As Guyanese mark the100 birth anniversary of Guyana’s late President Forbes Burnham (20 February 1923 – 6 August 1985) which passed a week ago it is prudent to ask what are some of his achievements during his 22 years reign. At the time of taking office Guyana’s economy had a higher GDP than Singapore (the seventh highest per capita today), coupled with an efficient Civil Service; when he met his demise the country’s economy was in ruins with some US$4 billion in debts and a per capita income of US $450, ranked the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti. In 1992 when the gov’t changed the per capita stood at around US$600. Today this pathetic sum has been transformed into a remarkable figure of close to US$11,000.
One can ask: which one of Burnham’s grandiose plans succeeded? The Mazaruni Hydro project and Kimbia cotton ventures were colossal failures. The Sanata Textile Mill and Yarowkabra Glass Factory were nothing short of being technological white elephants. Feed Clothe and House, National Service, scrapping of the railway, co-operative socialism etc. were all tragic visions. Burnham’s ill-fated quest for self-sufficiency in the late 1970’s precipitated gruesome conditions: children went to school hungry, an underground (smuggling) economy flourished and a mass exodus of skilled and wealthy people, coupled with the flight of money to off shore banks occurred. At home lines formed at Knowledge Sharing Institute(KSI)-what a name for a shop to obtain a bar of soap and a pint of oil!
The crowning glory of his rule came on December 14, 1974 (Sophia Declaration). The PNC Party was declared the real ruler of Guyana, thus the government was answerable to the Party! Under the dictators’ rule the Public Service disintegrated; corruption replaced competence –a legacy that lives on to this day. Nationalization of sugar and bauxite in the late 70’s placed the commanding heights of the economy squarely into the hands of the PNC was the stepping stone for destruction.
The early 80’s witnessed a huge preponderance of one ethnic group (which continues today) rushing to the airport and borders, reminiscent of the Jews under Hitler in 1930s Germany. The terminals of the (then) Timehri Airport resembled those at the New Delhi Airport. Worse was yet to come; as the dictator militarized an impoverished Guyana a proliferation of military entities: National Service, National Guard Service, Young Socialist Movement, People’s Militia, Tactical Services Unit and, of course, some we do not even know of. The tyrant was caught up in a struggle between personal power and national progress. He choose the former and Guyana descended into hegemony and economic catastrophe and we are all paying for it today.
Excessive dipping into the country’s coffers became Burnham’s self-therapy for a failed state. His five vice-presidents silently acquiesced –the highest academic achievement of one of them being 1 subject GCE! The most bizarre incident was at the Melbourne, Australia, and Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in 1976. Some 52 PNC honchos attended as Burnham ‘hired’ the National Airline for two weeks!! And while many of Burnham’s policies can be outright condemned today and many headhunters exhibit the tendency topinpoint and condemn the sins—yet refuse to condemn the sinner!
Qualifications for University of Guyana entry were lowered and National Service incorporated into the curriculum. As a result I never graduated from that institution; as is the case with thousands of others.
Many persons were dispossessed of their properties during the early Burnham era. There is scarcely any project that placed Guyana as a unique third world country that is now still standing, except the statue of Cuffy. How can a visionary tell people to use Coal Pots for cooking as it represents ‘appropriate technology’ .The stupid concoction is nothing but a fire hazard!But Burnham’s undeniable pursuit was power as he skillfully deployed the ‘Divide and Rule’ strategy of the very Colonial masters he ‘fought’. The Kabaka skillfully played a grand political game of selling Jagan’s Communism to the West and Jagan’s ethnicity to his fellow CARICOM black leaders. He condemned Apartheid in South Africa yet practiced the same in his own backyard. His horse riding escapades were psychological ploys shoved into the psyche of Guyanese that ‘The man on the horse run things’. As the philosopher Franz Fanon indicated for third world states: Massa days had not changed…only the color of Massa had changed!
Leyland Chitlall Roopnaraine