The Guyanese nation has just observed the 181st anniversary of the end of slavery, “Emancipation Day”. Since 1938, there has been much discussion and argumentation over the reasons why Britain decided to make that seminal decision. In the background, of course, were the episodic acts of rebellion by the slaves themselves, that condignly reminded the authorities of the precariousness of their rule in slave societies. There was also the famous thesis, defended by Eric Williams, that rather than humanitarian sentiments in Britain, the clinching factor was the decision that free trade, rather than the sugar-inspired mercantilist trade system, was more appropriate for industrialising Britain’s prospects.
Be that as it may, Emancipation was the seminal act that formed the country we inherited in 1966 as “Guyana”. During those 128 years, the freed slaves and former European ruling class witnessed the arrival, first of the Portuguese, then the Indians and Chinese, to join the Indigenous Peoples to form our “Land of Six Peoples”. It is to our credit that, very early in our post- Emancipation history, there were individuals who recognised that for emancipation to deliver the freedom it implied, there was more needed than the removal of shackles on the sugar plantations; people needed the right to constitute their own government.
Towards the end of the 19th century, there were sustained efforts for the franchise – which up to then had been restricted to the planter class and the governing elite – to be expanded to allow the slowly growing middle class to have a voice in selecting the members of the legislature that ran the colony. The Labour Movement, which was launched in the first two decades of the 20th century to agitate for improvement in wages and working conditions, was a key player in raising the consciousness of the masses of Guyanese, who were mostly ordinary labourers. It proved to be the incubator of overt political parties, since “bread and butter” issues commanded the attention of its constituency.
It was not until 1947, however, that the franchise was significantly expanded, following the release of the Moyne Commission Report, which had been embargoed during WWII. The struggles of the sugar workers in the Caribbean – including Guyana – were the seminal events that led to the Commission, and its conclusion that economic and social changes would also have to include political changes in the administration of the colonies. It was not coincidental that the most significant election in that election was won by Dr Cheddi Jagan in the sugar-dominated East Demerara Constituency. Modern politics was ushered in with the announcement of universal franchise and the formation of the PPP in 1950. The aroused Guyanese people used that franchise to vote in the PPP in 1953 with an overwhelming majority that stunned even the neophyte politicians, much more the colonial powers.
Unfortunately for Guyana, we became caught up in Cold War politics, and we lost the power to select our own rulers – the most powerful right in the post-Emancipation era – when the British Government suspended the Constitution and removed the PPP from office. But the “coup” served to educate the populace to the importance of the Constitution in running the affairs of the state. Even the mighty British Crown could not do as it wanted, but had to suspend the Constitution to perform an act that was therefore understood by the Guyanese people as not sanctioned by the Constitution.
In the following years, Forbes Burnham was to split the nationalist PPP and introduce ethnic politics into Guyana when he finagled the African Guyanese section under the umbrella of his PNC. To be installed into power, he supported a change in the Constitution to introduce a new electoral law; and to remain in power, he acted outside the Constitution, even the one he wrote in 1980 to rig elections.
Today, his successor as PNC leader, David Granger, is defying the Constitution and the highest court of Guyana to delay elections that were mandated by the Constitution for March 21, 2019.
He is betraying the meaning of Emancipation.