Federalism does answer Guyana’s political dilemma

In his letter seeking to rebut assertions made in my last column, “Addressing Objections to a Federalised Guyana”, Mr. Vincent Alexander claimed that “Federalism is justifiable only where diversity is cultural and territorial”. Noting I claimed that “minorities across the globe from Assam to Zimbabwe have been clamouring for federalist principles to be instituted to protect their interest against actual or potential majorities”, Vincent flatly asserts, “This is exactly where Ravi’s argument for federalism flounders. Federalism is not about protecting minorities.”
But this is just not so. Federalism, as a form of governance, was introduced with the formation of the American Republic, and given its theoretical justifications in the “Federalist Papers” written by Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay. Madison’s Federalist Paper 10 deals with groups defining their interests differently (he calls them “factions”) and addresses the challenge of “majority factions vs minority factions” within States. Hasn’t this been our challenge in Guyana?
Madison concluded, “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.” And this fissioning and containment of factions/ethnic groups is exactly what a Federalised Guyana would encourage.
For instance, Indian Guyanese, compromising a large majority in, say, Berbice, might not only NOT have common interests with Indian Guyanese in Demerara or Essequibo, but may find common cause with, say, African Guyanese in Demerara on the issue of, say, Bauxite.
Then there is Vincent’s categorical insistence, as captured in his caption: “Our diversity is cultural, but not territorial”, that Federalism is justifiable only in instances where the diversity is cultural and territorial; or where homogeneous groups are associated with a specific land mass.
And, once again, Vincent is off-base. The primary requirement of modern federalism is that a national minority must form a majority, and be granted political power in at least one of the States. In invoking only Indian and African Guyanese, he elides what he had implied about Amerindians earlier in his missive: they are “homogeneous groups… associated with a specific land mass.” Being such a small minority, even though they are the Indigenous Peoples of Guyana, Federalism is the only mechanism that would allow them to exercise Executive power above the village level.
But, in looking at the coastland, Vincent is assuming that ethnically homogenous homelands for the other groups in Guyana is a sine qua non of a federalist approach. In the present world, where identity-driven aspirations are stronger than ever, this idea is completely false, impractical, and more importantly, immoral.
Plurality is, and will continue to be, the reality of both the Nation State and its sub-divisions. The question is: How do we get them to live with each other harmoniously?
In Guyana, we saw the African Ethnic Security Dilemma of exclusion from Executive office explode in rigged elections and violent attacks against the state. And this is where integrative federalism – with is multi-tiered and intricate, non-pyramidal matrix of governmental structures in separate states – comes in. Such a matrix adequately deals with the two major conflicting demands: of problem-solving by consensus-building, and minority protection.
Because of our fortuitous majorities by different ethnic groups in various areas of Guyana, no one group would be completely locked out of Executive office. As we have highlighted over the last decade, our new demographics have created a nation of minorities, wherein either of the two major ethnic groups can form a government at the centre.
In closing, Vincent invokes the bogeyman of “secession/ partition”. But, apart from explicitly denying that option constitutionally, the very fact of our heterogenous State populations should discourage it. His citation, however, is indicative of the fear in many Guyanese leaders, that Federalism is simply a stalking horse for partition. One of the features of the federalist integrative approach, however, is that it actually disincentivises secession, since politics is not an “all or nothing” proposition.
Finally, a Federal structure would facilitate the formation of a second chamber in the legislature. Because each state would have ethnically different majorities, the representation drawn from state-constituencies would most likely reflect the ethnic diversity of our country. This fortuitous circumstance gives us the opportunity of securing ethnic representation at the centre. This second chamber should have the power to scrutinise legislation in general, but should have specifically enumerated powers in reference to ethnic issues.