“ PNC’s “Slow fyaah; mo’ fyaah” strategy again?”

In modern multi-ethnic societies, ethnic relations are essentially group power-contests. Here, the role of leadership is critical as well as inevitable. In fact, some claim that ethnic contests are no more than the Machiavellian intrigues of power-hungry leaders: this is a popular refrain in Guyana. While the truth is more nuanced, since leaders cannot lead followers where they have no predisposition to go, this does not negate the importance of leadership.
The reality in Guyana is that politics has been ethnicised, and it is not happenstance that notwithstanding their protestations, the leaders of the PNC and PPP have always been African and Indian Guyanese respectively. As with all leaders, these ethnic leaders have to appreciate the power implications on their bases with every act that they perform in their quest for political power.
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, with its underdeveloped legitimising institutions, 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 the two groups competing for power are of almost equal size, the PNC leaders of the African group, after assessing their resources since the 1960s, 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 irresistible. With the confluence of negative “Group worth” and positive “Group entitlement” in the African Guyanese community, combined with their historic fear of being swamped and subordinated, the PNC understand that most of their constituents will support their efforts to seize total power. This, in their view, is their “birthright”.
Burnham exploited this fear when he mobilised African Guyanese in the sixties. Installed into office, he constructed a totalitarian, racist state by massively augmenting the armed force with African Guyanese, and routinely rigging elections to exclude the majority Indian Guyanese from office. Economically, he defenestrated the latter’s economic influence when he nationalised 80% of the economy. Cooperatives were the vehicle to empower lower class supporters. Like Israel, he used the “control” option of holding on to power.
His successor, Hugh Desmond Hoyte, attempted to rebuild Burnham’s shattered economy. Forced by the IMF to “open up” the economy to private enterprise, and by the US to accept ‘free and fair” elections, which he lost to the PPP, he waged a bitter ethnic war of attrition, culminating with violent protests against the 1997 elections results. He concluded that “the only language the PPP understood was force” and counted on the loyalty of his “kith and kin” in the armed forces to support his violent “slow fyaah; mo’ fyaah” strategy. This segued into open attacks against the Government and state, which were ended only in 2008 when he had passed away and the “freedom fighters” were liquidated.
The war of attrition accelerated the emigration of the PPP’s Indian Guyanese base, and in 2006, the new “multi-racial” AFC, with an African Guyanese at their helm, exposed a new fluidity in voting behaviour – especially from the PNC camp. This fluidity increased in 2011 as the Indian demographic plunged below 40%; the PNC moderated its rhetoric; went into an alliance with some small parties and rebranded as APNU, and two Indian Guyanese became the AFC’s leaders. The coalesced APNU/AFC defeated the PPP in 2015, and showed that the demographic change and rebranding had worked to introduce regime alteration through elections.
However, after their electoral loss in 2020, and the refusal of Granger, as with Hoyte, to buck the Western democracies and hold on to power illegally, it is clear that in the ongoing leadership fight within the PNC, factions are vying to repeat Hoyte’s “slow fyaah; mo’ fyaah” strategy, rather than continuing with competitive party politics within a new fluid polity. They should remember Marx’s caution that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
1998-2008 was the tragedy. “Will the farce now follow?”