By Nigel Westmaas
Nigel Westmaas teaches
at Hamilton College
On May 16, 2015 Brigadier David Granger became President of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana as head of a coalition of six political parties. The margin of victory was relatively small but hugely symbolic for a nation mired in distress. What distinguishes these elections from the others? This time the PPP faced its greatest challenge both by the significance of the broad multiracial coalition and the massive enthusiasm of Guyanese for the polls, a situation some pundits aver was not visible since the 1950s.
Undoubtedly, race played a significant role in this election of recent elections. The ruling party in government, the PPP, shamelessly resorted to unprecedented, unconcealed race rhetoric, once again raising the old bogey of the “dangerous” PNC (in effect scaring Indian Guyanese to fear the African Guyanese masses). Mostly led by former President Bharrat Jagdeo, this tactic was one of the worst exhibitions of openly racist politicking since the early 1960s.
In the final analysis Guyana voted for change. Apart from the people’s positive desire for change actively seen from the moment the APNU AFC decided on the coalition inspired by the Cummingsburg Accord and the resulting energy it created, what were other general contributing factors to the PPP’s defeat? In no particular order, I offer the following limited considerations.
- The PPP’s arrogance in public office.
- The party and government’s incapacity to work with the opposition and general inability to perform with competence and integrity.
- Alienation of many members and supporters including erstwhile senior members of the PPP itself like Moses Nagamootoo and Khemraj Ramjattan.
- A complete rejection of national unity attempts once the PPP settled into office and consequent disinterest in developing any multiracial vision for Guyana. This was manifest in the Presidency of Bharrat Jagdeo, who doubled down on the maladies of arrogance and patronage to offset organic development towards national unity.
- In spite of general support from the Indo-Guyanese electorate, the PPP paradoxically demonstrated a form of disdain for and taken for grantedness of its base. Its assumption of recurring support also proved to be tactically true but undermined any strategic national consensus or unity platform for the future thereby hurting its support base in the long term.
- A woefully inadequate foreign policy, exemplified by isolationism from CARICOM and loss of social and diplomatic capital with the influential ABC countries and openly determining Guyana’s diplomatic representation purely on the basis of support for the PPP.
- Complete inertia in communicating with the nation evidenced in embarrassing press conferences and ministerial outbursts wanting in decorum. The PPP brought public communication to a new low.
- The pervasive signs of corruption & money laundering. A lot has already been said about this monstrous new dimension to public life brought by the PPP into the very entrails of governance, and one that renowned economist Dr Clive Thomas has characterized as a “criminalised state”.
- Subtle and open racism in party and state practices.
- The blunt refusal to hold constitutionally required local government elections since 1994.
- Refusal to accept and address deep social ills including the highest suicide rate in the world.
- A large number of unsolved killings (including political assassinations) from 2003 to the execution of political activist Courtney Crum-Ewing earlier this year.
- Willful and transparent neglect of the long degraded University of Guyana.
- Full, uninhibited control over the state media and assigning of radio and television concessions inclusive of contracts to friends and family of the regime.
- The complete erasure of any pretense at constitutional reform; the very same constitution that the PPP vigorously criticized while in opposition.
- Self-glorification of the party and its leaders to the detriment of national unity.
Fortunately the coalition, harnessed by a widespread national need for liberation from unending stranglehold and corruption apparently visible to all except the rulers, overcame the odds and won. As far as this columnist knows there was never even an apology or disavowal of the depravity wreaked upon the nation by any significant leader in the previous government. To date the PPP, now in opposition, holds fast to its mantra of arrogance.
It is less than three weeks since the elections. What have we seen since the inauguration of the new administration?
- Affording the country a literal breath of fresh air that accompanied the decision to restore the Independence Arch and concurrent cleaning up of the city.
- Signaling an intent to allow for a free and fair national media and assurances to members of the former Office of the President who only knew and worked for the previous government that there would be no widespread firings and tit for tat based upon party allegiance – all that is required is their professionalism.
3 Appointing a relatively large pool of ministers from a spectrum of the coalition that won the elections.
- Assurances to employees of the state media including management that they may maintain their jobs in spite of the egregious state control that the PPP engendered – with the proviso that these employees must ensure fairness in reportage from the former PPP controlled state institutions.
- Commencing a proactive campaign to restore Guyana’s dignity at the local, national, and international levels in both symbolic and concrete terms.
- Signifying an intent to hold local government elections and long awaited constitutional reform.
- The intent to prosecute any crimes committed by any office holder in the last regime.
- The fact that the taken for granted term “professionalism” has now become a revolutionary concept, largely in contrast to how the PPP regime destroyed the notion of an impartial public service.
- The intent to hold ministers and other office holders accountable through a code of conduct.
Other symbolic and ongoing acts which will inspire racial healing are vital. This can be accomplished by fairness in “governing” across the country. The latter is slated as a long term process and once the David Granger regime acts and looks impartial it will take some of the steam out of any PPP campaign to stimulate racial insecurity for maintenance of their support base. Concurrently members of the coalition with better access to the Indian Guyanese community need to actively foster creative cultural exchanges between all ethnic groups in Guyana. Another area that requires vision and action from the outset is vigilance on public accountability of all branches of government and state to the citizens of Guyana. Directly addressing this issue Dr Clive Thomas warns,
“Voting out the PPP/C government does not, by itself, de-construct the criminal state in Guyana… That is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for achieving this. Preventing future exposure of the new political rulership and public officials to the negative corrosive socio-economic effects of public corruption is a necessary complementary action.”
The commentaries on David Granger’s character and leadership in the press and social media are generally affirmative in these early days. Commentators note the likelihood of Granger upholding democratic principles that were eroded under the Jagdeo and Ramotar regimes. They also point to his potential, unlike very recent leaders, to reflect on Guyana’s history while making decisions on the present and future, a potential that is evident in his long career in various planks of public service including his work with the Guyana Review magazine, a monthly which he produced and edited in the 1990s. This magazine’s balanced and creative coverage, as well as his publications like Emancipation offer a peek into Granger’s managerial and democratic custom. A separate glimpse into Granger’s thinking is the informative 2009 article he wrote on the colonial governor of the 18th century, Laurens Storm vans Gravesande. In his critical examination of Gravesande legacy, Granger noted the ability of the “inspired proconsul” with the colony’s security at the time, his economic success in sugar production, and Gravesande’s talent in “transforming Demerara from a wilderness into an vibrant colony”. At one point in the article Granger addresses Gravesande’s weaknesses, among them:
“The imprudent mingling of public duties and private interests and the preferment of his family, together with other issues, alienated him from councillors and colonists alike. Gravesande’s patriarchal rule provoked resentment and sedition among some settlers and called forth reproof from the directors.”
The modern reproof here is the APNU-AFC response to contemporary degeneracy (including “mingling of public duties with private interests”) with the win at the polls. The Granger administration is barely three weeks into office. The President and his APNU-AFC team have already indicated a willingness in both form and intent to transform the gloom and doom of the past regime. The high points scored thus far by President Granger testify to a decorum that has returned to the highest position in the land and one that was visibly absent in Guyana from the accession of Bharrat Jagdeo to office in 1999.
Already, another concept or term ranking with “professionalism” in the present debate is “criticism”. Some APNU-AFC supporters have vigorously jumped to the defence of the new government from social and political commentators and critics like Ruel Johnson, Tacuma Ogunseye, Chris Ram and David Hinds. The concept “criticism” has a long and multifaceted history but in the current everyday use it is deemed as “pulling down” or “destroying credibility” among other usages. This I think is a mistake. “Criticism” does not rely on time and place and can be supportive. The concept is relational and proportional to action or activity and the early critics of “aspects” of the practice of the new regime are by no means “opponents” of the regime. Frantz Fanon addressed a pertinent variant of criticism in Wretched of the Earth :
“Self-criticism has been much talked about recently, but few realize that it was first of all an African institution. Whether it be the djemaas of North Africa or the palavers of West Africa, tradition has it that disputes which break out in a village are worked out in public. By this I mean collective self-criticism with a touch of humor because everyone is relaxed, because in the end we all want the same thing…”
What is certain in the post-election narrative is anticipation and expectation that Guyana has a chance to develop a true plurality and visionary inclusive governance.
In short, President Granger, Prime Minister Nagamootoo and APNU-AFC are in the best position in the country’s history to break with what Martin Carter called one of the great disorders of Guyana, that is the collection of “leaders who follow from in front” especially those who pander to an ethnic following. This was the especial hallmark of the modus operandi of the post-1998 PPP and regimes before it. Now we might well have a leader in President David Granger, buttressed by a coalition, who can actually lead from in front.