TODAY, May 26, 2014 marks the 48th anniversary of our country’s attainment of political independence from Great Britain. On this historic day in 1966 a new nation, Guyana, the only English-speaking one on the South American continent, achieved national sovereignty to become the 24th member of the then British Commonwealth of Nations, thus bringing to an end several decades of British colonial rule.
Guyana’s road to political independence was indeed turbulent. For a brief period in the early 1950s its nationalist movement, the original People’s Progressive Party, under the leadership of the Late Presidents, Dr. Cheddi B. Jagan and Mr. Forbes Burnham, enjoyed overwhelming support from the working class and the masses in general as they pursued the noble objectives of national unity and internal self-government . Their resounding victory at the 1953 general elections under adult suffrage astounded many, including local reactionaries, the Colonial Office and moreso the U.S. State Department.
The mass-based party’s tenure in office was only short-lived as Great Britain under considerable American pressure, suspended the Constitution and overthrew the legally elected government under the guise of preventing the establishment of a communist state in the then British Guiana. The ironical thing about it was that an interim government was imposed and it comprised of many individuals who themselves suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of the toppled nationalist candidates. As if that setback was not enough, the nationalist movement itself became severely fractured in 1955 into Jaganite and Burnhamite factions of the PPP and the eventual emergence of the People’s National Congress two years later. This development paved the way for the subsequent intense political rivalry between our two foremost leaders, Dr. Jagan and Mr. Burnham.
Unfortunately, it was this split more than anything else which also led to racial strife and insecurity in the immediate pre-independence years. Subsequent events such as political and social instability, including strikes and disturbances, which erupted as a result of the Kaldor budget and the Labour Relations Bill in the early 1960`s clearly illustrated the turbulent waters that this nation had to endure. Loss of several lives, the destruction of properties and the severe dislocation of people to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars were the sad reality of life during this extremely dark period of our country’s history.
Under a new electoral system of proportional representation in 1964 Mr. Burnham headed a PNC/U.F. coalition government. As Prime Minister he shouldered the responsibilities of leading the country to independence while his former colleague and by then bitter rival, Dr. Jagan, served as Opposition Leader.
Political Independence was achieved on May 26, 1966. With independence came the termination of more than a century and a half of British colonial administrative rule. At the twitching hour of midnight, thousands of Guyanese of all walks of life stood proudly and cheered lustily as the Union Jack was lowered and our National Flag went up to herald the birth of a new, ambitious and independent Guyana.
Among those who witnessed this highly significant and unique ceremony were the Duke and Duchess of Kent; Sir Richard Luyt, the first Governor-General of Guyana, former Conservative Colonial Secretary, Mr. Duncan Sandys; and Colonial Secretary, Mr. Anthony Greenwood and 62 delegates from 47 countries world-wide.
Of added significance and to the tumultuous applause of all who thronged Independence Square, was that comforting “bear hug” embrace between Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham, the architects of Guyana’s freedom, only minutes before the attainment of nationhood. That emotionally charged happening promised much at the time but in the final analysis realized very little.
As part of independence we saw the emergence of our new Guyana Coat of Arms.
On it is seen the pride of our fauna life, two jaguars holding a pickaxe and stems of rice and sugar cane and facing each other proudly across a painted shield on top of which rests a visored helmet topped by the feathered crown of an Amerindian chieftain.
Beneath a scroll-like banner boldly proclaims the Nation’s Motto: “One People, One Nation, One Destiny” while on the shield itself are found three barrulets of azure blue symbolizing Guyana’s watery nature and its water potential. This Coat of Arms justifiably accords pride of place in our national minds and reminds us of our unity and sense of purpose as an independent nation.
Independence brought with it our National Flag, a slender golden arrowhead set proudly on a background of green and red and stands as a striking symbol of Guyana’s journey into the future.
The lush green colour symbolizes the fields and forests of Guyana’s assets, of which the country is richly endowed. The red triangle represents the zeal and dynamic nature of nation building that lies before the young and independent nation while the deep black border stands for the endurance that will sustain the forward thrust of its people. Finally white symbolizes our rivers, waterfalls and our hydro-electric potential of this “Land of Many Waters”.
Our new National Anthem is a popular aspect of our Independence. Reverend Archibald Luker wrote the words of “Green Land of Guyana” in response to the nation-wide competition sponsored by the then National History and Arts Council while our distinguished Guyanese educationist and musician, the late R.C.G. Potter composed its music. The title of our National Anthem is appropriate and expressive of colour and vitality and of land fertility.
On the morning of the 26th May, 1966, the National Assembly witnessed all the pomp and pageantry and ceremonial aspects of Westminster. In the historic Public Buildings, the Duke of Kent handed over to the country’s first Prime Minister, Mr. Forbes Burnham, the Constitutional instruments conceding to us the dignity and pride of Independent Nationhood on behalf of her Majesty the Queen and the British Government.
Undoubtedly, the expectations of all Guyanese were very high at that point in time and they had every right to be. Our then Prime Minister, Mr. Forbes Burnham, expressed great optimism when he said: “Thus our journeyings to Independence have ended. We face, however, the harder but more emotionally satisfying and definitely more self-respecting tasks of making Guyana great among the nations – the task of building a free and just society.”
What can we say 48 years after gaining independence? We certainly share the joy, pride and dignity of being an independent nation. Our expectation was that with political independence we would have enjoyed political stability, national unity and social and economic progress. Unfortunately, the stark reality is that today our nation is still struggling to achieve these desired goals. The ‘bear hug’ embrace of 1966 independence seems to mean very little as we are more pre-occupied with the blame game and the scoring of cheap political points at this juncture of our country`s history.
In several aspects we have fallen short despite the best efforts of many. Political stability and national unity are as elusive as ever. Post-1997 elections violence, some political and industrial actions as well as an escalation of criminal activity and post- November, 2011 squabbles at the highest levels are all testimony to this.
While much progress has been made on the social and economic front the nation is still to completely rid itself of economic dependency on international financial agencies. Foreign debts, despite write-offs and debt rescheduling, continue to stifle us while we experience fluctuating and sometimes depressed world market prices for our products. We are still to fully accelerate our production and productivity drives. We continue to suffer from migration and consequential ‘brain drain’ and capital flight. We are feeling the devastated effects of the European Union sugar reforms. Then there is the impact of the growing global economic crisis. On the positive side our Low Carbon Development Strategy is gaining prominence on the international arena. There is even a greater challenge for all Guyanese in this post 2011 era. Unfortunately we are plagued with insensitivities and controversies which do us no good at this point in time.
As we reflect on independence, let us show a greater sense of purpose and maturity, and greater mutual respect, tolerance and understanding of all Guyanese if we are to survive as a nation. Let us put nation first at this critical stage of our country’s history and in the face of an increasingly harsh and oppressive world environment in this twenty-first century of ours.
A Happy 48th Independence anniversary to one and all! Long Live the Republic of Guyana!
(TOTA C. MANGAR)