Yesterday marked four years since the APNU+AFC coalition was voted into office, and with an election looming on the horizon the government decided that it was time to issue a statement itemising their achievements as an administration. The presentation they published was long on words and not quite so long on the facts relevant to any kind of balanced assessment of their stewardship. But then like all those engaged in the business of propaganda, its authors probably fell victim to the fallacy that once an official statement has been placed in the political arena it becomes a reflection of the reality, and people will believe it.
In our edition yesterday we carried a lengthy report on the statement, measuring its claims against what the coalition had promised in its manifesto and where the deficits were to be found. For very much truncated purposes, the publication could be broadly divided into two categories, i.e. structural, which will be dealt with here, and those relating to substance.
The ones pertaining to structure concern the framework within which we conduct our political business. Many commentators of all persuasions have pointed to our constitutional arrangements as simply entrenching the ethno-political divide which so infects our voting habits as well as our political decision-making. It may be said that all political parties when out of office pay lip service to constitutional reform, and then when they come to inhabit the Presidential Secretariat all that is forgotten. Presidential powers in particular, it seems, are a lure which in the end none of them can resist.
The AFC element in the coalition especially was initially seen as promoting a break from the traditional template, and as being genuinely committed to constitutional reform. Our report yesterday quoted from the coalition’s manifesto which undertook to ensure that within three months of taking office, APNU+AFC would appoint a commission to amend the constitution with the participation of the people. While a little vague on the details the party did promise that the “necessary checks and balances” would be put in place, and that freedom of speech, a reduction in the power of the president and the Bill of Rights would be incorporated in the document.
As we reported too, none of this has happened, although a Constitutional Reform Con-sultative Commission Bill had its first reading on July 27, 2017. But there, however, it remains stuck, with no signs of further movement, although as is customary there is plenty of blame to share around. What can be said is that the coalition, no more than the opposition, appears in the least interested in fundamental reform to the constitution; in the end, both sides feel more secure operating with the ethno-political partition in place.
Certainly, President David Granger, no matter what he has said to the contrary, gives all the appearances of being wedded to a muscular presidency unfettered by too much democratic-style consultation. His unilateral appointment of the Chair of Gecom, should have left no one in any doubt about his preparedness to ignore the constitution − not forgetting the principles of democracy and the rule of law − when it was in his interest to do so. As it is, Chairman James Patterson has faithfully reflected the government’s wishes whenever a key vote was required in the electoral commission.
There has been the matter of judges’ appointments too, which have caused questions to be asked about whether the President was leaning in the direction of an autocratic mode. In addition, the Head of State seemed in no hurry to appoint judges in a situation where the backlogs in the courts operate as a major impediment to the delivery of justice. It should be added that an impartial judiciary is critical for safeguarding the rule of law.
It might be observed too that this government, no less than its predecessor, has had a penchant for rushing to the courts to challenge decisions taken in the political sphere, and some of the arguments preferred by the Attorney-General in the course of this have been curious. As it is, the claim in the statement that the country now guarantees the rule of law and separation of powers “under which the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature enjoy full independence,” can be open to challenge.
It went on to refer to the present administration’s avoidance of the “systemic, political patronage” which characterised the last government, although there is no evidence in support of this, any more than there is that it has eschewed corrupt practices. Corruption, in fact, is a short-cut to undermining the rule of law, and where this is concerned the current administration is simply not facing the truth. The scandal at SOCU alone, for example, underscores that there is a problem even at the highest levels of law enforcement, and contrary to what the authors of the statement might think, there is hardly anyone in this country who is not convinced that corruption is woven into the fibre of sections of the Guyana Police Force.
If SOCU is the high end of the corruption story, there is the case of the small person, namely a nurse who blew the whistle on a Region Five councillor who was receiving doses of a drug in excess of what was allowed under the law. She was transferred for her adherence to the rules and for her honesty, because the councillor was close to the government. At the beginning of last year Parliament did pass a whistleblower act, although whether that allowed the nurse to get her job back is unclear.
Mr Ralph Ramkarran has called corruption here “pervasive”, and most people would not disagree with him. Corruption is not something which happens when the other side is in office; it is common at all levels of the society, no matter who sits in government. This one, no more than the last, has displayed no great energy in addressing the issue, and among many other things, procurement and the awarding of contracts continue to be a problem.
It has a more nuanced reference to conflict of interest situations, saying it has discouraged them, and that along with other things this “remains an incomplete national task.” This may be a tacit recognition that questions in this regard have been asked of one of its ministers in recent times, who has responded with a lawsuit to this newspaper. This has bearing on the statement’s asseveration that freedom of the press has been protected, which in a general sense is true. However, now by implication the government through the agency of the Minister is attempting to suppress discussion of a matter of national interest.
The one major structural advance the present government has to its credit is the holding of two local government elections, which had not been mounted for twenty years prior to 2016.
Within a short period of time, said the statement, it had achieved more than any previous administration. Perhaps a little more clear-sightedness on this subject might not come amiss.