Independence was born in circumstances of discord, and fifty years on the nation is still imprisoned in the straitjacket of that past. Whether if Forbes Burnham had been given the leadership of the PPP in the mid-1950s, or had continued in coalition with the UF in 1968; or Cheddi Jagan had been a democratic socialist rather than someone of Marxist proclivity, the story of this country would have had a different trajectory, will never be known. Even if events had followed an unrelated path, there is no guarantee we would not have ended up where we are now eventually.
As it is, both sides of the political divide have to accept responsibility for what has happened in the last half century. This is not to deny that there have not been improvements in all kinds of areas over the decades, some of which correspondent to this newspaper Dr Ramesh Gampat has itemized in his letters; however, the general consensus is that we really have not made the kind of progress which everyone who welcomed Independence fifty years ago expected. As various observers have noted, we are still a commodities-based economy, with little if anything of a value-added nature to brag about; and we continue to haemorrhage our population, which remains numerically stable as a consequence. In addition to the lack of finance, this combination does not provide the sine qua non of an economic take-off.
Reams have been written on the lack of unity between the two major ethnic groups in the country, and more especially between the politicians who represent them, but there is not even a clear definition of what ‘unity’ means in our context. All that can be agreed at present is that we don’t have it. All governments have paid lip-service, at least, to the cultural expression of the various groups, especially in relation to religious holidays, one or two of which in any case have a strong secular component; while ordinary people mix together at each other’s weddings, for example, and socialize in a wide variety of circumstances. And we now have a Minister of Social Cohesion, although what her duties actually consist of is a revelation which the population is still awaiting.
What has proved particularly malignant in our universe over more than five decades, has been the bond tethering ethnicity to politics. This was perhaps inevitable given the size of the two largest racial groups, each of which sought power on its own account. Since one had a built-in demographic majority, it no doubt expected that given clean elections, it could never be voted out of office, a prospect presumably which caused the other to resort to electoral fraud between 1968 and 1985.
However, there are now demographic changes taking place, and the relative numbers of both the Africans and Indians in relation to the population as a whole are in decline. The fastest growing segment is the Indigenous people, who as yet have not acquired the kind of ethnic consciousness which would cause them to vote as a bloc. If they did, they would hold the balance of power. In any event, the results of the last two elections should have made it clear to the two largest parties that they cannot come into office on the back of support from their ethnic constituencies alone. In other words, demography, so to speak, is inching us along the road of coalition politics, and the term ‘unity’ may come to acquire a different cast in the future, although whether when we eventually enter into that new phase history will still get in the way, remains to be seen.
Of course it will be said that we have a coalition government at present – the first since 1964. It is a particularly unwieldy arrangement, however, and clearly there are still many lessons to be learned about how to negotiate with partners, and how to adhere to accords. It is not a typical milieu for Guyana’s politicians, and many of them are clearly in need of practice.
One lesson we seem to have learned from our experience since Independence is that a very left-wing socialist model doesn’t work. And in case anyone had forgotten about it, there is the much worse case of Venezuela now to remind them. While it is fashionable to blame Forbes Burnham for the shortages and the banning of certain everyday items because the country lacked the foreign exchange to import them, it should be remembered that Cheddi Jagan himself had a similar economic vision (although he never approved the ban on flour, etc), and following the Declaration of Sophia in 1974, gave Burnham “critical support”. He also backed the nationalization of bauxite and sugar.
While it probably went against his natural inclinations, Jagan continued with Desmond Hoyte’s new economic direction, but neither his government, and more especially the ones which followed, took the further step of ensuring there were autonomous institutions at all levels in the society, particularly the watchdog ones which could assure transparency and accountability. The syndrome of contracts going to friends and family Vladimir Putin style, still haunts us, and this present government too still has not put many of these autonomous agencies, etc, in place. Without such independent institutions, as well as checks and balances, the nation will stall in terms of development, and its reputation for corruption will not dissipate.
While there has been much talk of creating a meritocracy here, there is little evidence of it. In the first place, the nation suffers from a human resources crisis, and no one has yet come up with a viable plan to find the critical skills the country needs. Fifty years ago, comparatively speaking, the government could call upon far more talent in a variety of areas than is available now.
Then there is the unemployment issue, although it must be said that many of the young people who are unemployed may also be unemployable because of their educational deficiencies, and salvaging the education system is a long-term operation. Education has been in decline for a very long time now, which is a tragedy considering that the newly independent state inherited a fairly solid foundation from the colonial predecessors, along with a very high literacy level.
One other thing was better fifty years ago ‒ although it had nothing to do with action on anyone’s part ‒ and that was the fact that we did not have the drugs scourge we have now. Yet no government in recent times has come up with a plan, let alone the resources, to educate young people about drugs, or rehabilitate them when they become addicted.
While people will be able to enjoy the celebration today, tomorrow we will all return to our accustomed ways. Some of us may ponder what the next few years will bring, but as has always been the case, that will mostly depend on our politicians and whether they can make a break from the past – while not ignoring it – and begin to think imaginatively. For fifty years the people of Guyana have been waiting for honest government and competent government (although there have been elements of both at different times), and for thirty-six years for a political framework which addresses some of our particular difficulties. Power is a disease which has found no shortage of victims locally, and we need a framework which will ensure that the ambit of those who exercise it is constrained. That too we have learnt over the last fifty years.