One of the sad features of Guyanese political life is the level of cynicism about our politicians. There is no question that there is much to justify this cynicism. When members of parliament can resort to the lawlessness we saw from the Opposition benches during the reading of the Natural Resource Fund bill, what is the average citizen to think? To create more responsible leaders, we will have to go beyond mere handwringing: we have to create an appropriate environment with enabling political institutions.
While, as the cliché goes, we have to ultimately depend on the integrity of individuals elected to office, we have to start from the premise that to be human is to have weaknesses. Our institutions (rules of behaviour centred on particular values) have to be so structured as to give incentives to the persons that fall within their ambit to enhance the value.
In general, people are more committed to following rules they had a role in crafting. This is commonsense: the rule had to have made some sense to us or we wouldn’t have accepted them in the first place. So where do we begin? One place is to start at the very beginning. In the political realm of any country, political institutions all emanate from the Constitution of that country. But in Guyana, it is from this “supreme law of the land” that political cynicism begins.
The Constitution of Guyana has a particularly tainted and cynical history. Ostensibly, its birth was occasioned by the decision of Mr. Forbes Burnham to launch Guyana on a socialist path in 1974 with his “Declaration of Sophia”. He insisted that the supreme law had to be more au fait with the new ideology: the 1966 Independence Constitution was too bourgeois. The fly in the ointment however was that while Mr. Burnham was undoubtedly committed to socialism, he was even more enthusiastically committed to satisfying his drive for absolute personal power.
The rigged referendum of 1978 demonstrated early on that he saw the creation of the Constitution as a mere legal fig leaf to cover his ambitions. The product, unveiled in 1980, confirmed the worst fears of even the truly neutral observers: Professors James and Lutchman of UG wrote a devastating critique. The TUC, facilitators of the PNC’s accession to power in the sixties, complained bitterly that not “an iota” of its proposals had been accepted. One does not have to guess at the conclusions of the PPP and the new WPA. The Constitution created a “constitutional dictatorship” premised on electoral rigging.
And this is the Constitution that is still the supreme law of the land. Yes, there were major changes following the 1999 reform process. But the present document is a mishmash of articles that still hark back to socialism, articles that are internally and relationally inconsistent, articles that should properly be dealt with by statutory law rather than being in a constitution, etc. Constitutional Change is on the agenda but at some point, we will have to bite the bullet; jettison the 1980 Constitution and begin from scratch.
A Constitution has to be seen as a social contract between the various social forces in a country, which creates a state with institutions that are just. For it to be “just” we must begin from first principles. While it is fashionable, for instance, to reject “ideologies”, it is utopian to believe that we can avoid articulating guiding principles for our nation – call it “Basic Structure” or what you will.
Finally, there must be a commitment that any constitution that purports to govern all the people must be approved by a supermajority of the people in a referendum. This is what Mr. Burnham turned ducks and drakes in the seventies to avoid. He knew that even with the polarised political ethnic landscape of the time, even his African Guyanese supporters would not have gone along with the edifice of power he sought to construct.