If it hadn’t been for Kwakwani holding its community elections in defiance of the central authorities, most people would not have known that the government had rescinded a 1983 ministerial order which gave oversight of Neighbourhood Democratic Councils (NDCs) to the respective Regional Democratic Councils (RDCs). Minister in the Ministry of Local Government Norman Whittaker in a recent letter to Region 10 Chairman Sharma Solomon said that under a ministerial order issued in July 2012, all NDCs had been brought under the direct supervision of the ministry. For his part, we reported Mr Whittaker in yesterday’s edition as justifying this revocation by saying that the original intention (in 1983) had been to provide more opportunity for local leaders to be part of decision-making, but that this opening had been abused. “A lot of it has not been applied in the way that it ought to be applied,” we quoted him as saying. That was not, however, the real reason. Clearly by July with Linden demonstrations looming or already under way, government thought it would forestall any further local democratic developments with a legal strategem. It thought wrong.
That Kwakwani residents were not going to accept any imposed Interim Management Council (IMC) was already clear in May when they prevented the installation of the Minister’s hand-picked body the first time around. One can only marvel, therefore, that following events in Linden, the government – 1983 order rescindment or no – still insisted on the imposition of its IMC, some members of which in any case said they knew nothing about their appointment to the council. Leaving all other issues aside for the moment, exactly what did the Ministry of Local Government think would happen when they took this route? Did they seriously believe that the majority of those living in Kwakwani would not resist or try to circumvent this manoeuvre the second time around? If so, the government’s grip on reality must be more tenuous than anyone ever suspected.
As it is, all the administration has accomplished by this act is to set itself up for another quite unnecessary confrontation – the last thing one would have thought they wanted, or needed. Their thinking behind opposing the community election for a Kwakwani local committee outside their control was spelt out again by Junior Minister Whittaker. He told the media at a press conference on Friday, “…the next [thing] that’s gonna happen we might have a parallel IMC for the Linden municipality and then you might have a set of [Community Development Councils] springing up all over the place. You couldn’t do that.”
Given the contours of PPP thinking, it is no surprise to learn that they don’t want the local government system – no matter how broken it is – to get away from its grasp, and they do not want local bodies which are not under the command of the two major parties (and for this read PNCR, rather than APNU) to spring up and enjoy any level of autonomy. It is largely for this reason that local government legislation under which elections are supposed to be held, has been stalled for so long. And in case anyone has any doubts about the governing party’s motivations, Mr Clinton Collymore laid it out nicely for them in the Weekend Mirror yesterday. “During the 8 year incubation of the [Local Government] Task Force,” he wrote, “a proposal was made by the PPP-Civic Government to the Opposition PNCR for a temporary suspension of the constitutional requirements so that the overdue local elections can proceed under the existing proportional representation format. That proposal was arbitrarily brushed aside.”
Mr Collymore is oblivious to the fact that the important issue here is not the PNCR’s rejection of that proposal per se, but their grounds for the rejection, and on that score they cannot be faulted. In other words they were not prepared to accede to a PR electoral system which would have perpetuated at the local level what existed at the national level, and would have ensured the direct control of the political parties over local affairs. In addition, while Mr Collymore has much to say about the interminable deliberations of the Task Force on a new legal framework for local government, he omits to mention that much of the failure to come to an accord between the PPP/C and the PNCR was because the former resisted giving local bodies real autonomy, or instituting arrangements for fiscal transfers which would not be dependent on the caprices of a governing party.
He is certainly right that there can be no local government elections this year, since Parliament will not consider the local government bills until after they return from an unconscionably long recess on October 10. In the meantime, of course, the Local Government Ministry is flitting around the country scattering PPP-dominated IMCs with abandon. It is a move, no doubt, designed to improve local infrastructure and services, etc, so that a grateful electorate will vote for the PPP/C in local elections, and that warm and fuzzy feeling will then carry over to national elections as well.
But to return to Kwakwani. While all the above is understood, there needs to be some further explanation as to why after their first rebuff on the IMC, the government did not take a more conciliatory route and hold ‘consultations’ with the community, even indulging them with an unofficial ‘election’ if that is what they wanted, albeit held under ministry auspices. The answer is simply that they didn’t want the residents of every other area with an NDC under a death sentence demanding the same thing; the whole point about the IMCs is that only people with whom Freedom House is comfortable should be appointed to them.
It is remarkable how often it happens that a weak government is more prone to issuing ukases than is a strong one, as if by so doing it will restore its former power. It is certainly true of this one which still has not absorbed the reality that the November 28 election shifted the political ground in a fundamental way. As a consequence it appears unable to explore more commonplace democratic modalities such as discussion, consultation and conciliation in approaching what it might regard as difficult situations, unless forced into it. As it is, therefore, the public is left to conclude that Mr David DeGroot is reflecting the true sentiment of Freedom House when he speaks of “rebellious behaviour” all over this land in the current issue of the Weekend Mirror. Rebellious behaviour? Perhaps Freedom House needs reminding that the PPP/C government is not a monarchy of the ancien régime variety, and that strikes, protests, community votes and questions about contracts are commonplace in all the established, mature democracies, without anybody regarding them as undermining the state. After thundering about the need for “appropriate corrective responses,” Mr DeGroot ends his brief diatribe with the words, “The situation must be arrested.”
Mr Whittaker is in tune with this approach, it seems, and intends to ‘arrest’ the Kwakwani situation by recourse to the law, saying that “strong legal and administrative measures” will be taken against the Region Ten RDC, with the guidance of Attorney-General Anil Nandlall. Legal issues are one thing, and democratic and political ones quite another. Mr Nandlall can remain closeted for as long as he likes with the complete Laws of Guyana, and can emerge with a brilliant legal strategy to deal with the RDC and Mr Sharma Solomon, but it will not ‘arrest’ the situation; it is almost guaranteed to exacerbate things. It might be noted in passing that this government’s obsession with form rather than substance is reminiscent of an earlier era; it is, in short, quite Burnhamesque.
The problem for the government is that it has taken up a stance on the wrong side of the democratic line, and therefore has forfeited any moral standing it might otherwise have claimed. It had almost a decade to participate in the creation of a legal framework which would have devolved power at the local level to citizens, but it set its face against that, and finally history has caught up with it. What has happened at Kwakwani is a demonstration that the old political game will not play any longer – and that holds true as much for the PNCR as it does for the PPP/C. It was the people of Linden, not any of the Georgetown-based political parties (including the AFC), that directed the protest in the mining town, and it will be the residents of Kwakwani, not a political party, opposition or otherwise, that will make the decisions there.
At this point the government would be well advised to initiate discussions in Kwakwani to see if it can arrive at a reasonable interim solution acceptable to the residents. Secondly, it should cease the imposition of IMCs elsewhere forthwith, unless the residents concerned have been consulted in the true meaning of that word; and thirdly, it must commit itself to passing local government legislation as soon as possible, that genuinely gives power to ordinary people in relation to local issues. For this the governing party will need the active co-operation of the other two parliamentary parties. After wasting all this time, they will each be watched, and citizens will take note of which of them does not treat the matter with the urgency and priority required. In the end, the ultimate solution to this whole problem is local government elections.