Last Wednesday marked the 23rd anniversary of the Jan 12th 1998 Ethnic Riots. For me, it was the beginning of my brief foray into politics after more than 200 Indian-Guyanese were beaten and assaulted in the streets of Georgetown by members of the African-Guyanese community, in full view of the Police. Yet no arrests were made and no inquiry was conducted. The riots followed PNC protests against the PPP’s victory in the Dec 1997 elections – the first one that followed the “free and fair” elections of 1992.
One week after the riots, I wrote a letter published in the SN (“The Accord rewards the PNC for jettisoning the rule of law), which began, “While for purposes of analyses we may sometimes distinguish ends from means, they are ontologically identical, since ends are no more than realized means. If we persist with the artificial distinction in real life, we court disaster. The recently Caricom-brokered Accord between the PNC and the PPP is a case in point: while in theory it appears to be a step forward out of our Guyanese dilemma, the means by which the PNC brought the PPP to the table vitiates all hope of any lasting and permanent progress.
“The Accord rewards the PNC for jettisoning the rule of law and due process in Guyana. It rewards the PNC for demonstrating to the people that if you lose by a set of rules you yourself had drafted, simply seize the umpire and demand new rules which will guarantee your victory. The Accord rewards the PNC for its wilfully lawless, bullying tactics culminating in the Jan. 12th pogrom launched by African-Guyanese against Indian-Guyanese. If not actually executed by the PNC (and this is most arguable), then at a minimum, it was prompted by the reckless and inflammatory statements and actions of the PNC leadership, and occasioned by the illegal march following Justice Bernard’s ruling…And this is precisely what the PNC has been doing, and continues to do.”
Even though we also called for a “Peace and Reconciliation Commission” in the spirit of Restorative Justice, to enquire why one group of Guyanese citizens would launch such violence against another, none was ever commissioned by the PPP Government then under attack. Rather, it started to implement the “Herdmanston Accord”, which had been brokered between it and the PNC by Caricom.
As predicted, the Accord’s “forensic audits”, Constitutional changes to ensure greater “inclusiveness” in Governance for the PNC, truncation of the PPP’s term of office etc, did not bring peace. Throughout 1998, the kick-down-the-door banditry against Indians intensified to such an extent that one magistrate called it “guerrilla warfare against Indians”. In escalated rounds of violence, the attacks and murders – primarily on Indians – continued in tandem with arson in Georgetown. Between 1999-2000, thirty-one businessmen were murdered, thirty being Indian Guyanese. Janet Jagan was forced to step down from the presidency, and was succeeded by the youthful Bharrat Jagdeo, who literally received a baptism of fire.
Following the imposed, premature elections of March 2001, after several riots in Georgetown, which as usual targeted Indians, a new and escalated level of murder and other forms of violence was unleashed on Indian-Guyanese along the East Coast of Demerara – especially on the Buxton public road. On Feb. 23 2002, five prisoners escaped from the Camp Street Jail and holed up in Buxton. They announced they were “African Freedom Fighters”, and launched an open attack simultaneously on the state – represented by the Police – and a wave of kidnappings, car-jackings, robberies, and murders primarily against Indian civilians. Tragically emphasising our concerns about the unreformed Police Force, in a tit-for-tat sequence, over four hundred persons of all races – but a majority being African Guyanese and 30 Police ranks – were killed by official and “phantom squads” and criminal gangs up to 2008.
With the Indian-Guyanese population shrinking to less than 40% by 2011 through emigration, the African-Security Dilemma was resolved and the PNC returned to office in 2015 in coalition with the AFC. However, after they lost the elections in 2020, President Granger precipitated violent protests against Indian Guyanese on West Berbice. The Indian Security Dilemma remains unresolved, and once again no inquiry was held, although promised.
With Aubrey Norton just elected as PNC Leader, even though he was later identified with many PNC protests after 1998, he was also one who had argued for shared governance. One hopes he would again choose ballots over bullets.