Spending on military

Once in a while President Granger takes the populace off guard. He did so on Thursday, albeit not through the agency of the media, who were not the beneficiaries of the normal civilities traditionally accorded them by the Guyana Defence Force and who had walked out in remonstrance, but through a bland Ministry of the Presidency press release. He was at the time addressing the opening of the two-day GDF Officers’ Conference being held at Camp Ayanganna.

What he outlined was a comprehensive reform of the army in consonance with its responsibility to protect the nation’s patrimony. Included in the plans were long-range patrols from, he said, Punta Playa to the Kutari and from Ankoko to Orealla. “The vast areas, long distances and small aviation and maritime fleets available to our Air Corps and Coast Guard, respectively, limit our ability to effectively control our air and maritime zones,” he was quoted as saying.

No Guyanese is going to quarrel with that, it is just that maintaining an Air Corps and maritime strength is an extraordinarily costly exercise, as the Surinamese discovered at the end of the 1990s, when they bought coastguard vessels from Spain. An enlargement of this nature is a huge financial burden on a small country, more particularly when it is intended to cover the whole expanse of Guyanese territory, and not, perhaps, be concentrated in certain particularly vulnerable areas.

But the President wasn’t finished as yet. He moved on to the Agriculture Corps which was to embark on agro-processing, and produce rations for soldiers on long-range patrols, and emergency supplies for citizens affected by natural disasters. It might be noted in passing that for many years the GDF had its own farm, but the press release made no mention of that, or of what had happened to it. One presumes that potentially there are some lessons to be learned there.

Be that as it may, agro-processing is a substantial step up from farming. Exactly who is to decide what is to be grown, where the fields are to be sited, what is best for compact rations and who the technicians are who are going to train the Corps, was clearly not a subject for a formal address on the opening day of an Officers’ Conference. That said, there must have been a number of people wondering idly whether in fact any homework had been done on this proposal before it was made public. For example, is there some reason why civilian farmers cannot produce the crops, and local entrepreneurs undertake the agro-processing in order to supply the army ‒ and anyone else – under contract? What is the cost benefit of the military undertaking this itself?

Then there was the Engineering Corps, also slated for reorganising, and some grand conceptions. The release said that there would be greater emphasis placed on public infrastructure. “The Essequibo River, our largest river, does not have a single bridge. The Rupununi, our largest region, does not have a single highway. Access to nearly seventy-five per cent of our country which is covered with forests is difficult, a situation compounded by inadequate infrastructure – such as aerodromes, bridges, highways and stellings. Infrastructural development is a top national priority… National defence is inseparable from national development,” the Commander-in-Chief was quoted as saying.

Aside from the seeming contradiction between infrastructural development in the interior and a ‘green’ environment there, one has to wonder how all this expansion fits in with the work which normally falls to the Ministry of Public Infrastructure and the various regions. There has always been an Engineering Corps in the military, but is it that the President is suggesting something more ambitious than what has existed before?

There was too a reference to the Signal Corps, among other things, which was to be re-established dealing with information and communication technologies and telecommunications within the GDF.

It was not as if all this was presented in a context where it was implied that we had undue cause for concern in relation to the border controversy. President Granger referred to diplomatic initiatives which “have been all aimed at reaching a peaceful resolution to the territorial controversy…Guyana is still engaged in a renewed Good Offices process but we remain confident that the process will eventuate in a juridical settlement of this controversy.” Nevertheless, as we reported on Friday, the Head of State emphasized that the GDF was being improved to give effect to the principle of “total national defence.” Is he not as confident as all the anodyne statements on the border might suggest?

What has taken the populace a bit off guard is the fact that no one knows exactly how all this is to be funded. As mentioned earlier, much of it involves huge expenditure, and this is the first time to the best of anyone’s knowledge, it has come to notice. As was mentioned in our Friday report, the normal practice is for the cost of restructuring to be included in the national estimates of expenditure. If that was in fact done, then the opposition was careless in not picking it up and drawing it to national attention. In an economy which is contracting, there have to be very good reasons for this level of spending on the military, although given our situation, and the chaos in the border regions to our west, it may be that some of this, at least, is indeed justified. However, if it is the case that it is needed, then Guyanese must be so advised – admittedly in carefully worded language – and not fobbed off with innocuous statements.

That apart, could it be that President Granger is hoping that whatever the size of the bill for the GDF restructuring, it would be met by the supposed oil funds which will hypothetically begin to flow after 2020? Is this another oil flight of fancy?

One thing which should give the media a little hope was the fact that President Granger referred to the Cadet Corps and the five standards of service in the Force’s manual. One of these involved “correct conduct; and appropriate social behaviour”. Perhaps the cadets could teach the seniors about the canons of common courtesy when dealing with the press.

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