It is with trepidation that I venture to write about an issue such as this, which invokes controversies from all sides. To deal with it realistically though, I have to reflect on another contentious aspect of our recent history, which continues to drive fear into the minds of a vast number of people. The results of the 1992 elections alone, ignoring all the other evidence, prove beyond any conceivable doubt that all prior elections in Guyana as an independent nation were rigged. The failure of the PNC to acknowledge that past, and its role in it, has left more than a lingering sense of suspicion in the minds of a large number of people. The suspicion is, that with the PNC once again in power, rigged elections are back on the agenda. Some PNC members, supporters and sympathisers don’t seem to understand this, or if they do, don’t care about it. Rigged elections in the past aggravated ethnic disharmony by creating the feeling in one section of the population that its vote was either being stolen or was worthless. Hence the controversy over employment practices at GECOM. I am not saying anything that is not widely known and accepted, although many would not wish to acknowledge it.
Guyana’s population has had decided preferences in terms of employment. We have always had African Guyanese tending towards employment in the state sector. In the private sector, they are mostly located in administration, rather than as entrepreneurs. Notwithstanding 28 years of PNC rule, during which African Guyanese were encouraged to go into business, followed by 23 years of PPP rule, during which Indian Guyanese were encouraged to seek employment in the state sector and particularly the security services, the essential employment preferences at the time of Independence has remained largely intact today. These employment preferences are rooted mainly in history.
Throughout Guyana’s life as an independent nation there have been complaints, mainly from African rights activists, that enough Africans are not encouraged to be entrepreneurs. These complaints are based on the assertion that Indian Guyanese dominate the business sector and therefore command a disproportionate portion of Guyana’s wealth in which Africans should share. The PPP and Indian rights activists have always complained that there is ethnic imbalance in the security services which is responsible for the physical safety and security of all Guyanese, including Indians, and there is fear of discrimination. The security services alone, among the state sector, were singled out for redress because of their potential impact on ethnic security. The PNC accepted the ICJ report just before Independence, recommending the balancing of the security services, but never implemented it.
I served on GECOM as a Commissioner for three general elections, namely, 1992, 1997 and 2001. My experience was that applicants for permanent and election day positions were mainly African Guyanese, following the established employment preferences for Guyanese. I believe that this is the same position today. There is an argument that, like the security services, GECOM is in a special category in relation to ethnic security and that efforts should be made to broaden employment practices so that its ethnic base is widened. Being very sensitive to the issue of ethnic security in relation to electoral matters, as should all other parties be, the PPP tried, largely unsuccessfully, to encourage Indian Guyanese to apply for positions in GECOM. However, the PPP never publicly advanced the argument of ethnic security in relation to GECOM so as to encourage public support for it and pressure GECOM to conduct targeted recruitment drives. Today, the PPP has to face the consequences, including the specious arguments of meritocracy or whether or not to support the inclusion of a section in application forms to denote the race of the applicant, for which it has advanced no answers.
Targeted recruitment measures to correct the situation in the security services, which took place during the PPP’s term of office, have been modestly successful. In both the cases of police recruitment and the distribution of state contracts at present, efforts to broaden the ethnic base of applicants have not been challenged on the basis of meritocracy or the need for applicants to state their race on applications. Why should meritocracy, therefore, be the excuse for failing to take steps to broaden the range of potential applicants for jobs in GECOM? Aren’t those whose votes were stolen for a quarter of a century not entitled to have some comfort that they won’t be stolen again? Doesn’t gross ethnic insensitivity constitute the promotion of ethnic insecurity.
Regrettably, with our current political system and political configuration, in a society that is politically motivated by ethnic competition, and constructed in a way to ensure the entrenchment of that competition, these disputes will never end. There is a solution. All the government needs to do is to implement its election promise on constitutional reform. No one will then ever lose political power.