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Book Review
Judaman Seecoomar, Democratic Advance and Conflict Resolution in Post-Colonial Guyana, Leeds, Peepal Tree Press Ltd., 2009, pp.224, ISBN 13: 9781845230272

by Frank Birbalsingh
Guyana Journal, May 2009

When he died in London, in 2006, Judaman Seecoomar had not quite finished the manuscript of Democratic Advance and Conflict Resolution in Post-Colonial Guyana, the sequel to his first book Contributions Toward the Resolution of Conflict in Guyana (2002). It was left to his English publisher Jeremy Poynting to add finishing touches to the volume. In his “Editor's Note” Poynting writes: “What I have added is a paragraph here and there that makes the context of his [Seecoomar's] argument more concrete.” From this I think we can take it that Poynting's intervention is mainly editorial, cosmetic, and that Democratic Advance is entirely Seecoomar's work.

Born in Guyana (formerly the colony of British Guiana) in 1932, Seecoomar moved to Britain in the 1960s; but he never forgot his homeland as we may guess from the titles of his books. In truth, it would seem that he thought of little else as he applied himself to lifelong study that would not only gain him a PhD degree, at the age of seventy, but also allow him to at least contribute to discussion of endemic political problems that have thwarted Guyana's development since Independence in the 1960s. While these problems stem directly from racial conflict between African- and Indian-Guyanese, they originate in the colonial uprooting and exploitation of populations from different continents.

In his first book, Seecoomar analyses the historical background of classic colonial “divide and rule” policies that inflamed ethnic difference in Guyana between descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured laborers who were brought by the British to work on Guyanese plantations. In Democratic Advance, meanwhile, he concentrates either on resolving the ensuing ethnic conflict between African-Guyanese and Indian-Guyanese, or on making concrete proposals for promoting the advancement of practical, democratic structures in post-colonial Guyana.

Seecoomar draws on a variety of sources, but is most interested in the writing of the Dutch, Yale-trained political scientist Arend Lijphart and his theory of consociationalism, a form of democratic government through power sharing designed, in particular, for societies divided by ethnicity, class, religion, ideology or other factors. Interest in power sharing for Guyana arises because the so called Westminster model of government, which the British use themselves and left behind in Guyana and other former colonies, has proved unworkable if not obstructive in post-colonial circumstances that are vastly different from those in Britain. The case for power sharing is further strengthened by its successful implementation, for example, in such European countries as the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland which also reflect divisions of language, ethnicity or religion. Hence, the appeal of power sharing for Guyana or other post-colonial societies like Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji or Cyprus with populations that are riddled with differences in ethnicity, religion, class and language.

Power sharing, however, is not an open and shut case. As Seecoomar puts it, in post-colonial Guyana, the need is for: “movement from colonial subjecthood to engaged citizenry” (p.63) in order to achieve: “a truly functioning democracy” (p.63), one in which the centralized patterns of the former colonial regime are replaced by local community structures and grassroots participation that can promote equality. Yet the principle of proportionality which Seecoomar calls “the linchpin of the power sharing discourse” (p.80) and which should also produce equality, will not succeed in a country where one ethnic group has a majority. For all its eloquent advocacy then, by Lijphart, or by distinguished West Indians like Sir Arthur Lewis, power sharing is unlikely to work in Guyana where Indians have a clear majority over Africans, the other major Guyanese ethnic group.

Other factors limiting effective power sharing in Guyana are socio-economic differences between the two main ethnic groups, and “the wider tendency in Caribbean politics for authoritarianism,” (p.105) two of the chief examples of which are Dr. Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago and L.F.S. Burnham of Guyana who ruled continuously in their respective countries for two or three decades. It is for all these reasons that, along with power sharing, Seecoomar proposes a strategy of alternating government in Guyana: “The life of a parliament would be set at five years and each of the two main political parties would take charge of the government for one term.” (p.91)

There is much else in Democratic Advance either discussing the author's sources or elaborating on his proposals. In addition, almost one third of his book consists of appendices that include a lecture by the Guyanese scholar David Hinds “Race, Democracy and Power Sharing,” a paper on Shared Governance by the Peoples National Congress/Reform, another by the People's Progressive Party/Civic Government on “Building Trust to Achieve Genuine Political Cooperation,” and a Summary offering a draft “The National Development Strategy” that was presented by the late PPP leader Dr. Cheddi Jagan in 1997. His display of such details about local Guyanese politics, including different views from the two main rival Guyanese political parties, illustrates Seecoomar's mastery of his sources.

His combination of Guyanese details in Democratic Advance, earnest probing of current theoretical sources, and his relentless effort to find solutions to Guyana's political problems also suggests fierce patriotism. For if we consider Seecoomar's long years of academic preparation despite ill health, his high-minded abstention from promoting partisan interests of his own (Indian) ethnic group, the mature, considered clarity of his writing, and his claim that “study of Guyana is a metaphor for other multi-ethnic post-colonial states,” (p20) we cannot miss a deeply ingrained love of country that nourishes his aim to satisfy all Guyanese. Whether or not this aim is achieved, and whether or not the rigorously argued power sharing proposals in Democratic Advance can succeed in extricating Guyana from its sinking political quagmire, they surely cannot be ignored. As Seecoomar writes, his proposals “are not meant to be a blueprint. There is no blueprint. Rather they are a contribution to...serious debate.” (p.39) Guyanese are indebted to Seecoomar for this contribution and to Jeremy Poynting for facilitating it.

Frank Birbalsingh is Emertus Professor of English, York University, Toronto, Canada.