Leadership strategies in ethnic conflict

(The following was part of a longer paper, “For a New Political Culture”, presented to the three major political parties (the PNC, PPP, and WPA) in 1990 to serve as a background document for a symposium on “Race and Politics”. The WPA jettisoned the initiative when they insisted they had solved the racial problematic.)
In modern multi-ethnic societies, ethnic relations are essentially group power-contests. In these contests, the role of leadership is crucial as well as inevitable. In fact, there are those who claim that ethnic contests are no more than the Machiavellian intrigues of some power-hungry politicians: this is a popular view in Guyana. One often hears the refrain that “Burnham and Jagan caused all this trouble.” The truth has to a bit more complex than that, however, for leaders can never lead followers where the latter have no predisposition to go. And it does not explain why the most successful and the least successful are often the most vociferous supporters of the ethnic enterprise.
The reality in Guyana is that politics has been ethnicised, and it is for this reason that the strategies employed by the leaders of the various ethnic blocs have such importance. By not understanding, or not accepting the ethnic impact of each policy decision, or, for that matter, every proposal for action, leaders may aggravate the situation as much by what they do as what they do not do. Leaders have to appreciate the power implications on each ethnic group of every act that they perform.
Power has two major attributes – resources and their mobilisation. The resources of the group include the group’s total numbers, physical and financial assets, social organisation, culture and belief system, and education and skills. But especially, in the Third World, the control of the armed forces and bureaucracy and the other state institutions are key resources.
Mobilisation capabilities have to be defined in more behavioural terms, and include the group’s morale, motivation, cohesiveness, and strategic ability to cope with new situations. All of these, of course, are summarised by the word “leadership”. One group may possess superior resources, but given ineffective leadership, it cannot mobilise its resources against another group possessing fewer resources but superior mobilisational capabilities.
In Guyana where there are two groups of almost equal size, Africans and Indians, the PNC – the leaders of the African group – apparently after assessing their resources, believe that they can achieve power through violent confrontation and intimidation. The temptation to consolidate ethnic leadership by aggravating conflict and appealing to violence appears easier, swifter, and seems especially attractive if it fits in with the group’s mindset. With the inter-twining of Group worth and Group entitlement in the African-Guyanese community, and their demographic ethnic fear of being swamped, the PNC understands that most Africans will support them fully in their efforts to seize total power. This, in their view, is their “birthright”.
Burnham exploited this fear when he mobilised Africans in the sixties. He constructed a racist, almost totalitarian state, and augmented the power resources of the African segment by building a massive armed force and nationalising 80% of the economy, which he proceeded to staff with Africans. He was determined to use the “control” option of holding on to power. His successor, Hugh Desmond Hoyte, attempted to hold on to power, but also to rebuild the shattered economy. His “opening up” of the economy to private enterprise was still dominated by ethnic concerns: the three largest foreign inputs into the Guyanese economy, all not so coincidentally hired predominantly African work-forces – the first, as a former Government entity, came with the appropriate staff requirement.
Hoyte lost power because he did not have the chutzpah to face down the US, who had no communist threat by 1990, as Burnham would have done. He agreed to “free and fair” elections, which he lost in 1992; he has not been totally forgiven by the African population for this indiscretion. Hoyte does not appear to be a very creative leader, but he appears to have become emboldened by the US’ notoriously short attention span on Third World politics, especially if they have no economic or strategic interests, as they do not in Guyana. He seems determined to recapture power by imitating the violent destabilisation tactics that his mentor Burnham used in the early sixties.

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