Triggers National Conversation on Race and other Nagging Problems
Dr Tara Singh
Commissioner Robeson Benn of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) has unwittingly stirred a national conversation on racism in Guyana when he recently alleged that an overwhelming majority (up to 90%) of GECOM’s employees are Africans.
Benn has implied that the employment policies of GECOM seem to favor Africans and discriminate against other races. This assertion by Benn has been repudiated by GECOM’s management which stated the composition of GECOM staff as follow: Africans 46%, Indians 21%, Amerindians 12%, Mixed 16%, Others 1%. The disproportionate racial composition of the GECOM staff has always been in existence, but it’s only when the top management structure is overloaded with persons of one race group, that the perception changes dramatically.
In an attempt to placate public misgiving, the GECOM Chair James Patterson, states that staff there are appointed on the basis of merit, and that race is not a factor in employment. Patterson’s explanation could not convince the majority of Guyanese who have grave suspicions about James Patterson’s role and function in the 2020 general elections in particular. His unilateral appointment as GECOM Chair by President David Granger was in violation of the established Carter-Price formula, agreed to by both major political parties, and which has worked well for over two decades. Now the man (Granger) who has been working tirelessly to rehabilitate his mentor, LFS Burnham, has jettisoned that Carter Center formula and adopted instead his own formula referred to as the “Kabaka edict.” It was since the Patterson’s controversial appointment that the shadow over the operations of GECOM has become darker.
The process leading up to Patterson’s appointment was very testing but smart Guyanese had known all along that Granger had already identified his person for the job. Despite the production of 3 lists on different occasions by the Leader of Opposition, none of the candidates was deemed “fit and proper” by Granger for the job. Indeed, many of the candidates were more qualified than James Patterson but they were cast aside. No matter what credible name Jagdeo would have come up with, Granger would apply his guillotine. Granger was hoping that Jagdeo would have stumbled in the process and that would have opened the way for him to appoint Patterson without too much difficulty but that did not happen, so Granger was forced to resort to political expediency. He reasoned that if he made the tough decision by unilaterally appointing the GECOM Chair, he also had to install him immediately knowing that he would prevail in the court!
If as James Patterson says that appointments at GECOM are made on the basis of merit, how can he defend his position to reject the top candidate, Vishnu Persaud, for the post of Deputy Chief Elections Officer (DCEO) and appointed instead someone below in the ranking? The preferred appointee, Roxanne Prince-Myers is a known PNC operative who was on their campaign trail at Whim and Albion in 2015, and who has displayed her support on Facebook for her PNC party. An appointee to a top position at GECOM must be above party politics and must assure the public of his/her impartiality.
PNC operatives were quick to defend Patterson and referred to the 1999 race composition of the top GECOM management indicating that 8 of the top positions were held by Indians. They did not say but left it to inference that at least 6 top positions were held by non-Indians. However this comparison with the PPP could not justify a bureaucracy overloaded by Africans. None of the top 14 positions at GECOM is held by an Indian. (See chart). If having 8 Indians occupying the top positions at GECOM in 1999 was wrong, then having it overloaded with Africans in 2018 has to be wrong also.
When called upon to explain apparent excesses, PNC operatives always try to rationalize their position by reference to what the PPP did or didn’t. Why have they allowed themselves to use PPP standards or lack of standards as their referencemanual. Why don’t they (PNC operatives) apply the standards that they have set themselves in their manifesto? For example, under the category ‘governance’ in their manifesto they will “develop a society which rewards citizens based on merit rather than on association, rank, privilege or status.” What does their manifesto have to say on racism? The PNC-led coalition will “encourage equity by allowing for individual initiative regardless of race, religion, or class. No person will be discriminated against.” Were these noble standards applied to Vishnu’s candidature?
Defending her position, newly elected DCEO Rozanne Prince-Myers states: “I am saying that the judgement of my professional career, that should be the test for me, that should be the standard bearer, my professional career.” But GECOM Commissioner, Bibi Shadick rebuffs, “It is precisely because she is no stranger to the PPP that we object to her candidacy! A lot is known about her, hence our objections to her candidacy!” What is of colossal importance is that the top rated candidate was not appointed. With Vishnu Persaud not getting the DCEO job, that has given rise to a national discussion on racism, as well as, on authoritarianism and the prospects of electoral rigging, among other things.
It’s a clumsy thing to say, as Tacuma Ogenseye did, that Jagdeois “crying rigged elections” so as to ensure a PPP victory at the 2020 polls. Jagdeo is only asking for fair play and justice. He is asking that GECOM live up to its democratic ideals: that is, the conduct of free and fair elections. Jagdeo’s don’t have to “cry rigged elections” to win at the polls. The man has evolved as a strong political leader who readily connects with his constituents.
What gives Jagdeo widespread popularity is the mediocre performance of the coalition government such as the callous nature of the firing of over 7.000 sugar workers, no economic vision, imposition of 200 new taxes which has stifled growth and generated much despair, the extravagant jet-setting life style of the PNC-AFC’s elites, the practice of racism, and the emerging dictatorship including the numerous unconstitutional actions.
David Hinds was correct when he said that the PNC’s style of non-inclusionary governance has created the way for Jagdeo to re-establish himself as a formidable political leader. If TacumaOgunseye’s claim that it would be hard for the PNC machinery to rig general elections, was designed to calm people and restore faith in the electoral system, his message has failed to resonate with decent peace loving people. He should know that many of the top people in the coalition government were also there between 1964 and 1992 when elections were rigged, including the current President. And the Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo has written extensively about the rigged elections under the PNC rule.
Robeson Benn has begun an important conversation that has radiated into several areas such as free and fair elections, equality of opportunity, governance style, dictatorial trend, lack of accountability, and nepotism, among others. In respect of the conduct of the 2020 general elections, why can’t the GECOM process be transparent and accountable? Whose interest will it serve if it’s otherwise?
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.