The Public Procurement Commission was recommended by the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC) in 2000 as a constitutional commission. Its objective was to reduce or prevent corruption in procurement if the growing allegations were to be believed. The charges of general, widespread corruption in other areas had not yet become prominent. The CRC felt that it was necessary to have a constitutional commission so that its provisions would be entrenched and difficult to change. The amendments to the Constitution were made in 2002.
Article 212W of the Constitution provides that the purpose of the Commission is to monitor procurement and the procedure to ensure that the procurement of goods, services and the execution of works are conducted in a fair, equitable, transparent and cost effective manner. Its functions are widespread.
They include monitoring and reviewing all procurement systems; procedures of ministerial, regional and national procurement entities and project execution units; monitor performance with respect to adherence of regulations and efficiency in procuring goods and services and execution or works; investigate complaints; investigate irregularities; initiate investigations and more.
Article 212X provides that the Commission shall have five members with expertise in procurement, legal, financial and administrative matters.
The members must be nominated by the Public Accounts Committee and supported by two-thirds of the members of the National Assembly.
This brief review tells a long story. The drafters provided for a composition and an administrative structure with such detailed functions that demonstrated that there was no doubt of their clear intention that nothing less than an all-embracing, ‘independent’ and ‘impartial’ body with no government control would suffice for the purpose. The panel which drafted the constitutional amendment was led by PPP parliamentarians who were in the majority.
Ten years have passed since the Commission has been enshrined in our Constitution. During this time the allegations of corruption in procurement, and generally, have sharply escalated and no additional legal or administrative anti-corruption measures of a substantial nature have been implemented. The mechanism to deal with a substantial area of corruption allegations exists in the Public Procurement Commission.
In the past, except during the authoritarian era of Burnham’s rule, where commissions were expected to comprise both government and opposition members, each would make their nominations and the appointments would be made. On this occasion the PNCR unwisely demanded that all the nominees had to be approved by all the political parties. As was to be expected, this led to gridlock. In a speech in the National Assembly of the Ninth Parliament President Donald Ramotar, then an MP, explained that the delay in appointing the Commission was due to the PNCR’s insistence on unanimity.
Now that Mr Ramotar has become president, his government has changed its position and joined the PNCR in its shortsighted insistence on unanimity, which he had criticized in the National Assembly. We have seen that such insistence, enshrined in the Constitution, has resulted in gridlock in the appointment of a chancellor and chief justice.
But the government has now gone further and has declared that the appointment of the Public Procurement Commission is not a priority.
Corruption is a major issue in our politics and it will not go away. It is baffling that with all the divisions and controversies arising generally from our politics, and now from the government not having a majority, that it would not want to get the issue of corruption out of the way. This leads to widespread speculation in the press and elsewhere that the government has no intention of curbing corruption because its members, friends and supporters benefit from it.
Many observers believe that corruption is one of the reasons why many PPP supporters failed to turn out to vote at the last elections thereby depriving the PPP of its absolute majority. While in the absence of scientific polling no one can be certain about the reasons for PPP supporters migrating to the AFC or staying at home, there is little doubt that a strong sense of dissatisfaction exists among PPP supporters which will not improve unless there is a dramatic improvement in the conditions of sugar workers, a determined effort to tackle corruption and productive relations with the opposition in Parliament which see the country moving forward. Belated efforts to strengthen the party’s organizational apparatus, engage supporters in their communities and workplaces and blaming the opposition will not do the job.
There are really no insuperable obstacles to the establishment of the Commission. The government will need to understand that because of its minority status in the National Assembly, it has lost its capacity to have a majority on the Commission.
But that is not the end of the world. Tackling corruption is in the government’s interest and it does not matter that it would not have the majority on the Commission, unless it has a wish to protect special interests, which will defeat the objective of the Commission.
The opposition is now in a majority position and can afford to drop its insistence on unanimity. It may wish to consider proposing members who are qualified and independent but would not cause the PPP to see red flags, notwithstanding its commitment to the flying red flag in its party’s song. A chair can be selected by the tried and tested Carter method. These are certainly not the only ideas available for a resolution of the differences which no effort is being made to resolve. But there must be goodwill.
If the political parties choose the path of disinterest and gridlock, then the issue will have to be left to the electorate. Both parties will have to explain their positions to the electorate as to why they insist on gridlock and why Guyanese people cannot be protected from corruption when a strong and potentially effective constitutional mechanism, the Public Procurement Commission, is provided for in the Constitution.
(This column first appeared on Ralph Ramkarran’s blog (www.conversationtree.gy)