It is no news to anyone that politics and ethnicity are almost coterminous in this country, although when speaking in these terms, commentators have only two ethnic groups in mind – Indians and Africans. Some decades ago, Indian numbers were such that the PPP would have needed very little assistance from outside their constituency to win an election. As such, it was the prospect of possibly never winning a free and fair election which was a major factor in the PNC fixing on an aberrant path to power.
The political landscape, however, has been slowly evolving in recent years, and it is changing demographics which have mostly engendered that evolution. Whereas there was a time when Indians accounted for around 50% of the population, that number has been declining, so that they were recorded in the last census as having slipped below 40%. Africans, who were always a minority – albeit a large one – are now below 30%. The only two groups showing an increase are the Mixed population and the Amerindians, or Indigenous people. The first of these is an amorphous group without any kind of single group identity, a not insignificant number of which have traditionally voted with the PNC. The second now stands at around 10% of the population, and could become a king-maker if it voted as a solid bloc.
The Amerindians, however, comprise nine nations, of which by far the largest numerically speaking, are the Arawaks, who are concentrated in Region One, although by no means confined there. Furthermore, the Indigenous electorate has not voted as a single group since the days of Stephen Campbell in the early 1960s, who eventually attached himself to the United Force, bringing the Amerindian voters with him.
Since then, the Indigenous people have not spoken with one political voice, giving their votes to more than one party, although up until 2015 they gave their ballots in sufficient numbers to the PPP/C to bring it to office in an era of clean elections. They are, of course scattered over the extensive interior of this country, and until more recent times with the advent of the internet which benefits a limited number of them, have hardly had the opportunity to organize themselves as a single group.
The PPP was the first to grasp the significance of the Amerindian vote if they were to maintain a hold on power, and their approach to the Indigenous population was the same as that they employed in other departments of governance – control. This was mixed with expending money and effort on visiting hinterland villages, and in dispensing outboard engines and the like, in a bid to persuade the Amerindians to vote for them.
As a consequence of their isolation, many of the Indigenous people have been removed from coastal politics, and have had only very limited dealings with the complex rules within which government at all levels operates here. In addition, they come out of a communalist tradition, which is sometimes chary of placing power in the hands of a single individual, or even a small circle of individuals. That said, the beginnings of Indigenous village government in its modern format go back to the 1950s, and in its present-day incarnation derives from the 2006 Amerindian Act. There have been problems in some villages relating to observance of the rules, financial and otherwise, which the last Minister of Amer-indian Affairs, at least, appeared reluctant to address; the priority was always ensuring the villages voted for the PPP/C.
Apart from entrenching the system of village government, the 2006 Amerindian Act also did something else: it established the National Toshaos Council (NTC), a vehicle which for the first time allowed Indigenous representatives from all over the country to come together to exchange views; and most important, to tell the government what they think. This has been considerably easier under this government, it must be said, than the previous one. The NTC has been meeting annually for several years now, and its growth in terms of expressing a distinctive and independent Indigenous viewpoint to the political powerhouses of this land, as well as its grasp of the proprieties of governance were never more apparent than during the 2017 meeting.
As we reported on Friday, in a statement on the fourth day of deliberations it was clear that the council not only understood the necessity of clear rules of functioning, but was also alive to coastal political games when it said, “It is our objective to adopt rules and procedures to govern the operations of the NTC… and develop the necessary framework to ‘Protect the NTC’ from political manipulation…” Whether the two major political parties have taken note, however, remains to be seen. Certainly the statement went on to accuse the government of trying to undermine the adoption of the rules and procedures.
In response to renewed calls by the administration for the NTC to improve on its performance it pointed to the rejection of the budgets it had tabled. It adverted to the fact that owing to the geographical difficulties, in order to convene one meeting of the council’s executive, it needed $3 million, leaving no money to go to meetings requested by ministries or government agencies, or to attend emergency meetings. In this regard it drew attention to the fact that in May 2016 the NTC and some other organizations met to draft possible regulations for Section 51.3 of the Amerindian Act in relation to mining activities. “Had these Regulations been finalized and Gazetted by the Ministry,” the statement said, “it would have made the necessary finances available to the NTC without tapping into the Consolidated Fund…”
The council expressed itself as particularly concerned about being exposed to attacks from the government, because it had stepped into the breach and taken up the “challenges” when the administration failed to reconstitute the Indigenous Peoples Commission, and appoint members to the Human Rights Commission. The NTC regarded this as the administration’s “attempt to distract from the Government’s shortcomings.”
As indicated above, the Toshaos Council did not limit itself to criticising the government; it was far more balanced in that it recognized what was positive in its approach to the NTC. “Let us first identify that it is only under this administration,” said the council statement, “that the NTC has been given a ‘small’ room to grow. Under the PPP, every single component from the Chairman’s remarks, to who spoke, and when to hush leaders were all managed by the PPP. Independent media and other organizations were also banned from attending and the agenda and everything else was managed by the PPP.”
Aside from what was said in the statement about the government, there was also the fiasco with the ministers who were to address the council and answer questions, and came when they were not scheduled. Minister Khemraj Ramjattan for his part aggravated the situation by offering the trivial excuse that he was at cricket. Any minister of government who is scheduled to appear at a high-level meeting does not turn up without warning at some other time as he or she feels like; that is at best grossly ill-mannered and at worst contemptuous. It seems that the government has not yet discovered the significance of the NTC and does not treat it with the respect it deserves.
For its part, the PPP did recognize the significance of the NTC – at least in the coastal political scheme of things. It has no interest, however, in developing true Amerindian democracy. As mentioned already, it believed it could manage the council by exercising total control. The NTC, however, is taking on a life of its own; it is the forum where the Indigenous people find larger democratic expression, and seems to be alive to both political manipulation by one side as well as direct control by the other. The coastal parties will sooner or later have to adapt themselves to what may become an evolving new reality.