Federalism to end ethnic conflict

Federalism to end ethnic conflict

Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

In the lead up to our Independence-era ethnic violence, Sir Arthur Lewis, considered the Westminster majoritarian political system being bequeathed and asked, “Are we, on counting heads, to conclude that…The Indians of British Guyana may liquidate the Negroes?” More than most of his peers, Lewis appreciated the qualitative difference of ethnic politics from the premises of Liberalism and his allusion to “liquidation” refers to the deep-seated fears that can be aroused in such polities.

Fifty years later, in his column last week, “Ending Ethnic Political Conflict”, Dr Henry Jeffrey alluded to the same fears, which I had defined thirty years ago as “The African Security Dilemma”. He noted, “Those of African ethnicity consider their not having an opportunity to lead (become president and form the government) based upon the numerical superiority of ethnic voting, is an important aspect of political domination.” In other words, other mechanisms than majoritarian rules of political participation are necessary to deal with the real fears of minorities in ethnically plural societies.

However, to his credit, Lewis,who was about to become Chancellor of UG and architect of our first 5-year development plan, did not only criticise the Liberal arrangements that then favoured the Indian-dominated PPP, but suggested possible avenues out of the ethnic dilemma:

“The democratic problem in a plural society is to create political institutions which give all the varies groups the opportunity to participate in decision making… Each group wants to be represented by its own party and no single party is accepted everywhere… (T)he solution is not the single party but Coalition and Federalism.”

Over the last three decades, when I also identified out the “Indian Ethnic Security dilemma” - their numericalmajority could deliver “office” but not “power” because their political opponents’ occupancy of the bureaucracy, police and army and strategic disruptive resources in the capital Georgetown - I remarked at the studied refusal of African theorists to follow Lewis’ suggestion and include “Federalism” in their proposals for ending the ethnic security dilemmas. Disappointingly, Dr Jeffrey floated another “grand coalition” proposal and ignored political devolution.

So once again, I propose that Guyana be reconstituted as a Federal Republic, even as a coalition government be formed at such a republic’s centre. In a society where the major ethnic groups each constitute majorities in different areas of the country, political devolution offers the largest number of incentives towards addressing ethnic insecurities. There are several variants of devolution ranging from strong Local Government to Federalism. The latter arrangement offers the most benefits to Guyana:

In a federal structure, “winner takes all politics” would be eliminated since the central government would be concerned with national issues such as defence and foreign policy. There would be substantial autonomy to the separate states, which will guarantee the inhabitants of each state exercising real power over their lives. Police functions, local development, local taxation and spending are only a few of the functions of the State Governments.

When the centre does not monopolise power, the struggle to control it is not as intense. Political competition will be distributed among the states as groups within attempt to control them. National politics will cease being a zero-sum game; central “losers” can still secure power at the state level. Coalitions will be encouraged at the centre in situations where different interests represented there will incentivise cooperation to ensure the implementation of common programs.

Fragmentation of the electorate should lessen the possibility of any one majority dominating in all states. While that possibility would exist within a particular state, intra-ethnic rivalry will develop since no threat will be perceived to be coming from ‘out groups’ and there will be no pleas for ‘not splitting the vote’.

As the various states manoeuvre for the maximum benefit for their citizens, alliances will shift depending on the issue, moving the present conflict from its volatile bipolar mode to a more fluid multi-polar balance. Finally, the closer Government is to the people the more responsive it ought to be. The state governments should be the most sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of their citizens and regions. Local courts for instance would be most sympathetic to autochthonous needs.