[This article, first published 13 years ago, becomes relevant in light of (eventual) general elections.]
One of the most poignant and persistent cries heard around Guyana – especially around elections time – is, “Why do we have to hear about ‘Africans’ and ‘Indians’ or ‘Amerindians’? Why can’t we all just be ‘Guyanese’?” The poignancy is a bit ironic, however, since those same putatively ‘Guyanese’, by and large, have been going into the voting booths and voting along ethnic lines for the past fifty years and more and creating the problem they implicitly bemoan: divisiveness and lack of a national ethos. What is the problem? Are we so much sheep that we are led by the politicians to vote in a way that we don’t want? The reality is a bit more complex than that, and we intuitively know it.
Part of the problem is that the issue is presented as if the fact of our diverse heritage, which has resulted in the presence of different ethnic groups in our country, is in contradiction to being “Guyanese”. This is a false dilemma. Our reference to ourselves to being “African” etc is simply an acknowledgement of our particular heritage, which we shouldn’t try to erase because history has shown it’s an almost impossible task that in the end, is not really necessary. For most of mankind’s history this was how we defined ourselves and it was not, per se, the source of conflicts. The problem arose only a few hundred years ago when Europe, led by England and France constructed “states and citizens” and a new way of defining identity – by the territory in which one happened to be residing.
The rationale for the imposed “nation-state” unity was that it was necessary for the people as a whole to apply themselves in a joint endeavour to build their common prosperity. What happened, in reality, was that contrary to expectation, the particular identities did not disappear. One of the main reasons was that the various ethnic groups – Scots and Irish – did not, in fact, believe they were being treated fairly or equally by the state, which remained controlled by the English.
This is what we need to do in Guyana today. The ethnic conflict that defines our politics – and our frustration – could be an “effect of” as well as an “affect on” the iniquities of the political operations of the state on the various groups. The task of politics and politicians today in Guyana is therefore to create a Guyanese state that promulgates the values of Guyanese citizenship without regard to race, religion, ethnicity etc. The immediate task is to remove the discriminatory conditions, which the ethnic groups have to react against for their very survival.
There is no question that we, the citizens of Guyana, must see our state and country as a “common venture”. But at independence, we inherited a state but not a nation and one does not identify with the state just like that – that’s partially why we have clung to our ethnicities so rigidly. The problem before us is how do we construct a “unity” of the peoples within our state that does not seek to obliterate our diversities.
We can situate this construction of a national outlook within what has labelled “Project Democracy” – the creation of conditions where we are all treated as one, equally, by the state. Equality of opportunity, human rights, and encouragement of diversities, due process, justice and fair play and rule of law may seem dry compared to the warmth of the blood ties of “nation”, but they can engender the unity of public purpose and the recognition of individual worth where we can be proud of our common citizenship. Citizenship of Guyana has to become something that has concrete meaning to all of us.
It was the United States, made up of immigrants with diverse cultural backgrounds like us in Guyana, that first attempted to institutionalise this ideological definition of “national identity” when they announced ringingly in their Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. We, of course, must avoid their selective application of the equality standard. Guyana leaders cannot just tell people to jettison their heritages but work to create a state that we can proudly say is working for:
“We the Guyanese people…”