'The rule of nobody' in race-torn Guyana

By Festus L. Brotherson, Jr.
Guyana Chronicle
June 20, 1999

In her classic treatise, `On Violence', the late German-American scholar Hannah Arendt examined how, in times of political crisis, unaddressed main problems intensify in society on such a daunting scale that they force authorities to become unskilled fire fighters struggling for elusive successful results.

As fast as officials get one or more `fires' of violence and other aspects of instability under control, more and more hot spots erupt to tax an already taut fire-fighting line. Eventually, the chaos becomes so widespread, and the sources of eruptions and responses so confusing, that nearly all of society becomes polarised in paralysing doublespeak and vendettas. It becomes very difficult to pinpoint perpetrators and key decision makers.

Arendt described the ensuing out of control bureaucratic and wider situation as "the rule of nobody." Guyana today appears to be experiencing this situation. Many of the culpable are now clearly identifiable and the PPP/Civic government is not without some blame as well.

Major problems of unmet promises, inadequate public sector wages, and racial discrimination have been nestling for some time in the country. The strike by the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) and the Federated Union of Government Employees (FUGE), now seven weeks old, is merely the catalyst that triggered the rule of nobody. Happily, as this article is being written, there are signs of some limited stability returning to the strife-torn environment.

Parties are once again following civilised procedures and purposeful discourse towards a resolution of the strike, thanks to able, determined mediators from the private sector and religious orthodoxy.

But how did the rule of nobody evolve? Since the December 1997 general elections which returned the PPP/Civic to power, the Government has not had the customary honeymoon period usually granted winners in order for them consolidate authority, set policies and begin performing in search of beneficial results for the entire nation.

Instead, it has from the outset been bedeviled by an extremely demanding performance imperative requiring it to produce beneficial results IMMEDIATELY, beyond its capacity to deliver, and in the context of "pot-calling-the-kettle-black" stentorian cacophonies about fraudulent election results.

One of the most trying paradoxes for the government was honouring commitment to uphold newly established democratic principles in the face of naked racial opposition politics, principally from the twice consecutively-defeated People's National Congress (PNC) under its unremorseful authoritarian leadership.

Certified free and fair election results by unbiased on-site international observers and later the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) audit team remain rejected in seditious rhetoric designed to reopen marginally healed wounds of racial animosity between African and East Indian Guyanese.

The consequences were engineered street thuggery, ad hominem attacks by all the principals, including past dictators stung by near total rejection by the majority ethnic East Indians at the polls despite being nicknamed `Desmond Persaud'. Guyana became imprisoned by arson, marauding vagabonds, looters, bombs and bomb threats, grenade attacks, physical assaults on doctors, disruption of the justice system, mysterious crime waves against and killing of East Indian business persons, rejections of diplomatic initiatives by objective outsiders, and collusion to use the worker's strike for higher pay to overthrow the lawfully elected government.

At the same time, a simmering wage dispute went unaddressed by the PPP/Civic due to miscalculated prioritising of issues in need of urgent redress and other unexplained pussyfooting.

As this writer and others have commented over several months, a very significant undercurrent in all of the various forms of tension is, without doubt, a strong perception by Guyanese of African descent that the PPP/ Civic government has been racially discriminating against them. This belief is so entrenched that it crosses class boundaries and evokes deep resentment which challenges the right of the Government to continued stewardship of Guyana.

In other words, the very legitimacy of the government is being seriously debated on grounds of perceived persistent racism. In spite of the clear centrality of the race factor and charges that high-level East Indian Government officials brazenly practice this type of foul play, the PPC/Civic appears unwilling and/or unable to address it in a manner of sustained prioritised attention that it deserves.

This is quite puzzling. It wrongly sends a signal that the marginalisation of Black citizens who are very insecure about jobs and fair treatment in the work place and wider society does not merit redress. Can there be any real point in seeking to win PNC support on a solution when that party has demonstrated time and again its intent to exploit the racial tensions to advance its own agenda; especially since that entity (and not the government) has been able to dominate the national agenda on what are national priorities?

In last week's article, the insights of Nicolo Machiavelli were cited about instances when a whole population perceives wrongdoing to itself: "Not without good reason is the voice of the populace likened to that of God; for public opinion is remarkably accurate in its prognostications, so much so that it seems as the populace by some hidden power discerned the evil and the good that was to befall it."

From reports, observations and appearances, the Guyanese population of African descent senses an `evil' about to befall it.

This `evil' concerns alleged racial discrimination and treating such charges as if not important to even merit investigation and, if true, denunciation of the practice and punishment of the perpetrators. Leaving this matter unaddressed, in hope for a PNC-supported effort at redress of the problem is imprudent wishful thinking under that party's current leadership arrangements. Left untreated, a cancer does not treat and heal itself. It gets progressively worse. And in this case, the racial cancer can corrode the PPP/Civic's legitimacy.

Sometimes, many of us citizens do not quite understand the dual nature of political legitimacy - its essentiality and its fragility in effective statecraft. It is essential that the right to rule (legitimacy) be conferred on political leadership because that strengthens democracy and helps institutionalise the all important civil orientation of efficacy among citizens, i.e., peoples' belief that their opinions matter, will be taken seriously and will have an impact on governmental decision-making.

At the same time, perceived violations of the sacrosanct trust involved in the granting of awesome power of the right to rule injures legitimacy. Once lost, legitimacy is almost impossible to regain.

Evidence the fate that befell the late Richard Nixon in the United States in the 1970s Watergate scandal and its aftermath. Evidence too, the fate that has befallen the current leader of the PNC, Mr. Hoyte. His slim chance of winning back power by authoritarian means lies in trouble-making on racial grounds. Race is such viscerally foul play that it flays logic even among intellectuals and submits to blind emotionalism.

This must never be allowed to happen again in Guyana. The current PPP/Civic Government has a responsibility to demonstrate statesmanship on this issue.

One veteran of Guyanese politics who, for a long time, was on opposite sides of the then PPP opposition party, Mayor of Georgetown, Hamilton Green, has said that President Janet Jagan "is serious about development and is trying hard to lead Guyana into excellence." He notes however that she appears at times to be unaware of true public sentiments.

Another highly respected non-political observer believes that the "the PPP and the PPP/Civic decision-making structure is unworkable because it is too unwieldy. Important "civic" members of the government cannot make executive decisions. He says this is particularly a stumbling block when top-most government and party executives are out of the country. He too believes that the president is trying to do a good job but suffers from the handicap of incomplete information.

This writer remains her very strong supporter. Whatever the problems of governance, however, these must be resolved in the national interest so that the government does not squander its legitimacy and ultimately lose it.

A page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples