With the midpoint of the APNU+AFC term in office approaching, citizens might be excused for thinking that they flit back and forth between two very different existences. One of these encompasses the ubiquitous chatter about Guyana’s oil future. With a production licence having been issued by the government to ExxonMobil for the Liza well, the reality of what lies ahead draws closer and closer. Calculations abound about how much revenue will pour into the economy each year after 2020 and how it might or might not benefit the ordinary person. Already, various lines are being drawn by stakeholders who are no doubt motivated by the bottom line. The numerous public oil fora that have since been convened here by the government, ExxonMobil and two local oil and gas associations (why two?) have drawn heavy attendances that must be the envy of worthier gatherings on human rights, constitution reform, VAT on private education and the like.
Yet, there are many serious aspects of the oil discussion that remain unsatisfactory: the government’s unconvincing decision to withhold the amended contract with ExxonMobil from the public, doubts about whether the government has mobilised the negotiating and regulatory acumen equal to ExxonMobil, slow progress on acceding to the mechanism to track all oil payments, glacial movement on the architecture for a sovereign wealth fund and little to no discussion of how the local economy should be reoriented for consistent high-paying job growth once money begins to flow.
The other existence is the here and the now. The one that citizens live with on a daily basis and the one that the government has shown poor management of. After months of dismal performance by the Guyana Power and Light (GPL) – which has been without a substantive Chief Executive Officer for 18 months – the Minister of Public Infrastructure, David Patterson was moved to express his disappointment with the situation and to promise that he would personally see to this problem over the parliamentary recess. His vow sounded somewhat similar to the one that had been uttered by former President Jagdeo at the height of the disasters at the new Skeldon Sugar factory. One can only hope that Minister Patterson is more successful.
Fifty years after independence, it cannot be overstated how the very brittle power supply has affected the psyche of the population, fuels severe losses for homeowners and businesses alike and dissuades investors in the diaspora and elsewhere. A large debt has been incurred over GPL and its predecessor in the last three to four decades yet its transmission and distribution system remains in a parlous state. More than two years after it entered office, the government faces a severe challenge on power supply and ensuring the stability of the generating system.
Then there is the absolute disaster in the prisons. Having been fully aware in copious doses of the problems in the prison system, the government lost control of the situation, subjecting the public to grave security risks which remain. Nothing eclipses last year’s fire mayhem in which 17 prisoners, for whom the state held responsibility perished at the Camp Street prison. Save for those prisoners who actively set fires and prevented the rescue of those who were trapped, the state was fully culpable for those lives and should have adequately compensated the next of kin. Despite all of the unsettled problems from the 2016 fire, the authorities were caught napping when determined prisoners orchestrated a mind-boggling escape on July 9th, killing a prison warder and burning down all of the wooden buildings in the aged compound. It didn’t end there. Thirteen prisoners tunnelled out of a holding area at Lusignan on July 24, sixteen were shot a week later at the same facility during an apparent attempt to escape and then a prisoner was shot dead at the Timehri lookups under controversial circumstances when he allegedly attempted to escape. Inmates held in the prisons have clearly discerned that there are numerous weaknesses in the system and they are prepared to take advantage of them. Four prisoners remain on the loose and the government needs to redouble efforts to recapture them and bring order to the prisons.
The hundreds of laid off sugar workers from the Wales estate and the thousands of others who face this prospect continue to be at their wit’s end about alternatives. The government and GuySuCo have thus far failed to provide any convincing assurance about the way forward. This must be a top priority for the government in the second half of its term.
No matter where one turns, there are numerous hard luck stories of citizens in desperate need for help from the state’s social protection system. One such case pertains to single mother Sharon Cosbert whose son, Shamar Henry, was left maimed in an accident. Not only was she dissatisfied with the court’s ruling but without any meaningful compensation she is left to struggle on her own to care for her son. When one considers the hare-brained expenditure of over $1b on the D’Urban Park white elephant and in other ill-advised areas why can’t the government commit to a significant monthly stipend to these families in desperate straits?
At the midpoint of its term, the government is clearly transfixed by the impending oil economy while little else seems to be happening. It must use the remainder of its term to address the major outstanding priorities which continue to beset citizens on a daily basis.