Conflict of interest?

Dear Editor,

Guyana has one of the most archaic, uncompetitive and monopolistic telecommunication sectors in the western hemisphere. Long-suffering Guyanese have been crying out for reform and competition in this sector for a long time. The PPP tabled telecom reform legislation last year and then strangely and unceremoniously withdrew it in September 2011.

Tele-Atlantic Network Inc’s 2011 annual report states “On December 15, 2010, the Government, through the Office of the President, sent a letter to GT&T indicating that GT&T’s Licence was renewed until such time as a new legislative and regulatory regime to reform the telecommunications sector in Guyana is brought into force; however, GT&T formally notified the Government that it is entitled to an unconditional renewal of both the exclusive and non-exclusive licence grants for an additional period of 20 years or until such time as GT&T and the Company enter into a negotiated settlement with the Government.” Then in April 2012, the PPP sold its 20% stake in GT&T to a Chinese company, Datang Telecom Technology and Industry Group. This foolish move not only eradicated the government’s, and by extension, the Guyanese people’s voice and stake in the GT&T monopoly despite solid revenues, it most egregiously put another foreign company as part of the nation’s telecom monopoly. Withdrawal of the legislation in September 2011 also meant GT&T’s monopoly continues with the monopoly now controlled by two foreign companies. The sector continues to be an uncompetitive eyesore.

This is the mess we are in with respect to the telecoms sector. GT&T is the dominant player with exclusivity and a monopoly. Retired Major General, Joe Singh, was GT&T’s CEO from 2005 to July 31, 2010. He became GT&T’s CEO again at the end of June 2012. Mr Singh is also an advisor to the President.

It is important to know when Mr Singh became an advisor to the President to determine whether he was advising the state when the telecoms reform bill was withdrawn and the government’s shares in GT&T were sold.

Mr Singh’s forgoing of his monthly salary as presidential advisor is immaterial and inconsequential to the real issues here. Who knows when Mr Singh decided to forgo his salary; was it in the past week when his massive monthly remuneration as an advisor to the President was revealed or did this occur shortly after he became CEO of GT&T at the end of June 2012? The critical issue is the potential for influencing and for a conflict of interest raised by Mr Singh’s presence as an advisor to the President and continued presence in that role. Competitors to GT&T, the telecom industry, companies seeking to enter the market and the general public cannot benefit from the current CEO of a telecoms monopoly advising the government , which holds the power to pass legislation and reform the sector.

The President cannot be relying on Mr Singh for advice in his capacity as advisor to the President and then with respect to full accountability and transparency be negotiating and bargaining in good faith with Mr Singh in his capacity as CEO of GT&T for that negotiated settlement GT&T seeks. This puts the President in a position where he is constitutionally mandated to act in the best interests of the nation but receives advice from an individual who is acting in the best interest of his company. Joe Singh cannot realistically be acting in both capacities on this issue and not be in a conflict of interest. This scenario would never be repeated in the jurisdiction of GT&T’s parent company without the US President and the CEO of Tele-Atlantic Network Inc facing not only public outrage but potentially investigations into their connections, actions and conduct.

GT&T’s 2011 annual report confirmed its fears about coming telecom reform in Guyana. At this point, the PPP has withdrawn the bill. One is left to speculate that it may be a delaying tactic to ensure the status quo by default, or is it to allow GT&T to strengthen itself before the competition arrives? It is obvious that competition within and reform of the telecommunication sector is vital to Guyana’s future despite the PPP’s backward moves. Guyanese need affordable, high-quality and fast telecoms services, particularly in data, so those PPP cart-before-the-horse election-gimmickry laptops can be put to better use than centerpieces, and be marshalled to delivering knowledge empowerment.

After all, something is desperately needed to lift the mental mass index of politicians in this country.

Yours faithfully,
M Maxwell

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