A federation solution

Stabroek News
June 12, 1999

Mr Ravi Dev's Rise, Organise And Rally (ROAR) has prepared its own constitution. It advocates a federal system under which power would be shared between the federal or central government and four states Berbice, Essequibo, Demerara and Rupununi. The federal government would have exclusive power in international relations, national defence, macro-economic planning, immigration, central banking and monetary policy, and federal elections. It would have collateral power with the states in areas like health and social services, taxation, education, policing, tourism, agriculture and industrial sites. The states would have exclusive power in areas like licensing, infrastructure, housing policy and sports.

ROAR gives a number of reasons in favour of federalism including that the winner of an election will not take all as the powers of the central government will be considerably reduced and given to the states, whose chief executives will be called Governors (one of several instances of American terminology), that a certain percentage of the wealth each state produces will remain in the state to allow for its development instead of favouring Georgetown as is now said to be the case and that the police force will be balanced and made up of the residents of each state. Each state can attract its own investments and persons in parliament will represent specific areas. Political disruptions in one state will not shut down the entire country.

Features of ROAR's constitution include a President with limited powers who performs ceremonial and other functions and is the Head of State. The Prime Minister is the chief executive and is limited to two terms. The government serves for a fixed five year term and does not fall if it does not have a majority of the votes in either House. They propose a bicameral legislature comprising a House of Representatives or lower house and a Senate or upper house. The latter has essentially delaying powers. States cannot secede. There shall be ethnic balance in the army. They propose an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a Permanent Elections Commission.

ROAR and GIFT are an inevitable reaction to African cultural and physical dominance in Georgetown where a lot of Indians now reside and work. They argue that federalism will bring about better relations between the ethnic groups as none of them will be excluded from power. Whoever may win the general election other groups will have power in the states. It is thus seen as a solution to the problem of Indian numerical dominance in the country as a whole. The competition for power among groups will lessen, they argue, and each culture will flourish.

It is a tantalising prospect, weakening the bonds of central governance to save the nation from ethnic conflict and possible dissolution. As a letter writer in this issue points out Sir Arthur Lewis supported the concept of a federal system in his famous piece on politics in West Africa as a mechanism for dealing with ethnic tension. But will it work, is it practical? Indians will still be a minority in the state of Demerara and in particular in Georgetown. There is the possibility, of course, of internal migration though the assumption seems to be that the decentralisation of power through the federal system will itself reduce tensions. ROAR also envisages (Article 9) that the federal capital may at some stage be moved from Georgetown and that GDF headquarters will be relocated on the Essequibo coast with bases and camps at the frontiers.

Ethnic insecurity has become a core issue in Guyana and there is no point dodging it. It is perhaps the key issue facing the Constitution Reform Commission. Can it be solved by means of constitutional innovation? As Professor Hanf pointed out in his stimulating presentation at the Park Hotel it has been faced and dealt with by many countries in different ways ranging from the Lebanon to Belgium. In modern times the worst case scenarios have played themselves out in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Cleavages there were more severe than they still are in Guyana but those are terrifying examples of where ethnic conflict can lead.

The Commission will have this firmly in mind. It will have learnt from Professor Hanf and other advisers what solutions have been tried elsewhere. Submissions locally range from leaving the system of government as it is with some procedural modifications to executive power sharing to federalism. How will the Commission in its wisdom decide? It is an historic responsibility. And at the end of the day, of course, the two main parties will have to make up their minds when they receive the report whether to accept it. But it will no doubt have its own integrity and moral force and the electorate will hardly be pleased if the Commission's recommendations are brushed aside. Apart from anything else, that would hardly be in keeping with the spirit of the Herdmanston Accord.

A page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples