It was with a great deal of surprise the Guyanese public learnt through the press that Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo had requested assistance from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on “constitutional reform”. Among other tasks, the “expert team” which has already arrived in Guyana, will “evaluate the interest, capacity and roles of the various civil and political stakeholders in engaging in the constitutional reform process.”
What precipitated the surprise is constitutional reform was one of the major planks on which the APNU/AFC coalition was elected to office and was prominently featured in its Manifesto. In line with that promise, a Steering Committee for Constitutional Reform (SCCR) had been established back in September 2015, held extensive hearings and took submissions from the populace at large and then submitted its recommendations to Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo in April last year. He in turn, submitted the SSCR’s Report to Cabinet which had a “Constitutional Reform Consultative Commission Bill” drafted then further “deliberated” on it.
Since then, the only information of the status of Constitution Reform process was a comment by President David Granger last June, which implicitly criticised the SSCR’s methodology when he claimed Constitutional Reform should not come from individuals “sitting in a room”. Taking a populist line, he declared “we need to go to the people, find out what the people think, we need to have consultation and we need to listen to them.”
However, cognisant of the need for a wide legitimacy the SSCR had recommended a detailed, wide ranging process to actually effectuate Constitutional change. Initially the Parliamentary Standing Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC) would have worked with legal experts to prepare a draft of the proposed changes. After circulating this document to the political parties and the widest possible array of Civil Society organisations, the CRC would have been expanded by representatives of these groups, and they would in turn repeat the earlier process. Their report would then be submitted to the National Assembly, for debate and ultimate ratification by one of the methods included in the present constitution, most likely a referendum.
In light of the above, most commentators opined that, like most parties that criticise institutions when out of office as the Opposition, with APNU in general and its leader President Granger in particular, their appetite for reform wanes after acceding to government. President Granger’s suggestion for involving ordinary people in Constitutional change had been tried in 2000 when the Constitution Reform Commission held 85 public hearings across Guyana and collected over 4601 submissions.
But ultimately, the changes that were incorporated into the Constitution in 2000 were filtered by the expanded CRC that was divided into various subject areas. While the rationale for public participation in Constitutional change beyond garnering substantive suggestions is to widen the legitimacy of the ensuing constitution, this was undermined when the PNC insisted the 2001 elections under the new constitution were flawed and precipitated the most widespread and intensive violence against the Guyanese state.
Interestingly, one recommendation that became incorporated into the unanimously approved new Constitution was the establishment of the Standing Committee on Constitutional Reform that was to meet on an ongoing basis and suggest further reforms to Parliament. That never occurred.
On arrival in Guyana the UNDP-UNDPA team announced it will meet with the same political and civil society “stakeholders” suggested by the SSCR to note their recommendations. It is to be seen if President Granger’s demand for peoples’ participation will be supported and exactly what a new constitution would accomplish.