Georgetown awakes from its slumber

By Desiree Jodah
Stabroek News
January 20, 1998

Georgetown awoke from its slumber yesterday as thousands of Guyanese, who had sought the refuge of their homes amidst demonstrations, looting and rioting last week, returned to their everyday activities.

The city slowly warmed up after the two main political parties the People Progressive Party (PPP)/Civic and the People's National Congress (PNC) signed an agreement expected to reduce tension, promote harmony and lay the basis for political cooperation in a manner designed to restore Guyana to a state of normality. The accord was signed late Saturday evening following intense negotiations by a CARICOM mission, which came here for that express purpose. The team was led by Sir Henry Forde, QC, former Barbados foreign minister and included Sir Shridath Ramphal, former Commonwealth secretary general and Sir Alister McIntyre, vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies.

Several days before the December 15 general elections, business people in the city used innovative methods of securing their businesses. Containers were used to protect the show windows of some stores, while steel plates, plywood and zinc sheets were used by others.

On the day of polling, the anticipated rioting did not materialise and businesses people breathed a collective sigh of relief. It was too soon to relax, however. The first signs of unrest came three days later, when a large crowd gathered in the vicinity of the Elections Commission, protesting the delay in the release of poll results. Clashes with the police ensued on that first day as missiles and shotgun pellets flew from all sides. Several people, including a policeman, were injured.

Following the declaration of PPP/Civic candidate, Mrs Janet Jagan as President by Elections Commission Chairman, Doodnauth Singh, SC, and her subsequent secret swearing-in, PNC-led demonstrators took to the streets alleging that the elections were fraudulent and vowing to participate in such demonstrations until the government stepped down.

The PNC had filed for orders nisi and prohibition against Singh's declaration, the swearing in and Mrs Jagan performing the functions of president. These hearings in the High Court attracted large crowds of protesters outside the court building, who chanted and performed mock ceremonies.

On January 12, Chief Justice Desiree Bernard ruled that according to the Constitution, the High Court could not enquire into the election of the president. Shortly after her decision was handed down, business people's worst nightmares were realised. Marauding mobs ran through the city, looting and breaking the show windows of those unfortunate business people who did not take the precautionary measures of putting up protection. Some business owners were taken by surprise as the mob split-up moving with great speed especially on Regent Street. Some unfortunate ones who were not able to secure the premises in time suffered injuries and losses.

On Tuesday, Georgetown took on the appearance of a ghost town with most business places tightly shuttered and deserted. This included the municipal markets as well. Schools also recorded their lowest attendance in decades; some schools were closed completely. This day also saw protesters defying a ban on protests and processions issued by the government. Police resorted to the use of tear gas and protesters retaliated by burning tyres and whatever combustible material they could find, in the streets of the city.

On Wednesday there was no protest. On Thursday, however, led by leaders of the PNC, Desmond Hoyte, and the Guyana Democratic Party, Asgar Ally, over 20,000 protesters, most of them PNC supporters, staged a peaceful protest through the city.

CARICOM's three-knight mission had arrived the night before to attempt to hurdle the impasse between the PNC and PPP/Civic which was already taking a toll on the country's economy, and creating fear and distress in the minds of Guyanese.

The truce brokered by these envoys spelt good news for Guyanese. The broadcasting of a joint statement by Mrs Jagan and Hoyte, on television and radio, about their commitment to the peace process brought hope to Guyanese especially the business community.

This was evident yesterday, when stores and other business entities on Regent, Water, Main, High Streets and Avenue of the Republic opened their doors for business. A long line outside the Guyana Electricity Corporation (GEC) by consumers waiting to pay their bills, the hive of activity at the mini-bus parks and the downtown shopping areas were evidence of the return of confidence.

But while the business places are open, some owners are still taking the precautionary measures of keeping the protective barriers in place. However, the containers have been removed from in front of Muneshwers Ltd on Water Street.

Finance Director of Courts Furniture Store, Richard Luck, expressed optimism and faith in the administration to return things to the way they used to be in a short time. Acknowledging that the furniture store experienced a disappointing Christmas season in terms of sales, Luck said that Courts would be making all efforts to make up for this shortfall this year. He was optimistic of a bright year, despite that the fact the stock level was a bit high at present.

And owner of Kwality Super Centre, Saeed Ally, said that he had been open for business since last Tuesday. Expressing pleasure at the outcome of the CARICOM mission's visit, Ally said, that he had started taking down his protective barriers since Sunday and that by Wednesday, all would be down.

Attendance at city schools was also back to normal yesterday.