Lesson from Linden
There will be a genuine sigh of relief on the expected conclusion today of a deal between the government and a delegation from Region 10 (Upper Demerara/Upper Berbice) on a raft of economic issues for Linden. Hopefully this is swiftly followed by the conclusion of the meandering discussions on the terms of reference for the investigation of the July 18 killing of three protesters and the injuring of at least 20 others.
The horrific mowing down of 34 protesting miners by South African police last week is an example of how things can go badly wrong amid soaring tensions in standoffs. There can be no excusing the use of excessive and deadly force in either case. South African President Zuma cut short a visit to Mozambique and announced a commission of enquiry and as is to be expected the union whose members were at the centre of the tragedy called immediately for a credible, independent commission of enquiry. That call also resonates here and there is great anticipation over what steps the government and APNU will agree to ensure that this probe is manned by persons of integrity, its terms of reference sufficiently drawn and the requisite resources provided.
Once the imprimaturs of the various stakeholders are affixed to the economic deal the real work begins. The PPP/C government will do well to ensure it doesn’t backslide on any commitments and that it departs from its penchant for delay tactics. After all, it has had to learn the sternest lessons from the unfortunate confrontation with Linden and the image of the country and its business climate have been dented by the weeks of strife. Investors and tourists will no doubt mark down their rating of the quality of governance here and the government must use what it has learnt here as a template for avoiding similar disturbances.
No government should be held to ransom or made to negotiate under duress but the issues eventually conceded by the PPP/C represented fundamental areas which were dear to the hearts of Lindeners and the Office of the President would have surely recognized this.
Aside from the bumbling and confrontational response in the immediate aftermath of the killing by police of protesters on July 18, the administration was inexplicably unable to get a senior official into Linden to assuage the concerns of Lindeners prior to President Ramotar journeying there on Thursday, almost four weeks too late. Those initial failures reflected bewilderment in the government at what had transpired, a disconnect from the real pulse of Linden and a lack of determination in acting no matter the likely hostile reaction. Wherever there is a crisis even if it is clearly its fault, the government must be there.
While the foregoing may be a reflection of the diffidence of President Ramotar he must be commended for making the trip eventually. What is inexcusable is that the government has belatedly moved to address matters that should have been settled long before.
The first, of course, was the matter of the power tariffs which the government had said would increase in line with a phased reduction of the subsidy. No matter its protestations that the subsidy could no longer be afforded and that Lindeners were well aware that these changes were coming, the only explanation that the mining community could see was that it was being punished for delivering a resounding defeat to the government at the general elections where the ruling party suffered the trauma of losing control of Parliament.
Having had the opportunity over two decades of uninterrupted governance to gradually remove the subsidies to Linden, to fully consider cheaper and green methods of power generation and to at least begin consultations with all segments of Linden on the historical nature of the subsidy on why it had to be phased out, the government failed in all of these areas leaving the only logical interpretation open to residents of the town. It is worth pointing out that protests against the power tariffs began on April 5 in Linden following the budget announcement and this would have meant that the government failed over more than three months to arrive at a compromise or to convince Lindeners that there was no other option but to cut the subsidy.
The other issues the government has conceded on are equally important and grievances of long standing. Among these is the question of the mono channel, state television diet that has been force fed to Lindeners despite efforts by several of their own to apply for licences. The government cruelly held the community at bay for virtually two decades while using the excuse of stalled political dialogue to cover its inaction. It has now been made to move swiftly in the direction of permitting other licensees even though last year it browbeat the public by selecting several of its friends for radio licences utilizing the opaque arrangements under the National Frequency Management Unit.
Another long-held grievance relates to the regional land selection committee, the kind of body which this government has had obsessions about controlling and manning it with its own selectees rather than putting it fully in the hands of local government.
Whereas all and more of these areas should have been conceded by the government many years ago to Linden without confrontation, it took prolonged protest and the tragic loss of life for the government to come to its senses.
What the government is conceding in mature agreement today with Region 10 should be extended to all other communities with justifiable demands, for example, as it relates to television coverage and land selection committees etc.
The government must also understand that there can be no backing away from these commitments when the pressure eases. The two sides should agree on one person with proven credentials to serve as an expediter and to ensure that there are no slippages. All eyes are now on the government for a reading of the sincerity of President Ramotar’s administration. The people of Linden have already paid a high price in having their just demands met. The government must ensure that it abides by its commitments and employ the lessons learnt in improving conditions for all Guyanese.