We now stand on the first rung of the 2017 ladder. What we know the year won’t bring is the ‘good life’ – whatever that was supposed to mean. And that is the problem; it never meant anything in particular. It was just one of those vapid phrases dreamed up by politicians to persuade voters to mark their ‘x’ in a certain space on the ballot paper. In our political world with its structural divide, there has always been one side or another dissatisfied with the outcome of an election in a more profound way than is the case in a democracy where the population is homogeneous. Consequently there will always be those who believe that on those grounds a ‘good life’ will be denied them.
The Guyanese public, however, is not totally naïve, and no matter which side of the political fault line they fall, they have entertained some reasonable expectations of their governments over the years. Many of these have been quite specific, and this year will relate to matters such as a coherent plan for the sugar industry, crime reduction, education, safety on the roads, infrastructure, among a number of others. However, there are also fundamental issues about which they nurse hopes – although not necessarily expectations – some of which have not changed much down the decades.
One of these is competent government. We have never really had it across the board, although there have been some ministries and governmental agencies at certain periods managed with considerable professionalism. In more recent times a part of the answer for government’s greater degree of incompetence is the human resources crisis. This crisis cuts across party lines, and it has never been as acute as it is now. Any government coming into office at this point would find it hard to fill all the posts which fall within its remit with personnel of true merit.
The problem is compounded by the habit of the party bosses of deeming loyalty a more desirable attribute than competence, or even confusing loyalty with talent. No more square pegs in round holes, promised Dr Cheddi Jagan when he came to office in 1992, but he and his successors found enough square pegs to scatter around the cabinet and bureaucracy to bring matches well below the level that everyone had anticipated.
As for the coalition, it promised voters a meritocracy before the 2015 election. Well, if what we have now is a meritocracy then the word must have changed its meaning. As far as the population is concerned, they would be happy if first, in 2017, the number of superfluous ministers was reduced, and second, if President David Granger would change his mind and entertain a modicum of cabinet reshuffling. Surely, even he – the most hands-off President we have ever had – must have noticed that some of his ministers are making repeated mistakes, sometimes of an astonishingly blatant kind, while others appear unfamiliar with their portfolios, or have undertaken actions around which questions linger, or whose skills would be more suited to a different ministry.
President Granger, however, has added a new dimension to an old habit: Many of his presumed loyalists are former military personnel. Perhaps it is that the Head of State was persuaded, given the human resources crisis, that he could employ the skills from which the army had previously benefited, and lift the quality of civilian administration. If that is so, it hasn’t worked. The most conspicuous failure was that of Minister Nicolette Henry last year, who so mismanaged the Jubilee celebrations and the official dinner which followed, that it was a source of some embarrassment. And yet, Ms Henry – along with Minister Annette Ferguson of the Ministry of Public Infrastructure – has been granted a generous government scholarship while she remains on the job. At the very least, it does the government no credit.
If it is his confidence in the capacities of his former military comrades that has made the President somewhat remote from the operations of government, then the consequence is that his ministers do their own thing, while current and former army personnel give direct orders bypassing legal civilian channels. On Friday, after a conservatory order had been handed down by the court in relation to Red House, men came from the Ministry of the Presidency in defiance of this and broke down the signboard and changed the padlock. Ms Indra Chandarpal told this newspaper that the men informed her they had been sent by Minister of State Joseph Harmon. If that was indeed so, just what was he thinking? The state is not synonymous with Camp Ayanganna. Then a few months ago, personnel in army uniforms were said to have gone to the Walter Roth Museum to tell the staff to move out by the end of the year. Again, they had no authority to do this, no matter who sent them.
In 2017, therefore, the electorate would want to see the President not only rein in some of his ministers, but scale back the penetration of government by former military personnel, and require those who remain to properly acquaint themselves with the Laws of Guyana at a minimum, and, of course, adhere to them.
In 1992 we were promised clean government; we are still waiting. After the coalition government planted a whole thicket of forensic audits to investigate what went on under the more recent PPP/C administrations, 2016 produced its own questions and outright scandals in relation to APNU+AFC’s financial dealings. Even Minister Harmon has given the public no answer about the GTT money, or for that matter full clarification about his China trip. Then there is the infamous D’Urban Park project, for which the Auditor General is to set up a special audit, and the unbelievable case of the drug bond, around which questions still swirl. The Minister at the centre of this outrage who also lied to Parliament about it, is in addition in charge of a ministry which appears incapable of ensuring the regular supply of critical drugs.
The President, who himself is totally uncontaminated by any kind of financial impropriety, nevertheless seems to lack the stomach to deal firmly with such in his government. A promise of accountability and transparency is thought to be one of the things which brought the coalition to office; there would have, therefore, to be a genuine commitment to it in 2017, if the administration is not to be seen as utterly cynical and hypocritical. That means too, ensuring that the various watchdog institutions are properly staffed and fully functioning. The people are tired of malfeasance in government.
Then there is the great political divide which has been the source of so much of our communal distress for half a century. The current buzzword is ‘social cohesion’, which has very little meaning in a context where the absence of cohesion has a strong political dimension. The least that can be said is that this won’t be ameliorated by any Minister of Social Cohesion. Democracy and freedom are not absolutely synonymous; the fact that our framework has been democratic to some degree since 1992, does not mean that segments of the population do not feel suffocated when the other ‘party’ is in power. Perhaps the best that could be offered by the administration for 2017 is fairness in treating with all groups, a greater openness, a preparedness to listen in consultations and take on board rational suggestions. It is a more tedious way of proceeding, but is absolutely essential in a society of this kind. In addition, the government would have to put in place the Ethnic Relations Commission again. Just talking about cohesion never did bridge a divide.
What we have been promised for this year is the next round of constitutional reform talks, no doubt once again with a view to promoting ‘inclusivity’ in our political arrangements. There will be a lot of talk about ‘winner should not take all’, etc, and in the course of that there will be endless discussion on how to reduce the powers of the president – judging by previous behaviour this is primarily the concern of whichever party is out of office. What the representatives will avoid, however, is the one proposal which really will achieve this, plus make the loss of an election a less disquieting event – namely, a return to a prime ministerial system. But then our politicians are nearly all about achieving power, in addition to which a number of them would like to be president. That such an idea would be seriously considered in 2017, therefore, is undoubtedly a hope too far.