May 07, 2021 Editorial
Kaieteur News – In February, the month of our Republic Anniversary celebrations, President Irfaan Ali announced the formation of what he referred to as a One Guyana Commission. Ironically enough, a recent statement by the President himself – by virtue of what appeared to be a glaring omission – would have been a likely issue for consideration before such a Commission, had it already been established. As noted by several persons on social media and in letters to the editor, the President made the claim in his Arrival Day message that: “…every group that came did so for improvement, did so to have improved living conditions, did so that successive generations will be better off.”
Despite the overall conciliatory tone of the message, it was pointed out that when it comes to the question of free will of the people who came, the enslaved Africans who were abducted from their homelands and brought here to engage in backbreaking labour under brutal conditions, their lot could not have been considered betterment by any measure.
Last night, the President did what has been non-existent coming from that office, particularly in the years prior to his occupation of it, which is that he addressed the issue frontally and offered his apologies. His clarification reads in part: “In that message, I stated that every group that came here did so for a better life for themselves and their descendants. I was not and could not ever have been referring to our African ancestors, who did not come here of their own volition but were captured, brought to our country in chains, and brutally enslaved. Indeed, it is their sacrifice and struggle for freedom and against oppression that should inspire us to continuously secure our freedoms and democracy for a better Guyana. To my fellow Guyanese who felt offended by the way in which the language was structured, you have my unreserved regret and assurance that the struggles of our enslaved African ancestors would never be understated and unappreciated. They gave their lives for our freedom and as a nation, we must be forever grateful.”
Such mea culpas are at best rare in Guyanese politics and the President’s message last night was a refreshing change in itself, but also when it comes to direct intervention of the country’s First Citizen into the necessary conversation – one too often cacophonic – about race in Guyana.
As the fallout from the error in President Ali’s otherwise well-intended message makes clear, Guyana remains a society smouldering with racial anxiety and animus, where there is a significant gray area between legitimate existential dread and engineered division for political purposes. As warranted as cynicism in relation to political leadership in Guyana has been, the President appears to be genuinely interested in the reaching across racial divisions. The American author, Robert Heinlein however had this to say about genuine goodness: “But goodness alone is never enough. A hard, cold wisdom is required for goodness to accomplish good. Goodness without wisdom always accomplishes evil.”
Three months after his announcement of his One Guyana Commission, we have heard little to nothing about progress on its development, except the passing reference to it in his Arrival Day message. Going forward, President Ali needs to not only set a higher standard for his speechwriters vis a vis accuracy of communication, historical awareness and racial sensitivity, but also see the wisdom in getting the One Guyana Commission off the ground and actively engaged in creating the space for a sustained and comprehensive conversation on race.
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