Arrogance and power: The real legacy of the Jagdeo presidency

Alissa Trotz is editor of the In the Diaspora column.

A few days ago I came across an article on CSME Network News, an online news resource that describes itself as compiling “the latest in political and business news from CARICOM member states.” The article in question, titled ‘Jagdeo says Guyana will have first dibs on his service after retirement,‘ had been taken from a Demerara Waves report on President Jagdeo’s press conference last week. It raised two significant issues that all Guyanese should bear in mind – at home and in the diaspora where political parties have already come looking for campaign funds in this election season.

The first relates to the President’s response to a question about his plans after the forthcoming national elections, where he apparently “said he has had a ‘huge‘ number of offers to work abroad and he is still to determine how he will relate to them because some of them are ‘quite lucrative.‘”

This is quite a remarkable disclosure. One wonders what a “lucrative” offer looks like next to the golden handshake that pensioner Jagdeo will receive from Guyanese.

One thing we know for sure is that unlike the vast majority of Guyanese pensioners who currently receive $7,500/month, President Jagdeo will not be going hand to mouth while he makes a decision about which of these “lucrative” offers he will take. Unlike other Guyanese pensioners, many of whom in the twilight of their lives are reduced to begging or scraping a living from whatever job they can find, 48-year-old pensioner Jagdeo can choose to take another paid job, for he does not have to lift a finger for the rest of his life. Literally, for he will have an unlimited supply of maids, security guards, gardeners, attendants, clerical and technical staff to do all this for him. The same legislators who have told Guyanese pensioners to make do with $250.00 a day because this is what the country can afford, are the ones who have guaranteed that President Jagdeo will enjoy the most vulgar and obscene pension entitlements that we have ever seen in this country. The head of the Presidential Secretariat would have us believe that this is a most reasonable arrangement, despite the fact that the Minister of Finance cannot tell the Guyanese taxpayers what the cost of footing this bill will be, since the Act that brought this legislation into existence does not put any limits on these entitlements. We know this makes no financial sense, so we need to ask ourselves what else is going on here, and whose interests is all this supposed to serve? The sky’s the limit, but only for this one soon to be pensioner.

At the press conference, the President was reported to clearly express his undying patriotism, and to say that “anything I can do to advance our wellbeing as a country, that’s a priority for me.” Perhaps he should let us know equally clearly if, after he takes one of these so-called “lucrative” offers, he intends to keep squatting on the massive golden egg that is the Guyanese taxpayers who have to bear the unconscionable burden of footing his pension bill. With election date announced yesterday, it is time for all those campaigning for Guyanese support – votes and campaign donations – to ask all political parties and candidates some questions. Given that President Jagdeo promised that “Guyana will always have first call on his time,” should the PPP win the election and Jagdeo return to public office (as PPP presidential candidate Donald Ramotar has publicly mused in the past), will the party guarantee right now that he will be required to give up his pension, like former heads are required to do in other Caribbean countries? More crucially, which of the parties will categorically agree that Guyana’s current provisions for presidential pensions (under which Jagdeo will be the first recipient at age 48), are a complete and utter eyepass to Guyanese taxpayers, and which of the parties will commit to revising this vulgar legislation?

The second issue relates to President Jagdeo’s reported comment that “It’s important that we are competitive with each other as elections should be, people should criticize each other. I think we’re fair game for criticism because we’ve been in government for a while and we haven’t been perfect but we believe our record is good compared to the other people we are contesting against.”

This is also a most remarkable statement, in light of the President shutting down CNS TV Channel Six for four months, effectively ensuring that they are off the air for the duration of the elections. As newspaper editorials and commentators to the media and on the streets at the public meetings have pointed out, this is not a matter of either defending the content of the programme that allegedly precipitated this decision, or defending Mr Sharma personally. Channel Six is already before the courts since Bishop Juan Edghill brought a motion against Anthony Vieira and C N Sharma.

At issue is the high-handedness of this decision, and its timing. Bishop Edghill’s motion was filed since May of this year, but the President has waited for close to five months, and on the eve of the elections, to take Channel Six off the air. Whose interests does this serve? The President declares that criticism is healthy for a functioning democracy and that his government is fair game, but if he is confident that his party will win the forthcoming elections on the basis of popularity and loyalty, why are he and his government trying so hard to ensure that they sew up the media so that only their views will be heard? The state media is unequivocally and unapologetically unrepresentative, serving as little more than an outlet for PPP propaganda. Communities like Linden are given no choice beyond NCN Linden. The Stabroek News editorial of Sunday October 9 noted that Channel Six has a dedicated following in communities that are considered the stronghold and property of the PPP, (this should not be underestimated as a major factor in the 4 month suspension handed to the station). It is worth repeating what the editorial points out, that “since at the moment there is no indication that the state media intend to provide equal access to the opposition, it means that Freedom House is attempting to ensure that the public hears only PPP voices.”

What we have then, is lipservice being given to the value of criticism, while in reality only unquestioning obedience to and uncritical support of this administration will do. The way it seems we are expected to get things done today is by grovelling and by fear; a common pattern, reflected even in the meeting that led to the 4 month suspension, is the seeking out of personal audiences with the President who grants favours that should be entitlements and takes them away because he can. This is the stuff these days of an executive presidency. This is the difference that the PPP promised 19 years after they came to power? What difference? There is a word for this presidential behaviour, hubris, which means excessive arrogance, especially when the one who is behaving in this obscene way occupies a position of great authority.

On September 16 a lavish appreciation ceremony was held for President Jagdeo at the National Stadium. And while organizers were quick to claim that this was all volunteer labour, state resources were heavily drawn on to bring off the event, from the participation of the armed forces to the extensive coverage of the state owned media.  I am sure that for many it felt like déjà vu, reminding us of those ceremonial and public displays of loyalty to President Burnham. In the press conference last week President Jagdeo reportedly stated that “the people who live here are my people.” He may have wanted to communicate that he was of the people, a sufferer with the people, but it is hard not to read the use of the word “my” in another way, one that emphasizes who is really in control, and is prepared to exercise executive power to maintain that control. ‘My people’:

because I am on top and they belong to me. It’s hard not to see this when we look at the lavish farewell ceremony in which the state media make every effort in their coverage to show grateful people thanking ‘massa’; or when we consider the farewell presidential pension package the likes of which the country has never seen and that ‘my people’ will be paying for; or when we think of the decision to shut down criticism because only my people, who must be yes-people, will be allowed to speak.

There is a famous children’s story that my daughter recently performed on stage about the emperor who strutted about naked in front of “his” people because no-one dared to tell him that he was not wearing a new suit of clothes. It took one child to insist to the pompous emperor that he had nothing on. An online definition of hubris suggests that the over-confidence in one’s authority comes from having lost touch with reality. As we enter this election season, and long after the dust settles on it, we need to stand up, to become that child who speaks back to the emperor because she can, and because she must understand that she is the reality that cannot and will not be ignored, the reality that needs to be reckoned with.

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