The Year of Renaissance
Mr. Speaker, thank you for your kind welcome to address the house today as we approach our fiftieth anniversary of Independence. Honourable Prime Minister, Mr. Moses Nagamootoo; Vice President, Ministers of the Government, Leader of the Opposition, Members of the National Assembly, Members of the Diplomatic Corps, Clerk of the National Assembly, special invitees, members of the media, ladies and gentlemen
Guyana, this year, will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its political Independence from the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The instruments of Independence, which you saw in the passage way, were handed over in this very chamber.
Guyanese yearned for political freedom from imperial domination. Independence imbued us with a feeling of pride, a sense of purpose and the ardour of patriotism. We had a country to develop, a territory to defend and the prospect of prosperity to be pursued.
British Guiana, in the immediate pre-independence period, was not a pleasant place for poor people. The social, economic and political predicament of the country at the end of the colonial era should not be underestimated.
Colonial society was elitist and exclusionary. Independence broke those barriers down. It provided recognition of our rights, greater reward for our endeavours and deeper respect for our people. Guyanese professionals were able to hold the highest public offices from which they had been previously excluded.
The economy, according to a British Government Inquiry, was statistically ‘insolvent’. Political divisions had degenerated into a period of prolonged terrorism. The British Army, which had been in British Guiana almost continuously since 1953, was still on patrol. Social divisions, characterised in part by racial hostility, badly damaged the country.
The newly-independent nation faced daunting external and internal challenges. The coming of Independence was the opportunity for our two neighbouring states – to the east and to the west to claim our territory. Suriname, then a part of the tripartite Kingdom of the Netherlands, claimed the huge New River zone, the Corentyne River and part of our sea space. Venezuela, more brazenly, claimed the entire Barima-Waini, Pomeroon-Supenaam, Cuyuni-Mazaruni, Potaro-Siparuni and Rupununi regions comprising over two thirds of our territory. These ominous threats still persist and still offend our people, and our Independence, fifty years later.
Guyana’s economy at the start of our independence era was ill-suited to the demands for development in our new state. The ‘Disturbances’ of 1964 exacerbated the country’s economic woes and intimidated the business community. The economy at the time of Independence was still dominated by foreign-owned sugar and bauxite industries. The unemployment rate in 1964 had reached as high as 22 per cent.
Public infrastructure was in a parlous state. A Report on the Commission of Inquiry into the Disturbances in British Guiana in February 1962, just two years earlier noted that, except for the road from the international airport at Atkinson Field, which is now known as Timehri, to the City of Georgetown, most of the colony’s roads were still made of burnt earth and were heavily potholed.
The public education system was weak. The government owned only three secondary schools in 1961 but provided financial assistance to fourteen other schools. Entrance to these schools depended on the results of the Common Entrance Examinations but even there success was low; only 22 percent of the students who wrote the exams in 1966 were able to secure passes. Enrolment in the schools was low; only 48 percent of eligible students aged between 0 and 14 years were enrolled.
The coming of Independence therefore, was a necessity and Guyana was able to make rapid progress and substantial advances in the immediate post-Independence years.
The public education system was strengthened by the construction of the University of Guyana, the Cyril Potter College of Education, the New Amsterdam Technical Institute, Guyana Industrial Training Centre, six multilateral schools and hinterland schools for indigenous students. The former Plantation Turkeyen was acquired as a campus only on 24th May 1966, hours before Independence and this acquisition allowed the construction of the University of Guyana as we know it today.
The foundation for modern public infrastructure was laid by the reconstruction of the coastal road network starting at Skeldon, by the reconstruction of sea defences; by the construction of the Soesdyke-Linden Highway, bridges across the Canje and Demerara Rivers, a new international airport, at Atkinson Field (now Timehri) [today called the Cheddi Jagan International Airport] and of course, the massive Mahaica-Mahaicony-Abary Agriculture Development Scheme.
Public housing was augmented by several schemes and public utilities – such as rural electrification, telephone services and household pure water supply – were extended. The Amerindian Lands Commission was also a result of Independence and this was established to initiate the land rectification process by which ancestral lands were returned to our indigenous peoples. Recognition was extended for all religious observances by the three major faiths.
The symbols of nationhood
We Guyanese, today, therefore, have a lot to be thankful for. We cherish the symbols of our nationhood, which we adopted at or around the time of Independence. We cherish our national anthem, our national awards, our national coinage, our national flag, our national festivals, our national motto, our national pledge, our national monument and our beautiful national and patriotic songs.
Our national coat of arms depicts our unique patrimony – the jaguar, the most powerful predator on this continent; the Victoria lily, the largest lily in the world, the quaint but inedible Canje Pheasant and symbols of our great rivers, our agriculture and mining industry which have sustained generations of Guyanese.
We established new institutions – this very National Assembly, the Court of Appeal, we adopted a national Constitution and, four years later, adopted the remarkable official name – the Cooperative Republic of Guyana.
These sources of pride remind us constantly of our distinctiveness and of the fact that we are an independent nation in the international community. Guyanese can be proud of what we have achieved in the first fifty years of Independence. These are the first fruits of freedom which have fed and nourished a generation.
Independence offered us the opportunity to work together, to heal our divisions and to promote reconciliation. Independence offered us a new beginning, an opportunity for national unity. But that national unity, however, has been elusive for most of the last five decades. The absence of national unity has impaired national development. It has triggered a continuous trickle of migration. It has led to political and economic fatigue.
The National Assembly today must renew that covenant; that Independence covenant with the Guyanese nation. It must resolve to work together to reunite our nation. The National Assembly must take the first steps on the long road to social cohesion, to political inclusion and to economic resilience.
Mr. Speaker, our nation’s future depends on deeper social cohesion. Today’s generation has an obligation, at this celebration of our Independence Jubilee, to repair past damage, to restore trust and to rebuild the bases of a ‘moral community.’ These will enable our people to co-exist and to cooperate with each other. We can construct a more cohesive society by doing more to:
– eliminate extreme poverty;
– by eradicating the worst forms of inequality (especially gender inequality);
– by ensuring equal access to education for everyone;
– by enabling greater participation and inclusion at the political level;
– and by enforcing employment and anti-discrimination laws in order to guarantee the health, happiness and safety of our working people, our women and our children.
Social cohesion is about fostering greater integration in our nation. Integration can increase a sense of belonging. It can give recognition to all groups and to allow them to freely practice their culture.
Our nation’s future stability depends, also, on wider political inclusiveness. The ethnic arithmetic of the past can only mean that a minority could be excluded from a government by a majority, however slim. Confrontation characterised the ‘old politics.’ Calculations of ethnic support determined election tactics. The ‘winner-takes-all’ jackpot became the prize of every election. The political landscape became a battlefield, not always of ideas, but of racial rivalry. Communal conflict hampered human development. Mr. Speaker, that system belongs to the past. It is now dangerously dysfunctional.
Recently we saw that our communities have been liberated from the paralyzing failure to conduct Local Government Elections. The lack of local democracy constrained the economic participation of citizens within their neighbourhoods and municipalities. Local democracy is the lifeline of increased community involvement.
The creation of new ‘capital towns’: Mabaruma in the Barima-Waini Region, Bartica in the Cuyuni-Mazaruni Region and at Lethem in the Rupununi region will improve the provision of services to those hinterland regions. We need regular municipal and local elections in order to afford citizens a greater stake in the affairs of their communities; in order to provide incentives for economic activities, including the development of small businesses. Our people have been deprived of local democracy for over eighteen years, but this will not happen again. It won’t happen again.
The Constitution of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana is an instrument of political inclusion. It has now become a mantra that – and I quote
The principal objective of the State is to establish an inclusionary system of democracy by providing increasing opportunities for the participation of citizens and their organisations in the management and decision-making processes of the State, with particular emphasis on those areas of decision-making that directly affect their wellbeing.
Mr. Speaker, the Government has initiated the Constitution reform process. It must aim at strengthening this particular provision to ensure that the intended ‘inclusionary’ system is made to work. It must be extended, that is to say, the reform process must be extended to involve consultations with citizens in their communities in all ten regions. Every eligible elector in this Republic must be given the chance to be heard so that our country could advance with a Constitution in which we all have confidence.
Mr. Speaker, Guyana is committed to building a green economy. Our country’s future economy depends on speedier adoption of renewable sources of energy and on the environmentally sustainable exploitation of our natural resources. This, therefore, requires a commitment to sustainable development that is mandated, again, by our Constitution, our Supreme Law.
Article 36 of our Constitution states – and I quote:
In the interests of the present and future generations, the State will protect and make rational use of its lands, mineral and water resources, as well as its fauna and flora, and will take all appropriate measures to ensure and improve the environment.
This is the Constitution, not an option. Economic change, therefore, is compatible with stewardship of the environment and measures for sustainable development.
The Paris Agreement, approved by the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris on 12th December 2015, committed Guyana to a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
The high cost of energy for manufacturing and other industrial and domestic purposes has hindered Guyana’s efforts to produce more value-added products competitively. Guyana’s attendance at the US-Caribbean-Central American Energy Summit in Washington, DC, on 3rd and 4th May 2016 emphasised the need for a national energy security plan, which will provide for the substitution of renewables for petroleum products for energy development.
The transition towards renewable sources of energy as part of our ‘green’ development thrust must be accelerated. Investment in solar, wind, hydro and biomass sources of energy must be augmented.
The approach to a ‘green’ economy will wean this country from its addiction to fossil fuels, fuels which exact a heavy burden on the economy.
Mr. Speaker, Members of this National Assembly, Independence imposed an obligation to use freedom to unite our people and to assure them of a good life. We now have a second chance to fulfil this promise. Our 50th Anniversary of Independence must not only be a time of reflection on the past, but it must also be an opportunity to plan for the future. It is a moment when we can commit to ensuring that our children and generations to come could inherit a country that will allow them to enjoy a good life.
Mr. Speaker, Guyana, fifty years ago, was born a broken nation under a state of emergency. Social strife, political disunity and economic stagnation prevented our nation from achieving its full potential. We must do better.
The first fifty years of our Independence had to be devoted to mending the social fabric, promoting peace and repairing the economy. The first fifty years were about overcoming a hostile international economic environment.
The next fifty years must be different. Let us use this special year to usher in an era of social peace, political collaboration and economic prosperity for this and all future generations.
The National Assembly was born in this hallowed chamber where the instruments of Independence were handed over to the first Prime Minister of independent Guyana. It is fitting for me to come back here today, to plead with this same National Assembly to sue the opportunity of Guyana’s fiftieth anniversary to unite our people.
Mr. Speaker, we have a golden opportunity in our Golden Jubilee to build bridges that will lead us forward into the future as a unified nation.
I wish you and members of this honourable House Happy Independence Anniversary! May God Bless the National Assembly and may God bless Guyana!
I thank you.