Special Feature by Dr. Festus L. Brotherson, Jr.

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The Political Leadership of Cheddi Jagan

Posted August 2000

Note: First Section of the Jagan Part of the Series, "The Effective Political leadership of Forbes Burnham 1964-1968 and Cheddi Jagan 1992-1996" guyana.org will carry the entire series over the next few weeks. After which it will be archived on our servers for further reference.

In his To Be A Politician, Stimson Bullitt found that, "According to his profession, a soldier must kill and a politician must lie!" Apparently, he never conceived of a Dr. Cheddi Bharrat Jagan. The same might be true of Niccolo Machiavelli when, in The Prince, he proffered: "A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among many who are not good." These citations make the point that Cheddi Jagan was a unique individual whose exemplary character and other compelling, moral, political leadership traits were manifest during his stewardship of Guyana from 1992 to 1996 - the period under examination in this series. More than that, they were, against the odds, effective.

This first installment of the Jagan evaluation will focus exclusively on the condition and context of the environment in which the newly elected president's piloting of the ship of state began after a twenty-eight year absence from the turbulent Guyanese political sea. This is important for at least two reasons. First, the intention is to demonstrate how both environment and context were every bit as demanding and epoch-changing as Forbes Burnham's had been during 1964-1968. Consider that whereas the initial Burnham signpost was one where infrastructure was intact and the economy was fairly solid, the Jagan era started with the disadvantages of a ruinous, corrupt, dysfunctional polity and society, devoid of efficacy.

Cheddi JaganSecondly, what will be clear is why the kind of strong moral leadership Jagan provided domestically was necessary; even outside the demands for pragmatism in the wake of encroaching challenges of globalisation. (The latter have been discussed already in Part I of the Series.) Amplified, Dr. Jagan offered a rare combination of morality and practicality, of idealism and pragmatism as the best way by which to ensure leadership survival and realisation of wider national objectives. Exactly what proportions of this mix are usually necessary for such leadership strategy and tactics to be effective is unclear beyond the fact that the combination tends to produce for the leader heightened popularity and longevity in office - especially when charismatic authority is present.

In an earlier assessment in March 1992 of Dr. Jagan's leadership aptitude, leading up to October 1992 when he won the presidency of Guyana outright, this writer affirmed the following: "Dr. Jagan's most commendable qualities are his undisputed sincerity of purpose and personal integrity. Although many people might disagree with his ideas, none can impugn his character. He is genuinely committed to the development of Guyana and he cannot be accused of being corrupt"

The mission here therefore is to probe for congruency between a crisis-ridden, state-of-nature environment and an evolving, complementary, pragmatic, problem-solving central strand in Jagan's albeit moral words, tone, deeds and other behaviours. And the challenge is to determine whether this combination of morality and moral relativism (situational ethics) in the state and society made him an effective political leader.

In one memorable interview with this writer for its pithy and punch, Jagan said (and later told the entire world at large), "I was a Gorbachev before Gorbachev." These remarks represented the apogee in smart moral relativism. Put in the context and conditions of 1992, they highlighted the blending of idealism and pragmatism as was evident in the same doings of then USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev as he pursued a leadership strategy of glasnost and perestroika. Put differently, he was saying that the fall of communism, the advance of globalisation, intractable poverty and elusive development mandated pragmatic leadership and policy making.

At the same time, however, it was necessary to retain an ideological rudder to give purpose, inspiration and impetus to pragmatism. It reminds of Aristotle's conclusion of about the best type of political leadership that I have cited many times. As he had put it, "Attaining the best constitution (state of development) is not possible for the general run of states. And so the good lawgiver and true statesman must have eyes open not only for the absolute best but for the best in the actual conditions." One of the actual conditions at the start of and during the time period for Jagan was, like Burnham's, one of racial tension.

However, as earlier mentioned, another was the ruinous state of the economy and the loose, if not broken down, institutional infrastructure. These were significant hurdles to overcome. They were of a type that Burnham did not have to address. An independent, influential Caribbean Conference of Churches (CCC) Mission to Guyana from September 30 to October 5, 1991 concluded thus about local conditions and context: "There is a powerful and pervading sense of hopelessness and sadness; hopelessness in terms of the apparent intractable nature of the economic and political crisis and sadness that the people of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have all but abandoned their Guyanese brothers and sisters in distress." The CCC was drawing a linkage between official multiple dysfunctioning and the resulting degradation of Guyanese individually and as a nation. As early as July 1989, I had addressed thepolitical aspects of causality of what the CCC investigation later found as stated above. I determined then that, in Guyana, "The common orientation which imbues (among the then governing class) is that development ends justify authoritarian means.

The best indicator of this remains the record of rigged elections Both leaders (Forbes Burnham and Desmond Hoyte) have evinced a sense of political messianism which gives them the "right" to change laws and bend rules. This is a common phenomenon in the despotic parts of the Third World" It is usually a major trigger of full-fledged political authoritarianism.

What kind of political leadership was necessary in this kind of domestic environment and the one being shaped so fast by globalisation? My conclusion as early as April 1990 was as follows: "The political leadership in Guyana must seek to instil a sense of principled purpose direction for the nation; a sense of both intrinsic and material rewards to be reaped by the entire society through pursuit and realisation of goals that capture and reflect the collective will." Looking back, this prescription was right given the conditions in Guyana then and the context of domestic and international functioning.

How would Cheddi Jagan come to terms with this frustrating reality? What goals would he set? Did he demonstrate the ability to adjust them and to tap core values in their pursuit Burnham had done nearly thirty years ago?


Dr. Brotherson is a Guyanese professor of political science and corporate risk-assessment consultant who resides in the USA.