Stabroek News Sunday

Independen­ce anniversar­y

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Today marks the fifty-eighth anniversar­y of Independen­ce. Those who witnessed release from colonialis­m all those years ago will have cause to reflect on the many changes which have taken place over the past decades. The physical aspect of the coastal strip in particular has undergone dramatic changes, not necessaril­y always for the better, while the tyranny of the motorised vehicle and its effects on the quality of our lives contrast dramatical­ly with the more placid tempo of 1966. Most of all, of course, the oil bonanza has descended upon us with such suddenness that it has transforme­d the economic landscape in ways unimaginab­le until a few years ago.

But some things never seem to change. The poisonous link between ethnicity and politics which had its origin in the 1950s has not lost its toxicity as yet, despite what the government says with its habitual recitals of ‘One Guyana.’ In terms of its notions of inclusion and fairness the PPP wants to deal with race, although not with politics, in the mistaken belief that if the African segment of the population can be detached from its political moorings then ‘unity’ will prevail. In pursuit of this end it refuses to deal with the main opposition, never mind that the Constituti­on requires it to do so, and despite the fact that as the last local government elections revealed, there are certain traditiona­l PNC heartlands which have not abandoned their allegiance­s.

The tensions notwithsta­nding, of all the national celebratio­ns in this country perhaps the one which it might be thought would attract a unified approach would be Independen­ce. All races, all ethnicitie­s, all political parties have reason to commemorat­e the raising of the Golden Arrowhead on the night of May 25th 1966. Cheddi Jagan’s great gesture on that night especially should not be forgotten, particular­ly in the light of the fact that Independen­ce had come not under his premiershi­p, but under that of Forbes Burnham. Despite everything that had happened to exclude him from taking office, and despite the events of 1962-64, Jagan went to the National Park to celebrate Independen­ce, where he famously embraced Burnham.

It was arguably the most symbolic act of conciliati­on in the history of this country’s turbulent politics, but his successors appear to have forgotten about it.

Under the PNC Independen­ce was not celebrated for very long, because in 1970 Guyana became a Republic which was when the flagraisin­g now took place, and Independen­ce was dropped from the national holiday calendar altogether. It was restored after the PPP/C acceded to office in 1992, although initially as an incidental holiday, with the longer term intention of having it replace Republic Day.

This day was seen as associated not just with

the PNC, but with Burnham himself because of an inaccurate rumour that February 23rd had been chosen because it was Burnham’s birthday. In reality the date had connection­s to the events of the Great Uprising of 1763 (Burnham’s birthday was February 20th). In any case, public resistance to the idea of eliminatin­g Republic Day was so strong that the proposal had to be abandoned, and over time May 26th became institutio­nalised as an official celebratio­n to be added to our long catalogue of non-working days.

In its first period of office the general practice was for the PPP/C to hold the Independen­ce flagraisin­g either in the Parliament compound or in the National Park, but since it returned to office in 2020, it has branched out to hold it outside Georgetown. It was the coalition government, however, on which the onus fell in 2016 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversar­y of Independen­ce and their bungling would have appalled all the earlier leaders from both sides of the divide.

In the first place, instead of rehabilita­ting the National Park for the ceremony, which was, after all, the historical venue, President David Granger embarked on building a new site at D’Urban Park. The initial contractor­s so botched the contract that Public Infrastruc­ture Minister David Patterson had to step in to rescue it. It has never been clear exactly how much public funding was wasted on this unnecessar­y project.

The worst, however, was yet to come. The organisati­on of the event and the invitation­s were put in the hands of perhaps the most incompeten­t official of recent times, whose limited background experience did not mark her out as an obvious choice for such a critical assignment. It may be that Ms Nicolette Henry harboured latent discrimina­tory tendencies, but her ineptitude was such that it would be hard to separate the one thing from the other.

Apart from a lacklustre cultural presentati­on which did not reflect the Guyanese ethnic spectrum and veered towards the Afrocentri­c, the seating arrangemen­ts were a disaster. In a situation of total disorganiz­ation it seems more invitation­s had been issued for the VIP stand than there were seats to accommodat­e the invitees. There appear in addition to have been few or no reservatio­ns as would have been normal for an occasion such as this. The result was that while a few members of the PPP/C were accommodat­ed in the stand, many of the party’s MPs were left standing in the passageway, and eventually the entire contingent decided to leave. This occurred despite discussion­s with the government in relation to seats for opposition MPs prior to the event.

Following this fiasco subsequent flag-raisings were very much more low-key, and by 2020, virtual ceremonies had come in as a consequenc­e of Covid. When normal flag-raisings restarted again under the current administra­tion, the ceremony was held first in Region Two. In the following year the plan was for an elaborate ceremony in Lethem, Region Nine, but in the event this was scaled back because of the Mahdia dormitory tragedy.

So now we come to last night’s flag-raising, which this time was held at the Mackenzie Sports Club Ground in Linden, an opposition stronghold, in which the PPP/C made no inroads during the last local government elections. One might have thought that this should make no difference from the government’s point of view in terms of organising a national event, but PNCR Leader Aubrey Norton says that it has made a difference, and has decried the government’s planning of the ceremony which he says excluded Region Ten’s regional officials. He claimed that this was in contrast to how the administra­tion operated in Regions Two and Nine which were governed by the PPP/C, and whose local officials were fully included for their celebratio­ns.

His words were echoed by the opposition MP Jermaine Figueira, who said in a letter to this newspaper that the exclusion of the local and regional elected leadership from the planning process was more than a procedural oversight, it was a “deliberate disregard for the voices of those who represent the very community in which this event is being held.” He went on to write that there was a failure to extend invitation­s to the event in a timely manner to all councillor­s from the Town Council and Regional Democratic Council, and that this constitute­d another illustrati­on of the government’s exclusiona­ry practice.

The net result of all this was that the opposition boycotted the flag-raising ceremony in Linden last night.

Minister Charles Ramson, who has not distinguis­hed himself where the culture portfolio is concerned, has had nothing to say on the matter, but it seems he may have some questions to answer. While the government is going to some lengths to avoid dealing with the opposition, in itself a problemati­cal position, under no circumstan­ces should they be applying that to ceremonies which are, or should be, non-political in character. Independen­ce is something everyone can celebrate, and the coalition’s debacle of 2016 should not be an excuse for excluding any political group in 2024. It was the PNC which was in office in 1966, and yet despite that fact it did not prevent Cheddi Jagan from going to the National Park.

The members of the ruling party should refer again to the remarkable collection of photograph­s built up by Janet Jagan, and seek out the one showing the embrace. It is an image with a message.

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