Organise and mobilise, don’t agonise
His Excellency Brigadier David Granger
President of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana
at the symposium organized by the Cuffy 250 Organisation.
Organise and mobilise, don’t agonise
August is an awesome month. It reminds us of the Demerara Revolt when, on the bloody morning of 20th August 1823, the British Army massacred over 200 Africans at Bachelor’s Adventure. This was the time, long before Facebook, when over 11,000 enslaved people from 55 plantations were able to assemble at a single time to demand their freedom and they were massacred.
August reminds us of the Essequibo Revolt which erupted on 3rd August 1834. This was the time when Africans thought that they had been freed because the Emancipation Act was brought into force on 1st August that year. When they were told that they were far from free and had to go back to the same plantations to work for four more years as a period of ‘apprenticeship’, they assembled in the Churchyard at La Belle Alliance and revolted in protest.
August reminds us of Emancipation Day which we celebrated six days ago. On the 1st August 1838, over 85,000 Africans were finally freed after over 200 years of enslavement on the Guyanese plantations.
August, therefore, is a fitting time to come together to commemorate the bloody sacrifices of our African forebears. They struggled, suffered and were slaughtered fighting for the freedom we enjoy today. We pay homage to them for the gift of Emancipation which they bought dearly and bequeathed to us. It was their legacy.
My brothers and sisters, the celebration of anniversaries and jubilees and the commemoration of revolts are important for every generation to remember and to re-learn the lessons of the past. But we must now move forward. We now have the opportunity and there is now a necessity for us to do so.
The Trans-Atlantic Trade in Captive Africans
There are about 200,000 or more Persons of African Descent living in Guyana and their ancestors have been living here for over three hundred and fifty years. The Dutch were the first Europeans to colonise our territory and they brought Africans with them from as early as the 17th century. The subsequent development of plantations in the colonies of Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara created an increased demand for labour. So over that period, the supply of Africans, particularly from West Africa was almost continuous.
This was the start of the Trans-Atlantic Trade in Captive Africans which – in scale, in scope and in span of time – was the most inhumane system in the history of human civilization. It was a crime against humanity and it is punishable under international law.
The forced labour of enslaved Africans earned enormous amounts of wealth which enriched the exchequers of the European Empires – mainly the British, Dutch, French, Portuguese and Spanish. The era of enslavement, however, inflicted an enduring legacy of underdevelopment in Guyana, the Caribbean and elsewhere.
Emancipation brought no compensation or reparation for the inequities, injustices and injuries of enslavement. It brought no end to economic exploitation and ethnic discrimination.
International year for People of African Descent
The United Nations stated that around 200 million people who identify themselves as being of African descent live in the Americas. Many millions more live in other parts of the world, outside of the African continent.
The international community realised, belatedly, that enslavement, indeed was a great crime against People of African Descent, that the consequences have caused damage and that compensation or some form or reparation must be made to heal the wounds and this basically is what I want to speak about today.
The Declaration of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance issued at the conclusion of the Conference held in Durban, South Africa in 2001, asserted that people of African and Asian descent along with indigenous peoples continue to be victims of the consequences of the slave trade, slavery and colonialism. The ‘Declaration’ stated: “… that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so.”
The United Nations General Assembly, on the 18th December 2009, nearly seven years ago, proclaimed the year beginning on 1st January 2011 as the International Year for People of African Descent.
The main objective of the ‘International Year’ was to raise awareness of the challenges facing People of African descent and to hope that the ‘Year’ would foster discussions that could generate proposals for solutions to tackle these challenges.
The ‘International Year’ was aimed at strengthening national action and regional and international cooperation for the benefit of people of African descent. This included their full enjoyment of economic, cultural, social, civil and political rights, their participation and integration in all political, economic, social and cultural aspects of society and the promotion of a greater knowledge of, and respect for, their diverse heritage and culture.
In proclaiming the International Year, the international community tried to recognise that People of African Descent represented a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected.
The Government-of-the-day had other plans for the ‘International Year’ and cleverly turned it into an all-but-forgotten ‘song-and-dance’ show. African organisations assembled and expressed their displeasure at the process implemented by the Guyana Government at that time to design a programme for the observance of the International Year for People of African Descent.
The assembly, that is the assembly of African organisations, passed a resolution expressing: “displeasure with the process used to create the Government’s Programme as it did not properly consult with major African groups, organizations and stakeholders in Guyana.”
At the dawn of the ‘International Year’, the situation was already dire. It did recognize that, despite the efforts to establish an independent agrarian village-based economy in Guyana in the post emancipation decades, the planter class and the government-of-the-day undermined the African initiative.
It did recognize that People of African Descent continued to be subject to ethnic discrimination after emancipation. Guyana and other countries of the Caribbean have not fully overcome these class inequalities which have their origin in the era of enslavement:
- The economic structures of the region today, retain the emphasis on the production and exportation of primary commodities which has rendered Caribbean economies dependent and underdeveloped.
- The people of the Caribbean have been bequeathed a legacy of dispossession. African Caribbean people, including African-Guyanese, continue to struggle for “recognition, justice and development.” They continue to agitate for ‘reparative justice’ for the crimes of the slave trade and slavery.
The international community, at the end of the International Year of People of African Descent, recognised that much more had to be done.
International Decade for People of African Descent
The United Nations General Assembly, by Resolution 68/237 on the 23rd December 2013, designated the decade 1st January 2015 to 31st December 2024, as the International Decade for the People of African Descent. Twenty months ago this decade started.
The General Assembly, also, by Resolution 69/16 of 18th November, 2014 adopted a Programme of activities for the implementation of the International Decade for People of African Descent.
My brothers and sisters we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, there is already on the table a programme of activities for the implementation of the International Decade for People of African Descent crafted by the United Nations.
The latter ‘Resolution’ called upon the member states to “take concrete and practical steps… to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance faced by people of African descent….” The ‘Resolution’ outlined areas for action by member states of which Guyana is one.
My brothers and sisters in the event that you are not aware, some African-Guyanese organizations did launch the ‘International Decade’ on 24th January 2015 at Independence Park in Georgetown, which I had the honour to address. It was not well-attended, it was on a Saturday. I had the honour, also, to address the International Youth Reparations Rally on 20th May, also at Independence Park.
Guyana, therefore, has an obligation to take action in accordance with the Declaration’. The Government of Guyana fully supports this ‘Programme of activities which includes the demand for reparations for People of African descent and for indigenous peoples. Twenty months of the ‘International Decade’ have elapsed. There needs to be, now, an organisation and a plan in order to ensure the implementation of the ‘Programme.’
Guyana will continue to agitate for reparations for the international crime of enslavement. The Government will work with non-governmental organisations which represent people of African Descent – during the remaining years of the International Decade. I would like to commit myself and the Government which I lead to the fulfillment of the programme in five main areas. There are 10 areas in the international programme but I have extracted five. The first is expiation or what some people call an apology.
Expiation: It is a hard thing to apologize, they have apologized to the Jews for the holocaust, but this is a hard thing and the Caribbean Governments are insisting on an apology because a crime was committed and you must say you are sorry. As you know, a National Reparations Committee was established in Guyana in February of 2014. This was in response to a mandate given seven months earlier by the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community at the 34th Regular Meeting of the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community. The Heads, also in March 2014 in St Vincent, accepted a 10-point Draft Regional Strategic Operational Plan for a Caribbean Reparatory Justice Programme (CRJP). The Plan of Action, inter alia, must demand an apology for slavery and the payment of reparations. I want you to remember these dates and documents because we must not sleep walk into the future without understanding that we must follow a plan and I feel it is part of the task today of this Cuffy 250 forum to work with that plan and not abandon that plan. Twenty months have passed; we only have another 100 months for this decade. We have to make this decade work for people of African descent.
- Education: The fore-parents of present-day African-Guyanese had the vision, after Emancipation, to recognize that education was the means to lift them and their children out of the morass of poverty and economic exclusion. Education remains the way out of poverty and inequality. The right to free primary education – protected under our ‘Constitution’ – does not prevent more than 4,000 Guyanese children from dropping-out of school each year. We have to take responsibility because nobody else will. This is what the boats, bicycles, and buses are all about. It is about getting children to school and keeping them in school.
Just as our illiterate fore parents 178 years ago, saw the benefits of education, we their educated descendants, can do no better than to ensure that every single child goes to school and stay in school.
- Equality: Ethnic discrimination and lack of equal access to public services contribute to inequality. People of African Descent, in the past, have alleged acts of discrimination in both the public and private sectors and there was evidence that there was discrimination. We must now correct that situation because discrimination against anyone promotes insecurity and social exclusion and that could lead to disorder.
The Plan of Action must give the assurance that no group or community would be disenfranchised or prevented from accessing public services. People of African Descent must be assured that they would not be discriminated against and hindered in accessing public services – including housing, education, health, utilities and most important their land rights.
- Economy: The village movement began at least in November 1839, a little more than a year after Emancipation. Those villages and the impact that they had on the Guyanese society must be imprinted on our psyche. I have seen writings by East Indian writers 100 years ago, encouraging Indians to do like the Africans and buy land and establish villages. So it made an impact. The villages were cradles not only of a free economy which gave rise to village markets but it was also the cradle of local democracy which allowed villagers to run their own communities. The village economy is important because that is where most Africans live. Many people believe the myth that Africans are city dwellers. It is true that they may form the majority of the population in Georgetown, New Amsterdam and Linden but the majority of Africans live in the countryside. The villages as I said are the cradle of democracy and the cradle of the local economy and it is right that Cuffy 250 should focus on what has been happening in the villages.
The hurdles that had to be overcome were daunting and the legislative barriers and the aggression, particularly from what was then called the Court of Policy which is now the equivalent of the National Assembly, did tremendous damages to the villages. So we have to walk on two legs, not only looking at the economy but also looking at the way those villages are governed. The villages were the home of our households, homes of our schools, homes of our churches, homes of our farms. Those villages gave dignity to the freed Africans coming out of the indescribable circumstances of enslavement. So the plan of action which I ask you to contemplate today should aim at revitalizing village economies.
The thrifty fore-parents of African-Guyanese accumulated their limited resources after Emancipation and bought lands on which were established propriety and communal villages. It is the intention of this Government to establish a Lands Commission in order to rectify the anomalies and resolve the controversies which up to now, surrounds thousands of hectares of communal lands which were purchased in the post-Emancipation Village Movement.
- Employment: The problem of unemployment is one that is of serious concern to People of African Descent. The government is aware of the plight faced by many school-leavers to find jobs.
The Plan of Action must aim at reducing the high incidence of unemployment in the economy and aim at creating an entrepreneurship programme to assist young Guyanese to establish and manage their businesses.
Time to organize, time to mobilise
We have to plan seriously for the next 100 months of the Decade for People of African Descent. I iterate that twenty months of the ‘International Decade’ have elapsed already. This is the time to organize. This is the time to mobilise and not to agonize interminably about the condition in which we find ourselves as a nation. This is the time to organize and mobilise so that at the end of the decade, the Government and the Guyanese people can report confidently they have achieved the objectives of the United Nations International Decade for people of African Descent.
Consult among yourselves how best the African Guyanese organizations in Guyana can be mobilized to achieve specific measureable targets month after month, year after year in the fulfillment and achievement of those objectives.
Guyanese recall that, over the past 25 years, there has been a remarkable revival of social consciousness. Several African-Guyanese organisations — the African Cultural Development Association (ACDA); African Heritage Foundation (AHP); African Welfare Convention (AWC); All African-Guyanese Council (AAGC); Forum for the Liberation of African-Guyanese (FLAG); National Emancipation Trust (NET); Movement for Economic Empowerment (MEE); Pan-African Movement (PAM); ‘Revival of Awareness and Promotion of African Culture (RAPAC); for example — have been established. I ask that some forum be created, so that nobody could be left out, everyone could be involved and consulted if we are to achieve the objectives of this international decade.
My brothers and sisters, this is the time to organize, the time to mobilize. August 2016 obliges us not only to look back at the contributions of those who helped to build Guyana but also to look forward to the type of country we wish to bequeath to our children and grandchildren.
All Guyanese are entitled to share equitably in the patrimony of this great country. May God Bless you all! I thank you