February is African History Month originally designated to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas on February 12 and 14 respectively. It is noted and marked in Guyana.
The African people of Guyana have contributed the most, not only to making Guyana the habitable place that it is, but also to the historical narrative of revolutionary resistance to oppression that is now our common heritage. This heritage bequeathed by our ancestors from Africa has inspired Guyana’s quest for freedom and justice. While it is important to bring the story of Guyanese of African origin to public notice, as I have done in the case of Jack Gladstone and the pivotal role he played in the 1823 rebellion, there are many others from other countries who filled my teenage and early adult years and inspired me.
The basis of Guyana’s political outcomes has remained static for many decades. With deeply entrenched ethnic voting patterns, Indian Guyanese, originally constituting close to 50 percent of the population, would always have the upper hand. The two elections in 1957 and 1961 demonstrated to the African Guyanese political leadership that if it wanted political power, it would have to obtain it in coalition and later sustain it through electoral malpractice. And so, after the 1964 elections, in which the PPP obtained the plurality, the PNC and UF, together holding a majority of the seats in the parliament, formed a coalition government. The coalition ended in 1968 and the PNC resorted to electoral malpractice thereafter to maintain political power.
In 1957 the PNC merged with the United Democratic Party (UDP). The UDP, led by John Carter, a prominent lawyer of Mixed heritage, represented the interests of the Mixed and African middle and professional classes. At some point between 1973 and 1985 the support of these groups for the PNC started to wane. But it mostly returned with the election of Desmond Hoyte as President. These groups showed their electoral clout in 2006 when a section of it abandoned the PNC and supported the AFC. Many of these votes went back to the PNC after the election of David Granger as its leader, but it is believed that a significant number remained with the AFC. At the 2011 elections the APNU obtained 40.81 percent of the votes, much in line with its record in free and fair elections, and the AFC got 10.32. The AFC benefited from the loss of between 5 to 7 percent of its votes from previous elections. It obtained 48.60 percent.
There are frequent, frustrated, refrains from observers that it is Guyana’s political parties that are mainly responsible for promoting the culture of ethnic dominance and without it, Guyana’s politics would not be dominated by race and instability. This is not true. Guyana’s main political parties reflect the social, economic and political aspirations of the people of Guyana. The fundamental feature of Guyana which determines these aspirations is its ethnic composition and history. This has been characterized mainly by separate struggles against employers and the colonial state for survival. The lesson that has been learnt is that whoever controls the state controls the distribution of its limited resources. The struggle for control of the state was a natural outcome of the nature of our main political parties and their fundamental, though unspoken political objective – ethno-political dominance.
By the time the first popular political party, the Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP), emerged, it was recognized that ethno-political dominance, which had already reared its head after the second world war, was a negative phenomenon that will hinder Guyana’s political development and its main objective of Independence from Britain. The PPP was therefore organized with a multi-ethnic, multi-class, leadership. It attracted widespread support. However, as is well known, colonialist intrigues and internal opportunism led to what was in effect a departure of the “moderate” faction of the PPP. That faction later became the African led Peoples’ National Congress (PNC) which got its support mainly from the African Guyanese workers and farmers. Its merger shortly after with the United Democratic Party (UDP) brought support from mixed Guyanese and African middle class. Indian Guyanese gave their support to the PPP.
Leaking information to the press is an old and revered tradition in a democracy. In the United States today, leaking is an essential element in the controversies surrounding the Trump presidency. It was leaks by “Deep Throat” that exposed the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon in 1974. It is therefore not surprising that the AFC is mad at its Canadian leaders for leaking emails that somewhat contradicted its leadership’s contention that it was not consulted about the appointment of the Chair of the Elections Commission (Gecom) by President Granger.
The AFC drew support across the ethnic divide. But it was its support from Guyanese Indians that enabled the APNU+AFC coalition to breast the tape at the 2015 elections. Despite this, the AFC has shown a palpable lack of understanding of the depth of fear of Guyanese Indians, and others, at the perpetual presence of the elephant in the political room, the fear that APNU will rig the next elections. The unilateral appointment of a Chair for Gecom exacerbated that fear. And the AFC knows that they believe the evidence which caused the fear. First, APNU in its PNC form, has a history of election rigging from 1968 to 1985. Second, the PNC by itself has never won more than 42 percent of the vote in free and fair elections. Third, the AFC has lost substantial support and its contribution to the coalition at the next elections will be very modest. Fourth, this will keep the coalition below 50 percent. Fifth, in a two-party contest, the PPP will win. The answer? Rig! The AFC’s insensitivity to this scenario and its failure to persuade, or seek to persuade, the President to adopt a different approach to the appointment of the Gecom chair, has lost it substantial credibility. This is what the dispute with its Canadian leaders symbolizes.
The drive for ethnic dominance is an unavoidable consequence of our social history. It manifests itself in numerous ways and appears in discourses relating to social and economic policy. More importantly and fundamentally, it appears in political competition. Ideas of ethnic dominance have always shaped our society, and politics could not have escaped it even if it had tried. Our main political parties understand this reality but have each constructed an historical narrative that tells an alternative story. The narratives have subsisted together with and have had a parallel trajectory with the drive for ethnic dominance.
Even the youthful leaders who formed the early political movement, the Political Affairs Committee of 1947 and the Peoples Progressive Party in 1950, did so with the understanding that ethnic unity was a vital pre-requisite. The split of the PPP in 1955, although overtly between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists,’ were led by an African Guyanese, Burnham, the ‘moderate’ and the walkout was against the Indian Guyanese, Cheddi Jagan, the ‘extremist,’ resulting from a demand made by Burnham for ‘leader or nothing.’ But within a short time the split inevitably developed into ethnic dimensions. The ethnic violence of the 1960s and two decades of authoritarian rule have together ensured its rigidity and sharpened its significance as a factor in Guyana’s politics unlike, say, Trinidad and Tobago, and have brought home the need to create political and constitutional structures that would undermine its political potency.