After outlining some of the historical hardships that confronted African Guyanese, the dire condition in which Africans still find themselves and some of the more recent international and nations responses to this condition, President David Granger, in his presentation to the Fourth Annual State of the African Guyanese Forum organized by the Cuffy 250 Committee, concluded that “This is the time to organize and mobilise so that at the end of the decade, the Government and the Guyanese people can report confidently they have achieved the objectives of the United Nations International Decade for people of African Descent. …. Consult among yourselves how best the African Guyanese organizations in Guyana can be mobilized to achieve specific measureable targets.”
Of course, the call to Africans to organise to better their condition has been made interminably and needs to be confronted head-on, and the United Nations process does provide an opportunity that should not be missed. As is expected, the programme outlined by the UN for the decade is intended to build upon what was achieved during United Nations International Year for People of African Descent (IYPAD).
According to the UN RES/69/16, it is not only for Africans to consult among themselves how best to mobilise to achieve the objectives of the decade. As with the IYPAD, it is incumbent upon the government to lead the process of developing and implement a national plan of action that adopts special measures such as affirmative action where appropriate, to alleviate and remedy disparities affecting people of African descent and to protect them from discrimination, structural disparities and de facto inequalities resulting from historical circumstances.
I need not mention that Africans in Guyana have many grievances that could be easily deduced from the action plan drafted by a consultative process established by the previous government. If ever successfully implemented, the plan will transform the condition of Africans in Guyana.
It calls, inter aia, for the promotion of inter-ethnic equity in the distribution of land for housing, business and agriculture. It also envisages the development of lands for economic activities in African villages and demands a strategy to ensure African villages are self-sufficient and sustainable. In the political sphere the plan demands the implementation of a system of governance in which Africans are effectively represented and participating and this requires a mechanism to ensure that the interests specific to people of African descent are addressed. (It is incumbent upon the gov’t to lead a proper consultative process on an IYPAD programme. SN 24/08/2011)
Nonetheless, IYPAD has come and gone and no fundamental national interventions were made. Firstly, a quarrel broke out among stakeholders about the formulation of the IYPAD action plan. Major African organisations claimed that the previous government process excluded important partners and that they were not in agreement with the government’s plan of action and would have nothing to do with it. That said, it was for the government to drive the process and it did not do so in any meaningful manner. The plan made such fundamental economic, political, social, cultural, civil and legal demands that the rejection of it by major African stakeholders must have been something of a relief to the PPP/C government.
I believed that a properly constructed and implemented programme for the decade could bring immense positive benefits to the Afro-Guyanese community. But given its fundamental nature and scope, such a plan will take many years and will require major compromises on all political sides. It should not, therefore, be tied to the political fortunes of any political party and as such from the inception must involve the political leaders of all our ethnic communities.
All governments since independence have been able to deal with the indigenous peoples’ land issue, largely because there is national consensus on indigenous land rights. Given that a quite radical plan resulted from the PPP/C’s process, it suggests terms that there is a consensus among African Guyanese that they face enormous obstacles that have to be largely addressed by the national government.
However, there is no national consensus on the matters having to do with the African land rights, much less the other fundamental and likely more controversial issues that will be contained in a good plan. An example of the lack of consensus was clear for all to see when the president’s statement that a commission will be established to deal with the longstanding issue of African ancestral lands raised a hornet’s nest.
The Indian Action Committee did not miss a beat: “[S]ince the publication of the address of President Granger in the print and electronic media, the Indian Action Committee has been bombarded with questions by many persons of Indo-Guyanese origin, both within and outside of its membership, who, given the turbulent history of this country, fear that their lands may be taken away from them and they are very apprehensive as to what mechanism, outside of the Law Courts of Guyana would exist to address any grievance in this proposed new system” (SN: 12/08/2016).
The major objections to the implementation of a radical plan with an African focus are likely to come from PPP/C supporters and up to 2011, the year of the IYPAD, the PPP/C government did not have and did not try to create the political space necessary for the implementation of such a plan and by then it was too late. The current government is in a similar predicament!
Given the negative perception many PPP/C supporters had of the leadership by 2011, in our generalized condition of poverty, it would have been political suicide for the PPP/C to take any steps to meaningfully implement their African plan. A larger number of their own supporters would have turned from them. Added to this, in that year the PPP/C lost its majority and limped along thereafter. It was then defeated in 2015 by the APNU+AFC coalition whose democratic credentials are too precarious for it to unilaterally attempt to implement a radical programme mainly focused upon its constituency.
Moral appeals, various efforts at cajoling and the fact that there already exists a quite advanced plan devised by the PPP/C itself that could be utilised as a template for moving forward, may prove useful. But none of this will remove the need to firstly build a national consensus around the process of reform. Can this ever be done or is it just wishful thinking? If it could be, how it is to be done is the major challenge for those proposing radical interventions on behalf of African Guyanese.