If one were to appraise President Ramotar’s one-year anniversary and the PPP/C’s unbroken 20-year tenure through the prism of local government the only substantial conclusions that can be drawn are that the government has failed miserably and in doing so has exercised its own version of party paramountcy over the various organs.
Local government in its simplest form is meant to hand decision-making power to ordinary citizens in their own communities, villages, NDCs etc. The centre is meant to devolve these powers to the peripheries and everywhere between, all the while ensuring a maturing system that takes charge of looking after its own business whether they be drains, canals, roads, schools, health centres etc.
History will record that after having complained vociferously in Parliament and elsewhere for many years that the PNC held no local government elections between 1970 and 1992, the PPP/C itself has not held local government elections for 18 years. There really isn’t much difference between 22 years and 18 years.
Its mandarins will undoubtedly come up with legions of excuses as to why local government polls weren’t held: the unrest over the 1997 general elections, the truncated presidential term of Mrs Janet Jagan, the public service strike, the ascension of President Jagdeo, turmoil over the 2001 election results, the crime spree occasioned by the 2002 prison break and the “intransigence” of the opposition. None of these acceptably explain why local government elections have not been held since 1994.
There is a well held view that whenever it would have deigned to stage these elections the PPP/C would have faced the risk of losing badly as issues of person well-being and security take precedence at local government polls over the preservation of the status of parties at national elections. It would not have been a bad thing if the party lost. The last thing that local government needs is the bitter taste of stultifying national politics.
That, however, is what the PPP/C is determined to continue injecting into local government councils and other bodies and there appears to be no prospect of local government elections on the horizon. What the ruling party has however set out to do is hijack local government councils by the most shambolic means conceivable. Under the new lieutenants at the Ministry of Local Government, dozens of councils – admittedly not functioning or with only a few hardy souls remaining – have been targeted allegedly on the grounds that citizens have petitioned for a dissolution.
Now, it is quite unlikely that the overburdened citizens of this land – particularly if they were not faithful adherents to the ruling party – would petition a ministry of this government expecting some kind of concerted action. Which innocent abroad would actually conceive of this? It is more than likely that the ruling party has been able to get a few people to sign generic petitions and to have these tabled at the Local Government Ministry.
What weight is assigned to any of these petitions? Is there a credible basis to the complaints? Are the petitions available for NGOs or the media to examine? Is the authenticity of the names on the petition verified? Probably not. However, on this basis, dozens of “hearings” have been summoned – usually very sparsely attended and unfocused – and then just like that, a few weeks later, the Neighbourhood Democratic Council is dissolved by edict of the Ministry of Local Government. Even where there was broad and vociferous opposition to dissolution of the councils, as was the case at Bartica and Kwakwani, the ministry still went ahead.
This is not a renewing of the democratic mandate but essentially a takeover of the NDC by the Local Government Ministry and the handpicking of the party faithful and one or two others. Overseers have also been ruthlessly moved around by the ministry. The council is then effectively in the hands of the PPP/C which can then assign contracts to its supporters and continue this corrupt cycle. All affairs of the council can also be oriented to the ruling party’s gain as it tries desperately to claw back support lost at the general elections last year. This could not be a renewal of local government. It’s a farce.
A perfect example of the command and control style of local government politics, is the government’s use of regional executive officers to dictate what goes on at regional democratic councils (RDC). The REOs are answerable to the local government ministry and there is little doubt as to where their instructions come from. The best evidence of this is the recent meeting between President Ramotar and REOs at the Office of the President. Why should the Executive President of the country have to summon REOs? Undoubtedly he would have uttered the same platitudes about ensuring that money is properly and expeditiously spent and that contracts comply with procurement rules. The subtext of the meeting is however far more potent and revealing about power relations. This power play creates tensions with Regional Democratic Councils which may have their own and proper views as to how the business of the region should be run. An apt example of this is the current contention between the REO of Region Eight and the opposition-controlled RDC. A vast canvas is available to the ruling party and government to paint their own path even if it effaces the wishes of the people living in the region.
And there is no masking of the vulgarity of the government’s ingratiation with the villages and councils. Each day of the week there are forays by ministers, permanent secretaries and other officials to hand over ATVs, solar panels, outboard motor engines, sport gear and an assortment of other sweeteners. Surely, in a proper and well-developed local government system, such blandishments would have been things of a paternalistic past and all of the state’s resources would have been distributed via town councils, NDCs and village councils in accordance with a well-articulated plan.
All of these deformities and transgressions in the local government system will persist until this government does the right thing and allows the passage of acceptable legislation for a local government commission, for councils to have full authority over all of their staff and for fiscal transfers from the centre to the regions. Until then, the reign of the PPP/C over local government will be seen as regressive and opposed to the interests of the people despite the ruling party’s well-documented lamentations when it was in the opposition wilderness.