The search for role identity of Guyana’s former presidents

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By Dr. Ken Danns
TUESDAY June 6, 2018, was a propitious day for Guyana’s fledgling democracy. The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) made the highly significant ruling that Guyana’s two-term presidential limit is constitutional and does not infringe on the rights of any citizen to choose a president of his or her choice.

The CCJ’s ruling struck down both the Guyana High Court and the Guyana Court of Appeal rulings respectively against presidential term limits and affirmed that Section Two of the Constitution (Amendment) (No 4) Act of 2000 was a constitutional amendment to Article 90 of the Constitution of Guyana.

The CCJ’s edict safeguarded Guyana’s democracy by institutionalising a check and balance against an executive presidency that when unleashed in the past readily functioned as a constitutional dictatorship. Former Speaker of Guyana’s Parliament Ralph Ramkarran affirmed, “The decision was a monumental victory for Guyana’s democracy, from whose people the horrifying threat of a potential life presidency has been lifted.”

By their exercise of the authoritarian powers of the office, Guyana’s executive presidents have been primarily responsible for the retardation or advancement of democracy in the nation for almost four decades.

The tenures of Guyana’s executive presidents served as landmarks of the country’s struggle to liberate itself from undemocratic rule. President Forbes Burnham was the architect of the executive presidency and it has been readily adopted and sustained in turn by President Cheddi Jagan, President Samuel Hinds, President Janet Jagan, President Bharrat Jagdeo and President Donald Ramotar.

Like his predecessors, current President David Granger retained the awesome powers of the presidency, but in practice is much restrained by the multiple political parties of the APNU+AFC coalition government he currently heads. Further, the CCJ’s ruling is settled law and a guarantee that neither President Granger nor any future President will be able to rule or run for the office for more than two terms.

A major implication of the ICJ ruling is that a President who had served two terms would probably be precluded from holding the office of prime minister or vice-president (or arguably even that of a Cabinet minister). This is because of the likelihood that by holding such offices, a previous two-term president may possibly succeed once again to the office of the executive presidency.

At any rate, an incumbent demeans the office of the presidency if after demitting that office, he or she accepts a lesser position in the cabinet of another President. The presidency of Guyana is not only an executive office in the government. It is a national institution that enshrines an incumbent with exceptionally great, unparalleled and pivotal power.

The Guyana constitution provides for an office, staff and allowances for former Presidents. The intention is that former Presidents must be able to continue to live with dignity deserving of their service to the nation at the highest level and the exceptional stature of the office they once occupied. The intention is also to empower former Presidents to engage in pursuits befitting their status and of their choice.

Former Presidents are alumnae of a highly selective fraternity of power and national leadership. They are therefore enduring symbols of nationhood, whether they are alive or deceased. While they are alive, former Presidents have a responsibility to spearhead the symbolic preservation of their heritage in office. After they would have passed away, their heritage should be sustained and institutionalised by their foundations and or the government. The careers of Guyana’s past Presidents, glorious or inglorious, are landmarks of the country’s history. For that reason, they must be preserved as lessons for posterity.

The dilemma for former Presidents is that they are creatures of ambivalence. They transition from having the awesome power and command of the presidency to becoming regular citizens. Becoming President was the ultimate status and power-high. They have been to the mountain top and must now make life in the valley of the regular. They experience a crisis of identity and of existence and are faced with the challenge of finding a purpose for being without any established norms to guide them.

What then should former Guyanese Presidents do? They can resolve this ambivalence of identity best by dedicating their lives to chronicling and preserving their legacies; becoming repositories of experience and advice; and, by pursuing altruistic projects that benefit their fellow citizens and humankind. By so doing, they can remain illustrious leaders rather than to crawl back like leeches into the narrow and contentious folds of the political parties that spawned them.

By actively continuing to engage with their political parties in leadership positions, former presidents may stifle change and democratic succession within these, if not also the whole country. Because of who they were, former Presidents are ill-suited to occupy lesser roles in government or leadership in political parties. By doing so they can become socially radioactive and induce disquiet and uncertainty among others who are unsure how to deal with them. Importantly, they discredit the office of President from which they descended.

Former presidents often create presidential libraries and establish foundations to pursue national regional or even global projects. In the United States, for example, former Presidents such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton exemplify the continued national and global contributions that can be accomplished. There are however, no traditions for former Guyana Presidents to follow. No Guyanese President has written a book after leaving office. The President Cheddi Jagan’s Research Centre is an emergent example that has been set. It must be the newness of our young nation, since Guyana’s former Presidents, either deceased or alive, have no presidential projects and are seemingly content to be political party operatives.

Five former Guyana Presidents have passed away. President Arthur Chung (March 17, 1970 – October 6,1980) was Guyana’s first ceremonial or non-executive president. He served with dignity as head of state of an independent Guyana and passed away quietly in 2008 without much fanfare. The Arthur Chung Convention Centre, built and recently renovated by the Chinese Government, has been named after him.

President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham who served as Guyana’s first executive president from October 6, 1980 to August 6, 1985 died in office. He was interred in a mausoleum in the Botanical Gardens and his life is mainly celebrated on the anniversary of his death. The Town of Linden and several streets around the country were named after him. The enduring contribution of the Burnham presidency was the establishment of the institutions and instruments of Guyana’s nationhood.

President Desmond Hoyte served from August 6, 1985 to October 9, 1992. He died in 2002 and very little, if anything at all, has been done to celebrate his service to the nation. Nothing has been named after him, although he was very instrumental in restoring free and fair elections to Guyana, press freedom and the primacy of the private sector. President Hoyte was Guyana’s only President who elected to remain in his own humble home rather than occupy the official residence of the head of state.

President Cheddi Jagan ruled from October 9, 1992 to March 6, 1997. He died in office. He was cremated at the Babu John cemetery and his ashes scattered over the Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo Rivers. The Cheddi Jagan Research Library is a physical reminder of his life and service as is the Cheddi Jagan International Airport. President Cheddi Jagan’s tenure in office was underlined by the fact that he never sought to change the institutions of nationhood put in place by President Burnham and maintained by President Hoyte. Rather, he ratified and granted legitimacy to these. Dr. Cheddi Jagan’s role in Guyana’s history is more documented than any other President, because of the numerous books he and others have written about his life and service to the nation.

President Janet Jagan was elected as President and served from December 19, 1997 to August 11, 1999. She was Guyana’s first and only female president and its first female prime minister, but very little has been publicly done to commemorate her service to the nation. Her accession to the presidency and tenure in office was plagued by unrest over the fact that she was not born in Guyana and whether she was eligible to become President of the country.

There are currently three former living executive presidents. President Samuel Hinds (March 6, 1997 to December 19, 1997); President Bharrat Jagdeo (August 11, 1999 to December 3, 2011); and President Donald Ramotar (December 3, 2011 to May 16, 2015) – all three derived from the former PPP/C government. None of these have so far created a presidential library or are seemingly doing anything to cement their places in the nation’s history as its former paramount leaders. Neither their party of origin, the PPP/C, nor their families and supporters have seemingly done anything to publicly memorialise their service. All three of these former Presidents are reportedly actively involved in opposition party politics.

Former President Samuel Hinds served as President for only nine months and is eligible to run again if his party selects him as their presidential candidate. What distinguished his career was that he was a place-holder President. As then prime minister, he constitutionally served out the remaining nine months of President Cheddi Jagan’s term after the latter died in office. President Hinds was the only one of Guyana’s executive presidents to have never been a presidential candidate for his party.

President Hinds also had the unparalleled distinction of having served as Guyana’s prime minister for a remarkable 22- plus years. His place-holder status was further underlined when he resigned as President Janet Jagan’s prime minister for two days from August 9- 11, 1999 to enable Bharrat Jagdeo to replace him. President Janet Jagan then resigned August 11, 1999 after less than two years in office and was succeeded by her newly appointed Prime Minister, Bharrat Jagdeo.

President Donald Ramotar served for one term and is legally eligible to run for another if selected by the PPP/C. His tenure as President was highlighted by the fact that he used the autocratic powers of the presidency to prorogue or dissolve the Parliament, in order to preempt debate on the likely passage of a No-Confidence Motion against his government. Further, President Ramotar was the only incumbent to have won the presidency and not have majority representation in the nation’s Parliament.

Former Presidents should probably not run again for that office. President Desmond Hoyte, for example, served for seven years and then lost the 1992 election to Cheddi Jagan. He served as leader of the opposition PNC and competed for the next election and lost to Janet Jagan. He never became President again. These electoral defeats may have diminished his image as a former President in the eyes of the Guyanese people.

President Bharrat Jagdeo ruled Guyana for almost 12 years and was the longest-serving President of the nation. As current leader of the opposition in Parliament and the general secretary of the PPP/C, he was reportedly bent on contesting the upcoming 2020 Elections as his party’s presidential candidate until the CCJ ruling restored the two-term limit. While serving as executive president, Bharrat Jagdeo had given his stamp of approval of the two-term constitutional amendment which was unanimously passed in the nation’s Parliament.

As current leader of the opposition however, he was allegedly behind the legal machinations to repeal the two-term limit, so he could run again. President Jagdeo may have tarnished his legacy as the longest- serving executive president in Guyana’s history by seeking not only to run for office again, but also to erode the trajectory of democracy of the nation. This former president has however, defiantly vowed to retain control of the leadership of his PPP/C party and remain a force to be reckoned with in the day-to-day politics of his party and the country.

This ex-president could best serve the nation by liberating the PPP/C of his domination so that it could find fresh leadership; establishing his presidential library; and, embarking on a broader and altruistic presidential project than can benefit Guyana, the Region or the planet. When compared to other members of the living former Presidents’ Club, this former President has a credible track record of leadership in international endeavours and would do well to continue these.

Former Presidents can retire with grace and live with dignity as did President Arthur Chung. Or, they can engage in uplifting pursuits that would bring honour to the heritage of the great office they once occupied and to themselves. The nation’s Parliament should pass a bill which will provide resources to enable our former presidents and prime ministers to at least be able to afford to establish libraries. A library for all past Presidents, should be established as a service to this nation. All of Guyana’s Presidents have made significant contributions to this nation in one form or other.

It would be opportune for the APNU+AFC coalition government that advocates so strongly for national cohesion and emphasises nationhood to put in place a presidential project to institutionalise for posterity the contributions of its past presidents and prime ministers to this nation. The APNU+AFC coalition government already have plans to launch commemorative stamps in the names of Cheddi Jagan and Arthur Chung. They were also instrumental in renaming the Arthur Chung Convention Centre. These symbolic gestures and practical actions are nation-building endeavours.