On becoming a Republic

By Dr James Rose
Guyana Chronicle
February 27, 2000

PASSAGE from a British colony to a Republic is a tremendous leap, but British Guiana was determined to make that leap.

After years of political agitation and three years of civil disobedience between 1962 and 1964, Guyana became an independent Commonwealth state on May 26, 1966 and on February 23 1970, Guyana became the first and only Cooperative Socialist Republic within the Commonwealth of Nations.

To many, the republican status was the culmination of the independence movement begun in the post war years. This anti-colonial movement, as it was in the beginning, was a determined drive to rid Guyana of the worst vestiges of British colonialism.

Colonialism, then as now, was perceived as an alien system of administration, autocratic, exploitative and demeaning, imposed by the British on a defenceless and impoverished people. Colonialism stultified the growth of a national psyche and frustrated all forms of development - economic, social, cultural and/or psychological. In the case of Guyana, this imposition was of considerable duration, from May 30, 1814 when by the Treaty of Paris the Dutch colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice were ceded to the British, period of some 152 years.

The anti-colonial movement suffered many setbacks after the auspicious 1950-53 period and the memorable 1960 achievement when the British Government conceded, in principle, independence for Guyana not later than 1962. Anti-independence forces, strengthened by their reactionary concubinage with allies, domestic and international, launched a counter-offensive of their own resulting in three years of political and economic destabilisation and the eventual deferral of independence to 1966.

This period of dislocation was significant in several ways. It served to acerbate and reinforce the racial divisions within the society. It further perverted the nationalist coalition. It facilitated the insertion of anti-democratic tendencies in electoral politics and the consolidation of the racial basis of social interaction in the country.

Contrary to the hopes of the most optimistic, the system of proportional representation in 1964, to reduce ethnic patterns in electoral politics, consolidated the racial pattern of electoral behaviour and inter-group relations. In short, it undermined the potential for the realisation of the real benefits of political independence and subverted the fundamental prerequisites of an independent state.

In spite of the setbacks of 1962-1964 and the inherent weaknesses of the electoral arrangement, the achievement of political independence on May 26, 1966 was an important milestone. A new nation state with a brand new name was born. Independence also brought us our own flag, the `Golden Arrowhead' replacing the `Union Jack', a National Anthem `Greenland of Guyana' in preference to `God Save our Queen', a National Motto and a National Coat of Arms. Given the nature of these changes, there could be no doubting the meaning of political independence.

Though these were but the obvious surface phenomena of political independence, they were nevertheless important since in a very significant way, a people were distancing themselves, in simple but profound ways, from their colonial past.

At the administrative level, the new state accepted responsibility for law and order and national defence against external aggression. The first saw responsibility for the police ceded to a local elective and the establishment of a national army to replace the British Army which had become a much too frequent, albeit unpopular visitor to these shores.

There was also a Ministry of Foreign Affairs to deal with foreign relations and international trade. Of more than passing significance were the abolition of the post of Colonial Secretary and the ultimate determination by Guyana of the person appointed titular head of state, the Governor General. Internationally, Guyana acceded to membership of the United Nations Organisation and the Commonwealth of Nations.

These were the eloquent and substantial material and administrative trappings of political independence. The psychology changes were far more critical. As a colonised people, we were given very few opportunities to fashion a national consciousness: to perceive ourselves as a nation with a distinct cultural heritage in spite of our traditional cultural diversity.

Political independence now challenged us to harness our collective creative energies to fashion a national identity; to model our very own Guyana in terms of economy, society, culture and politics; to develop a national sense of self, of inner strength and inner resolve. In the words of Gordon Lewis:

`The Challenge means a great number of things. It means a new inner strength. Both for the individual and the society, the readiness to look inwards, not outwards, for solutions to problems. It means the creation of new institutions, cultural and social as well as political and economic. It means, in brief, the growth of a new positive citizenship."

It is respectfully submitted that given the pre-independence trauma, the post independence reliance on self-help and community development activities aimed at fostering national unity and developing a spirit of national self-reliance. The indications are that successful as some of these initiatives undoubtedly were, they were inadequate to the tasks of identity building and ethnic bonding and so, in the final analysis, they failed.

This apparent failure accelerated the need to take the liberation process to its final stage. Which was to sever, completely, the ties with the former imperial master in an effort to give Guyana a new rallying point and a second chance to evolve a national ethos. Moving to the status of a republic represented ... a further step in the direction of self reliance and self confidence.

In the initial process of achieving political independence, both the major mass based political parties had been firmly wedded to the eventual republican ideal. Dr Jagan had, from as early as 1962, indicated his preference for republican status and this was firmly embraced by Mr Burnham. So that in the 1965 Constitutional Conference Report provision was made for the independent state of Guyana to move on to Republican status.

Indeed, paragraph 13 of the Report reads:

There will be provision for the Parliament of the new State, if it so wishes, after January 1, 1969, to bring into operation scheduled amendments establishing a republic on the parliamentary system.

In pursuance of this ideal, article 73, paragraph (5) provides for:

The National Assembly, upon a motion introduced by the Prime Minister and supported by the votes of a majority of all the elected members of the National Assembly, to pass a resolution declaring Guyana a republic as from a given date subsequent to the passage of the resolution.

There were two provisos. The first proviso related to the timing of the enabling motion and here it was suggested that the motion should not be tabled before January 1, 1969. Here, it is suspected that time was being given for the general public to have a say, directly or inferentially, in the issue at the 1968 general elections. The second stipulated that the motion should be laid in the House for a period of not less than three months. This was to provide the general public with adequate time to thoroughly discuss the republican issue. The government of the day observed both conventions. The motion was tabled on March 23, 1969 and debated in August 1969. The establishment of the republic was scheduled for February 23, 1970.

According to the changes envisaged, Guyana would logically transfer from a monarchy to a republic. In this instance, a uniquely Cooperative Socialist Republic, perhaps the most contentious aspect of the entire transition was the notion of `cooperative socialism'. Derived, no doubt, from the belief that the cooperative was an important vehicle of self-improvement for the underclass, the government argued its importance and significance in effecting changes in the eh social and economic relationships in the country. In the circumstance:

it was proposed that a serious and earnest effort be made to establish firmly and irrevocably the cooperative as the means of making the small man a real man and changing, in a revolutionary fashion, the social and economic relationships to which we have been heir as part of our monarchical legacy.

This signalled a new emphasis on Cooperativism. Indeed, what this meant, in effect, was that whereas in the past there existed in Guyana a two-tiered economic base of private and some public capital investments, there would henceforth be a third tier, the cooperative sector. What was contentious was the fact that historically, the cooperative movement was miniscule and retarded and while the notion of a republic was popular, there was considerable skepticism as to the viability of the proposed cooperative sector.

The Governor General appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister was to be replaced by a titular President elected by the National Assembly. The President so elected would, however, possess no less powers than those of the Governor General he replaced and most significantly, he will represent the collective will of the people of Guyana rather than a monarch alien to the state. In the words of the Prime Minister:

Now that we have matured, the element of bitterness has lessened, if not disappeared, but I would submit that in the context of Guyana, there is an indescribable incongruity about having the Queen of Great Britain the Queen of Guyana.

To provide content and substance to the concept of independence and mature nationhood, it was felt that the establishment of the Republic of Guyana should coincide with the celebration and/or anniversary of an event of peculiar Guyanese significance. Looking over the historical landscape of Guyana, the slave rebellion of February 23, 1763 at Magdalenenburg in Berbice, was deemed as possessing the requisite significance, the May 26 date chosen by the erstwhile colonial master and imposed on Guyana with all the vanity and arrogance of the metropolitan overlord. Cuffy would, by similar consideration, become the national hero of the new republic.

Insofar as continued association with the Commonwealth was concerned, Guyana was determined to retain its membership and in this, there was no contradiction. Cogent economic consideration made this a sound position. Additionally, and most conveniently, there was no administrative conflict in being a republic and retaining the status of Commonwealth membership.

On the other hand, Guyana would withdraw from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Traditionally, Guyana's final Court of Appeal had been Her Majesty in Council or the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Inherently, however, there was a glaring inconsistency behind Guyana becoming a Republic and Guyana still having Her Majesty's Privy Council, the Judicial Committee or any other such body as the final Court of Appeal. It would seem an admission of the nation's inferiority, its inability to find within its boundaries such legal talent and such sense of justice as would lead Guyana to leave the final arbitration of matters legal to fellow learned Guyanese.

Generally, opposition to the change over was rather muted. To be sure, while the miniscule opposition, the United Force, continued to resist the popular will of the Guyanese people, the broad mass of the people was firmly supportive of the idea of becoming a republic. The government knew this only too well and was not reluctant to exploit this popular sentiment.

Generally, it was left to the Anglican Bishop, Allan Knight, to encapsulate the concerns of the conservative minority in a carefully penned letter to the press. More often than not these fears derived from a misunderstanding of the new system. Was the President to be a political appointee and in the circumstances would he not suffer a substantial loss of status and influence by virtue of his not being a representative of the Queen?

Would this President be forced to demit office every time a new government was elected and would this not affect continuity of office and the political stability of the nation state?

Some others were concerned with the political and economic instability associated with new republics and referred to the frequency of military coups for instance. Still others associated the loss of democratic traditions with the establishment of new republics and, in this instance, the possible emergence of a socialist dictatorship. The Anglophiles were, as usual, dismayed at the imminent loss of the remaining trappings of British colonialism; access to and inclusion in the Queen's New Year Honours List and so on. One very important concern, given the contentious Venezuelan claim, was related to the loss of British support and protection with the abandonment of a monarchial system of government. To this, the government response was terse. This ....was one good reason for ending the monarchy because, psychologically, there are so many un-emancipated minds who still believe that protection can come from without an independent country. It is in their interest and the interest of the progress of the country that the monarchy be removed so that there can be no illusions and it can be recognised that power and protection are to be found here in Guyana.

Generally, the Government was at pains to allay the fears of the misguided minority but in general it basked in the popular support the idea enjoyed. As Mr Burnham noted:

The motion should not engender any sharp differences of opinion. There may be differences of opinion as to tactics and details, not substance, not important things, because both of the larger parties are pledged and have been pledged for years to republicanism.

And so, on February 23, 1970, in full pomp and glorious ceremony countrywide, the nation cast aside the monarchy and became a republic.