Ethnic politics is a nightmare on the brain

Last week, I promised that this column ‘using practical examples, … will consider governance arrangements that are more appropriate to our conditions and that will conclusively and most equitably address the African political dilemma.’ However, last Monday, I read a letter by M. Alves that said, ‘With all our blessed resources we’ve been cursed with politicians who do not have the country at heart. As a people who I think are the smartest and most innovative on this planet, we’re amongst the daftest when it comes to politics. Politicians have always used race to divide and conquer Guyanese, and to this day we the people have allowed them to continue dividing and exploiting us, despite having the world of information at our fingertips and should be wise’ (KN: 21/01/2018).

I venture to say that Alves’ position would represent that of most Guyanese across the ethnic divide, and so deserves to be first addressed, lest we proceed to provide solutions for the wrong aspect of the problem.  Mr. Alves appeared bewildered that although as a ‘people’ we believe ourselves to be clever, we have done little or nothing to prevent ourselves being exploited by devious politicians despite our being empowered to prevent them from doing so. Is this diagnosis correct: are we a ‘people’ and do we actually have the level of freedom he believes to change our condition?

Well, many of those who have done in-depth studies of countries such as ours believe that Mr. Alves – and by implication most of us who believe like him – have not grasped the entire problem. One of them, speaking specifically to Guyana, claimed that the reasons for our persistent ethnic difficulties ‘are not to be found in the … unscrupulous imaginations of local politicians, or in a real or in imagined partiality on the part of the British rulers but in the very nature of the specific type of multiethnic communitie(s)’ we are (Halperin, Ernst (1965) Racism and Communism in British Guiana, xxxxx).

In 1861, 100 years before Halperin, one of the greatest of British political philosophers, John Stuart Mills (Considerations of Representative Government), suggested what this ‘specific type of multiethnic community’ looks like, and some of the consequences that flow therefrom. Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities.  Among a people without fellow feeling … the united public opinion necessary to the working of a representative (democratic) government cannot exist.  The influences which form opinions and decide political acts are different in the different sections of the country.  An altogether different set of leaders have the confidence of one part of the country and of another.’

We witness this every day, e.g. to different virtual halves of the country, Mr. Charrandass Persaud is hero or a traitor. We are not a ‘people’ but ethnic tribes who cannot develop a democratic society based upon the existence of a ‘united public opinion.’ Mr. Alves might want to know why this is so, and this is a complicated story, having to do with the nature of ethnic allegiances. However, most explanations seem to suggest that ethnic allegiances are constructed over time in specific cultural contexts, and in time ethnic alliances can be mitigated if conflicts and threats are reduced.  In this environment, Karl Marx’s observation in his 1852 Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which is now more or less, universally accepted, comes to my mind. ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’

This kind of doomsday scenario was very much in vogue until about the mid-1960s, when scholarly expositions by Sir Arthur Lewis (Politics in West Africa, 1965) and others opened new possibilities for sensibly governing these societies, and to this day echoes of them are still in the minds of the international community. Only yesterday (SN: 22/01/2019), Mike Persaud drew our attention to a 1990 Washington Post interviewed with the U.S. ambassador to Guyana in which he claimed “You cannot have democracy in Guyana …Because every last man here votes race,” and one of our most consummate and ‘non-political’ diplomats, Dr. Rudy Insanally, recently had this to say.

‘Our current reality is, if we are to admit it, that despite all our symbols of sovereignty, Guyana is to the foreign eye, a collection of tribes rather than a nation. … In the various councils of the world, if we do not speak with one voice and act in solidarity, the international community will remain deaf to our pleadings and contemptuous of our division. … We are said to be, as one world leader once remarked, mere ‘specks in the sea’ of nations, of no real significance to the world and condemned to under-development’ (The Guyanese culture: Fusion and Diffusion, 2017).

As events in neighbouring Venezuela and many other countries and those surrounding the present management of the oil industry have all demonstrated, having oil will not necessarily save us from this underdevelopment if we remain politically disunited. So I believe that Mr. Alves would have to admit that if our condition is not essentially a result of our politicians being evil but is a consequence of our not being a ‘people’ with a ‘united public opinion’ to hold them accountable (not having accountability is like running a business without proper management, accounting and auditing processes, e.g. the Georgetown City Council, and we have seen what happened there), and that some form of consensual government, which brings the leadership of the groups together can reduce the conflict and threats, the latter must be infinitely preferable to the present persistent political instability, poverty and underdevelopment.

Some would argue as I have done, that this kind of arrangement has all the signs of institutionalizing a humongous dictatorship. This is a theoretical position for which I have no factual example. If anything, by taking the opposition into the executive so to speak, governmental collapse is more usual (as at present in Northern Ireland) and in any case, there are other ways of attempting to prevent the development of an autocracy. 

It appears to me that the tipping point of support for constitutional reform and some form of consensual governance that will solve the African and ipso facto the Guyana problem is nearing. Next week I will present my suggestions for governance arrangements that are more appropriate to our conditions and that will conclusively and most equitably address Guyana’s ethnic dilemma.

Around the Web