If the flag-raising ceremony of May 26, 1966, went off smoothly, the same could not be said for Jubilee night fifty years later. By all accounts, the performances were lacklustre, not because the participants did not do their best in their presentations, but because, according to more than one commentator, the programme was totally lacking in imagination. There was too, a more fundamental problem: In the words of Ms Marilyn Trotz in a letter in today’s newspaper, the organisers mounted a “cultural extravaganza” which “failed to recognise that Guyana is a multi-ethnic society.” It was, she wrote, “for the most part Afrocentric”. There was not even anything on the heritage of the Indigenous peoples.
But that faux pas was not the only major blemish for the night; there was in addition the utter disorganization which accompanied the VIP seating arrangements. In more orderly societies invitations are issued to identified individuals and their partners, and specific numbered seats are reserved for them, or at least, a colour coded system is used. When the guests arrive, the ushers have a list indicating the seat numbers which have been allocated (or the colour coded area where they are to sit), and direct them to those. Not so in Guyana, it seems. People arrived in the VIP section to find all the seats occupied, and then had to be accommodated in other seats not intended for them. The only conclusion would seem to be that there were more invitations – in whatever form ‒ than there were seats, and obviously, there were no reservations.
Exactly how ill organized it was, was illustrated by the fact that even the President and First Lady had to struggle to their seats past a row of already seated invitees. What kind of planning was this?
The real disaster arose in relation to the parliamentary opposition, whose members arrived to find the VIP section full. In a press release following the fiasco, the PPP/C said that former presidents Dr Bharrat Jagdeo and Mr Samuel Hinds were accommodated in the VVIP area, and that MPs Anil Nandlall, Juan Edghill and Clement Rohee were also given seats there. However, the majority of the MPs, the statement said, “were left standing”. Appeals to both Co-Chair of the Flag-raising ceremony Nicolette Henry as well as AG Basil Williams, it seems, produced no result, and after standing waiting for “over half an hour in the passageway” the MPs led by Opposition Leader Jagdeo left. Former president Donald Ramotar who arrived separately a little later, also departed when he discovered that his colleagues had gone.
It was not, it appears, that discussions had not been held with the government in relation to seats for opposition MPs prior to the event. The PPP/C’s initial press release made reference to raising the issue of accommodation with Minister of Social Cohesion Amna Ally on May 23, while on May 24 at a parliamentary sitting the Opposition Leader spoke directly to Minister in the Ministry of Education Nicolette Henry. According to the PPP/C she gave the assurance that seats had been reserved for the opposition MPs and their spouses, an assurance which was repeated on the morning of May 25.
However, in a second release issued on May 27, the PPP/C made reference to Minister Henry’s press conference on May 24 when she was reported as saying that VIPs would be accommodated on a first come, first served basis. She denied this, claiming that the media had got it wrong, although the PPP/C statement alleged that the media said “their recordings show otherwise”. This newspaper did not report on this specific issue; however, what can be said is that if indeed she said what is claimed, it does correspond to what actually transpired.
Minister Henry, of course, was obliged to respond to the initial statement from the PPP/C about why they walked out, and did issue a statement subsequently, although it should be noted that this document did her no credit as a Junior Minister of Education. Presented in an idiosyncratic format, the statement eventually worked its way around to indicating that the opposition members arrived ten minutes later than they were supposed to, that they approached the wrong entrance and that they remained standing in the passageway because Ms Manickchand had said they would only sit when they could be assigned seats together.
Finally getting into her stride, Minister Henry was a little more verbose when it came to the denouement of the story: “Upon my arriving in the Presidential Section the Opposition Leader indicated they [sic] concerns with the seating. I assured him I will address this immediately, so I proceeded by personally asking other invited persons to give up their seats to ensure the Opposition members were all seated together.
“As soon as the persons began to give up their seats. The Opposition walked out.”
All of this is rank foolishness of course. It doesn’t matter if the PPP/C MPs came ten minutes late, it doesn’t matter if they tried to come in via the wrong entrance, and it doesn’t matter that they wanted to sit together (assuming they did); the bottom line is that there were no seats reserved for them, because if there had been, there would have been a block of empty seats awaiting their arrival. But since as noted earlier there appear to have been no seats reserved for anybody, and more people were invited than could be accommodated, chaos ruled the day.
Perhaps it was that Ms Henry simply didn’t think that the PPP/C would turn out in such numbers, but if so, that was a high-risk gamble. It would have been easy for her to have simply asked Mr Jagdeo how many of his MPs and their spouses would be in attendance when he spoke to her.
One would have thought that given what happened, the Minister would have risen to an apology, but even that she fell short on. “In the circumstances,” she wrote, “I wish to state that as the organizer of this event I apologize for any inconvenience, embarrassment or distress this incident may have caused.” There is no mention of who was caused the inconvenience, embarrassment or distress; it is an apology in a total vacuum and takes no account of the serious breach of protocol involved.
This would have been a major incident in any normal democracy, but in this one especially, where the society is so divided, it is worse. With the kind of half apology Ms Henry offered, she opens herself to the allegation that what happened was done deliberately, although that is improbable. It is very much more likely that it was the result of incompetence rather than of malice.
Someone at a higher level than Minister Henry should have begun monitoring her management since last year; had they done so, they would no doubt have discovered that she was totally lacking the skills to arrange anything on this scale. Maybe then they could have taken the show segment completely out of her unimaginative hands, and put persons with real artistic and creative ability to design a performance which would have made the occasion a memorable one – and, most important, one which reflected all the ethnic components of this society.
And then too, even a casual investigation at an early stage would have revealed the anarchy which was at the heart of the organization of the seating and control of the crowd. In short, someone (or persons) experienced – if necessary on contract ‒ should have been asked to deal with all the non-artistic arrangements. Something as important as a 50th Anniversary Flag-raising ceremony should not have been left in the hands of an unsupervised novice.