Prologue to Constitutional Change

According to Attorney General Anil Nandalall, Constitutional Change is once again going to be placed on the “national agenda”. It would appear that the process will follow that of the 2000 constitutional changes that were made subsequent to the formation of a “Constitutional Reform Commission” (CRC) in 1998 as part of the Herdsmanston Accord. The latter was hammered out after the PPP and its presumed supporters were hammered by violent PNC protests in the streets of Georgetown following the Dec 1997 elections, which the PPP won but the PNC insisted were “fatally flawed”. A “forensic audit” in the overall Caricom Accord proved the PNC’s claim was false but by then, the PPP had already truncated its term by two years; elections were due and the question was moot.
This time, the process was initiated from within the “Parliamentary Standing Committee on Constitutional Reform” that was established out of the 2000 constitutional changes. It was envisaged that the 1980 constitution being severely modified was to be treated as a “living constitution”: changes were to be initiated from within the bi-partisan committee on a continuous basis to address new challenges to the extant institutions adumbrated by the constitution. Now 22 years later, the process will be recapitulated, hopefully without any new hammering in the streets by the PNC even though there are ominous signs and threats of the latter.
As one who participated in the 2000 process as a member of several groups, including the “Jaguar Committee for Democracy” (the precursor to “Rise Organise and Rebuild” (ROAR) Guyana Movement) I venture a few comments. The first being that after the extensive 2000 constitutional changes – unanimously accepted by the PNC and PPP as necessary for “inclusive governance” our politics continued deteriorating. Ethnically directed violence actually increased during and after the 2001 elections when Buxton-based “African Freedom Fighters” launched attacks on both the state and PPP “supporters” – read innocent Indians – until Guyana became a killing field in retaliatory violence.
But in 2022 are we expecting different results by repeating what must be acknowledged as a failed initiative. Should we not examine some of the reasons for the failure? The primary one was pointed out by us back in 1998 in what we had labelled the “Conflict over the conflict”. Everyone accepted we had a conflict but there was a deep disagreement over the nature of the conflict. A decade earlier we had asserted that unlike what the PPP, PNC and WPA claimed, while all societies have cleavages along various markers that are given significance during political mobilization, in Guyana ethnic/racial cleavages had trumped class based ones.
As to whether ethnicity was a constructed/structural/situational condition rather than an ontological one was a false dilemma. While the concept of “intersectionality” was not common then, we now have the benefit of appreciating that oppression may be inflicted along any number of cleavages and people will act according to their “lived experience”. In Guyana, ethnicity is still more dominant in motivating our citizens to political action, notwithstanding that class differences remain. We were dubbed “racists for taking this position and most constitutional changes of 2000, blithely ignored the significance of the Guyanese reality of ethnic salience.
If we are not very clear on the nature of our conflict in 2022 the constitutional changes adopted will again be at best irrelevant. We insisted then and insist now that any new or modified constitution must take into consideration the ethnic nature of our conflict and address it through adjustment of the existent power relations – intra-state and state-polity – as they impact on the conflict. A discussion and agreement on the nature of our conflict in a threshold issue that cannot be sidestepped along with acceptance that conflict reduction is our goal.
In 1998 we had submitted a completely new constitution with a welter of proposals to address our ethnic conundrum. The question we posed was what was the best configuration of institutions to adopt in order to ameliorate OUR intergroup conflict. At that time, for instance, we had identified the two Ethnic Security Dilemmas (ESD) of our two major groups in conflict and proffered specific suggestions to alleviate them. That the basis of the African ESD has now been resolved through demographic changes but their economic disparities remain entrenched, remind us that our constitution must become a real living document.
The second criticism being made again is that the process of engendering constitutional change must be one that is most inclusive to deliver the greatest legitimacy.