Political tensions in Guyana took a turn for the worst over the past two weeks. This has resulted from the appointment by President Granger of former Justice James Patterson as Chairman of the Elections Commission. Claiming that the third set of names contained no one who was fit and proper as required by the Constitution, the President, rejecting the names, utilized the constitutional proviso that enabled him to appoint a judge or former judge or a person qualified to be a judge.
Mr. James Patterson may not have been the President’s first choice. The appearance of Major General (ret’d) Joe Singh’s name among the final six gave some hope that the matter would be resolved without resort to the proviso. Those who know the retired Major-General suggest that he would not have allowed his name to go forward if there was any possibility that it would be rejected as not fit and proper. His sudden resignation from all government posts suggest that an undertaking, which may have been given to him, had been violated.
Very little debate has taken place on the Petroleum Commission of Guyana Bill. It is to the credit of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce to have initiated a public discourse on the legislation around the country, albeit late in the day. The lead speaker has been former Energy Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Kevin Ramnarine, who has tremendous expertise in many aspects of the oil industry and who has visited Guyana several times sharing his knowledge. He was ably assisted by Mr. Deodat Indar, the president of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce, which has been invigorated in recent years by many young business leaders who are dedicated to its agenda of promoting business and commerce.
The business community is deeply interested in the Bill because it seeks to establish the institutions that will oversee the oil industry and to define the rules which would guide their functions and duties. Since it is likely that when passed, the Bill will impact the business community by providing opportunities for its growth and development for decades in the future, it is vital that not only business, but the people of Guyana, take an interest in what is being proposed to maximize the potential for Guyana.
The first elections under universal adult suffrage was held in British Guiana on April 27, 1953. It was won by the Peoples’ Progressive Party which had been formed in 1950 during an era of anti-colonial upsurge in the British Empire, particularly in South Africa, Malaya and Kenya. Cheddi Jagan had expressed solidarity with the anti-colonial struggles in these countries in his speech at the opening of the Legislative Assembly on June 17, 1953. Many at that time, and for the rest of his political career, would have preferred that he remain silent about the foreign domination and oppressed.
The government lasted until October 9, 1953, when the constitution was suspended and the government removed from office. The historical background and secret communications surrounding this traumatic event has been well researched and publicised. The Government held office at the sufferance of the British Government whose local representatives were merely watchful and cautious. But anti-communist agitation by leaders wedded to colonial privileges, perfidiously exploiting the hysterical atmosphere created by the Cold War, one of whose architects, Winston Churchill, was the Prime MInister, resulted in the suspension of the Constitution. History has already delivered its judgment on the events of 1953 and the leaders of the PPP, but profound and relevant lessons remain for the Guyanese people.
For more than twenty years the task of choosing a chairperson of the Elections Commission (GECOM) was without controversy. With the resignation of Dr. Steve Surujballi the President invited the Leader of the Opposition to submit a list of six, not unacceptable, names under article 161 of the constitution, which was done in December, 2016. The article requires the chair to be a judge, a former judge or a person qualified to be a judge (the “judge category”) or a fit and proper person. The President rejected the list in its entirety. He first suggested that only a person in the ‘judge category’ could be appointed but later amended that to indicate that preference must be given to the ‘judge’ category. The President also stated that all the names on the list must be acceptable and if one is not, he is entitled to reject the entire list.
At the invitation of the President, the Leader of the Opposition submitted a second list. This was also rejected by the President. The Leader of the Opposition continued the policy of engagement and indicated that he will submit a third list. However, by that time, Mr. Marcel Gaskin, of a new organization called RISE, formed to promote constitutional reform, brought legal-constitutional proceedings seeking answers to four questions. These were: whether the list must include a judge, former judge or person qualified to be a judge; whether the President must state reasons for deeming each of the six names unacceptable; whether the President is obliged to select a person unless he has decided that the persons are unacceptable; whether one person being unacceptable renders the whole list unacceptable. The Guyana Bar Association, entered a case as amicus curiae (a friend of the court) and made submissions. The case was heard before Chief Justice (ag) George-Wiltshire, who announced an oral decision on July 17. The 33-page written decision became available last week.
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.