Stealing from the state

Official disclosures about accountability issues under the PPP/C administration including unfolding investigations into alleged mismanagement and misappropriation of state assets are finding their way into the public domain thick and fast, and it seems that those disclosures and their outcomes will remain there for some time. By last week the government had already listed quite a few issues which it says it will investigate. The names of one Minister and a few public servants were already being bandied about in the matter of the transfer of ownership of several vehicles belonging to the state. Other matters that have to do with abuse of state facilities, including the disclosure last week by Minister of State Joseph Harmon that officials of the previous political administration, their relatives and their friends were accessing fuel from the state-run GuyOil on credit but failing to pay their bills, have also surfaced. In some of these instances the police are already involved.

In the matter of the incident involving eight state vehicles in which former public service minister Dr Jennifer Westford, among others, have been named, it has been disclosed that those vehicles have all been restored to the custody of the authorities, though we are yet to be told exactly where that matter will go from here. One might ask, for example, whether the return of the vehicles marks the end of the matter or whether the circumstances under which the vehicles were removed from the possession of government in the first place remains under investigation.

Public officials coming under suspicion of using their office to steal from the state and to otherwise ‘engineer’ the misdirection of state resources is not unique to Guyana, though official corruption is always more burdensome to countries that are poor and where the cost of corrupt practices is usually counted in terms of the alternative good that the stolen resources could have realized. As with other poor countries too, the irony of the probes which the government here says it is undertaking has to do with the fact that there will be a cost in terms of the allocation of both human and financial resources, their time-consuming nature and the extent to which they tend to distract from various other pressing national emergencies; more than that, we can never really be entirely certain that all of the wrongs can be entirely righted.

Based on the revelations that have been made by Mr Harmon, it seems likely the various high-ranking officials of the previous administration, public officers and even (as in the case of the alleged GuyOil scam) some relatives of well-placed officials of the former administration may well become what the police usually refer to as “persons of interest.” There is also every likelihood that we will witness a great deal of boisterous public and political fallout including cries of witch-hunt (which appear to have already started) on the one hand and on the other, the kind of ‘baying for blood’ from those who are already insisting that in the matter of stealing from the state justice must be seen to be done.

It is here, of course, that government must be mindful of the importance of being continually aware of finding a balance between a sense of duty, on the one hand, and a responsibility to exercise objectivity and even-handedness, on the other. Probes into issues of accountability and irregularity cannot be driven by public noises that seek to drag the process in the direction of what might be termed cowboy justice. Once political vindictiveness rears its head in the process it is bound to lose a fair measure of public support and by extension, its credibility.

Of course, by the same token, the government cannot afford to allow cries of witch-hunt designed as elaborate smokescreens to distract attention from the substantive issue to deter it in its quest to do what it can to properly account for missing and/or misappropriated state resources. In sum it would do us all a power of good if we can avoid the eventuality of a toxic environment that inhibits rather than aids the course of justice whilst achieving the objective of ensuring that the assets of the state are properly accounted for.

There is also the role that a properly conducted investigation can play in helping to set new standards of official propriety. In that sense the promised probes can also serve as a means of holding the feet of the present and future governments to the fire. The probes may well be history in the making in terms of drawing a line under the use of authority to steal from the state, and for that reason as much as any other it is important they be seen to be above board, legitimate and beyond reasonable query.

There is a role here for the media and the citizenry as a whole in bearing witness to and passing judgment on the process, the assumption being that these probes will be as public as is practically possible and that the dissemination of information takes entirely into account the public’s right to know. Here, the point should be made that as much as anything else it is very much the government’s commitment to openness and transparency as it is facets of democratic behaviour that are on trial and it cannot afford to fail on those grounds. Much the same applies to the media, which, from all appearances, appear to be warming to the task of disseminating information in an environment where state-run media houses now seem to be wresting free of the dead hand of official censorship.

On the whole it is a matter of particular importance that the emerging probes into accusations of stealing from the state and otherwise failing to account for state property can proceed in a manner which renders the process and its outcomes eminently admissible as a testimony to the new political culture to which the political administration says it aspires.

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