Only now that the country is on the brink of an election has President Jagdeo seen fit to dispense with the services of his Minister of Local Government, Mr Kellawan Lall. Given Mr Lall’s talent for enlivening the rum-shop scene (among other things), one can only marvel that he didn’t go a long time ago. His replacement is Mr Norman Whittaker, who was the Liaison Officer in the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs prior to his elevation, and at an earlier stage, Chairman of Region One.
With the PPP in something of disarray, and given its underlying anxiety about the solidity of its voter base, there can be no doubt that this is an election move. After all, the President has nothing personally to gain by reshuffling his cabinet at this point. Where the party is concerned, however, it is another matter. Not only does the PPP need the Amerindian vote more than ever, it needs the Amerindian vote in Region One in particular, for demographic reasons. As a former liaison officer, Mr Whittaker has the advantage of familiarity with indigenous issues in general, in addition to which he also knows Region One well. For their part many of the inhabitants of the region will know him personally, especially through his stint as Regional Chairman. That is an important consideration in circumstances where the PPP presidential candidate, whoever he might be, will most likely be little known in hinterland areas.
Mr Lall, however, is not just to be tossed aside; far from it. The diplomatic community in Brasilia will now be the beneficiary of his presence since he has been made our Ambassador to Brazil. The hapless Mr Nawbatt, former Minister of Housing and Water, and now, it seems, former Ambassador, is to be (or has already been) recalled from there. Which all goes to demonstrate once again that for the PPP incompetence, peccadilloes, improprieties, improper associations and worse, are insufficient grounds for firing a minister. Those things really don’t matter. What counts above all else is loyalty to the party, and no one could accuse Mr Lall of disloyalty.
At his press conference last week, Dr Luncheon told the media in answer to a question that the President had made Mr Lall an offer he couldn’t refuse. This cavalier response simply reinforces what the public already knows, namely, that the PPP sees ambassadorial postings as rewards for its doughty front-line troops or as plums to assuage the bruised egos of those who are required to step down from their ministerial posts for the larger good of the party. When making senior appointments to foreign missions, it is not necessary, it seems, to find the most suitable candidate who has the skills and experience to represent Guyana’s interests abroad; the personal qualities which would allow him or her to make useful contacts and get a real feel of what was happening in the host country; or, in the case of a non-English speaking nation the energy and capability to acquire a fluency in the language. What is required is that s/he be a faithful party devotee – preferably of long standing.
Where selecting heads of foreign missions is concerned, therefore, with a few exceptions, the PPP/C has shown utter contempt for the professionalism of the foreign service. How can the party expect to retain professional diplomats of any quality if their ambassadors or high commissioners are not worthy of respect in their field? There will always be one or two unfortunate choices, but after nearly nineteen years to have a heads of mission complement, the majority of whom (there are, as said, some exceptions) lack the attributes and accomplishments of true diplomats, and worse, will never be able to acquire them, is to undermine the capability of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and to discourage talented young people from entering the foreign service.
And even in the eyes of the uninitiated, some of the choices were very obviously rewards for services to the party. Those heads were often the silent ones, like Mr Karshanjee Arjun in Suriname, whose diplomatic endeavours remain a mystery. He was forced into the spotlight in 2000, when the Surinamese evicted the CGX rig, something which he seemingly gave no advance warning about, even if it only involved drawing inferences from the mood in Paramaribo. Another diplomatic sleeper was Mr Laleshwar Lall in London, whose activities are unknown. How did he promote Guyana? Nobody knows. Did he address various groups across the UK? Nobody knows. Did he encourage British businesses to investigate the options here? Nobody knows.
The most notorious appointment, of course, was that of Mr Ronald Gajraj, whose position as Minister of Home Affairs, the President was determined to save. Following the inquiry into his activities during the period of the infamous crime wave of 2002-03, however, Mr Jagdeo was eventually forced to ask him to step down. In order to insulate him from any further questions which might have been asked – and which certainly would have been after Mr Roger Khan found himself in front of a federal court in Brooklyn – he was dispatched as our High Commissioner to India where he has remained ever since.
In addition to the contempt shown for the foreign service, there is the contempt for the people of Guyana, who expect their nation’s interest to be at least adequately represented. Ultimately, it is taxpayers’ money which pays the salaries of ambassadors, and they do not give a third of their income every month to provide anything which has a whiff of jobs (or protection) for the boys about it. When the PPP/C first came to office, it had a disrespect for the foreign service for various reasons, one of which simply was that its members were thought to waste time and funds tippling ‘sherry’ at cocktail parties. While that was a misunderstanding of a diplomat’s job, one would have thought that after a time they would have learned what diplomacy was all about. But apparently not. So now heads of mission posts have become a means in too many instances of using state resources to compensate persons whose qualifications for the job relate only to the party, and not to the state.
And now in the best tradition of the ruling party, we have Mr Kellawan Lall going to Brazil, the fortunate depository it seems, of former Guyanese ministers. Mr Lall, as everyone knows, has been in the public eye for incidents which had nothing to do with his ministerial status, such as the rum shop brawl with a teenager, following which he discharged his weapon, and an accident in more recent times. If his comments during the garbage collectors’ strike last year are anything to go by, diplomatic language might not be his strong suit. If so, that would be unfortunate, since he is going to a country which sets great store by diplomacy, and has some very sophisticated diplomats in its foreign service.
A final thought. Does Mr Lall speak Portuguese, or if not, has the government arranged for him to have a crash course?