Since attaining independence from the British, Guyana has been governed to all intents and purposes by two political parties, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and the People’s National Congress (PNC) – with the qualification that the current core PNC government is part of a coalition. Interestingly enough, both political parties have the word ‘people’ as the first defining factor in their names, while the other defining characteristics are the words ‘progress’ and ‘national’ which we also see as relating to the ‘people.’
What we have been treated to over too many of the years since 1966 is lopsided rule which divides the citizenry into racial groupings for political expediency. Exposure to this type of politics for too long, has led to an upsurge in sycophantic cheerleading or unrelenting criticism for one side or the other despite their flaws and failings or best efforts while in government.
This brings us to the current status quo. Much has been made of the several embarrassing setbacks and outright failings of the APNU+AFC coalition government particularly in 2017. With the eventful nature of the first seven months, not much critical analysis was done of the one-party political opposition that is the PPP. While it is to be expected that the role of the opposition must certainly entail pointing out the flaws of the incumbent administration, one does expect that certain matters are beyond partisan, political interest and enter the sphere of the national good.
With our winner-take-all style of national politics, it might be difficult for a party in opposition to extend a practical helping hand of friendship to the government of the day in times of crisis. However, difficult does not equate to impossible, and the size of the problem at hand must, of necessity, determine the level of magnanimity of the offer of help.
Not that we have seen any of that in the current dispensation. Bipartisan politics have been sadly lacking in Guyana over many years, but in the most recent matter with severe internal national security implications, that is, the torching of the main penitentiary in Georgetown and the ensuing multiple prison escapes, the bungling of the government was obvious, but so was the politicisation and fear-mongering of the opposition. Despite its public utterances, however, the opposition has done the proper thing and laid the matter over for discussion in Parliament. It remains to be seen whether the discussions, when they occur, will be in the spirit of looking out for the interest of the ‘people,’ or whether the conversation will rapidly decline into the usual who did what when, and which party has the worst history.
It is clear from observing the deportment of our politicians, that a country spending so much of its time aimlessly and antagonistically looking backwards cannot make much progress as a nation. The politically instigated divisions that are so rife in our society are largely responsible for our inability to address incompetence, negligence, corruption and other maladies that affect the public sector, private sector, political and other institutions in this country.
The parliamentary opposition has submitted a motion to the National Assembly which should lead to a national debate on the issue of the prison fire and the resulting jailbreak. But while the questions on the motion as published in the media appear to deal with procedural issues, it may be necessary for the debate to widen to structural issues as well, both in terms of edifices as well as systems, procedures and basic standards of treatment for inmates.
What is not clear is whether the prisons in Guyana meet the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs), also known as the Mandela Rules, and whether they comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is an internationally accepted precept that while prisoners lose their right to freedom of movement, they do not lose their rights as human beings.
It must be expected by right thinking Guyanese that there will be a debate in the National Assembly with respect to the prison fire, the prison breaks and previous and recurring prison unrest, focusing on the igniting causative factors, structural deficiencies and/or procedural lapses, and the required rectifications, reformation and sanctions with a timetable set for the achievement of a normalisation within the penal system.
We can only hope that partisan political bickering, one-upmanship, brinkmanship, and other self-serving anti-national and anti-progressive behaviour does not once more overwhelm our distinguished parliamentarians in that most august House – the National Assembly. Can our sober thinking, progressive and nationalistic politicians please stand up?