For a record 153 days, Guyana, South America’s sole English-speaking republic and the world’s newest petro-power in the making, endured electoral drama fatigue following the political roller-coaster created by the country’s March 2 elections. Guyana’s political, civic, and business leaders, along with the country’s citizens, should be commended for what did not transpire. There was no violence and rampage during the saga.
Anticlimactically, the opposition People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPPC) emerged triumphant, and Dr. Mohamed Irfaan Ali was sworn in as the nation’s ninth executive president on August 2. The following day, the Director of Public Prosecutions dismissed the criminal charges against retired Justice Claudette Singh, Chairwoman of the Elections Commission. Do not expect the political spectacle to completely end though. Among other things, Elections Commission CEO, Keith Lowenfield, still faces some legal hurdles, and the vanquished APNU+AFC will file election petitions over alleged fraud.
Yet, for all the angst involving the political contenders, the Elections Commission, local and regional courts, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the media, and international and local observers, elections in Guyana are a relatively easy part of the country’s democracy travails. Elections are necessary for democracy, but they are not sufficient. Good governance is a critical desideratum, and some key values stand out.
Integrity is one such value. The onus is on President Ali and the PPPC to act decisively to ensure that corruption does not again become one of the socio-political maladies associated with governance in Guyana. The advent of oil and the money it will bring necessitates having aggressive anti-corruption precepts and practices—not just platitudes.
Equality is another prized democratic value. The political and racial fissures that erupted in the election’s aftermath make it incumbent on the new rulers to abandon political or racial triumphalism and work assiduously toward healing. Again, in practical, not banal terms. In this respect, the elusive constitutional reform should become a high priority. The 2020 elections highlighted some of the rebalancing needed in the winner takes all political architecture and structural aspects of the Elections Commission.
Moreover, good governance would be undermined if the sidelining of local government elections, which was a feature of earlier PPPC rule, is embraced again. Transparency is another vital good governance value. The spotlight shone on Guyana before and after the elections increased the premium that local and international stakeholders will place on transparency, especially given the influx of petrodollars and the likely attendant corruption.
President Ali, who holds a doctorate in urban and regional planning from the University of the West Indies, assumes the presidency at a challenging time of increased racial anxiety due to election drama and the age of COVID-19, when health security imperatives place new constraints on what the government and its citizens can do. The pandemic has also obligated the government and citizenry to adopt “new normal” modes of operation and the resulting economic fallout has affected revenue from the country’s oil, gold, agriculture, and timber sectors.
President Ali also faces some stark realities in relation to three Geopolitical Neighborhoods: the Proximate Neighborhood, Far Away Neighborhoods, and the Wet Neighborhood. In regards to the first, Venezuela dynamics are crucial. The territorial controversy before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held a public hearing on June 30 on the matter of its jurisdiction. Venezuela, which repudiated the ICJ jurisdiction, already made public overtures about a political deal to settle the controversy.
The new administration should avoid dealmaking and stick with the judicial course launched by the former Granger government. The new government doesn’t have the luxury of missing a beat in the country’s presence and performance before the ICJ. The stakes are too high. In this respect it is comforting to see them retain the services of Carl Greenidge, the exceptionally skilled Foreign Minister in the previous government, for the proceedings before the ICJ.
Even with the pandemic, Guyana’s eight billion barrels of oil reserves plus its gold, bauxite, agriculture, and timber continues to attract people and businesses from far away neighborhoods. Some will come lawfully, but many not so. The Ali government must prepare for this, not only by boosting border control, but also by strengthening the nation’s public security capabilities. With crimes likely to spike because of the oil boom, the economic deprivation in neighboring Venezuela, and even countries further afield, people will flock to Guyana in search of better opportunities.
Crime spikes could be anticipated in the areas of homicide, burglary, spousal abuse, prostitution, sex trafficking, illegal mining, and drug trafficking. Indeed, just recently 1.5 tons of cocaine worth $300 million were discovered in Hamburg, Germany in a shipment of rice from Guyana. The country also is likely to become a cybercrime magnet. Luckily, the government will have enough oil revenue to make the requisite investments in the security sector, as well as in education, healthcare, and infrastructure.
But the third geopolitical space—the Wet Neighborhood—is, perhaps, the most challenging, given its existential implications for the nation. Guyana has a 285-mile Atlantic coast that is below sea level, as much as six feet in some places. Not only does the capital, Georgetown, lie along that coast, but 80 percent of the country’s population lives there. The country is vulnerable to coastal flooding, and it experienced a devastating flood in January 2005, during a time of PPPC rule. It affected about 84 percent of the population, killed 34 people, and left an estimated $500 million in damages.
Guyana’s coastline is subsiding due to groundwater extraction, soil compaction, and drainage of wetlands. Plus, the sea level rose at a rate six times the global average. The new government has the challenge and the opportunity to begin relocating the capital city. This will be a mega project to which President Ali could leverage his urban planning training. Funds will not be a problem. The problem will be one of political will and planning fortitude. Let me state the obvious: climate change will not await resolution of political, economic, or other disputes. Unless Guyana’s new leaders act with alacrity, they might find themselves salvaging a nation battered by Mother Nature.
Sure, elections are over, but now comes the hard part.
Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith, a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana, is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. His next book, Challenged Sovereignty, will be published by the University of Illinois Press.