Arguing in favor of Federalism in Guyana

Arguing in favor of Federalism in Guyana
Photo : Vincent Alexander
Reference is made to Ravi Dev’s argument in favor of federalism for Guyana’s racial conflict and responses from Vincent Alexander of the People National Congress and academic Henry Jeffrey’s.  The three were debating federalism as a solution to Guyana’s debilitating ethnic conflict that has negatively impacted development. Alexander opposes federalism saying Africans will be disadvantaged while Dev and Jeffrey endorse federalism though the latter does not support Dev’s version. Federalism has worked to address ethnic conflict worldwide. It can work in Guyana.
Almost every multi-ethnic country has ethnic conflict with scholars trying to find an elixir. There is no magic bullet to ending conflict with a one solution fit all. Any proposal can be amended and adapted to Guyana’s situation. All three political commentators agree that devolution of powers is a panacea to ethnic conflict but differ how it should be implemented (shape, the extent and type of government structure). As Jeffrey posits, federalism can be gradually implemented.
Dev boldly proposes federalism with four geographic units offered as an example to devolve power; one should not get bogged down by the number of decentralized units as they can be as many as are needed to make the ethnic groups comfortable. Jeffrey endorses federalism, but he feels devolution of power must be more extensive than just dividing powers with Regional units. I am of the view power should be divided all the way to the grass roots level – perhaps something resembling devolution of powers in US, Canada, Switzerland, India, Australia, etc. I feel the central government should have minimal powers that should be restricted to matters like border issues, defense, foreign affairs, telecom, etc. Each Regional and local unit should have their own budget and demarcated autonomy over regional and local issues like schools, housing, transportation, marriage, driving, electricity, etc.
I don’t think any proposed solution to ethnic issues should be rejected outright as Alexander has done with Dev’s federalist structure. A proposal can be refined as Jeffrey asserts.
Alexander uses a medical metaphor essaying that Dev made the right diagnosis but offered the wrong treatment. At least Dev offered a treatment after consulting many medical books and looking at the results of the medicine on other patients with the same problem. The medication worked. Alexander opts not to offer any medication leaving the sick patient to die a natural course rather than at least try to prolong the patient’s life. This is unethical to use a medical metaphor. When a doctor diagnoses a problem, he tries a medication and if it does not work, he carries out more tests and further diagnosis to contrast with his first evaluation. And he offers a different treatment a second or third time. No one knows for sure what will work in Guyana. But at least a doctor should attempt to prescribe a medication to a diagnosis.
Alexander rejects federalism but does not offer a prototype to save the patient whose condition, he himself acknowledges, has been worsening.  He leaves the patient on the death bed to prolong the agony of certain death rather than at least try a medication that may work.  If the patient rejects the medicine of federalism or extreme devolution of powers, then one can look at alternative medicines (resolutions) or treatments.
Alexander is bogged down by four geographic units saying his people (Africans) would control the smallest one while Indians will control two and Amerindians one. He did not say the smallest one is also the richest and with the seat of the central government. There can be more geographical units to give Africans and Indians an equal number or more to Amerindians.
The object of Dev’s proposal or Jeffrey’s interjection is not for one group to tower over the others. It is to make every group feel being part and parcel of the nation state and that they too exercise power at some level -- regional and or local level especially if excluded from the national lever of power as is the case now and under the preceding regime. Mixed, Portuguese and Chinese must also be included in the government structure.
In terms of devolution and to address Jeffrey’s thesis and Alexander’s concern on ethnic domination, political power must be shared at all levels of a decentralized federal state.
This would address any alienation felt by the other groups. Switzerland comes closest to such a model. South Africa at the national level was an example immediate post-apartheid when all parties were part of the government that had seats in parliament – in proportion to their strength. The parties advocated for their ethnic groups. A similar formula could be proposed for all levels of the governments in Guyana. All resources of the state must be distributed fairly among the groups.
Alexander contends that “wherever Federalism has been adopted, its implementation has been associated with the inhabitants of a particular state sharing some homogeneity and collective sovereign right”. That is not factual. The states in the US, India, Australia and the provinces in Canada, the Cantons in Switzerland, and Prefectures in Japan, etc., don’t all fall in this category. Homogeneity applies to the Prefectures in Japan and regions in South Korea but these units have not invoked sovereignty. The cantons in Switzerland are not homogeneous though they enjoy sovereign right. The states in Australia are not homogeneous though they enjoy sovereignty.
Geographic units in Guyana don't need to be and are not homogeneous. They can govern themselves without ethnic issues.
The government structure (one group domination) we have in Guyana is not working. Alexander can’t be comfortable with only one race on top. Let us give equality to all the races. Federalism may bring it about as is happening in India, Switzerland, Australia, and the US. So why not try Dev’s federalism that can be refined to devolve power at the grass roots level inclusive of all groups in governance. This decentralized power sharing approach will make everyone feels he or she is exercising power and not excluded from the benefits or resources of the state. More and more countries in Africa are attempting this model to conflict. Guyana should move in this direction.