President David Granger’s decision to lead the government in long-delayed dialogue with the opposition, in the stead of Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, was due to his strong belief that dialogue between the two sides is needed if the country is to move forward, State Minister Joseph Harmon said yesterday.
The decision was welcomed by governing APNU+AFC coalition partner the Alliance For Change (AFC), which stated that Nagamootoo, who is from the AFC, does not feel in any way slighted by the President’s actions as both he and the party understand the importance of the talks.
“All of the resources of this country—government, opposition, private sector… and all other stakeholders—are necessary to move this country forward. So dialogue is something he [the President] openly wishes to be associated with and [he] will take every step to ensure we do,” Harmon told reporters yesterday.
“From the AFC’s point of view, we are quite elated to see that long-awaited talks will become a reality. We know that from way back, when this government started, the president had invited the Leader of the Opposition to become a part of some bipartisan committees and there was a refusal, save and except for the sovereignty issue. So, this is good news to us. We don’t believe that Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo in any way has been slighted. He has always been for national dialogue and will have no problem in stepping aside, in the greater interest,” AFC Leader Raphael Trotman told reporters in a short statement at the Public Buildings, after consulting with Nagamootoo and other party members.
An intervention by former United States President Jimmy Carter seemingly paved the way for the long-awaited talks.
It was Jagdeo who announced on Thursday, following a meeting between himself and Granger to discuss the appointment of the Public Service Commission and the Police Service Commission, that Carter had called both him and Granger.
Carter, 93, has had a long history of association with Guyana, dating back to the 1990s, when he brokered sweeping electoral reforms between the administration of the late President Desmond Hoyte and the opposition. These reforms included counting at the place of poll and an expanded elections commission where the Chairman was selected on the basis of what came to be known as the Carter-Price formula.
Jagdeo said that Carter had inquired of Jagdeo’s unwillingness to participate because of the Prime Minister’s role. He said that he explained to the former US President that the opposition’s objections were down to the fact that it believed Nagamootoo had no real decision making powers.
“The impression I got from President Carter was that in his conversation with the President, the President indicated that he was inclined to have talks with us, but we in the PPP were not so inclined because we don’t like Nagamootoo,” Jagdeo said.
“I pointed out to President Carter that it was not Nagamootoo that was the issue, it was our concern that we expressed that Nagamootoo doesn’t have any portfolio. He is a lightweight in the government. He would not be able to commit the APNU or the PNC to anything at the meeting. His portfolio, I went through what the elements of his portfolio are… we had a grave issue about Nagamootoo’s ability to commit the President and the PNC to any issue,” he added.
Harmon said that the matter was raised during the meeting between Granger and Jagdeo on Thursday, when the President listed three initial areas to be discussed at the first meeting and he said other areas would follow as the talks continued.
“The president did in fact indicate three areas and elaborated on those: crime, oil and gas and the environment. This, of course, was part of the discussion and the Leader of the Opposition requested that we have a structured meeting and which the President was happy to oblige and put these three matters on the table for consideration,” Harmon said.
Asked if Carter gave suggestions as to the issues to be discussed, Harmon said that he was not privy to that information but added that he believed that sovereign governments are only given suggestions and thus allowed to determine their own agendas. “We are an independent nation and the President and Leader of the Opposition, we determine what the agenda is. There may be some suggestions but the agenda are items which the two leaders agree on and these are the three matters given to you and will form the basis of the initial engagement and hopefully there will be other meetings,” he said.
Expressing reservations about the sincerity of Jagdeo’s commitment to the talks, however, Harmon reminded that it has been three years since his government offered the olive branch to the opposition and invited it to “unity talks” but it has always been rejected. He said that the behavioural pattern of turning down offers of cohesion and inclusiveness range from the opposition’s non participation in social functions, other meetings, and appointing representatives for state boards and committees.
Trotman said that the AFC was also concerned about the sincerity of Jagdeo’s commitment. “Whenever there has been an invitation, he has always found a reason not to engage and the most recent, when they said they will adopt a position of non-engagement. We urge the PPP/C to engage as there is much to be determined, particularly in the areas of oil and gas, security, border issues, national development, and so we are quite happy with what we are hearing,” Trotman said.
He also believed that there was “no doubt” the AFC would be represented during the talks.
Harmon said that that Nagamootoo will still have an integral role because “he is not just not another minister, he is responsible for parliamentary affairs and governance issues.”
He lauded Nagamootoo for his fortitude in dealing with the disrespect from the opposition and not retaliating when Jagdeo and other members of the opposition try to disparage him. “They have always tried to disrespect the Prime Minister… they have actually said some terrible things sometimes about the Prime Minister in the National Assembly. But I think the Prime Minister has carried out his duties with efficiency and dignity…,” Harmon said.
Jagdeo has said that he would discuss with PPP’s executive whether to agree to Granger’s proposals and if they do whether they will broach additional topics. “I am not saying we are not going in. I am not saying we will not. I am saying we have to give the party the opportunity and time to discuss this and when or if we go into to those talks,” he said on Thursday.