A large number of observers of varying views believe that the single most important obstacle to progress in Guyana over the past fifty years and before has been the expression of ethnic division in organized political form and the failure to find a resolution to this dilemma by way of a constitutional or any other form of modus vivendi. There is as yet no convincing indication that there is a national commitment that this matter will take centre stage this year, even though constitutional reform has been promised.
Already, however, President Granger, whose party presided over the granting of Independence in 1966 and now presides over the celebration of its fiftieth anniversary, has commenced the event with his party’s well known, politically divisive, narrative about entering 1966 under a state of emergency. This can, but hopefully will not, set the tone for the celebrations of the fiftieth independence anniversary. The narrative that his party brought peace to Guyana from 1964 when it assumed office attracts the counter-narrative that it is those who created the violence that brought it to an end, leading to a one-sided celebration of the anniversary. Let us hope that this will not happen.
Reflecting over the past fifty years, it would be helpful if Guyanese can focus on where we went wrong, if we are still going wrong and how the wrongs can be righted, if at all. This will need a far greater capacity for statesmanship and stateswomanship than has hitherto been displayed.
Two major criticisms have been made against the two leaders who brought us to Independence – Burnham and Jagan. The first is that Burnham split the national movement in 1955. The second is that Jagan’s dogged commitment to communism p***ed off the Americans. The defenders of these positions, including myself of the latter in a different era, have written volumes to deny, contradict, explain or otherwise defend their respective parties. We need in this fiftieth anniversary to take a deep breadth, stop defending political postures of fifty and more years ago as if these events occurred last week, admit that there is some truth in both criticisms, leave the rest to the academics and see how far we can get in resolving the dilemma of governance today. Other issues that divide us such as rigged elections, answered by the allegation of burning cane, can all be resolved if the appropriate context is created.
The violence of the early 1960s is a more difficult matter. The pain of those who suffered and of their descendants continues and is still raw. This pain will never go away but it might begin to recede and heal when both political parties give recognition to the fact that they were jointly responsible, whether directly or indirectly, for the political violence that occurred in that distressing period in our history. There is never a right time for reconciliation. The conditions are never optimum. But what statesmen and stateswomen do is that they seize the opportunity and create the conditions. This fiftieth anniversary is the time.
There is talk about changing street names but none about remembering those who were lost and who lost in the violence of the early 1960s. They paid the ultimate price for us. And all we ever do, every year, is to recognize the narrative of the struggle for political domination that led to their sacrifice. This is also the time for a national apology by words and deed. An appropriate monument in a neutral place accessible to all of the victims of the violence of the early 1960s, where we can all go, together, and feel a sense of recognition and reconciliation would be a worthy deed.
Guyana now needs to find a way out of the political dead end of political domination, which in reality translates into ethnic domination. This has long been recognized as no longer helpful to Guyana, but no political party or political leader has as yet made a determined decision to change the dynamics, to create a situation by agreement which enjoins political parties to work together for the common good.
During the election campaign, the APNU+AFC coalition expressed a commitment to constitutional reform. While the work has begun, the noise has died down. The photograph in the newspapers show an AFC leader, Nigel Hughes, delivering the report to another AFC leader, Moses Nagamootoo. I am hoping that this is not a sign that APNU is no longer interested in constitutional reform or that its only interest is to fix the constitution so that post election coalitions are possible.
President Granger can make the difference. He is fully aware of the issues discussed here just as he is that both Burnham and Hoyte, and Jagan as well, as I can confirm, and as Mandela has confirmed, have had cause to take their parties into directions undreamed of. President Granger has the knowledge, the understanding, the broadmindedness and opportunity. Unless he uses the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary to put the issue of the end of dominance at the front and centre of the celebrations, we will have a continual cycle of ethnic victory and defeat, with a stagnant economy and ethnic/political faultlines growing more rigid.