The present constitution has failed badly

Dear Editor,

Mr Lincoln Lewis, in letters in KN of August 4 and SN of August 5 (‘The current constitution has not been tried and tested’), writes, with his usual admirable eloquence and insight, on the inadequacies of African leadership and, in particular, on its unwillingness to struggle for the glorious guarantees in the constitution. I take no issue with him regarding some of his complaints about the overall quality of African politicians and leaders. Some of these leaders, in my view, need to account by answering why they have sought  office and position, what they have achieved, and what objectives and strategies they have in mind not just for Afro-Guyanese but the entire country.

Mr Lewis’s central theme, however, reveals a surprising misinterpretation of political power relations in Guyana or in any country with ethnically-based political rivalries and a winner-take-all political culture. In gist, he argues that much is good about the Guyana constitution.  Therefore, if we demand its full implementation, we will be able “to offer every group dignity, respect, equality and opportunities for advancement.”

The constitution in question was amended over twelve years ago. The fact that its core provisions (such as the Public Procurement Commission and Article 13, which loftily speaks about participation of citizens in national decision-making) remain only on paper and require for their activation, in Mr Lewis’ words “consistent and resolute struggle,” should provide initial indications of major malfunction. That we must still struggle for the implementation of constitutional guarantees (agreed to by all political and civil society stakeholders), that the ruling party actively seeks to use its political power to roll back some of these agreements (witness its posture on the procurement and local government commissions) should provide Mr Lewis with enough of the test results he is requesting. What Mr Lewis, uncharacteristically, has failed to grasp is that the constitution has already been tried and tested. That much of it can remain unimplemented or undermined is ample evidence of its failure.
A constitution that enshrines a political process that empowers one faction in society to prevent the realization of key provisions is the definitive proof of inadequacy. What additional evidence does Mr Lewis want that the constitution provides no levers to the people to beat back executive lawlessness, corruption and waste of our money, threats to our rights and freedoms, and political arrogance and disdain in the ruling circle?

Those, like me, who advocate power-sharing believe the fundamental  problem with the constitution is structural. In an ethno-politically divided society as ours, the primary test for any constitution is how does it ensure in practice (not just stated in well-printed text) that various groups have meaningful representation in the executive and other centres of power in the state and society. How does the document ensure that no one political group can exercise overwhelming power to the detriment and insecurity of others? If the constitution fails this test, then the provisions in its superstructure become cosmetic. In other words, the guarantees which Mr Lewis hypes, would not reach the people in their homes, communities and workplaces. The so-called guarantees are not even hopes or promises to be implemented some time soon. They are helpless victims in a political environment in which the winner can seek and take all.

The further problem with Mr Lewis’ advice is that, in essence, he is asking African leaders and politicians to fight and fix one issue at a time. So today it may be local government reform, tomorrow it may be problems in Linden, next week it may be the procurement commission, the other week, corruption. Then matters may return to an earlier issue when the government fails to honour this or that agreement. I don’t know how old Lincoln is, but he appears to have the time and patience that the rest of us do not.

We will never get anywhere with this approach, even with inspired leadership. Guyana and Guyanese face too many critical problems and issues for a strategy based on fighting bush fires. We need, as a starting point, a one-off overhaul of our political structures, systems, and style to give real meaning to the goals in Article 13 and others.

Mr Lewis’s final point about political pragmatism should not escape comment. He asserts that since major structural change to the constitution requires a two-thirds vote (and hence a multiparty agreement), and since the PPP will never sign up, let’s do the next lower thing. I suspect if the next lower thing is considered unattainable, we then should struggle for the next lower thing.

I exempt Lincoln from this general criticism, but the defeatist political mindset that says since the PPP wouldn’t agree with it, let’s not push it, has taken root in places where it ought not to be. It is a vexing attitude. One would have thought that the honest motive for seeking high offices of any political party had to do with the willingness and gumption to aggressively pursue that party’s interest in an environment fraught with frays. Not being easy to do is no argument for not trying. Some accept too passively the notion of politics as the art of the possible. And if the possibilities are perceived to be few, they resort merely to press conferences and releases and flowery parliamentary speeches.

Opposition politicians (of any race or affiliation) have to realize that they too determine what is possible. In the last two decades, the PPP has defined what is politically possible in Guyana, as a function of the party’s natural and instinctive disposition as well as a deliberate ploy. Nothing escapes its sight:  local government reform becomes impossible, properly functioning constitution commissions become impossible, financial accountability becomes impossible, reforming the police force becomes impossible. And so on. In confronting the PPP’s “ploy of the impossible,” too many opposition politicians put up token or sporadic resistance then retreat to the next trench.

In sum, what we need is not just a constitution that makes provisions for freedoms, rights and protections for every citizen, but one also structured to deliver, sustain and strengthen guarantees in the only place where it matters – in the daily lives of the Guyanese people. The present constitution has badly failed by virtue of its inability to force or sustain its own implementation. Mr Lewis, I know, will reconsider.

Yours faithfully,
Sherwood Lowe

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