Responsibility

As is very well known, it was US President Harry Truman who first introduced the world to the novelty of having a plaque on the desk which read, “The buck stops here”. Exactly where the buck stops in Guyana has been something of a conundrum, of course, since as far back as anyone can remember it has proved rather mobile. If anything, the tendency is for it to move downwards, rather than upwards, as at least one public official found out to his cost recently.

The older British tradition of prime ministers, ministers and senior officials taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions or those of the officials below them, appears to have been long forgotten here. There are, of course, various factors here militating against resignation at the highest leadership level of the ‘honour’ variety; however, the conventions for ministerial posts are a different matter.

Where the UK is concerned, the classic example cited is always that of Lord Carrington, who as Foreign Secretary took full responsibility for the failure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to foresee the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina, and resigned in consequence. Needless to say, there is no equivalent for that here, although it must be said that certainly under the PNC, Burnham did not wait on his ministers to offer their resignation voluntarily following some embarrassment or egregious error; they simply had to go. It was always believed by the populace beyond the fence of The Residence, that anyone newly appointed as a minister had to hand Mr Burnham a signed letter of resignation, for him to append the date when he saw fit. No ‘honour’ required there.

Since 1992, however, the general feeling has grown among voters that ministers should take responsibility for their actions. There have been some examples of appalling incompetence, which have had no consequences for the incumbents, and for which they have declined to accept that the buck had reached its final repose. There was, however, one minister in particular who effectively was pressured into resigning when the PPP/C was in office, and that was Mr Ronald Gajraj. He was Minister of Home Affairs at the time of the 2002 jailbreak, which caused this country such pain. Then President Bharrat Jagdeo was clearly reluctant to let him go, but he was given little option following a commission of inquiry (they were a great deal rarer then than they are now) raised questions about his contacts. Even then, he did not leave under a cloud; he was made High Commissioner to India.

But now we have another Minister of Public Security, also under pressure over prison breaks in addition to fires. Unlike his predecessor under the PPP/C mentioned above, he has accepted full responsibility for what has happened, although what that means in practice is not at all clear. Not resignation, it seems; his boss has already gone on record as saying the Minister should not be blamed.

In terms of actual prison breakouts – and fires ‒ this is by far the worst the country has ever seen. While the aftermath of 2002 threatened to undermine the state, that was not a failure at the prisons level so much – only five inmates broke out and they had only one gun – but a total breakdown of general security in Georgetown and along the coast, and the utter incapacity of the institutions of the state to respond effectively to the crisis, beginning from right after the escape occurred.

As far as the present situation is concerned, within the space of approximately fifteen months seventeen prisoners died in a fire in Camp Street and later the same jail was burnt to the ground by inmates; of those who escaped during the conflagration, four have still not been recaptured. Then after a large number were relocated to Lusignan, where they were effectively accommodated in a pasture, thirteen more dug a tunnel and got away. And all the Minister has to say is that he takes full responsibility? As was said in SN’s editorial of July 17, which dealt with the events of July 9, anywhere else the Minister would have resigned or been fired. As it is, however, we are just left with empty words. And now we have progressed even beyond July 9 to the Lusignan events of July 24.

No one has yet answered the question of how many prison officers were on duty in the yard at the time of the fires and breakout; the Minister must know, burnt logbook or no burnt logbook. The Minister must have a fairly good idea of what transpired on July 9 and where the administrative weaknesses were. It is clear to all and sundry that there are severe deficiencies in the prison administration, so any minister worth his salt would have engaged in some micro-management thereafter, to ensure that in irregular conditions such as obtained at Lusignan there could be no repetition and the public would be in no danger. Clearly, however, the Minister simply did not do that, and the prisoners inevitably took advantage of the negligence. So what ‘responsibility’ is he talking about now?

And then there is President Granger himself. He came to office on a security platform. A former Commander of the army, he had also sat as a member of the Disciplined Forces Commission in 2004, and his clear message during the APNU+AFC election campaign was that it was the coalition which would bring the security situation under control. The electorate believed him. While it is true that this is not something which can be achieved quickly, residents should be able to go to bed at night secure in the knowledge that prisoners will be safely incarcerated in the various jails to which they have been assigned, and not break out. That, at least, does not require a dramatic improvement in the crime situation.

President Granger has a very hands-off approach to his ministers. In this instance, following the July 9 catastrophe, it required him to get rather more involved, and insist on regular reports from his Minister of Home Affairs about the management of Lusignan, as well as the situation in the country’s other jails. After all, he has the experience and he has the knowledge. As with President Truman, ultimately the buck stops with him.

That apart are we to assume he is putting politics in this instance, ahead of other considerations? Minister Ramjattan, of course, is an AFC minister, and not exactly a junior member of that party either. At a time when the President had already eased Dr Roopnaraine out of the Education Minister’s post (he is a WPA minister), he perhaps did not want to open himself to accusations of purging non-PNC appointees from the Cabinet. Hypothetically speaking, therefore, if Minister Ramjattan did invest his expressed sense of responsibility with some meaning and did resign, as indeed he should, President Granger might even not accept the resignation, for the same reason he did not want Dr Roopnaraine to leave the Cabinet. Whatever the case, given his experience in the field, and the number of assorted former heads of the Disciplined Services he has at his disposal to advise him in the Ministry of the Presidency, he really has no excuse for not ensuring that the problems in the prison system are not addressed, even if he is determined that the Minister of Home Affairs should stay in place.

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