Festus L Brotherson Jnr
November 5, 2006
When he died last week, Dr Festus Lysius Brotherson was eulogised by President Bharrat Jagdeo, head of the People's Progressive Party-Civic (PPP/C) administration, as a "cherished son… a worthy friend and a good leader… one who has always been held in special affection by the Guyanese people… one of the nation's few treasures…" On the other hand, no florid encomiums emanated from the People's National Congress (PNC) which Dr Brotherson joined 40 years ago and through which he became a household name and something of a media celebrity in the 1970s. The party gracefully and simply acknowledged "his academic prowess, his sincerity and his love for his country."
Over the last 20 years, Festus Brotherson became the nemesis of the late PNC leader Desmond Hoyte, excoriating the former president as an "ex-dictator," and the PNC as "a principal contributor to the strife-torn, bankrupt, authoritarian society which is today's Guyana." How did one of the PNC's most persuasive protagonists become one of its most avid antagonists?
Born into a professional family in Georgetown on 20 May 1949, Festus Brotherson attended the Tutorial High School up to 1966 when he joined the PNC and started working in the Guyana Public Service. He received a Government of Guyana scholarship to study first for the Diploma in Communications from the Don Martin School of Communications in California in 1973 and, the next year, to study Political Science and Communication Arts at the Loyola Marymount University in California. Graduating with the BA degree, he returned to Guyana in 1977.
Astonishing ordinary party members and raising eyebrows, Festus Brotherson's political career as an apparatchik took off. He slid effortlessly into an exalted seat on the PNC's Central Executive Committee and was appointed an Executive Secretary in the quasi-ministerial Office of the General Secretary of the People's National Congress and Ministry of National Development (OGSPNC&MND) under the powerful general-secretary Dr Ptolemy Reid. All this happened in the heyday of cooperative socialism and PNC party paramountcy.
He was also handed the influential positions of lecturer at the party's Cuffy Ideological Institute; head of the party's Division of Propaganda; editor of the party's New Nation newspaper; and producer at the state-owned Guyana Broadcasting Corporation, moderating the influential Action Line and Night Ride programmes.
It soon became apparent that Brotherson was the protégé of none other than Dr Reid himself. His amazing progress was being propelled not only by his own tenacity but also by the general secretary's capacity to remove obstacles in his path.
In a whirlwind two-and-half-year tour from June 1977 to December 1979 which included campaigning vigorously for the 1978 national referendum on a new Guyana Constitution, Brotherson's career was on a roll. More was to come. A lifelong asthma case, the convenient fact that he was due for medical treatment abroad facilitated what he called a 'non-controversial exit' from Guyana in 1979. He received a cushy job, described officially as "senior political analyst" in the Consulate of Guyana in Los Angeles.
Lucky man. He stayed there for five years during the depressing 1980s on a Government of Guyana stipend, toiling in academia as a research associate and teaching fellow, finally earning both his MA and PhD degrees in political science at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Indeed, in the entire thirteen-year period from 1972 to 1985, all except about three years were spent overseas pursuing advanced studies. Soon after receiving his doctorate from UCLA in 1985, however, Dr Brotherson started to find that the PNC's socialist policies which he had embraced all along had become all too jaded and jejune.
Many other things were changing at the PNC's headquarters at Congress Place that year. Dr Brotherson's patron, Dr Reid, had resigned as Prime Minister; party leader and President Forbes Burnham died; Desmond Hoyte was installed as both party leader and President of the Republic, and the PNC, like the country, was nearly bankrupt. Anxious to recoup his unpaid overseas emoluments but apprehensive about returning to his old role with the mass media, Brotherson wrote himself a project to produce an elaborate official biography of the late Forbes Burnham.
This set the stone rolling. Mr Hoyte at first expressed support for the project even though its long duration, high cost, large staff and abundant equipment were clearly extravagant by the impecunious circumstances of the mid-1980s. Brotherson also realised, however, that although he was successful in collecting some of the monies personally due to him and arrangements for his return in 1986 were expedited, the project was going nowhere. In less than a year, Mr Hoyte changed from advocate to adversary of the Burnham biography project. It was dead in the water.
Festus Brotherson changed quickly also. Turning full circle, he repudiated socialism; expressed regret for much that he had done willingly as the PNC's propaganda czar; for his role in having the Caribbean News Agency (CANA) banned from Guyana; for his support for the national referendum campaign of 1978; for his role as moderator of the Action Line radio programme which he used to energetically defend the PNC administration and to ignore the views of its opponents; and for supporting Guyana's uncompromising non-aligned foreign policy. In all this, he admitted to contributing to "creating the authoritarian monster state."
Dr Brotherson's conversion from PNC canvasser to critic was complete by 1992 when the PPP/C entered office. He wrote a series of articles lionising Dr Cheddi Jagan and praising his sincerity and sagacity. At every turn, he attacked Desmond Hoyte with a ferocity and hostility that went beyond the bounds of scholarship and reasonable academic criticism. The PPP loved it. He was soon appointed Honorary Consul in the Consulate of Guyana in the State of Ohio.
In a short academic career, Dr Brotherson became a tenured political science professor at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio and a research associate at the University of Miami, Florida. He wrote several articles, chapters in books and book reviews; presented scholarly papers at academic conferences, and put his old communications skills to work by editing undergraduate, special interest, and faculty newspapers and newsletters. That was the life he loved.
Dr Festus Brotherson might have been revered by the PPP for a variety of reasons but he never reconciled with the PNC. Chiefly, though, Guyanese will remember him less as a media personality of the 1970s than as a scholar and student of this country's fractured politics in the 1990s.