For the entire period of the APNU+AFC administration, it has been clear that the toxic relationship between the government and the opposition – and reflected in everyday encounters among their adherents at various levels far and wide – would lead to increasingly intractable crises such as those that resulted in the unilateral appointment of the Chairman of GECOM and the continuing absence of substantive appointments to the top two posts of the judiciary.
A crisis of a different timbre has now arisen with the charging of two senior members of the former Jagdeo administration followed by the swift pressing of private criminal charges by PPP/C MPs against two sitting ministers. This crisis will test the office of the Director of the Public Prosecutions and the Judiciary. Nothing less than the rule of law is at stake here and the overriding interest of the public is to ensure that this fundamental underpinning of ordered societies is not compromised in any way.
Had there been a functional relationship between the government and the opposition over the last three years and more precisely between President Granger and Opposition Leader Jagdeo, there would have been less of a political hue to what is transpiring. That opportunity has been lost but must now lead to some pathway for the two sides to ensure that the rule of law retains its primacy and the judiciary functions without hindrance.
How this juncture was arrived at had been foreseen and reflects the intense ethno-political rivalry that has blighted the country and particularly in the period leading up to the historic transition in governments of 2015. The increasingly bitter opposition to the Jagdeo administration over the activities of NICIL, projects such as the Amaila Falls Hydro Project and the distribution of radio licences, among other areas, saw APNU and the AFC clinching the majority in the 2011 Parliament. This shift in the balance of power set off a fierce round of confrontations about the passage of budgets that saw constant recourse to the courts on several major issues including culpability for the expenditure of sums not authorised by the legislature.
Inevitably a motion of no-confidence in the government was prepared and this triggered the proroguing of the House and the eventual summoning of general elections. The bitter political standoff became the impetus behind the formation of the APNU+AFC coalition on February 14, 2015 and the period leading to the May general elections that year witnessed unprecedented vitriol on both sides and unrestrained and intemperate declarations particularly among the then opposition about who was going to be prosecuted or locked up were it win the elections.
Having won the elections and with its constituency primed by its pre-election declarations, the APNU+AFC government embarked on a comprehensive series of audits of state corporations and agencies. Given the over 22-year tenure of the PPP/C government and the variety of questions that had been raised about its governance and dubious projects there was nothing wrong with that.
The audits however dovetailed with a parallel, grass roots discussion of the plethora of charges that were expected to be issued. This was further stoked by the creation by the government of specialised agencies such as the State Assets Recovery Unit and the many claims – some quite extravagant – that flowed from it about the extent of the theft and loss of state resources allegedly at the hands of senior functionaries of the former PPP/C government. Despite expectations, the dozens of audits produced just a few minor charges until two weeks ago.
The charges that were finally pressed on April 12, 2018 against former Minister of Finance, Dr Ashni Singh and former Head of the National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL), Winston Brassington stemmed from an audit of NICIL done by former Auditor General Anand Goolsarran and for which a report was submitted to the government in December 2015. It is an unusually long gestation, 27 months and with no sign or word of a meticulous search for witnesses or evidence by the investigating agencies. Such charges should always require rigorous and painstaking investigations. However, the issues elaborated on in the Goolsarran report were straightforward and have been similarly replicated in the charges read on April 12th. Aside from chronic delays at the Special Organised Crime Unit which handled the NICIL investigation and the apparently tedious process of vetting the charges, justifiable questions might be raised about the factors that finally led to charges being brought against Messrs Singh and Brassington. Was crucial evidence only recently found or were there other impetuses at play? It also did not help that the charge came under the general rubric of “misconduct” rather than being listed under specific statutes. Two of the charges relate to the sale of large tracts of land without valuation while the third relates to the sale of land far below the known valuation, all straightforward matters with a paper trail.
A week later, two PPP/C MPs Vickram Bharrat and Juan Edghill swore to private criminal charges against Minister of Public Health Volda Lawrence and her predecessor Dr George Norton. It strains credulity not to believe that this was the PPP/C’s retort to the charges against the former NICIL Head and the former Finance Minister. Both of the matters pertaining to Minister Lawrence and Minister Norton: the purchase of $605m in drugs from ANSA McAL and the renting of a medical bond from a PNCR supporter who had never been in this business, matured long ago. Charges could have been brought some time back or the opposition could have pursued other avenues at the Public Procurement Commission and at parliament. The PPP/C MPs also returned the favour by alleging misconduct in public office by the two ministers.
Bringing a private criminal prosecution has historically been seen as a safeguard against the failure or refusal of the authorities to prosecute offenders. It has had several famous uses here particularly during periods of repression. As a safeguard against its misuse, it would usually come at the end of the exhausting of attempts to ensure prosecution.
It does appear as if more charges are coming as a result of the audits and it is left to be seen what follows. Whatever the reaction, it is the evidential basis of the charges and the established process for handling these which must hold full sway in the judiciary without the slightest hint of interference or intimidation. It is what the rule of law requires.