A few weeks before the last local government elections, a longstanding Baronian friend with whom I use to roam the streets of London before he took off to film school and I to university, and whose late mother was born in Beterverwagting (BV), informed me that the family would prepare a plot of land it owns in the village and offer it to the BV/Triumph Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC) for use as a small community park. He had arranged a meeting with the chairperson, Mr. Leyland Harcourt, to make the offer, and on one of my visits to BV, I mentioned this to some villagers. Almost to a person, they said that I should discourage my friend and his family from giving the land to the council as it was too corrupt, that the land would never get to the people and that the chairperson was a fully-fledged PPP/C collaborator who has done very little, and most of that in Indian areas.
BV/Triumph is a multi-ethnic NDC of about 5000 persons: 46% Africans who are dominant in BV and 43% Indians mainly in Triumph. BV is a traditional stronghold of the PNC, as Triumph is of the PPP. At the local government elections of 2016, Harcourt, who is also a Muslim Imam, headed a group called the 8th of May Movement (8MM) that forced APNU not to participate in the election. The 8MM took 12 of the 18 available seats (one went to an independent candidate Jimmaul Baggot), leaving the remaining 5 for the PPP/C. Writing just after those elections, I said, ‘Whatever 8MM does, its focus will have to also be on local political cohesion, for it has hardly taken office and there are already predictions coming from the PNC old guards of its impending doom’ (SN:22/05/2016).
I therefore took the villagers’ complaints about Harcourt and his council as the typical political back-stabbing that is as prevalent at the local as at the national level, although I informed my friend of both the context and the concerns. Nevertheless, my interest was piqued, so I decided to go with him to meet the chairperson, who asked us to join a meeting he was having when we arrived.
For me a litmus test of effective local government is the percentage of rates a council is able to collect, and so after some introductory small-talk I enquired about this, and astonishingly, Harcourt claimed that his council had increased the collection rate from 33% to some 85% in the two years it had been in office. I then enquired what was actually done with those resources and the chairperson asked one of the councillors (all of whom were Indians from the PPP/C) to respond. The councillor delved into his records and read out an impressive list of projects, some of which were definitely done in BV. Perhaps conscious of the fact that only Indian councillors were around the table, Mr. Harcourt said that my comments to him after the 2016 elections to the effect that APNU was not likely to take its exclusion lying down and that to achieve anything he would have to work across communities were sound, for he was not getting the necessary support from his own councillors. We made some tentative arrangements to hand over the land and left.
One needs to remember that 8MM members were and still are largely APNU supporters: Harcourt himself was once an APNU regional councillor but became disillusioned with the PNC old guards. Not surprisingly, APNU responded and by the 2018 elections, the 8MM was fractured, with many of its members, including Mr. Harcourt, the independent Jimmaul Baggot – the latter having organised a sizable group of young people into some kind of ‘action force’ – on APNU’s slate. In the course of attempting to bring younger people into the party it does appear that the APNU has harshly ditched a few old guards who are now even more angry.
I went to BV on the night before the elections and although a few people considered some of the personal attacks that identified some councillors as crooks, thieves, etc. as unbecoming, the campaigning largely between the 8MM and APNU reminded one of what campaigning should be, with the loudspeakers of both sides still appealing to the voters to participate. Undoubtedly, the competition brought greater attention and energy to the campaign and during that process the 8MM called for an audit of the council’s processes and finances.
For a long time, organisational theory has recommended internal competition as one possible solution to oligarchic control of organisations, and the 8MM has provided some level of internal competition within APNU. The ‘in your face’ public knowledge and assessment of the local administration that their existence allows must be viewed as one of the advantages of local democracy. The open public allegations of corruption, etc. are what was largely missing when only the PNC and PPP were in control. Therefore, the 8MM and the context it has created serve the important purpose of increasing the level of public awareness which opens the door to better accountability. Although some of the allegations may be false, they are prevalent, and to assist the process of good governance the relevant authorities, perhaps Local Government Commission, should consider seriously investigating these concerns.
APNU won 8 to PPP/C 6 and 8MM 4 seats. In my opinion, the 8MM had a good hand to take either the chairmanship or at a minimum the deputyship, but in the end it won neither of these. Some people believe that APNU has a preference to work with the PPP/C and deliberately misled and set out to destroy the 8MM. The latter would not surprise me and next week I will consider the unseemly ruckus that took place on Friday 30th November at the swearing in of BV/Triumph NDC. It has already been given national television coverage and has largely resulted from a belief in the 8MM ranks that under APNU tutelage, the presiding clerk intended to use the fact that one of its candidates could not read properly to disqualify him and so reduce their participation in the election of office bearers and ipso facto on the council.