The political landscape of this country has for some time now been a theatre for acerbic insults and narrow-mindedness. It is common for people to be criminalised and dehumanised at political and non-political events alike, and even in forums like the National Assembly. It’s so commonplace that a Permanent Secretary could abuse and threaten a large group of young Amerindian leaders and not be made to answer for his actions.
In case the incident has been forgotten, Permanent Secretary at the Amerindian Affairs Ministry Nigel Dharamlall was recorded during a meeting last month threatening to bar access to his office and withhold stipends from Amerindian leaders who misrepresent the government’s Community Development Project (CDP) as a United Nations Development Pro-gramme (UNDP) project.
This is the second most senior official at the Ministry, which is responsible for engaging Amerindians to design programmes and projects which directly affects them. For this reason, there is no conceivable way he could introduce a policy which says some Amerindians are allowed access to his office and some are not. He, like any other official holding a similar office, has no such authority.
He was recorded saying:
“The LCDS is the Government of Guyana…the people of Guyana…I don’t want any single one of you to ever again – and I keep saying this over and over – any CSO who says they are working on the UNDP project called the CDP I want you off the CSO project.”
“…Any Toshao or senior councillor who represents to any village that the CDP is a UNDP project, you don’t have access to my office. I’m coming hard line on people who don’t see a future and who don’t want to be part of the development of the country.”
It is evident from the audio recording that Nigel Dharamlall is confused about why he was empowered as Permanent Secretary. His language and tone are clear, as are the threats outlined in the extracted quote. Listening to him scold the Amerindian leaders who were assembled at the Guyana International Conference Centre at Liliendaal for the meeting was incredibly difficult and worrying. It is just not the kind of conversation an office holder like Dharamlall should be having with any citizen he is expected to be serving. It also is not the kind of conversation public officials in a democracy have with the people they represent–those conversations are respectful, has room for healthy skepticism and are not abusive. In the very least, citizens are not treated like they lack the capacity to think for themselves.
When Dharamlall went on his tirade and issued threats in relation to whether his office was there for a few Amerindians or all Amerindians, he crossed a line; a line between where our indigenous community is meaningfully engaged as critical stakeholders in their own development or are rudely treated like a constituency that is told what to do, how to do it and when.
From his perspective, the CDP project is a Government of Guyana initiative and there can be no room for any mix-up. Community Support Officers (CSOs) in Amerindian communities simply cannot get confused about it being a UNDP project even though the UNDP is an active partner. Should anyone get confused they do not deserve to be serving as a CSO and they also are not worthy of accessing Dharamlall’s office.
But while he was throwing around his threats and insults, the Permanent Secretary should have paused to think about why some Amerindian leaders were getting mixed up with the project and calling it the UNDP project. The reality is that the UNDP has a long history of working in Amerindian communities and the agency provides direct support for projects, meaning it is in touch with the people directly, not through the Ministry. Therefore, Amerindian leaders would have been partnering with UNDP over an extensive period.
UNDP has been working in these communities long before Dharmamlall emerged on the scene. The agency partners with indigenous communities in a number of areas and has been developing its capacity to engage indigenous peoples’ full participation in its programme and project design and implementation. Further, UNDP’s work is guided by the principle of free prior and informed consent. The principle is acknowledged in various documents within the field of international human rights law.
Article 6 of the ILO Convention (No.169) Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, refers to the principle of free and informed consent in the context of establishing mechanisms for free participation at all levels of decision-making in “elective institutions and administrative bodies responsible for policies and programmes which concern them”.
The CSO project is recent, as is the CDP project, yet Dharmamlall was acting as if they have been around for so long those Amerindian leaders ought to know which project government is administering and which is being implemented by the UNDP. And what’s more, they dare not mistake one for the other, or call one the other!
Since the recording went public Dharamlall has been bold enough to tell us that his statements were taken out of context. But context is not applicable here, in this instance; he was clearly displaying hostility and arrogance. His behaviour might have gone unchecked for so long that when he hurled his threats and insults, it all seemed normal – nothing to make an issue out of here.
But that is the problem. To date, Dharamlall has not apologised for his behaviour and he has not been made to answer for his deplorable conduct.
The sad reality is that no one has really said much about the incident either. It is as if we don’t have a problem with this politics of abuse and that it is okay for an official holding Dharamlall’s office to speak to citizens in any manner they choose.
Consequently, the political landscape deteriorates and we will all sit around and wait for when it is our turn. What I found particularly troubling was the fact that Dharamlall acted in this manner in the presence of his seniors, this includes Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh and Amerindian Affairs Minister Pauline Sukhai.
What happened on April 14, 2014 at the closed door meeting with young Amerindian leaders cannot be repeated. Nigel Dharamlall had no idea he was being recorded and we learnt his style of engagement, a style which must be condemned.
We need to start condemning the wrongs in our society and consistently press for officials to account for their actions. So far, the Amerindian People’s Association (APA) has condemned his actions as have MPs Joseph Harmon and Valerie Garrido-Lowe, while the Stabroek News editorialised on the issue, saying, among other things, that reformed laws targeting Amerindians will not deliver much if officials like Dharamlall “don’t accord the respect that must be shown.”
Officials in leadership roles like Dharamlall have key roles to play in our development, and, in his case, the advancement of our indigenous communities. Therefore, we should expect nothing less than a high level of sensitivity and utmost respect from them in their interactions with us.
Have a question or comment? Connect with Iana Seales at about.me/iseales