According to Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, the A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change (APNU/AFC) government is still committed to its campaign promise to institute constitutional change in Guyana. In its elections Manifesto, the coalition had floated a plethora of constitutional reforms addressing presidential powers, sexual orientation and the electoral system, among others subjects.
“The Constitution, in its current form, does not serve the best interest of Guyana or its people. Within three months of taking up office, APNU/AFC will appoint a Commission to amend the Constitution with the full participation of the people. The new Constitution will put the necessary checks and balances in place to consolidate our ethos of liberal democracy. Freedom of speech, reduction of the power of the President and the Bill of Rights will be enshrined in the document,” read an excerpt from the coalition’s Manifesto. During the campaign, Nagamootoo had also stressed that too much power was concentrated in the President’s hands
Directly upon being sworn-in, Nagamootoo reiterated his commitment to Constitutional change. But it was not until August 2015, long after the promised “three months”, that a “Constitutional Reform Steering Committee” (CRSC), was established by the Subcommittee on Parliamentary Affairs under Nagamootoo, its chairman. The CRSC, under the chair of Attorney Nigel Hughes would take submissions from citizens and civil society organisations, submit a report to the Prime Minister who would then take the report to Cabinet. Thereafter, a Parliamentary Constitutional Reform Commission would come on stream and it is this committee which would effect the changes to the Constitution.
While the CRSC submitted an interim report in January, the promised final one was delayed because of the unfortunate passing of one of its members, Haslyn Parris. The Chairman, however, has recently reaffirmed that the report should be ready soon.
There are few who would deny that constitutional change is sorely needed in Guyana. In the normal course of events, institutions change or new ones arise in societies as the populace confronts altered circumstances and agree on fresh ways of dealing with the new realities.
In the US, for instance, a furious debate is being waged as some states begin to recognise same-sex marriages. We in Guyana have been grappling with abolishing discrimination against citizens based on sexual orientation – which is a human rights issue that has long been settled in all but the most backward jurisdictions.
But it was not only in the private realm that inappropriate institutions were foisted on us – it was just that these were very glaring against the alternative practices we engaged in from our
surviving cultural repertoire. In the public domain, the institutions of official rule that constituted the state – the government, the police, the judiciary, the public service, etc – were all imposed by the British who were maintaining a colonial order meant to keep the populace in submission.
Burnham, in launching a new constitution in 1980, claimed he adapted the institutions of the state to our indigenous “cooperative” ethos. What was more pertinent after, however, was he centralised almost all state power in the Executive and almost all powers of the Executive in himself. He created an Imperial Presidency: more that Louis XIV he could boast if he wanted, “I am the state”.
While the constitutional changes that were inaugurated in 2000 – following the PNC violence-induced Herdmanston Accord – were supposed to address the overly centralised powers of the Presidency both major parties, in working towards a compromise, shied away from the fundamental changes in the state structure that would have really truncated the Imperial Presidency.
Of recent the contradictions immanent in eliding that stumbling block to deeper democracy have surfaced even within the coalition partners. All Guyanese are looking at Nagamootoo to see if he will run with the ball that he especially has declared needs to be taken over the goal line.
History will not absolve Nagamootoo if he falters.