President of Guyana, Brigadier David A Granger addresses the round table
With Lawrence Lachmansingh, Former ERC Commissioners Cheryl Sampson and Norman McClean
Presentation by Chris Spies on the occasion of the Social Cohesion Roundtable, organised by Hon Amna Ally, Minister for Social Cohesion in Guyana
Salaam Haleikum, Namaste, Good Morning dear Guyanese friends and colleagues
All protocols observed
My friend and colleague, Emmanuel Bombande from Ghana, is an incredible story-teller. In fact, he has helped me to understand the power of stories to unlock profound indigenous wisdom. So here’s a story that he told me:
“One morning women, as usual, went down to the river to wash clothes. Living together in the same community for years they enjoyed each other’s company very much. As they washed their clothes and chatted happily, they heard the cries of a baby. Then they spotted the baby in a basket floating down the river. They were shocked and rescued the baby. The next morning the same thing happened and again they rescued another baby. After rescuing three babies, one of them said: ‘Maybe we should walk upstream to find out why these babies are being put in the river in the first place.’”
The second story is a true story. It is a story about the tension between fear and hope. During the Nepal peace process, a local peacebuilder realised the importance of bringing a Maoist general to the mediation table. He walked for days into the mountains to find the general, knowing well that he could be killed along the way. When he reached the general he discovered that there were indeed ambushes along the way, but because he was unarmed he was not seen as a threat. He asked the general whether he (the general) was willing to accompany him to the mediation table. “Can you guarantee my safety?” the general asked. “No, I cannot guarantee your safety, but what I can do is to walk with you”, he said.
The first story is about compassion and the courage to deal with the root causes of societal problems. To prevent disasters someone needs to do something different: find out why recurring problems continue to plague us.
The second story is about someone who reached out to the “hard to get” because the future of the country was at stake—someone who risked to step into the middle. The middle is the most dangerous place to be, because you are exposed from all sides. There comes a time when hope for a better future becomes stronger than the fear that keeps us into our corners.
Dominique Moïsi, a political scientist, helps us to understand that politics and emotions go hand in hand, whether we recognise them or not. The three emotions that are currently shaping world politics, Moïsi says, are Hope, Fear and Humiliation. All three these emotions have to do with confidence. Those who are driven by Hope are confident that the future looks brighter than the past and the present. Fear, on the other hand, paralyses our confidence and courage to do something different. Fear and humiliation feed on memories and pain from past experiences. They paint a world as we see it—not as it is. Humiliation either pushes confidence to non-existent levels, or it emboldens us to react in anger.
The task of leaders, says Moïsi, is to decrease Fear and Humiliation and to increase levels of Hope. How does one do that? I would argue that dialogue—genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough by what they learn—is a journey that may help us to do just that.
Dialogue is not a once-off roundtable event. It is a long-term process aimed at thinking together—not apart—living together and taking action together. Genuine dialogue in safe spaces is uncomfortable, because we we confront ourselves more than “the other”. We have to confront our own fears, admit our own weaknesses, transform our pain and risk building trust with others who are different. As we develop the habit of choosing direct interaction over retreating into competitive spaces and political corners, we discover that deep down we all want the same outcomes for this beautiful country.
As William Isaacs says in his book Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, dialogue is not a conversation between sides; it is a conversation with the centre. Our centre is our common humanity: The courage to find the babies upstream; the courage to risk to reach out to the general in the mountains; the courage to step into the middle to model a different kind of behaviour than what has become the norm.
In South Africa, Nelson Mandela did the unexpected. He chose to reach out to an illegitimate apartheid government to lead the country away from humiliation and fear. Our Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a space where victims could tell stories of humiliation and fear. Our hope for a better future became stronger as we chose to seek win-win solutions through dialogue. (I am not proud today to admit that our country has lost its dialogue spirit. Politics have become polarised and racialised. We are the most unequal society in the world next to Brazil.)
At another moment in our history, shortly after Mandela’s release, President de Klerk called a peace conference in an attempt to bring down levels of violence before the elections. Mandela rejected De Klerk’s initiative and called an ANC-led peace conference, which, in turn, was rejected by De Klerk. Neither De Klerk or Mandela was seen as a credible convenor of peace initiatives. Realising that neither of the two political giants could make peace by themselves, Bishop Tutu and the business community stepped in as convenors of a process that led to the signing of the National Peace Accord.
The truth is that credibility to convene dialogue has little to do with legitimacy. Credibility depends on whether people have confidence and trust that the process and space will be safe. Credibility is built over time as people recognise that behaviour and action are consistent with pronouncements and words.
For dialogue spaces to be effective, says Dr Andries Odendaal, the following principles and preconditions apply: Inclusivity; adequate preparation; credible convenors; credible facilitators; political will; and collective leadership capabilities. If these factors are not adequately present, they need to be created and nurtured by wise and credible Guyanese. This is what happened in Ghana, for example.
Ghana was on a knife’s edge during the 2008 elections. There was a real danger of civil war. A small team of peace-minded citizens stepped into the middle space to facilitate communication and dialogue between the two main rivals. Tensions dropped and power was handed over peacefully. Ghana kept the momentum of this initiative going. Parliament passed a law that created a credible independent body, the Ghana Peace Council. It’s mandate is ;
1. To coordinate and harmonize all Peace actors and initiatives within Ghana
2. To promote understanding of peace for behavioural change
3. To facilitate prevention and management of electoral violence
4. To prevent tensions from erupting into conflict
5. To manage conflicts so as to contain and limit further violent escalation
6. To identify root causes and resolve conflict
Myanmar—a country with numerous problems of racial intolerance and inter-religious tensions—has established the Myanmar Peace Centre. A comprehensive peace agreement was recently signed between the government and 17 armed groups. This initiative came about when a general in the military government realised that the young people his government was fighting, were “our people”. He stepped out of his office and drove 800 km to meet the leader of one of the armed groups. They listened to each other’s stories for a whole day, tears streaming down their faces. They decided to stop the madness and to do something different.
Closer to home, we have, as Lawrence Lachmansingh has indicated, a good example of Guyanese leadership that came together in a conflict transformation workshop. I remember vividly the amount of preparation that went into building confidence in an inclusive process that eventually led to the Ethnic Relations Commission-led country-wide multi-stakeholder conversations. A 50-year cycle of electoral violence was broken.
You now have had 14 years of relative peaceful elections, but the past is still with us. Some are dancing with hope and joy; others are fearing retribution and discrimination. For some hope for a better future has re-emerged. For others, hope has been destroyed. Elections are inherently adversarial. Hope, fear and humiliation dance to the music of of “the winner takes it all” as the ABBA song goes.
Research by Richard Wilkenson shows that more equal societies do better than unequal societies. There rests a huge responsibility on the shoulders of leadership across the political divides to operate from the core our common humanity. The greeting “Namaste” literally means: I see the god in you”. In one African culture when you ask “Did you sleep well?” the answer is “I slept well if you slept well.”
No one should be left behind. No one should discriminate or be seen as discriminating. I have seen the devastating effects of ethnic fragmentation and identity politics in many countries. Social cohesion and prejudice cannot co-exist.
This round table happens today, in the present. “Could we not allow ourselves the opportunity here and now to be together, to think together, in a way that goes beyond the pain and fog that we traditionally carry around…leading people past that natural defenses into genuine contact with one another?” (Isaacs).
There is the river. There is the mountain. There is courage. There is a middle. Guyanese have shown that, when it mattered most, they were able to unite. There is a unique opportunity. Today. Here. Now. Step into the middle and walk the journey together. You can do it.