Tomorrow as we participate in the first Local Government Elections (LGE) in almost a quarter of a century, we have to acknowledge it is simply a first step towards returning “power to the people”, which is the quintessence of any democratic order. Mankind invented the State to protect society from the tyranny of the strong but discovered the State itself lends itself to creating tyrants. No wonder one of the early theorists of the State called it “the Leviathan”.
In the following half a millennium, the tension between the State and its people resulted in several structures and arrangements in governance to balance this tension. One of the most enduring was the mechanism of democratic elections to chose those who will oversee the State and another was the division of the powers of the State geographically into ever smaller units. The principle of “subsidiarity”, in which decision affecting citizens must be made at the lowest practical level of organisation, became accepted. In Guyana, we are fortunate that our people through their own bootstrapping efforts, introduced one of the most enduring units of governance in this country – the village and the Village Council.
While there are those that say the movement of millions of tons of earth by African slaves “humanised” Guyana, one could argue this was achieved with their formation of villages, in which the freed Africans demonstrated that while they might have been treated as chattel for centuries, that experience could not destroy their innate drive to succeed as equals to all. Unlike the case of many Caribbean Islands, the freed slaves of Guyana did not receive much help from the Christian churches which had began to proselytise among them. They built the villages through their own sweat and blood.
It was in these villages that they tried to revive the traditional African practice of the cooperative effort in taking care of the needs of all – Ubuntu. But within an economy and legal structures formed along the lines of individualism, they found the going very hard. But the villagers began to organise themselves along the rules of the new system they found themselves and very soon, there were elected Village Councils to run the affairs of the community. It was the ex-African slaves that first experienced the meaning of democracy in this land.
They organised not only for political representation, through their Village Councils, but for farming and other pursuits designed to make them economically independent. We know that eventually the brave new world the freed slaves tried to create eventually collapsed. But the question is “why?” One reason was that the cultivation of the abandoned estates that had been purchased to provide a livelihood for the freed slaves from their labour, had been blocked by the authorities at every quarter, especially in irrigation and drainage, in their struggle to make a success of their agricultural endeavours.
The clincher occurred ironically after “independence” when the People’s National Congress (PNC) Government acted to destroy the democratic imperative that had been kept alive at the village level. In 1980, when that Government moved to introduce decentralisation through “Local Government”, it deliberately ignored the foundational decentralisation principle of “subsidiarity”.
Rather than using the village as the starting unit of organisation, and thus strengthening the inhabitants and their ability to perform local tasks, five to 10 villages were agglomerated into Neighbourhood Democratic Councils (NDC’s) and run by elected officials. Because of the linear structure of Guyanese settlements on the Coast, the organic connections within a village were lost in the NDC’s. At this time, most of these entities are severely dysfunctional.
While tomorrow’s LGE is a positive development we should now look at the re-development of our villages from a holistic standpoint. And this would have to being by returning village governance to the people who actually live there. In this way we would be paying tribute to our forebears who dreamed of this possibility and also to realise that dream.