The Commission of Inquiries Act empowers the President to commission an inquiry into any matter of public interest. Historically, this power was sparingly used. Whenever invoked, it was in rare and exceptional circumstances. However, under this coalition government, we are witnessing a wholly new approach. In 2½ years, we have had more commissions of inquiry (CoI) than in any period of our history as an independent nation.
We have had one in relation to the education sector; one in relation to GuySuCo; one in relation to the public service; one in relation to Amerindian + freed Africans land issues; we had one in respect of an abandoned aircraft found somewhere in Region 9; one is soon to be launched into whether the Guyana Police Force adequately and properly investigated an alleged plot to assassinate the President; we had one in respect of the Camp Street Prisons fire which claimed the lives of 17 persons over a year ago. And I have no doubt there will be one in respect of the latest tragedy at the Camp Street Prisons. This list is not by any means exhaustive. However, even with what I have enumerated, this would be world record for any government in a 2½ year period.
It is a fact of public notoriety that CoI’s do not come cheap. Commissioners are normally highly paid and the other administrative and logistic expenditures are exorbitant. We know the one into GuySuCo cost taxpayers over $80 million. If this is the barometer to be used then these CoIs are bleeding the treasury and costing the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
The question is: is this a prudent use of public funds? For me, this question must be answered in the negative. In my view, most of these tasks could be undertaken by government/state agencies whose statutory mandates are to do exactly the same, overlooked or supervised by a subject minister with line responsibility who is answerable to the public and the National Assembly for the efficient discharge of their functional responsibilities. After all, these ministers have increased their salaries by 50% and at least one of them is living in a fully air-conditioned mansion with a swimming pool which is costing taxpayers $500,000 per month in rent.
In any event, many of the reports which emanate from these CoIs are either not implemented and are ignored, or are not shared with the public or even laid in the National Assembly. We know that the GuySuCo CoI did not recommend the closure of estates. Yet estates are being closed. The Report of the CoI into the prison riots last year has never been seen by the public, although public monies are paid for these initiatives. Only yesterday it was given to the Parliamentary Committee. This is far from the acceptable and accountable governance which the population was promised by the APNU+AFC.
The other worrying factor is that these CoIs provide lucrative employment opportunities for political sinecure-type appointments of cronies, many of whom are well past their retirement age, thereby denying our young and educated people job creation opportunities. This contracting out of work which is the responsibility of persons who are already being paid to do it, without any transparent and competitive method of recruitment, is a new form of lack of accountability which must be stamped out immediately.
Now to the Camp Street tragedy: Are ministers no longer responsible for what transpires in their sector? I vividly recall when the Linden tragedy occurred in 2012, the APNU+AFC, while in control of the 10th Parliament, gunned for Clement Rohee’s head as the subject Minister. They gagged him from speaking for over a year in the National Assembly. I was forced to approach the High Court for redress. My learned friend, Mr Khemraj Ramjattan, led the charge against Minister Rohee. I recall in a motion which was debated in the National Assembly, he and his colleague, Cathy Hughes, treated the National Assembly to a treatise on the British convention of ministerial responsibility and its applicability to Guyana. Copious examples were cited from around the world and long quotations were extracted from textbooks from the English-speaking Commonwealth on this issue.
Are these very principles now not applicable to Minister Khemraj Ramjattan? Do the APNU+AFC no longer subscribe to the concept of ministerial responsibility for which they so passionately prosecuted Rohee in the 10th Parliament.
Interestingly, on what basis did Minister Ramjattan, a member of the executive, instruct magistrates to grant bail to dozens of prisoners? The granting of bail is a purely judicial function over which the executive has no say in accordance with the doctrine of the separation of powers. The matter is further complicated by Minister Ramjattan exercising a statutory power and releasing over 300 or 90 prisoners (the figures keep changing). To date, no one knows what criteria were used to release these prisoners.
Then there is a disturbing report in the Guyana Chronicle that doors of certain prison cells were left open. How did this happen? Most importantly, how did certain prisoners get access to a firearm so quickly? What is the status of the records of the prisoners? Were they destroyed in the fire or were they kept at some other location? I am baffled by a statement emanating from the mouth of the President that the Camp Street disaster was “an accident waiting to happen”. Did the President have prior knowledge of this and yet wait for it to happen?
These are all questions for which they must be forthright public answers. We do not need another CoI to have these questions answered. The prison authorities, Minister Ramjattan and President Granger are in a position to provide these answers forthwith. They must do so as soon as possible. Nothing less will suffice.
Mohabir Anil Nandlall, MP