DR VISHNU BISRAM
IN OWEN ARTHUR’S death, Guyana has lost a champion of free and fair elections. He stood up courageously against electoral bullyism and the attempt to “tief” an election. Guyana owes him a debt of gratitude. He would be remembered for saving electoral democracy in Guyana. May the memory of Owen Arthur be honoured in the declaration of the correct election results.
Arthur probably never thought he would witness fraud in the March election count. But he observed it in public glare. It was a bold, shameless attempt at rigging. He condemned it aggressively and vociferously, not mincing words even in the presence of government officials and security forces. He was deeply concerned about democratic governance in Guyana and was not going to be a party to fraud.
He was a small man in size but a giant in standing up for principles pertaining to democracy. He was not prepared to compromise his integrity in support of fraud because his credibility as an observer, head of a Commonwealth mission, was on the line. No amount of offer of perks or threats and intimidation tactics would silence him. He exuded confidence in his belief in democracy. He didn't tief elections in Barbados and he sure was not going to turn a blind eye to it in Guyana.
Arthur was never really viewed by Guyanese as very friendly towards (illegal) Guyanese immigrants in Barbados when he was prime minister from 1994 to 2008. It was largely during his administration that many (illegal and criminally oriented) Guyanese were deported from Barbados.
Tens of thousands of Guyanese settled in Barbados going back to the height of the PNC ethnic dictatorship in 1966. Arthur stated that Barbados could not handle the burden of accepting so many Guyanese who had escaped racial persecution (during the 1960s to 1992) and later poverty in their homeland.
He urged Guyanese to remain home and contribute to the development of their country. He also lectured the Guyana government to attend to its troubled economy rather than focusing on the treatment of Guyanese in Barbados.
Arthur would make up for ill-feelings among Guyanese when he championed free and fair elections in Guyana in 2020. He stood tall when he condemned the flagrant tabulation irregularities. He felt the hurt of Guyanese when elements in the country attempted to rob the country of a democratically elected government.
I met Arthur in passing at Caricom summits but never interacted even during several visits to Barbados. I was present in Guyana during attempts to manipulate the vote count in the presence of international observers and we had brief exchanges. He was very friendly. We exchanged pleasantries. He knew of my name through my countless polls and voluminous writings, and he would place the face with the name.
At Cara Lodge, that he frequented, he interacted closely with the former prime minister of Senegal, Aminata Toure, the co-chair of the Carter Center Observer team, and several other eminent observers from around the Commonwealth, Europe, Americas and Caribbean. They traded observations and comments about the fraud perpetrated by certain people. They reminisced about experiences in Guyana and their encounter with Foreign Minister Karen Cummings.
He was most courageous in speaking out against electoral fraud even when he was threatened with cancellation of his accreditation and deportation. I would never forget the scene where he took out his accreditation ID and handed it to our Foreign Minister to take it back. The minister was embarrassed, saying she acted on an order – but didn’t say who gave the order. Arthur stood tall in that exchange.
He excoriated Guyanese politicians for attempting to perpetrate fraud on their nation. I also overheard him assailing the officers of Gecom when they sought to declare the incumbent as the winner. He did not have pleasant things to say about our President, the government, and the Foreign Minister. He accused them of fraud and even some in Gecom. He could not believe that people would be so boldfaced. He, like all observers, was appalled by the reckless and ill-advised efforts to propagate a fraudulent vote count and he was disappointed that the election chair did not intervene to stop the fraud.
While assailing Gecom, Arthur showered praises on the Commonwealth’s two technical observers for guiding Gecom in holding a free and fair election. He wished if the chair and the President of Guyana would do the honourable thing and keep their word and execute the advice of the technical advisers.
I will never forget this short, strong-willed honourable man. Vivid images of Arthur’s interactions in Guyana kept popping up in my brain. The Guyanese nation is grateful that he had the courage to speak the truth about what happened in Guyana. Will Gecom honour him by quickly declaring the results or do we have to continue to wait for a declaration long after he is buried?
Dr Vishnu Bisram is a political analyst and pollster