Jagan, Jocelyn Hubbard and Ashton Chase, the latter two of whom were active trade unionists, formed the Political Affairs Committee (PAC). In 1947 Cheddi Jagan fought and won a seat in the Legislative Council.
The cauldron of poverty was being stirred by decades of intensified industrial unrest, prompted by the new found strength of organised labour. The British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU) was the first to be registered in the British Empire in 1922. The Man Power Citizens Association (MPCA) was registered in 1937 and represented sugar workers. The Transport Workers Union (TWU) was established in 1938 and superseded the BGLU as the largest and most militant in the city. In 1947 bauxite workers went on strike. In 1948 the successful Teare Strike led by the TWU, stopped the trains and boats and closed down the country for two weeks – unprecedented in a colony. In 1949 the Enmore strike of sugar workers took place during which five sugar workers, who became known as the Enmore Martyrs, were shot and killed. This heightened labour activity was also a feature in the Caribbean region and was prompted by a decline in sugar prices on the world market which further exacerbated poverty.
Bharrat Jagdeo’s incumbency as General Secretary of the PPP and Opposition Leader makes him the most authoritative figure within the PPP. The ease with which he swatted away the dominant influence of Donald Ramotar, Clement Rohee and Komal Chand in serious decision-making within the upper reaches of the PPP after the loss of the 2015 elections, testifies to his now enduring control of the direction of the PPP, last manifested when he secured the nomination of Donald Ramotar as the presidential candidate in 2011.
Komal Chand had always been a vocal and independent minded leader within the PPP. This was derived more from his inclinations than from the power base he held as General Secretary of GAWU. The need for restructuring of the sugar industry arose at around the time of Mr. Jagdeo’s accession to office in 1999. Mr. Chand’s positions in debate, particularly in relation to the sugar industry, became more pointed and vocal as time went on, especially during the 2006 to 2011 period when serious problems began to surface. But the problems which have been emerging in the sugar industry and the length of time for which Mr. Chand has held leadership office in GAWU – since about 1985 – have weakened his grip. Thus, he lost his position as a member of the executive committee of the PPP after the 2016 congress of the PPP. Composition of this body is determined by a select few a day or two before the vote and a sufficient number of members of the central committee, which elects the executive committee, are given the word as to who to support. Mr. Chand’s orchestrated loss would have told him that his time in the leadership of the PPP and GAWU was drawing to an end.
Since the retirement of Chancellor (ag) Carl Singh and Chief Justice (ag) Ian Chang, the issue of their replacement has been at the forefront of discourse, at least privately, in legal circles, but occasionally in the media. I myself have written about the issue once when I called on President Granger to appoint persons to fill the posts which had become vacant and had remained so for several months. I was quite pleased when the President made acting appointments of Chief Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards as Chancellor (ag) and of Justice George-Wiltshire S.C. as Chief Justice (ag). Justice George-Wiltshire S.C. who was also subsequently appointed as an Appeal Court Judge.
These two acting appointments, which only required consultation with the Leader of the Opposition, were enormously popular in the legal profession. After some months as acting appointees, I can say with certainty that the anticipated performances of the Chancellor (ag) and Chief Justice (ag) have exceeded expectations amidst enormous challenges, which had commenced under the chancellorship of Carl Singh, not least among which are the implementation of the new Civil Procedure Rules, the establishment of courts with new jurisdictions for family and sexual offences, the appointment of additional judges and a building programme to house courts, magistrates and judges. I believe that this opinion is shared by the legal profession.