On Friday, at the University of Guyana (UG), Turkeyen Campus, the Carter Center Guyana will be hosting a symposium on Guyana’s constitutional reform process. I find this really interesting because, actually, this symposium is not about dealing directly with the problems in the 1980 constitution. What this symposium is going to be looking at is how to begin the process for what it will take to start the work of actually reforming the constitution. So the symposium at UG on Friday is a preamble to the preamble.
Now this is all good, if only because it is a step in the right direction. However, while there was a huge outcry by the PPP against the Burnham (1980) constitution prior to 1992, now that the PPP have seen the benefits of the constitution over the 23 years, they are today engaging in a political cat and mouse game. The PPP plans to stall any constitutional reform that would limit the powers vested in the government by the constitution. And that is because a weakened coalition has made the PPP almost confident that they will win the next general elections. And if they again win, they would be the purveyors of the dictatorial, regressive, Burnham constitution, which they had a problem with prior to 1992.
Power hungry politicians love the despotic vestiges of the Burnham constitution. Burnham himself was power drunk. But if we look at the problems the constitution is causing, we would all agree that there needs to be urgent reform.
A few weeks ago the former President was arrested for acts he is alleged to have committed while in office. Mr Jagdeo invoked his presidential immunity and sidestepped any further interrogation. Immediately following that arrest, Mr Nandlall (the former Attorney General), argued that the arrest of the former President was itself illegal, based on the Burnham constitution.
Now there is yet another case brewing where the Burnham constitution is again raising its ugly head. The Red House lease that was granted by President Romatar when he presided over Lands and Surveys, was revoked by President Granger.
Mr Nandlall (on behalf of the Red House) has brought a case against Lands and Surveys and by implication, President Granger. Acting Chancellor Yonette Cummings-Edwards made a ruling that the local courts do have jurisdiction to hear the case. Now if President Granger revoked the lease, then the case has to be brought against the President.
But the current Attorney General Basil Williams is contending that the courts have no jurisdiction to hear the case. AG Williams is arguing that the court’s ruling, by the acting Chancellor, signals that the president has no immunity.
Williams is reminding the courts that the Burnham constitution does not allow for a president to have any civil or criminal proceedings brought against him. Now what is noteworthy is that when President Jagdeo was recently arrested, AG Basil Williams was asked about the constitutionality of the charges. He is known to have said that the courts will determine whether or not Mr Jagdeo has to stand trial. Now the shoe is on the other foot, Mr Williams is saying that President Granger should not be subject to any court case. So what we have is a convenient bastardization of the Burnham constitution by the respective governments.
One of the most problematic constructs of the 1980 constitution is the overarching, executive presidential powers. Both the PPP and the PNC realize the autocratic benefits of the Burnham constitution. So while on the surface they express words that suggest that they are interested in constitutional reform, deep down in the halls of their party apparatus, they will do everything to maintain the status quo.
Some reforms to the constitution call for a two-thirds majority in the parliament. But at this rate there seems to be no appetite from either of the main parties to provide the needed catalyst for said reform. It is therefore left to the citizenry of Guyana to agitate for the needed reform.
Pastor Wendell P Jeffrey