Local government reform: Solving or creating a security dilemma?

The local government reforms of 2013 appear grounded in what Desmond Hoyte pejoratively referred to as “local government per se” (reforming local government for reform’s sake), and in this spirit I will begin this examination of the Bills that were recently passed by the National Assembly but are still to be assented to by the president. But even so, we should keep in mind that an important selling point of the drafters, particularly those in the opposition, was that these reforms will give significantly more power to local communities.

I will deal with what I believe to be the more important aspects of the legislation, starting with the Local Government (Amendment) Bill 2013. I have taken into consideration amendments made on the floor of parliament on the day of the debate that I am aware of.

The Bill’s explanatory memorandum tells us that its purpose is simply to include Neighbourhood Democratic Councils (NDCs) in the local government system, adjust penalties for breach of the law, give to the Minister of Legal Affairs the power to prescribe the fees payable for any local government process and make some consequential changes, and this is precisely what it does. Amendments to the definitions recognise the existence of a new Local Government Commission  (LGC) and extend the meaning of local authorities to municipal councils, NDCs, village councils and other similar organs. But a large amount of the Bill is taken up with simply substituting NDCs for villages.

Section 6 of the Local Government Act gives power to the minister to make any enquiries directed by the Act that he may from time to time feel necessary. The 2012 Bill contained a similar provision but the 2013 Bill vests this authority in the LGC. Section 13 of the Bill provides that “The Commission shall have and may exercise in any village or country district any or all of the powers of the local authority whenever it appears to the Commission expedient to do so.”

Reducing the legal authority of ministers has – particularly since 1997 – become something of an opposition hobby. In my view, this tendency does not reflect an ideological disagreement with how power is distributed in Westminster-type systems but has resulted from our specific political situation and grew out of the belief that PPP/C ministers acted highhandedly and were discriminatory, and from a sense of hopelessness about the prospects of coming to office. This approach has also been popular across constituencies, founded as it is on the public perception that ministers are too full of themselves and should be taken down a peg.

Whatever the reasons, what should be noted is that this approach has more to do with the struggle – particularly between the PPP/C and PNC – for power at the central level, rather than an effort to empower civil society.  Knowing what we do of the nature of the LGC – its formation and membership – we must ponder whether this transfer of ministerial power to it will constitute any real change in the status quo ante!

Yet it appears to me that even in this limiting context, the opportunity to entrench the Commission as an important body was missed. There are many examples of this, but take only the following. By Section 69 of the principal Act, the minister has the power to grant exemptions from payment of rates and taxes on the ground of the owner’s poverty, and section 79 gives the Minister of Legal Affairs power to “prescribe the fees for any process issued under this Act.” These sections have not been amended, and, so far as I am aware, before exercising these powers, the ministers are not even required to consult with the LGC, which has important oversight authority.

But far more importantly, I wonder how many of us realise that section 170B, which was added by the 2012 Bill to the ‘Miscellaneous Matters’ part of the original Act, gives the Minister, by way of regulations, the authority to establish a constabulary in each of Guyana’s 65 NDCs.

According to the 2012 Bill, the members and ranks of the constabulary of each NDC shall be as determined by the resolution of each NDC; a constabulary established under this section shall not be dissolved or disbanded without the prior approval of the minister; members of each constabulary shall be governed by rules prescribed by the minister, be under the control of the overseer of the NDC, make themselves available, and submit themselves whenever required by the NDC for training in their duties by the Guyana Police Force, and may bear arms in accordance with regulations made by the minister.

Furthermore, “Every member of a constabulary has in relation to: (a) any offence committed against this Act; (b) any offence committed in any place vested in, or under the control of, the N.D.C. or in any public place in the council area, all the powers and is entitled to all the privileges and immunities conferred on a police constable by any law for the time being in force.”

Negotiators tend to place all kinds of important but troublesome issues under innocuous headings, such as miscellaneous, appendices, etc., and I wonder if this is what happened here. What might appear innocuous in normal situations can become quite worrisome in the ethnic context of Guyana. When I think back to the misgivings voiced by the government about the operations of the Guyana Police Force and the possibilities the blanketing of Guyana with sixty-five armed groups could afford, I wonder if rather than solving we are not creating another security dilemma.

Furthermore, the Bill does not appear to set criteria for establishing these forces, require that the minister consult with the Commission before seeking to create such constabularies and says little of the relationship between them and the Guyana Police Force.

I began this discourse on local democracy by arguing that we must reach a stage in Guyana where these kinds of matters are open to public scrutiny before they are made into law.  Notwithstanding, the urgency pressed upon us by many, some with only passing interest in Guyana, we are the ones who will have to live with what is created in our name and with our apparent acquiescence.

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