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Constitution must be used to ensure African Guyanese benefit from wealth- Nigel Hughes

Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 August 2023, 11:26 by Denis Chabrol

Attorney-at-Law Nigel Hughes addressing Cuffy250’s State of African Guyanese forum.

Guyanese have a constitutional right to be protected from competition and that supreme law should be amended to provide a breakdown of the award of contracts and licences as part of efforts to meaningfully address historical economic disadvantages that African Guyanese are facing, according to political and social activist Attorney-at-Law Nigel Hughes.

In his feature presentation at Cuffy250’s 2023 State of African Guyanese held at the weekend, he noted that Article 15 of Guyana’s Constitution specifically states that, “the state shall intervene to mitigate any deleterious effects of competition on individuals or groups of individuals.”

He stressed the importance of Guyana’s constitution being amended to mandate government to provide disaggregated or breakdown of data to reveal deprivations and inequalities in this multi-ethnic and multi-racial society. “In a multi-ethnic society you cannot discuss the impact of policy, health or any aspect of your life if it is not disaggregated because otherwise, we will get a completely false picture,” he said.  He said such an amendment should make the provision of such data a fundamental right.

In order to address some of the imbalances being faced by segments of the population, he said the State “must allocate sustained spending to historically excluded populations and groups so that they are included in that disaggregated data”.  Mr Hughes said all communities, especially Afro-Guyanese should be involved, as partners in defining data questions, data collection and use. In doing so, he reasoned that Indigenous Amerindians would benefit. “This would particularly help the Indigenous communities because then, the disparity between the spending on community as compared to theirs would become particularly evident,” he said.

In addition to the need to educate communities about the importance of data collection, trust in data and trust in researchers, he said such information from small and marginalised communities should be collected and analysed in ways to protect confidentiality, minimise risk and avoid perpetuating stereotypes. He said the data should be used to advocate and demand policy changes as a result of the data.

“It is not only about the collection of the data, it must then be at the level of the State adopt policies to address the inequities that have been disclosed as a result of the data,” he added.

Mr Hughes recalled that about one year ago, in response to government’s challenge for evidence to support Cuffy250’s claim of biased allocation and distribution of resources, a presentation titled “The Economy and Justice” contained indisputable facts. Those included that one out of every six gold export licences was allocated to an Afro-Guyanese, 100 percent of the contracts for the procurement of drugs was allocated t0 persons who were not of African descent, none of the shore-bases or prospective shore-bases is owned or is intended to be owned and operated by persons of African descent, and no offshore oil block was allocated to any person of African descent.

“Just think about it. The future of this country for the next 25 years will depend on the production of oil and not a single offshore oil block went to a person of African descent or an entity that could be described as controlled by persons of African descent,” he added.

He said the findings show that nine percent of stone quarry licences was issued to persons of African descent, more than 90 percent of the contracts for water treatment plants and supplies was not issued to persons of African descent and only 17 percent of the Ministry of Housing’s contracts for road construction was awarded to persons of African descent.

According to the lawyer, who earlier this year made a presentation to the United Nations Permanent Forum on People of African descent on May 30, 2023 on behalf of the International Decade for People of African Descent Assembly- Guyana (IDPADA-G), the Guyana government did not challenge the accuracy of those findings contained in that document titled “Resisting the Emerging Apartheid State.” Instead, he said government had stated that those inequities were due to historic explanations for disparities and categories in which African Guyanese did not even bid.

Government, he contended, failed to put in place policies to address the “complete imbalance” and “injustice” in the distribution of the State’s resources in the award of contracts and the distribution of resources. “One year later and there has been no announcement which acknowledges that the distribution of the State’s resources was lopsided and certainly no announcement of the implementation of any policy which will address the imbalances of the State’s resources,” he said.

Against the background of the report, he said steps should be taken to force the government to take remedial action. “The data disclosed, which was not challenged, mandates the State to intervene immediately to address the deleterious effect of competition on the African Guyanese community,” he said.

He called for policies to be put in place immediately to address such an economic imbalance by providing financing, training, technical support and amendments to the Financial Institutions Act to provide unsecured or creatively collateralized securities “to the appropriately qualified African entrepreneurs.”

The People’s Progressive Party Civic administration was accused of awarding contracts to its supporters or be “completely” silent against that party. “This will have to go. History has always judged silence and complicity harshly in these times of moral consequence,” he added.

Mr Hughes attributed part of the Afro-Guyanese economic plight to the British colonial government granting permits and licences exclusively to Portuguese from whom Afro-Guyanese, the largest buyers, purchased goods. Similarly, in independent Guyana, he said it is the government that issues licences and contracts preferentially. “It comes back to the use of State power and permitting to allow the development of only those persons that the State determines should progress,” he added.

Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo had repeatedly claimed that the lives of African Guyanese had improved under the largely Indo-Guyanese backed People’s Progressive Party Civic administration compared to the periods when the mainly Afro-Guyanese supported People’s National Congress Reform had been in government. As late as December 2022, Mr  Jagdeo had challenged the PNCR-led coalition of A Partnership for National Unity+Alliance For Change to a debate on how Afro-Guyanese had benefitted under both administrations.

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August 2023