Corruption, criticism and political culture in Guyana

In the Diaspora

David Hinds teaches at Arizona State University. Nigel Westmaas teaches at Hamilton College and Alissa Trotz is editor of the In the Diaspora Column.


By David Hinds, Nigel Westmaas & Alissa Trotz

Editor’s Note: Next week we will return to the second part of the discussion on domestic violence in Guyana.

One of the ironies of the post-1992 era is that the return of electoral democracy has been accompanied, some will say tarnished, by persistent charges of official corruption. The stunning charges being made in a US court and reported in the media of government facilitation of a notorious criminal enterprise pushes this issue to the front burner. While one cannot take all of what is said in the New York court as gospel, given the government’s track record one cannot be faulted for smelling something rotten.

If you ask what corruption is, most people would link it to ‘obvious’ graft and stealing. But there are many other forms of corruption. Those performing the act see it as a favour for party cadre, family or friends, all of which is treated as normal and not a corrupt activity.  This is a critical loose area of graft and that one is not dealt with adequately by most governments.  The usual range of nepotism and corruption involves friendship, flattery, small gifts, lunches, and mixing business with pleasure.

The identification and prosecution of corruption in Guyana has a slow and sordid history. Within the first five years of independent rule, Eusi Kwayana challenged the then PNC government to address corruption charges. When Prime Minister Burnham’s subsequent promise of a Code of Conduct for government officials did not materialize, Kwayana moved to the Ombudsman with charges against two government ministers. The outcome of the case set in train a culture of government sweeping corruption issues under the carpet and affording protection of those accused. This pattern continues up to the present day, making a mockery of the hopes of all those who imagined that 1992 would have ushered in a new dawn in the Guyanese political culture, and despite the pronouncements of those in the current administration who, seventeen years later, would have us believe there has been a sea change.

Kwayana, who continued to plug away at the issue throughout the PNC’s tenure in office, would later observe that corruption under the current government outstrips that of the PNC. We do not take Kwayana’s observation lightly; in fact we embrace it. The PPP tacitly acknowledged corruption during its first term when it removed one of its ministers under a cloud. It was announced that Mrs. Jagan would head an anti-corruption committee. But these proved to be more political tactics than a concerted effort to confront a fundamental problem. The rest as they say is history. From charges of misappropriation of public funds to the steering of government contracts to party supporters to involvement with underworld criminal elements, the fingers have consistently pointed at the government. Yet the government, apart from casual denials, has done little or nothing to demonstrate its innocence. Government must not just say it is not corrupt; it must be seen to be above corruption in the eyes of the population.

It is funny the way those now in power so easily refer to  ‘28 years of dictatorship’ whenever hard questions get asked. It has become an alibi for the status quo. You are not supposed to raise or ask questions about the blatant abuses of power we see today when that mantra gets trotted out. And yet the way the current regime has operated is almost exactly the way Kwayana described the previous administration back in the 1970s when corruption was a “new” phenomenon – “shadow-boxing”. It entails angry denials (we are supposed to believe that these are sufficient and the end of the story), indignant calls for evidence or derailing of allegations or evidence in endless obfuscations and bureaucratic sloth. They dismiss corruption charges on the basis that there is no proof provided by the opposition. But how much leeway is given to opposition MPs, journalists and the institutions of state that should be preserving the people’s money – like the ombudsman or committees of the people representing all political parties? How many in the current and past governments could come out and expose corruption?

What do we currently have in place for protection of public funds?   In a letter to the press some time ago, Frederick Kissoon stated that President Jagdeo never “acted on information supplied to him.” Chris Ram in a three-part series also examined ways in which corruption seeped under the official gaze.  But these are “opposition” critics whose word is not to be trusted, so the criticism is shunted aside in the polarised culture of “we” versus ‘them”…“they can’t be rational”.

There are some basic ways to prevent and fight against corruption in a society like Guyana, bereft as it is of objective oversight standards amidst an ethnically driven system. The first would be the state’s willingness to be frank and to have an open door policy on public scrutiny of public funds and its expenditure. Where is the Ombudsman today and what is the precise role of this position, then and now? Are the current powers, role and activity of the Auditor-General sufficient to the task in modern Guyana? What about the involvement of a genuine non partisan watchdog committee and effective legislation?  Where are the whistleblowers from within? Why is it that with the exception of a miniscule representation of key party activists in the government and PPP, few can or do speak publicly?

There are at least three possible reasons for the PPP’s attitude. First, the party seems to have decided that it will do anything it takes to ensure that it does not experience a recurrence of the wrongs it suffered in the 1960s. Second, its apparent confidence that it can win all elections given the country’s ethnic voting patterns has made it the most unaccountable government in the country’s history. Finally, the lack of sustained and thoughtful opposition has allowed the government incredible leeway to indulge in all kinds of practices. For its part, the opposition has often been too preoccupied with looking for knock-out punches rather than persistent, systematic and well-informed positions. How much research goes into corruption? Is there a willingness to do the hard work? Ask Kwayana about his favourite domain, the Committee of Supply in parliament. He would spend hours and hours going over critical documents and finding the truth, questioning on Order papers. It involves detailed work, the labour that is so necessary if we really want to usher in a new dispensation and fundamentally change our political culture. The record suggests that there are intensified declarative statements on corruption fighting and other ills around the point of elections. All sorts of things are promised by all those looking for votes. Once there is victory the intensity dissipates.

The government needs to stop behaving as if corruption charges are simply politicking. Certainly some of it is partisan and will always be. The current charges and counter charges offer the opening for a thorough investigation, for instance by a competent CARICOM-led commission that includes prominent Guyanese and appointed by the parliament, in other words some grouping that has the full confidence of all Guyanese across divisions. In the meantime the President and his government can begin house cleaning by coming clean with what it knows.
In 1974, a visiting journalist for the New Yorker magazine observed that Eusi Kwayana demonstrated “inflexible incorruptibility.” He wrote of Kwayana that after a “paid state visit to Africa he received a thousand  dollar check for ‘additional expenses and inconveniences’” but Kwayana “sent it back, received another check, and sent that one back with a note saying he had not had any additional expenses and, furthermore, had not been inconvenienced in the least.” Is this generation of political leaders too far away from that standard? And are we prepared for the hard and careful, committed work it will take to insist on that standard from those who claim they want to ‘serve’ the people of Guyana (instead of taking office to serve themselves)?



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