No getting away from the corruption spectre

At every twist and turn along the way, the government is being confronted with diplomatic and not so diplomatic warnings about corruption and the threat that this poses to investment, good governance and the rule of law here.

Mr Ralph Ramkarran had been with the ruling PPP for nearly 50 years prior to his exit because his concerns about corruption rankled in the party and led to differences. He was a party grandee and one of the few figures in  the upper echelons of the PPP whose national contributions and judgement were respected across political lines. In a column last week he pulled no punches. He charged that the PPP was no longer driven by the working class ideology that had moved its founders but was now in the grip of oligarchs, avaricious contractors and corrupt bureaucrats all locked in a cycle of greed, enrichment and illegality. At the top of this pyramid of vulgarity was, as he put it, “…a group of wealthy and influential businessmen who have high political connections. They meet regularly to examine business opportunities and potential deals and map out strategies as to how their plans can go forward, and implement those plans. They have access, through their political connections, to information of the potential opportunities that are likely to emerge in the near to medium term and are in a position to make the investments now so as to cash in on those opportunities down the road.”

These scheming businessmen would no doubt be the coterie that was cultivated and set on the road of limitless aggrandizing by former President Jagdeo.   One wonders, how the current President, Mr Ramotar, who has also been General Secretary of the PPP for over 16 years would respond to the accusation by his former longstanding colleague that the ideals of the Jagans – as impractical as some of them might have been – have been betrayed under his watch. Mr Ramkarran  further asserted that because of commingling of these corrupt groups with the PPP and their inter-dependence the government was not interested in building fundamental checks and balances institutions like the Public Procurement Commission which had been promised by the PPP over a decade ago.

Hardly had the frisson over Mr Ramkarran’s charges waned when an investment conference put on by Canada and other partners spent a significant amount of time pondering the need to address corruption and no doubt angering the government which thought it was going to get a chance to play up its investment credentials in a one-sided equation.

The Canadian High Commissioner to Guyana Mr David Devine opened the conference with a simple message that countries that do not have effective preventive measures in place to stop corruption will lose investors.

“On a global scale, investors pursue investment opportunities in locations where there are established ethical and transparent business practices. Firms work in countries where their investment dollars are managed efficiently and where practices such as child labour, bribery and corrupt practices are seen as social ills that have no place in business dealings”, he posited. He added on day two of the conference that the setting up of bodies such as the Public Procurement Commission would address perceptions of corruption.

The second day of the conference also saw the interim head of the Caricom security agency IMPACS, Mr Francis Forbes stating that Guyana’s potential was being threatened by the scourge of corruption and that the “truth is that there are some persons who see the issue of corruption in Guyana as endemic”.

No doubt stung by the directness of Mr Forbes’ remarks, the Minister of Finance Dr Ashni Singh later stated “I hear Mr. Forbes speak of the scourge of corruption and I would urge some caution in perpetuating at a rigorous level [such statements]”. Both Dr Singh and President Ramotar sought to sweep aside concerns about corruption as either being just perceptions or emanating from the political competition in the country that has spawned a host of allegations from the opposition. Dr Singh incredibly referred to TV programmes on NCN with opposition representatives, which he said failed to produce examples of corruption, as evidence that graft was not a problem here. Ironically, several months after these programmes, senior NCN executives were at the centre of a corruption scandal which the government continues to be silent on and suppress information about.

President Ramotar and Dr Singh continue to live in extravagant denial of the seriousness of corruption and unaccountability. Democratic solidity is underpinned by strong, vibrant institutions like the Public Procurement Commission. Neither the President nor Dr Singh can today provide a credible reason why this commission is not yet in place. When the PPP/C controlled parliament it ignored the need for it on specious grounds. It just didn’t want independent eyes observing what was transpiring.

The argument from the President that the charge of corruption is mostly about perception is hardly worth considering. The truth is that the PPP has constructed, as Mr Ramkarran has referred to, a web of patronage and enrichment that has recruited many into illegalities. None will give the other away and there will be no paper trail. Further, the manner in which the PPP exacts retribution scares many from even contemplating speaking about irregularities. These excrescences will rise to the surface anyway even if the government pretends they don’t exist. The investigation currently being done by the Inter-American Development Bank of the Citizen Security Programme is the ultimate embarrassment to the government. A programme meant to provide citizens with a sense of security appears to have been ripped off right under the nose of the Home Affairs Ministry. This development was not announced by the government and it is now left to be seen if the IDB recognizes that the citizens of this country who will have to pay back its loan money deserve a full accounting of any fraud pertaining to this project.

The awarding of radio licences in the dying days of the Jagdeo administration constituted a corrupting of the process. The government to this day can provide no explanation for the manner in which it was done. The shadowy dealings around the Marriott Hotel and the assigning of valuable property and rights of the citizens are a corruption of the process. To date, Guyanese haven’t the foggiest idea of who their fellow investor is. The manner of the award of the contract for the specialty hospital leaves very little to the imagination. Perhaps the biggest locus of corruption is the assigning of contracts to persons who are not qualified for contracting work. Had the procurement commission been in place, this no doubt would have been an area for attention.

In all of their manufactured excuses and defences against the voluble concerns about corruption and the lack of transparency, Messrs Ramotar and Singh miss an important point. Real harm is being done to the country’s investment prospects, its image abroad and to the fair apportioning of opportunities to Guyanese in the narrow interest of maintaining the supremacy of the PPP, currently sustained by a cabal referred to by Mr Ramkarran.  That is certainly not what good governance is about.

There can be no more excuses. The government has been nakedly exposed for its reckless handling of the warnings from the Caribbean Financial Action Taskforce on anti-money laundering legislation. This is another example of inexplicable inaction which could only lead to the most adverse conclusions. The immediate setting up of the procurement commission would be a sign that the government is serious about transparency and fighting corruption. However,  as with the anti-money laundering laws, the government has to overcome a serious deficit in terms of promised and expected actions.

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