A strange land

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By Indranie Deolal

The abrupt conclusion of Guyana’s prolonged election crisis evolved swiftly last Sunday, with the swearing-in of the ninth executive president Mohamed Irfaan Ali, 40, the country’s first Muslim head of State.

Coincidentally, his appointment came during the most important Islamic religious feast of Eid-ul-Adha, celebrated as a commemoration of one man’s willingness to sacrifice everything for God.

That we have reached the end exhausted, relieved and this far, peacefully, is due to the sacrifices of many people across numerous divides and from different backgrounds, inside and out of Guyana, such as the late former Barbadian prime minister, Owen Arthur who passed away from heart complications last month. He repeatedly spoke out, passionately joining those who displayed dignity and determination, during the last five unprecedented months, in seeking to ensure that this multicultural society did not slip back into shameless vote-rigging, absolute anarchy and another indefinite dictatorship.

Regardless of which political party we support, our fledgling democracy and the will of the majority of voters have prevailed. If each generation must win democracy for itself, then we also owe much to the countless concerned, courageous young people and energetic activists, including from the newest, small parties, who toiled as polling day workers, the all-night guardians of the shipping containers with the more than 2000 ballot boxes, and as ever-vigilant scrutineers of the CARICOM-observed recount.

President Ali has reached the highest office in the land backed with abundant goodwill and with much expected, that it must not be government as usual for a few. Dismissed as “a puppet” when he was announced as the shock presidential candidate of the then opposition People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) in secret balloting, Ali had defeated Anil Nandlall, who he re-appointed to the post of attorney general on Sunday, immediately after becoming president.

He had said then in early 2019, “Over the last 20 years, I have served my party at regional and national levels. My work with the (PPP’s) Progressive Youth Organization (PYO), since 1992, has given me a unique perspective of the challenges facing our youths and the opportunities that exist to enable them to actively participate in the governance of our country and being part of the solution. My party’s decision to select me, as a young person, is testimony to our commitment to not only talk the talk about youth leaders but actively facilitate this.”

The three candidates who withdrew from that contest, Gail Teixeira, Vindhya Persaud and Dr Frank Anthony are among the other old-timers and loyalists retained in president Ali’s large, mixed Cabinet announced this week, with Dr Anthony, appointed the minister of health, to help manage Guyana’s response to the greatest current threat, the COVID pandemic with the sharp increase in local cases and fatalities.

Featuring seven women, and many young faces under 45 years-old, president Ali’s Cabinet includes several surprises, maybe the greatest being the newcomer, Vickram Bharrat a former teacher, technical officer and project manager, set to manage the key natural resources ministry, although it is still unclear who will be ultimately responsible in the incoming administration for the profitable petroleum sector and looking after Guyana’s much-anticipated expanding oil wealth. Bharrat was chosen ahead of Charles Ramson Jr with a Masters in Oil and Gas Enterprise Management, who was instead put in charge of the ministry of culture, youth and sport. Polarising figures like Kwame McKoy and Nigel Dharamlall, are back.

Former Army Chief of Staff, Mark Phillips was also sworn in as prime minister, while president Ali identified former opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo, as his vice president. It remains to be seen whether president Ali can ever escape the spreading shadow of this experienced politician and kingmaker who controlled presidential office from 1999 to 2011, cursed with outright excesses and abuses, and who, critics and cynics have long sniggered, will be the real power behind the local throne. An amendment to the Constitution which set the presidential limit at two terms was upheld in 2018 by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) preventing the shrewd Jagdeo, now 57, from officially seeking the presidency again.

However, it appears that the naturally domineering Jagdeo maybe once again entrusted with the finance ministry, which he first joined in 1992 when the PPP/C won the historic free and fair elections that October. He is even more popular with his party faithful, given he countered the protracted rigging debacle engineered by the incumbent coalition to cling to illegal office The ministry oversees the incoming oil royalty riches, so far amounting to an initial US$98 million, safely deposited into the Natural Resources Fund (NRF) account held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

President Ali has not been without controversy either, since he was accused of academic credentials fraud, but went on to gain a Doctorate in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of the West Indies. The burly former housing minister was charged with 19 counts of conspiracy and fraud, in relation to the “Pradoville 2” land transfers allegedly below market value, to Jagdeo and other Cabinet members. The charges were instituted by the Special Organized Crime Unit (SOCU) during the preceding administration of president David Granger, but Ali’s lawyers contended that the charges were political in nature.

This week, the case resumed at the Magistrate’s Court which is awaiting a related decision from the Guyana Court of Appeal on the way forward, with president Ali’s attorney Devindra Kissoon predictably making an application for the charges to be dismissed given that a sitting president is immune from suit under the Constitution. The prosecutor has commented that the issue of immunity applies for the period while a president is in office, not before becoming Head-of-State.

We wait to learn whether there will be a much-needed thorough investigation of the incredible events in the bizarre and bumbling aftermath of the March 2, 2020 polls and if any of the known officials involved will be made accountable. Still to materialise is the promised election petition from the losing A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) which faces hefty legal bills given their series of losses in election-related litigation.

In the finale, the outgoing president, Granger went quietly with a short statement, having grudgingly acknowledged the lawful ‘declaration,’ since he insists the polls were marred by “significant anomalies and irregularities.” Repeating “the APNU+AFC Coalition will challenge the declared results lawfully, peacefully and purposefully,” he mercifully urged “its members, supporters and friends – who have been patient throughout our campaign and a prolonged legal process in our Courts – to continue to conduct themselves in a lawful and peaceful manner.”

Other than this brief from the reticent Granger, he has characteristically disappeared yet again into significant silence, without so much as an acknowledgement address of uncomfortable truths and required reassurance to the some 200,000 hurting, dazed and worried supporters, who faithfully backed him and his coalition, through the months-long charade.

Now, perhaps more than ever in our chequered history as a divided nation, and even as we speak of the need for urgent Constitutional reform and the ever-elusive multi-ethnic prize of inclusive governance, Guyanese and all those who love this strange land, recognise that we need a truly vibrant opposition, and principled leaders and representatives from all parties within our parliament of razor-thin majorities, that has not met in over a year.

As Trinidad and Tobago prepares for its elections on Monday, ID listens to David Rudder’s “Tales from a Strange Land” and his “Madman’s rant” of “Vote for we and we will set you free. Anywhere you turn somebody chanting to we, Somebody promising jobs for all…”

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