What’s behind our conflict?

Back in mid-December 2020, I was asked by the ERC to make a presentation in a “National Conversation on Ethnic Relations” they sponsored with UG on “How can we improve ethnic relations in Guyana?” I pointed out that it was because our “ethnic relations” are conflicted that we are having the conversation; so, essentially, we are trying to address our “ethnic conflict”. Since this was confirmed in several clashes of varying intensity since then, I repeat my observations, since some stubbornly deny any ethnic nexus.
We have to start off with some agreement – a ‘theory’, if you will – on the wellsprings of our tensions or conflict. Inevitably, such a theory – implicit or explicit – would have crucial implications for how we seek to resolve that conflict, and obviously, its chances of success. For example, if our conflict is viewed as, say, only competition over material resources, those trying to end it would propose equal access to those resources. But will this suffice if there are cultural structural barriers preventing some groups from advancing? Similarly, those who attribute the same conflict to incompatible cultures or identities would make bridging these differences central to their conflict management efforts.
Theories on ethnic conflict are legion, and what I have done over the years is to extract and synthesize those elements I felt were apropos to our specific Guyanese circumstances. Our ethnic groups lived for a hundred years together without any major conflicts between them – with the significant exception of two African-Portuguese clashes in the 19th century. This means that it is not cultural differences, per se, that cause the conflict, which only sprouted in the 1950s, erupted in the 1960s, and has done so sporadically ever since.
What happened in the 1950s and ‘60s? Modern democratic politics was inaugurated with the universal franchise in 1950, and, starting in 1953, elections that would eventually determine who would “rule” independent Guyana. Democratic elections mean agglomerating people into groups that would vote according to their common interests. And this seismic political change opened Pandora’s Box to let out “ethnic conflict”, which should therefore be more properly called “ethnopolitical conflict”.
Inaugurally, a carefully crafted leadership of all the ethnic groups was constructed as the PPP, and they won the 1953 elections overwhelmingly. But while we may blame the ambitions of Burnham for the subsequent split that has never been healed, certain structural features were already present that presaged the eventual conflict. Pared to its bare bones, these factors can be summarized in a simple formula: Group Comparison /Group Worth + Group Legitimacy = the Politics of Entitlement.
Before the elections, the Coloured/African elite assumed they would inherit the British mantle, and concerns about the growing Indian-Guyanese demographic had been raised since the 1920s. The latter had inexorably moved from then being a despised group at the bottom of the barrel to now competing, and, horror of horrors, possibly obtaining political power. As Arthur Lewis said in the 1960s re democratic elections, “Are the Negroes of British Guiana to be liquidated on the counting of heads?” For African-Guyanese, the inevitable social comparison process as articulated by some leaders was also not sanguine on what it implied for their “worth”.
This was because the premise of the modern state system and its politics about the equality of citizens was not acceptable to many African/ Coloured Guyanese because of their greater claim to “legitimacy”. Because of their prior arrival, slave labour without being recompensed, earlier westernization/ “civilization” etc. leaders made (and still make) the claim that they had greater entitlement to the national patrimony than others, especially Indian-Guyanese. This demanded their control of the state for the distribution of resources.
This point of view still receives great traction in the African-Guyanese community, and must be addressed if we are to change our ethnic relations from one of conflict to peace. The notion of greater legitimacy precipitated counterclaims from other Guyanese, insisting on equal rights to the national patrimony. Indian Guyanese claimed they “saved” Guyana as a viable proposition in the 19th century with their indentured labour; and Indigenous Guyanese claimed that this was their country, to begin with.
Conflict arises when the aspirations of the various groups cannot be realised to an extent they believe is “just”, yet where the “deprivation” – especially economic – is unfortunately perceived relatively. The sources of these perceptions are justified and revealed in the groups’ narratives.
Policies to rectify objective group inequalities must be introduced, implemented, monitored, and reported.