In the late 1970s, then Prime Minister Forbes Burnham wanted to celebrate the anniversary of his years in Parliament. He decided on a march-past in front of the Parliament Building and down Brick-dam comprising the students of the Georgetown secondary-age schools, nearly all of which did comply, although not necessarily with a full complement in every instance. One school, however, was notably absent – one or two boys excepted – and that was his own alma mater, Queen’s College. According to the grapevine at the time, Mr Burnham was not amused, and may have suspected that a deliberately organised act of resistance had made itself manifest. There wasn’t one. It was simply that the authorities in QC, after having informed the students in an assembly about what was required of them, failed to put the mechanisms in place – especially prefects – to see they arrived at the departure point for the march-past. As a consequence, the children, displaying that instinctive common sense which so often eludes their elders, simply disappeared off home.
It was the only time that Mr Burnham indulged his narcissistic tendencies directly, although there were plenty of other occasions (particularly after he became president) that allowed him to bask in indirect self-homage such as when there were special celebrations like those associated with Republic – which was in convenient proximity to his birthday. There were too, of course, plenty visiting heads of government offering openings for public displays. If it was difficult to swallow at the time, compared to the praises lavished on President Jagdeo on Friday, it was really restrained. And the compulsory march-past, while it could not be defended, was certainly cheap to mount.
Not so, the Day of Appreciation for President Jagdeo which took place at the National Stadium on Friday. Minister Irfaan Ali, who seems to have been one of the leading lights behind the whole exercise, told the media last Saturday that it was a “very costly activity,” although he hastened to add that no state resources would be used for the event. He seemed to have overlooked the fact that the army and police who performed for the ceremony, are a state resource, in addition to which, with all those motorcades and crowds, there would have been extra police on duty along the East Bank, and taxpayers would have met this cost too. For their part, the police unintentionally suggested a further possible expense: the escorting of the vehicle convoys from Berbice, Essequibo, West Demerara and Linden. And is not the National Stadium per se a state resource, added to which aren’t there extra expenses involved when it is in use?
But for the rest, where did the money come from for this extravaganza? That was not made absolutely clear by the organizers, although Hits and Jams, it seems, provided sound and lighting for the event. Certainly no wealthy friends or business associates of the government – or other business entities, for that matter – were actually named as having provided the funds for this extravaganza. If they think so highly of the President and this is supposed to be such a spontaneous, genuine gesture, they should put their mouths where their money is and reveal themselves.
That apart, the press was led to believe that ordinary citizens too put their hands in their pockets for the occasion. “People are pooling their money to pay for gasoline for canters, trucks and the rest of it to be able to come. I think Guyana has grown and matured to the point where people don’t have to wait for charity for them to participate,” Bishop Juan Edghill effused. He can, of course, talk blue cheese, but no self-respecting Guyanese believes that thousands of villagers up and down the coast, even if they could raise the money, would be able to organize themselves on that scale in terms of vehicles, boat schedules, etc. That needs a central organizing hand, which would either have to be the government or the PPP or both. It is almost certain that it was the ruling party (perhaps with limited government assistance in specific areas), making it a party political event.
The subterranean political character of the occasion was inadvertently confirmed by Bishop Edghill. He told the media last Saturday that “Some of the persons who have contacted me as one of the organizers of this activity are not people who have voted for Bharrat Jagdeo for President.” If it is a non-political event, as the organizers are at pains to claim, why should it be necessary to identify the political persuasion of some attendees? And in any case, who are these people who contacted the Bishop with a view presumably to finding out about arrangements for the celebration and then found it necessary to divulge that they didn’t vote for Mr Jagdeo? It is all very curious.
It was the MP Mervyn Williams who on Friday said in a letter to this newspaper that he had a “grave difficulty” with the “abuse” of state resources (ie the National Stadium) for partisan political purposes immediately prior to elections. He put his finger on the major problem with this whole pantomime. This is a political performance, directed among others, at the party’s rural constituents, so their enthusiasm is rekindled and that enthusiasm will then infect their fellow residents in the villages. What the governing party fears most in these elections, is not cross-over voting, but voter apathy. Since the PPP took office the problem has always been that there is no level playing field for political campaigning, and nowadays the situation has become so bad that the gradient of the slope on the field is impossibly steep for the opposition.
In a true democracy, any ‘celebration’ on the scale of that held on Friday, if it can be justified at all, should first of all be a completely private initiative; secondly, should be held after the election and not before; and thirdly, should not make use of a national asset such as the stadium unless its rental is to be fully met from private sources.
But there is something else too. Mr Williams referred to the event as being in “bad taste.” He was being polite. One can only marvel that the organizers and even Mr Jagdeo himself did not give way to a moment of unease that perhaps all these panegyrics were incongruous with someone holding the position of elected head of a supposedly democratic republic. Apart from the flawed nature of the President’s record, to which a number of letter-writers in this newspaper have made allusion, Friday’s exercise would have been rejected even by royalty as being unseemly. But then perhaps this whole show had less the aroma of imperial Rome about it, and more the whiff of North Korea. Certainly previous presidents have been very unostentatious, eschewing pretentiousness in all its forms – with the arguable exception of Burnham, and, as already noted, even he had nothing of the scale of Friday’s performance to his credit.
Mr Carvil Duncan waxed lyrical about the occasion, telling reporters that this was for future generations, “so that they will follow suit what we are starting today.” Perish the thought. The next time anyone makes a proposal for an event of this kind, hopefully everyone will exercise the simple common sense which the QC students demonstrated more than three decades ago.