OPINION: Brother Eusi Kwayana is 99 years old!

Last Updated on Friday, 5 April 2024, 7:49 by Denis Chabrol

By Dr David Hinds

FLASH BACK: Eusi Kwayana testifying before the Walter Rodney Commission of Inquiry.

On April 4, 2024, Eusi Kwayana turned ninety-nine. He is the only living member of the class of 1953—the foremost leaders of the original PPP. It is difficult to properly analyze modern Guyanese politics without taking into consideration Eusi Kwayana’s wide ranging contributions. His political career has spanned the eight decades, which mirrors the period normally referred to as the modern phase of Guyanese and Caribbean politics. This article pays tribute to Kwayana by offering an overview of his political life and work.
Eusi Kwayana, formerly Sydney King, was born 1925 and has been involved in Guyana’s national politics since 1947.He has been referred to as the “Sage of Buxton,” Renaissance Man” and “Guyana’s Gandhi,” among other descriptions. His public life is multi-faceted– political activist, educator, writer, journalist, dramatist, folklorist, and historian. But it is as a political activist that Kwayana has made his most telling contribution and is best known to Guyanese. He has become one of Guyana’s most distinguished political leaders. Ironically, he has also been one of the most controversial and misunderstood public personalities

He entered the political arena as a supporter of Cheddi Jagan in his successful bid for a seat in the Legislative Council in 1947. He soon joined the Political Affairs Committee (PAC), a small left-wing group that was the precursor to the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), the country’s first mass-based political party. He served as Assistant General Secretary of the PPP, Kwayana, who easily won his parliamentary seat, became Minister of Works in the new government which lasted for 133 days. By this time, he was regarded by the British as a staunch communist. This perception was based largely on his militant stance on independence. During his short tenure as Minister of Works he improved the country’s transportation system. His militancy was captured in a statement which has since become part of Guyana’s political folklore. When after a mere 133 days of the PPP government the British suspended the constitution, fired the ministers, and landed troops in the country, Kwayana was one of the leaders cited by the governor as the “ringleaders” of the communist conspiracy. He and other ringleaders were arrested and detained for close to three months. It was while he was minister that he uttered the famous words to the then governor—I will not stand for this confounded nonsense. It has since been translated into popular folklore as “This confounded nonsense must stop.”

While Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham, the party’s primary leaders quickly became identified with the East Indian and African communities respectively, Kwayana an African was seen as neutral. While he was aware of the ethnic rumblings among the party’s supporters, he felt that independence was paramount. This balancing act by Kwayana was evidenced when there were two challenges to Jagan’s leadership of the party Forbes Burnham, the party’s chairman, first challenged Jagan for the leadership of the party before the 1953 election. Most of the African leadership supported Burnham, but Kwayana vehemently defended the Jagan’s right to remain as the leader. His simple reason was that Jagan had done nothing to warrant removal from the position. When some members proposed Kwayana as the compromise leader, a suggestion supported by Burnham, Kwayana turned down the offer on the grounds that he did not want to be seen as wresting the position from Jagan. Burnham made another bid for the leadership after the electoral victory in 1953, but once again Kwayana came to Jagan’s defense. Burnham eventually withdrew his challenge after a compromise on the makeup of the cabinet. 

When, in 1955, the PPP split generally along ethnic lines, Kwayana was one of a group of Africans that remained with the Cheddi Jagan faction. However, he left the Jagan faction in 1956 largely over the party’s refusal to take Guyana into the West Indies Federation. After unsuccessfully running as an independent candidate at the 1957 election he joined the newly- formed People’s National Congress (PNC) led by Forbes Burnham and served as General Secretary and editor of the party’s organ, New Nation until he was expelled from the party in 1961 for publicly engaging the ethnic problem.

He co-founded in 1961 the African Society for Racial Equality (ASRE), which was dedicated primarily to raising cultural consciousness among African Guyanese and championing the cause of ethnic equality. As ethnic insecurity by both groups became more manifest, Kwayana, on behalf of ASRE, proposed a power sharing arrangement or “joint premiership” between the leaders of the two ethnic parties with partition of the country into three zones – African, Indian, and Mixed – as a last resort. Both leaders rejected the proposal. ASRE was disbanded a year later, amidst fears of dividing the African-Guyanese community and the country descended into open ethnic conflict that lasted from 1961 to 1964. Kwayana’s Joint Premiership proposal was the first power sharing initiative placed on the national agenda. In that regard, he is the Guyanese and Anglophone Caribbean pioneer of power sharing or shared governance.

Amidst the ethnic violence that engulfed the country, Kwayana, in 1964, co-founded the African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA), which, like ASRE, committed itself to the promotion of African pride, dignity, and culture among African Guyanese. He served as Coordinating Elder of ASCRIA and changed his name to Eusi Kwayana, which, in Swahili, means “Black Man of Guyana.”

Although he never rejoined the PNC he supported the party, which rose to power in 1964 as part of a coalition with the United Force (UF).He held several influential positions in the government— head of the National Land Settlement Committee; chairman of the Guyana Marketing Corporation (GMC); chairman of the Cooperative Insurance Committee; and chairman of a committee charged with converting the Guyana Cooperative Credit Society into a Cooperative Bank. He was also instrumental in developing the country’s foreign policy towards Africa. In addition, it was he, Kwayana who suggested to Burnham that our republic be named the “Cooperative Republic of Guyana.”

One of the first acts of the new PNC led government was to send Kwayana on a visit to Africa on its behalf. He visited thirteen African countries and met with heads of government and other state officials. He explained the ethnic situation in Guyana and urged support for the new government. He also met with leaders of the liberation movements fighting against apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia; he had taken a donation of twenty pounds sterling which was collected at an ASCRIA meeting in Buxton. 

In 1971 he broke with the PNC over the issue of government corruption and became one of its severest critics. In the process Kwayana and ASCRIA began to develop relations with other radical anti-government organizations such as Moses Bhagwan’s Indian People’s Revolutionary Associates (IPRA and Clive Thomas’ RATOON which in 1974 merged to form the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). He has been a 1eading member of the party and was its presidential candidate in 1985 and parliamentarian in the years 1986-90. Critically, during this period he directly and indirectly mentored an entire group of political activists who have continued to serve in public life in Guyana and beyond.

There are five aspects of Kwayana’s political life that stands out…First, for him politics is not a path to power but a medium for service and collective liberation. Second, while he has held strong ideological positions, he has not been dogmatic. He preferred to be guided by fairness rather than political correctness. Third, although he has held leadership positions in three major political parties, he has never sought the top position. He turned down such positions several times. Notably, in 1953 when there was a leadership impasse in the PPP, he was proposed as leader of the party. Forbes Burnham pledged his willingness to serve under him, but Cheddi Jagan did not, Kwayana promptly declined, and the rest is history. Fourth, he is the only major Caribbean politician who has publicly admitted to mistakes on important issues. Fifth, his political practice has been grounded in political morality.

An important aspect of Kwayana’s political life has been his ability to influence politics outside of formal political office. There are two major factors that contributed to this. First, he has taken on issues of fairness and justice, even when it is not politically correct to do so. In this regard, his concern is always whether it is fair or just. Second, he has been fiercely independent; his bottom line has always been what best for the people and the country rather than for the party or leader.
This independent thought and action have contributed to carving out an independent or third space in a political process that is dominated by duality. 

His independence was manifested not only by actions outside of the two major parties but when he functioned inside the parties. This independent or third space accommodated ASCRIA in the 1960s, the WPA from the 1970s and more recent organizations such as the Alliance for Change (AFC). The importance of this independent space is its ability to constantly provide a critique of the dominant tendencies that have had both radicalizing and democratizing effect on the political process. Walter Rodney’s direct impact on the politics of the 1970s was facilitated by this third space. 

Although Kwayana functioned in the executive branch for just 133 days and in the legislature for a little over five years, he has had a major impact on every major political episode in Guyana. Kwayana has been a strong believer in organization and movements. From his entry into national life in the late 1940s to the present he has always belonged to at least one major national organization. He is the only major political leader in Guyana to play leading roles in the three defining movements of the last seven decades—the Independence, Black Power, and Pro-Democracy movements.

Another important aspect of Kwayana’s political praxis is his engagement of the concrete. Although he was ideologically grounded in the left wing of Caribbean politics, he avoided the dogmatism that has sometimes immobilized his fellow travelers. Because his point of departure has always been the concrete conditions, he drew lessons from them rather than imposing lessons on them. This in turn has contributed to his broad praxis which is sometimes wrongly projected as changes in his approach.

While Marxists generally avoided the issue of race and ethnicity, Kwayana did not. No public person since 1961 has written and spoken more on Guyana’s persistent ethnic problems. He was the first political leader to raise the issue of race as a central problem in the political process and offered a solution. Since then, he has functioned simultaneously as the foremost messenger of African cultural pride and regeneration in Guyana and an advocate of multiracial working-class solidarity and unity. He is as committed to the working-class liberation as he is to African progress and freedom. This engagement of ethnicity and race in an ethnically divided country has earned him the status of both hero and villain. But in the final analysis, his political life reflects the persistent dilemma of race, ethnicity and class. More than any other political person of his generation, he has managed to synthesize the three.

Kwayana has a long trail of writings, beginning with his writings in the PPP’s Thunder in the early 1950s during which time he wrote many articles and editorials that did not carry his byline. He would later serve as editor of the PNC’s New Nation, ASCRIA’s ASCRIA Drums and WPA’s Dayclean and Open Word. In addition to his journalistic writings, Kwayana has written many books, academic papers and policy papers. Most of his writings have addressed the concrete issues of the particular time, but others have addressed broad issues such as race and ethnicity, governance, and culture. He has also written the party songs of the PPP, PNC and WPA.

I end this overview of Kwayana’s work with a personal note. I have had the good fortune of working with and learning from some of the best intellectuals and political minds in Guyana. My experience as a member of the WPA for the last five decades has been the finest education in politics and public engagement. In all of this, the persistent example of Eusi Kwayana has been pivotal. He is the finest human being I have encountered in my life’s journey.