It was the late 1990s and a near-sighted government, believing all it needed to govern was a mandate at the polls, was brought to its knees. Tear smoke filled the streets of downtown Georgetown as the government cracked down on dissenters, seeking to break the back of a resistance movement that had paralyzed the government in the capital and was quickly spreading to hotspots on the outskirts. Sirens of emergency response vehicles ruptured the peace and quiet at a constant rate. Members of the Fourth Estate stared down eyes of fear and felt the jitters of a nation on the edge of a precipice. Stifled by vengeance, anger, fear and uneasiness in the rising clouds of tear smoke and rebellious arson, people couldn’t see further than their nose and their government was blinded by power.
The generation that matured in that time of conflict, has seen how quickly political arrogance ignites racial hostility. A generation before bears the scars of racial hostility in Guyana, a country blessed with beauty and natural resources. Guyana’s identity and character were forged out of resistance and rebellion. The country is a story of triumph over state sponsored oppression and excesses. Only briefly though, was there racial harmony. In the land of many waters, racial tension bubbles beneath the surface like red hot lava from the Soufriere Hill volcano.
Towards the end of the 90s, as a new millennium dawned, stubbornness, leftover-arrogance from the 20th century and a “we have power now” mentality had brought the government to a stand still and made the country ungovernable. The intervention of CARICOM and an accord known as the Herdmanston Accord, pulled the country back from the brink. Herdmanston provided a cooling period for the country to regain its balance. The stubborn and near-sighted government that fanned the flames of rebellion, continued to cling to power for almost two decade after Herdmanston. The people then transferred the mandate to govern to the opposition that led the resistance. So here we are today. The tables have turned but the tension and hostility that underpinned resistance are present. It is only the roles that have been reversed. The critical question though, is whether the “we have power now” mentality also persists.
If you look closely in the horizon you would see clouds of discontent, disquiet and resistance gathering in Georgetown. There is ongoing street protest by sugar workers, rice farmers and an influential upper/middle class group that is calling itself a citizens movement to terminate the introduction of parking meters in Georgetown. Uneasiness is brewing in the capital and the country side. On the surface, the tension and anger are nowhere close to what existed for the 23 years the previous government clung to power but there are clear signs that danger lurks just beneath the surface. President David Granger seems aware of a crisis that is brewing. Speaking to the nation’s security forces just after the mass arrest and questioning of the top brass of the former government, he cautioned:
“Threats might arise … from elements who wish to undermine internal security. Reckless remarks about an uprising and provocative calls for the mobilisation of foot soldiers have the potential to rip apart the fragile fabric of social cohesion that we enjoy” :- President David Granger
The truth is, what exist in Guyana is more like ethnic tension rising to the surface than a fragile fabric of social cohesion. Governments in Guyana like to windowdress the fragile state of racial harmony. They like to say it is not about race when racial sensitivity is always at the heart of it. It is in this context of seething anxiety and what appears to be an orchestrated campaign to pierce the veil of cohesion, that the government, moving to the beat of thunderous applause from hardliners, arrested and rounded up the top brass of the previous administration upon the allegation that they bought land below market value. The move echoes the deafness and arrogance that brought about the demise of the previous government. It leaves the country walking on eggshells.
Even a political novice would tell you that when the economy in a plural society with a crack down the middle, is in crisis and tension and resistance are building, you do not inflame the situation by arresting or seeking to prosecute the entire top brass of your political opponent ALL AT ONCE. The opposition commands about 50 percent of support from the electorate at last count and the cleavage is along ethnic lines. Under the circumstances, any attempt at mass prosecution or jailing of the top brass of the opposition will give rise to selective listening, selective retention and a strong dose of dissonance. It will result in a crisis.
Crises don’t just spring up from nowhere. They have a seed, a root and a stem that mutates into many branches that become uncontrollable. If you look beyond the horizon you will see the seed, the root and the stem of instability already swaying in the wind in Georgetown and the country-side. To push forward with its agenda and move Guyana forward, the government needs to extinguish the lingering threats before picking another fight. It is true that Opposition Leader Bharat Jagdeo and his henchmen ruled with an iron fist and showed signs of mercilessness in their dealing with opponents. He stirred up a great deal of anger among his opponents who would love to see him and all his henchmen hauled away in handcuffs but such a mass prosecution would grind the productive and economic sector in the Capital and countryside, to a halt. As much as Jagdeo and his henchmen are hated by their opponents, they are revered by the dominant ethnic group in Guyana.
Arresting Top Brass of FORMEr Government NOT Prudent
Every government should take a tough stance against corruption but it should avoid unnecessary hysteria that could spiral out of control and result in the country being ungovernable. The mass arrest or rounding up of the top brass of the previous government will have exactly that effect. Everyone who has the slightest undertstanding of the enormous influence the two major political parties exert on their constituencies, know that supporters of neither party would sit back and watch the top brass of their party being hauled through the courts into a jail cell. It is the reason why the PPP avoided going after its political opponent when it was in power.
Reflecting on current tension U.S. President Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barrack Obama, U.S. presidential historian Douglas Brinkley puts it this way, “There are these kinds of things that have happened in the past, but nothing to the degree where a sitting president would charge his predecessor with a felony,” adding that “It creates a feeling of instability in the United States.” This is even worse in a society such as Guyana where there is deep ethnic division.
Undermining Government’s Agenda:
The political theatre that has seen the arrest and rounding of up Two former President and almost the entire top layer of the previous government will undermine the coalition government’s agenda. Coming at a time when the economy is floundering and the government is implementing austerity measures, this drama couldn’t have been more untimely. It is beyond dispute that major investors and even small businesses make investment decisions based on a forecast of their operating environment. If trouble or any disruption of the operating environment is forecast, investors will shrink their footprint in the economy.
The mass rounding up of the top brass of the former government gives rise to such a forecast and will result in the economy contracting further. The government is shooting itself in the foot by pandering to the extreme wing of its political base. No government benefits from even a fear of instability so it is difficult to comprehend why the Granger administration is stoking fears of instability. Anyone who believes rounding up the top layer of the previous government and dangling the prospect of a mass prosecution and incarceration will not stoke fears of instability is in deep sleep. In the end, the government will have to decide whether its top priority is to revive the economy, move the country forward and secure a second mandate or visit its political opponents with vengeance. The two spectrums of possibilities are not concurrent.
Reduces Likelihood of Success:
The mass rounding up of political opponents is made worse by the extent to which it undermines the government’s own likelihood of success. Successful prosecution requires the commitment of significant resources. Even in wealthy countries with sophisticated prosecutorial resources, prosecutors do NOT pursue several high profile cases at the same time. Resources should be consolidated to adequately and effectively prosecute a case. That cannot be achieved, particularly in Guyana where resources are limited, by prosecuting a battalion of high profile politicians with deep pockets and the most competent lawyers in the country. When the pool of competent lawyers retained by these high profile defendants dries up, the government wounldn’t even be able to assemble a large enough team of competent special prosecutors even if it wanted to. A handful of special prosecutors cannot effectively handle all of these high profile cases.
Already, the state is bursting at the seams with the volume of litigation it is ensnared in. The government already has a significant docket of high profile cases that it is struggling to keep up with and there are other high stakes cases that could significantly impact the state, looming. While the government was rounding up the potential defendants its Attorney-General was being ordered to pay cost to his opponent in another high profile case brought against the state by embattled Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Carvil Duncan for what the Kaieteur News reports as unpreparedness in that case. According to the local newspaper, an affidavit which the court granted the Attorney-General leave to file over a month ago was not filed. You may also recall that the appeal of the decision on former President Jagdeo racial incitement case was dismissed because of blunders in that case. These events are indicative of the extent to which the government’s ability to cope with the burden of litigation, is stretched thin. Adding more than a dozen high profile and high stakes cases to the docket, all at the same time, is a poorly thought out strategy.
There comes a moment in time when a government must turn its gaze to the future. There is that moment when history must serve as the beacon for a people to clear the path to prosperity not as a sword of vengeance. As a beacon, history is potent and valuable. As a sword of vengeance, history could be destructive and counter-productive. In divided plural societies, political leaders are under tremendous pressure to pull hard towards the extreme wing of their base, pandering to anchors of partnership. If the APNU/AFC government pulls too hard to the extreme right, it could unwittingly open the crack down the middle, leaving a gap so wide, it would be impossible to reconcile. The applause, laughter and excitement could quickly be replaced by despair. It is imperative that the government tackles corruption with a tough hand but it should focus on now and the future. If it keeps looking back it may end up like Lot’s wife.
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