The past week has been the most taxing, the most straining on the beautiful but tenuous fabric of this society. Buffeted by the post electoral madness, the burgeoning existential threat of COVID-19, and the slowdown in the economy, beginning last weekend this country had a stark demonstration on how deeply the racial animus still smoulders, ready to explode.
To be clear, social upheaval in the wake of brutality is a natural and sometimes necessary reaction. The triggering incident, the murder and mutilation of teenage cousins, Joel and Isaiah Henry, is one that should have been met with outrage. And that outrage should have been met with responsible, strong, competent leadership.
However, when Leader of the People’s National Congress David Granger and Leader of the Opposition, Joseph Harmon, visited the grieving families, what should have been commiseration with their loss and a basic pledge for support towards ensuring justice, was burdened with disgustingly partisan politicking. Granger spoke curiously of the need to establish what sounded like private village militia, while Harmon of course supported that call, referring to Granger in the present tense as “President” and speaking about the “illegal” PPP government. There is no direct link that can be made between the comments by Granger and Harmon and the escalation that followed but it is not lost on even the average observer that a government contingent that subsequently went up to the area was treated with intense hostility from the protestors. What was attempted by the two top men in the opposition was a dangerous rhetoric of a parallel government and a parallel citizenship and a parallel state security apparatus, after a contentious electoral process in which they spent five months seeking to delegitimize a clear loss as an incumbent government.
For his part, President Irfaan Ali, after an arguably slow initial response at reaching out to the families, one no doubt complicated by the Granger-Harmon visit, has caught up and visited not only the families of the Henry boys, who have welcomed the visit, but also the family of murdered teen, Haresh Singh, who was also brutally cut down even as the West Coast flared in the wake of the deaths of Joel and Isaiah. The President has over the past two days demonstrated the sort of leadership that is required of him on this issue, including addressing frontally the use of social media to spread the rhetoric of racial division and hatred. It cannot escape him that he is not only the primary power in a polity that has been based on division for the past 70 years, but he is part of a political machinery that has been an active participant in perpetuating that division in concert with the machinery now led by Granger. In the upcoming weeks, President Ali’s integrity and commitment toward bridging the divide will be tested and whether he fails or succeeds in that test will be the defining point of his leadership. That said, he has stepped up so far and should be commended for it.
That said, the leadership that has stood out in the midst of this crisis is that of PNC Chairwoman, Ms. Volda Lawrence. It should be established before anything else that Lawrence’ credentials as a PNC stalwart and someone who has remained in staunch opposition to the PPP cannot be questioned. Still, in contrast to the combative and deceptive bait and switch attempted by her fellow party leaders, Lawrence in her response to this explosive crisis has been both strong and conciliatory. She has visited the families, offered them tangible help, called for justice for the boys, without once politicizing the issues. Lawrence not only joined peaceful protests along the coast and in Georgetown but called directly for an end to violent upheavals and the targeting of innocent people. And, as quickly as they flared up, all the protests stopped, violent or otherwise.
Even in the wake of this, there was no capitulation on her part on the critical issues. In her statement acknowledging the response to her call to end the violence, Lawrence pressed on:
“Considering all that has transpired, I call on the Government and the Guyana Police Force to act with urgency to bring the perpetrators for these gruesome murders to justice. The families of the victims need closure, their communities need closure, I need closure and Guyana needs to heal. The people will not accept any outcome that is void of justice and we, the people, wish to make this very pellucid. Therefore the opportunity to deliver justice should not be squandered, to protect and/or hide wicked people from the full brunt of the law.”
What is important in all this is that Lawrence has demonstrated this leadership at a time when she is not in possession of formal power. Unlike Irfaan Ali, she is not the President of the country, and it is no secret that, while still nominally holding the position of Chairwoman of the PNC, Lawrence has been marginalized from actual power in the party by the faction led by Harmon and Granger. Yet, she has jumped into the fray with dignity and strength and an integrity that has distinguished her in this crisis. Whatever one thinks of her conduct in that tortuous five months that followed March 2, her taking of the reins and defusing of the current situation needs to be acknowledged and applauded.
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