OPINION: Strong state and national security

Last Updated on Friday, 19 April 2024, 6:18 by Denis Chabrol

By Dr. Randy Persaud, Professor Emeritus, American University, Washington DC

Sometime in the early 1980s, Professor Mohammed Ayoob of Michigan State University, an International Relations scholar, made the point that the greatest security threats to Third World countries come from within. It was an astute observation, coming as it did while the Cold War was still raging. Back then the big questions were all about nuclear proliferation, nuclear deterrence, arms control, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and, inter alia, Soviet, and American strategies. Ayoob’s intervention was, therefore, exceptional for its perspicacity.

Ayoob’s contention was that while international theory was focused on inter-state conflict, more attention should be paid to the sources of state weakness in the Third World. State weakness is a highly technical area and requires careful attention to grasp the central idea.

The concept of a state is much wider than that of the government. Though somewhat simplistic, we can say that governments are based on political parties that take power and run a country. It is useful to call them an ‘administration.’ Governments come and go depending on election results, assuming that democracy is alive. Political appointees, such as cabinet ministers, and quite often, heads of agencies, and Ambassadors, are usually replaced. In consolidated democracies, ministers and agency heads resign.

The state, by contrast, is based on a set of institutions that remain in place even when a new government takes office. The staff in the military, police, judiciary, education administrators, health officials, prison officials, immigration officers, and heads of public universities and colleges, and so on, do not have to leave their jobs. The reason is that they work for the state, which has a relatively ‘permanent staff,’ and which is governed by well embedded norms and expectations that go beyond political parties, special interest groups, ideologies, or administrations.

The central task of the state is to maintain order and stability, guarantee international security as well as national security against outside threats. To do these things it needs resources, in other words a steady income. It gets revenues through taxation, fees, duties, licenses, and ownership in parastatals, unless there are state owned corporations that also generate revenues.

Guyana has had some significant issues with the ability of the state to build the capacity to govern effectively. The first thing is that for considerable lengths of time, the governments in office did not have the resources to provide the services that are crucial for order and progress. To make matters worse, for a considerable time – the early 1970s through the late 1980s, more than 80% of the economy was in state hands. Except for sugar, and at times bauxite, competent personnel did not run state-owned corporations. Party officials, most of whom had no experience in running a business, were given the task of running corporations. Under the PNC party paramountcy, party officials were stationed at state-run corporations to basically spy and track who was not loyal to the government. Decisions were made to please the party leader, who was also the president. In effect, party, government, and state because indistinguishable.

The fact that so many elections and referenda were rigged, in fact all of them during that period, undermined the legitimacy of the government. There were consequences from this. Many of the most talented businesspeople and professionals left the country. This caused even more party people to do things that they were not qualified to perform. Young people left in vast numbers, something that worked like a demographic wrecking ball.

Rigged elections also undermined horizontal solidarities in the country, meaning that cooperation at the level of civil society disappeared, excepting for quite a robust section that cycled in and out between politics and civic life.

The 2020 election fiasco during which the APNU-AFC made an all-out attempt to circumvent the will of the electorate did not do anything positive for state building. Instead, it shattered the hope that the country had gone past the days of election rigging. Further, it did not help that as late as February 2024, the former General Secretary of the PNC, Hamilton Green, publicly uttered these words – “I say we should keep rigging to save us from these devils, these bastards, these demons that we have” (Demerara Waves, 2/20/2024).

Rhetoric of this kind is extremely harmful to state building. This is so because it undermines confidence in the population that a major political force, as the PNCR certainly is, can so wantonly incite electoral subversion. The fact that PNCR leader Mr. Aubrey Norton failed to offer a categorical rejection of Green’s guidance on electoral banditry, exacerbated the situation even further.

National security is not just about the police catching criminals, or intelligence officers tracking subversive foreign nationals. An expanded concept of national security means protecting the constitution of this country against all enemies, including those in Guyana who threaten the rule of law, and who instead advocate for rigged election.

Soon the PNCR will have elections for its leader, although technically there is already a leader in Mr. Norton. Whatever the internal dynamics, it is important that the party conducts free and fair elections.  This is necessary to assure the nation, and especially the supporters of the PNCR, that they have turned a corner.

Most consequentially, if the PNCR wants to be a credible national party, it must make every effort to conduct its affairs with more grace and dignity.

Dr. Randy Persaud is Advisor, Office of the President.