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 Peoples’ Progressive Party went to extraordinary lengths over ten months to find eighteen Guyanese willing to agree to have their names submitted to the President of Guyana for consideration to be appointed to one of the most difficult, controversial and thankless of jobs – Chair of the Elections Commission. Of the last six names submitted, two immediately leap out for consideration. Retired Major General Joe Singh was the highly respected Chief of Staff of the Guyana Defence Force and was a former Chair of the Elections Commission for the 2002 elections, which were credibly held. Attorney at Law Teni Housty is a well-respected, well-qualified, senior, experienced, lawyer and former President of the Guyana Bar Association. Many of the other nominees are also well qualified but no one can seriously assert that the political persuasion of either of these gentlemen, if any, would influence their decisions. Many observers expected, or at least hoped, that President Granger would find suitable persons from the last six.
The PPP has announced that it will mount a constitutional challenge to the President’s appointment. The best time for this was after the President had rejected the first six names and in doing so had suggested that the names should be of only judges, former judges or persons qualified to be judges. The results of the case which was filed after the Leader of the Opposition had submitted a second set of names, showed that it could have been possible to obtain an order from the court directing the President to choose a name from that first six. The Leader of the Opposition having submitted two further sets of six names, each at the invitation of the President, for understandable reasons, has deprived him of the opportunity of having an order in relation to the first six names.
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.
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.
Membership of our two main political parties does not necessarily imply that one is a racist or subscribes to an ethnic approach to politics. The leaderships of both parties seriously strive, largely unsuccessfully, to broaden the leadership and membership of their parties. That they have not been successful has not modified their efforts. In the past when there was a clearer ideological distinction between the parties, it was even easier to justify the assertion that motivations for political activism were not ethnic, at least overtly. But supporters are recalcitrant.
While no leader would tolerate ethnic slurs made by their supporters, they are always conscious of the fact that unacceptable language or characterizations in referring to another ethnic group is a common feature of Guyanese life and their supporters might falter. Strong measures should always be taken against such behavior. When Bill Maher, the white US TV host/comedian, liberal and strongly anti-racist, who donated US$1 million to Obama’s election campaign, recently said light-heartedly while interviewing someone that he should not be considered a ‘house n***’, there was a national outcry. He barely kept his job and had to apologise and publicly atone. One of his guests in his next show, the African American actor and rapper, Ice Cube, said that when that word is used in any context, except by African Americans who are now the owners of the word, and presumably are permitted to use it, ‘it’s like a knife.’ Words of racist abuse feel the same way to every race and they do reflect a ‘personal philosophy.’