On Friday last the New York Times published “The $20 Billion Question for Guyana.” It was a lengthy review of Guyana and the impact that the oil discovery by Exxon and its partners in offshore Guyana is likely to have. Two recent articles by the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs, of world-wide reputation, like the New York Times (NYT), were published and reprinted in Guyana. Few Guyanese would recognize the description of Georgetown by one of them as ‘sleepy’ or by the NYT as a ‘musty clapboard town…which seems forgotten by time.’ Notwithstanding these unflattering first impressions of Georgetown by foreign journalists, the articles helped to highlight, not only the amount of financial resources that will become available to Guyana, but how those resources can be used or misused.
Guyana is described as an unlikely setting for the next oil boom. It is ‘one of the poorest countries in South America can become one of the wealthiest.’ The NYT article said that all the talk in Georgetown is about a sovereign wealth fund to manage the money. It underlined Minister Raphael Trotman’s comment, perhaps speaking hyperbolically, if he indeed said so, that we have been given a chance to get things right because ‘the Chinese cut down our forests and dug out our gold and we never got a cent…we could end up with the same experience with ExxonMobil.’ Whatever the dangers, Rystad Energy is quoted as predicting that Guyana will get $6 Billion by the end of the 2020s. But this is a modest estimate with a production of eventually 500,000 barrels a day. Doug McGhee, Exxon Operations Manager, predicted better social services and infrastructure, ‘if the government manages the resources right.’
During the lifetimes of Cheddi Jagan and Janet Jagan, the PPP twice, unanimously, decided to support a two-term presidential limit. A PPP delegation in 1995/6 proposed to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Reform that the constitution should be amended to provide for a two-term presidential limit. In 1999/2000, the same representation was made by the PPP to the Constitution Reform Commission. These public proposals reflected those unanimous decisions.
During the Ramotar presidency, Attorney General Anil Nandlall opposed the application by Richardson to deem as unconstitutional the amendment to the constitution that limited the presidential terms to two. Before Mr. Ramotar became president, he had publicly opposed the call for scrapping the two-term limit. He has welcomed the decision of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
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.
I will stay away from the continuing controversies between the current and past Attorneys-General. To coin a phrase, when elephants rumble, it’s the insects in the grass who get trampled. I will likewise stay away from the merits or otherwise of the Chief Justice’s decision ordering the Minster of Legal Affairs to bring the Act into force. It is likely to be appealed and the Court of Appeal will decide. But why is the Judicial Review Act important to the public?
There is an area of law called ‘public law.’ While much law notionally exists for the protection of the public, ‘public law’ more directly protects the rights of the citizen in his or her relations with the state and public bodies or authorities by holding them to account. The instruments used by the courts in public law are of ancient origin, initially directed against the King, and are called writs of certiorari – to quash a decision, mandamus – to order something to be done, prohibition – to prohibit an act and the lesser known, quo warranto – challenging the right to hold an office. The writ of habeas corpus – ordering the production of a body, is linked to these. They are called ‘prerogative’ remedies issued by courts on the application of citizens for ‘judicial review’ to enforce their rights against the state or public authorities. Currently, these are the only remedies available in public law.
When I read the headlines in SN yesterday morning, ‘AFC says constitutional reform still a priority,’ I could not feel a sense of elation. Instead, I sunk into a dejected mood of déjà vu. The headline itself subtly editorialized that it was not impressed with the promise. It added to the main banner ‘though no progress over three years.’ I believe that the AFC earnestly wishes to have constitutional reform but is faced with implacable resistance in the form of inactivity by APNU.
But more importantly, constitutional reform for the AFC, as well as for APNU, whenever it desultorily renews its fading undertaking, no longer seems to mean what it promised in the coalition’s manifesto. By omitting to refer to the manifesto promises, it appears that constitutional reform is being treated as a box to tick before the next elections comes along. It can then boast of fulfilling its election promise.