Stelling cover-up

Twice last year, in August and October, Stabroek News editorialized on the likelihood that the engineering calamity at the Supenaam Stelling would see the government playing for time and eventually holding no one blameable or financially liable for it.

This postulate was finally upheld this month by the Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr Luncheon who in his impenetrable phraseology slammed the door on prosecution, the seeking of recompense for this monumental $450M bungle, blacklisting or other disciplinary measures.

When pressed on this matter at a press conference, Dr Luncheon told reporters that trying to apportion blame had resulted in a series of interventions by Prime Minister Hinds and Cabinet that “for all intents and purposes was essentially inconclusive”. He added that blame had been shifted back and forth among the designer, the state agency that had executed the design, the contractor and the sub-contractor among others.  He crowned it off by saying among other things that “no one ever stood up and said he/she will take the blame…it was appropriate not to make that the dominant activity but to correct the structure…no one hand could be judged to be clean. Indeed the design had flaws, construction had flaws and supervision had flaws. What I did say is that that is not the time to just point fingers and allocate blame”.

It goes without saying that in the Guyana of today those in the dock would channel the blame to each other and none would own up. This is exactly why the public hoped that the case would have been handed over to competent engineers who would arrive at a conclusion, after careful consideration, on the germ of the problem and who was responsible for it. After all, how could such a vital project be so spectacularly bungled and the matter brought to light only at the end and after the shelling out of $450M?

Dr Luncheon’s words do not convince a skeptical public that the requisite enquiries were done and that it wasn’t possible to assign blame and the commensurate financial liability. Indeed, he himself referred to the blameworthiness of all involved. So what has stopped the authorities from proceeding against them all and sending a message to those engaged in public works that shoddy and costly blunders like the Supenaam stelling would attract stern repercussions? The answer as referred to in both of the earlier editorials is that several of those involved in this scandal such as the Ministry of Works and B&K International are special to the government and would hardly be held accountable for this disastrous project.

The government has made the determining of the reason behind the engineering nightmare at Supenaam seem as challenging as building an all-weather road to Brazil. It isn’t and can’t be that complicated. The government is doing a disservice to this nation and it is this very abdication of responsibilities that puts Guyana on the lower rungs of accountability reports such as Transparency International.

Donors and multilateral lenders would begin to think twice about having anything to do with projects of this type given the government’s obtuseness in addressing culpability. It is evident that the government expects to have its way with donor funds without being accountable but the tide has turned and more and more these will be handled through third parties as in the Norwegian model which has so exasperated the government.

There is another unanswerable reason why establishing of culpability is vital. In the engineering annals of this country one would expect to see committed to writing, scholarly offerings on what led to engineering failures and the prescriptions applied to revamp and maintain them. This would be quite instructive to up-and-coming engineers and also entrenches a culture of accountability.  It adds to institutional memory and establishes vital patterns. There is no such body of work emanating from this period of governance. Going as far back as the 1995 Omai Gold Mines Limited dam collapse the government was quite content with not zeroing in on the parties responsible. Despite the massive losses caused by the ensuing spill, the government was quite prepared to absorb these at the taxpayers’ expense.

This is wrong-headed governance and leads to the perception of all types of irregularity being condoned by the government. In the case of the Supenaam stelling many people have contributed to this travesty. Considering the billions it has invested in infrastructure, a significant portion of it derived from loans it is inexplicable that the government is uninterested in culpability in this matter.

What about civil society? What have the private sector bodies and engineers done to ascertain where the fault lies and to impress upon the government the need to assess culpability and to ensure that the findings are publicized and made widely available.

Dr Luncheon’s government should do the right thing. It should release the report so that the general public can better judge where culpability for the fiasco lies and begin orienting themselves towards the monitoring of the myriad projects which invariably exhibit poor work. This is an effective way of forestalling cover-ups like the one that has now enshrouded the Supenaam stelling.

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