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Free university education mooted as gov’t rolls out pro-youth election campaign

Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo speaking at a community meeting at Aurora Secondary School, Pomona, Essequibo Coast.

The incumbent David Granger-led administration appeared increasingly poised to target, again, youths in its bid to be reelected at general elections likely to be held later this year.

The campaign by the governing A Partnership for National Unity+Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) coalition to target youths, Guyana’s single largest voting block, took aim at the education sector where the majority of University of Guyana students are 35 years and under.

Addressing a government outreach on the Essequibo Coast, a traditional stronghold of the opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP), Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo told residents there that government was considering scrapping university tuition fees if the coalition is victorious at the next general elections.

“President David Granger and I are looking at the possibility of abolishing fees at the University of Guyana in our second term in office. I want to assure you that you have a government that cares,” Nagamootoo was quoted as saying at the Aurora Secondary School in Pomona, Essequibo Coast.

The Prime Minister’s announcement came amid growing calls by youth and community organisations for university tuition fees to be scrapped in light of the impending oil revenues.

Free education at the University of Guyana ended in 1994.

Prior to Nagamootoo’s disclosure on Wednesday, the clearest indication of a renewed emphasis on the youth segment of the population came over the Independence Day weekend activities when young people took centre-stage at the flag raising ceremony. President Granger’s address to mark the occasion was dedicated almost exclusively to the importance of young people.

“The future belongs to young people. The resources derived from economic expansion and diversification will be deployed, primarily, to secure and safeguard our children’s and grandchildren’s future. Young people can be assured of greater opportunities as a result of oil production and the policies of the Guyana Green State Development Strategy,” Granger said, even as he pointed out that youths were being involved in key decision-making.

The young people who received grants on the sidelines of the ‘Government comes to you’ outreach in Region 2

The People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR), the largest party in the APNU component of the coalition, also forked out an undisclosed sum of money to buy and distribute tickets free of cost for the Independence morning concert by Jamaican dancehall and reggae icon, Buju Banton. His message was clear and pointed to Guyanese youths, the attendees of whom were mostly Afro-Guyanese.

“A lot of persons are no longer here in Guyana and some are alive and still not here, they say ‘big up Roger Khan, big up the man that… nuff youths chop out.’ When will the youths of Guyana learn that this does not pay? When will the youths them learn to live together?,” Banton was quoted as saying by the privately-owned Stabroek News newspaper. Banton’s reference was to convicted Guyanese drug trafficker, Roger Khan—due to be released from a United States jail in July—who had been often accused of leading a death squad that had hunted heavily armed criminals.

Political assessments

Professor David Hinds.

Political Scientists David Hinds and Freddie Kissoon, however, differed on whether those overtures could see APNU+AFC clinching victory comfortably at the elections whose timetable depends heavily on pending decisions by the Caribbean Court of Justice on last December’s no-confidence motion and Granger’s unilateral appointment of James Patterson as Chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission.

“Those promises will not work. I think this election is up for grabs and it’s up for grabs based on the performance of this government. I would say most unambiguously, I don’t think this government can win free and fair election by any substantial margin so this election is up for grabs,” Kissoon told Demerara Waves Online News. He highlighted that handing out “goodies and making outlandish extraordinary promises” have seen governments being re-elected, but instead the electorate will focus on past performance over the past four years. “I think it’s vulgar when you share out these things close to the election and it’s a miss-strategy; people know that you’re giving out things to them to woo them,” he added.

But Professor Hinds reasoned that the promise of free university education would likely resonate with young professionals, current students and recent graduates across the political divide and yield a second straight victory. “I think if you emphasise education and you target education relief, then you are targeting that area of the population and you are giving them something concrete. When you offer something concrete and something that affects the demographic then you are getting into their heads and so I think that announcement has the potential of really reaching a wide cross-section of Guyanese that cuts across party and ethnicity,” Hinds, an executive member of the Working People’s Alliance, one of APNU’s member parties, said.

Indicating that the coalition appeared to be responding to disappointment by Guyana’s youths in addressing their concerns, Hinds said the upcoming polls would be a keen contest but the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) is likely to remain in the opposition benches of the 65-seat National Assembly again.

Political Scientist, Freddie Kissoon

At the same time, he warned that youths would have to be convinced that the promises are not merely “a gimmick but actually it is a belated outreach to them.” Hinds suggested that the coalition would have to sincerely admit that it erred and at the same time go beyond the policy statements and engage in town hall meetings and other forms of grassroots interaction.

He believed that government’s renergised focus on pro-coalition youths was due to the fact that youths stayed away from last November’s local government elections. “I think the young people should congratulate themselves on this issue because the young people stayed away. The young government supporters and others stayed away from the local government polls and I think that is what sent the signal to the government more than anything else that young people are not satisfied,” he said.

Saying that Guyanese could also expect to see the coalition ramp up promises for other sectors, Kissoon highlighted that political parties must go after the youths, who make up 75 percent of Guyana’s population who are under 40 years. “If you are going to win an election with that kind of fantastic demographic you have to emphasise youth issues, you have to appeal to youth so I think this is just the beginning. The Buju Banton tickets may be just the drop in the ocean,” he said.

For his part, Hinds said the Buju Banton concert is an example of “popular culture” in which young people could be reached, but said he would oppose the “programmatic, wholesale” hosting of mega concerts as a means of drawing young people without a structure to deliver messages such as economic relief for education.

Kissoon forecasts that government might offer overseas scholarships, millions of dollars in sport gear “because who ever is going to win this election, they need to get out the youth vote”. The former longtime University of Guyana Political Science lecturer said it would all come down to whether youths perceived the government as having broken promises such as the removal of custodial sentences for small amounts of marijuana. “If they can lie about that and violate that promise which is a promise, if upkept, would have helped the constituencies that the PNC benefits most from. If you compare the ethnicity of people being jailed for small amounts of marijuana possession, I think African youths would be 95 compared to the rest,” he said.

A proposed amendment to Guyana’s anti-narcotics law by AFC parliamentarian, Michael Carrington, has been languishing in the National Assembly since 2016. It only got some traction after a Caribbean Community (CARICOM)-appointed commission on marijuana recommended softer penalties across the region.