GUYANA: Governance: Critics of the Government – Opinion

Stabroek News

Stabroek News Editorial – March 6, 2022

It is no news to anyone that this government does not like criticism, but then in fairness no government does. In this country, however, the focus of those in office is invariably on the critics, not the criticism per se. It is the old story of the message and the messenger. In its latest skirmish with some of its detractors, the administration has assembled a formidable phalanx of ministers beginning with the President to denigrate the organisations which endorsed a statement last week pressing for greater government accountability and transparency.

The groups listed on the statement were Community-Based Rehabilitation, East Coast Development Committees, Guyana Human Rights Association, Guyana Organization of Indigenous Peoples, Guyana Society for the Blind, Guyana Workers Union, Policy Forum Guyana Inc, Red Thread, Transparency Institute Guyana Inc, and Ursuline Sisters in Guyana.

It is true the organisers were not as careful as they should have been, because the name of the National Toshaos Council, which was initially appended, subsequently had to be removed, although an explanation for the error was provided. AG Anil Nandlall alleged that the group had also used the names of some organisations without obtaining the authority of those in charge, and expressed his surprise at the inclusion of the Guyana Society for the Blind and the Ursuline Sisters.

Where the latter was concerned, it is the case they affirmed subsequently that they “wish to state publicly that the statement issued by Civil Society is not the position of the Ursuline Sisters.” Mr Mike McCormack of the Guyana Human Rights Association, however, told this newspaper that all the protocols had been followed, the Ursulines had seen the draft statement and they had signed on to it. Further probing by this newspaper at the Convent produced the less than illuminating response from someone who appeared to be in charge, to wit, “We saw the statement and signed on to it but what was published in KN is what we are distancing ourselves from …”

Where the other groups were concerned, the President and a number of his ministers mounted a co-ordinated assault. Speaking to journalist Gordon Moseley by phone from Belize, the head of state was quoted as saying: “…civil society has an important role to play in any democratic society but civil society, a role cannot be convenient or the truth cannot be convenient and we cannot confuse civil society with individual organizations.”

There is a bit of conceptual confusion on the part of the President here, since an individual organisation may or may not be part of civil society; it is not a case of being one thing or the other. The World Bank definition of ‘civil society’ is that it “refers to a wide array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations, labour unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations.” In addition, whatever the head of state meant by saying truth should not be convenient, it might be remarked that it rarely is, especially for governments.

The AG discharged his own bombardment, describing the signatories as a “phantom gang” with an agenda to subvert the developmental trajectory of the Government of Guyana. He was followed by Ministers Sonia Parag and Priya Manickchand. Along with the President they were dismissive of ‘one-man’ organisations, in particular the GHRA, and repeated that many of the entities, more especially Red Thread, had had nothing to say during the five-month post-electoral crisis of 2020. Minister Parag accused them of having descended to a “pitiable level”, while Minister Manickchand wrote them off as not objective. Aside from the fact that traditionally the PPP/C does not regard any critic as capable of objectivity, even if it were the case these organisations had ‘agendas’, it still would not necessarily invalidate their criticisms which have to be judged on their own merits. The government as well as President Ali who never tires of saying he is committed to the ideal of ‘One Guyana’, frequently accuses all kinds of entities which voice criticism as being politically aligned, something the government irrationally regards as justification for repudiating their views outright.

In addition, it does not follow that because an organisation did not speak out in 2020 it is debarred from making adverse comments on the current situation. If that position were to be accepted, a huge section of the population would be effectively excluded from expressing adverse views on what is happening now, since there would be advance notice that none of them would be taken seriously. This is not a situation normally associated with healthy democracies, although Freedom House does not seem to have noticed, since it is forever promoting its democratic credentials.

Given the cannonade emanating from such a high level, one might have thought that the viewpoints which were being targeted were of an exceptionally “venomous” nature (to use the AG’s word). In fact most have been around for a while, and have been expressed in one form or another by a variety of individuals. As we reported yesterday, the release from civil society had itemised three examples of what it said was lack of accountability in government. Firstly there was the “stripping” of the Public Oversight & Accountability Committee from the Natural Resource Fund Act; secondly, the Environmental Protection Agency had been reduced to a “rubber-stamp”; and thirdly there was the pending appointment of a “high-profile party person” to head the Guyana Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

The reference here was to the appointment of the highly political Dr Prem Misir who was “not known to have competencies in business, economics, finance or the extractive sector,” replacing Dr Rudy Jadoopat.  The organizations also adverted to the “bewildering pace and range of official decision-making … rendering the government accountable to no one.” They went on to note that there was no official institution or agency that could objectively assess the major issues affecting the future of Guyana, adding that the Parliamentary Sectoral Committees did not meet and regional governments and Neighbourhood Democratic Councils had never functioned as independent agencies.

And then there was the matter of the Natural Resource Fund, whose credibility was “fatally compromised by party-dominated decision-making.”  The civil society organisations also expressed unease about the President replacing the Minister of Finance in the NRF Act 2021, since the office of the former was immune to prosecution. There was reference too to the government’s failure to engage in even a “pretence of consultation” with the political opposition, that was put down to “punishment” for the five-month electoral impasse.

President Ali’s reported responses to these criticisms did not have a great deal of credence. With reference to the question of rapid development without oversight, he had recourse to promises made in his party’s manifesto, on the basis of which he had been elected and which he said he was bound to deliver. The promises, however, are of a general nature, and do not address the question of how they are to be delivered, and what checks and balances and protections of one kind or another need to be considered.

All projects, he said were in the public domain, and in terms of accountability they would be looked at in the National Assembly – where it might be noted the government has an overall majority of one – and as for oversight the Auditor General also is responsible for scrutiny. It might be observed that his office as currently structured cannot take on the new workload, in addition to which little action follows as a rule from his reports of possible malfeasance and irregularity. The critics, said the President, were just trying to slow down the development process of the country and its people.

In terms of consultation with the opposition, President Ali said that government would consult as provided for in the constitution. It must be said they are saved for the moment by virtue of the fact that the factional fighting in the PNCR has prevented the appointment of a Leader of the Opposition, who is the appointee named in the constitution whom the head of state must consult; but for more than a year the government did not comply when there was an Opposition Leader. Even now, President Ali is not giving any indication that he will consult with the opposition outside that framework.

It was the AG who took on the matter of oil and environmental issues although very inadequately, since in the first place he did not represent their views anything like correctly.

The government response reads like an attempt not just to denigrate the critics using utterly immoderate language, but to intimidate them. There is no evidence of any disposition to engage in rational argument and discussion of the issues. The ruling party certainly believes it has a right to implement its policies as it sees fit because it won a majority in 2020, but it seems to forget it is a majority of one, indicating that almost half the electorate did not vote for it.

It clearly believes too that its policies are right, but no government is right all the time, and look at some of the bad mistakes the present one made when it was last in office. Taking on board other views not only is a means of conferring with those who perhaps did not vote for it two years ago, but also of ensuring that some egregious mistakes can be avoided. And big mistakes this time around will not be reversible.

There is a lesson to be learnt from Russia, although no one is suggesting for a moment that its extreme nature has any application here. But in terms of the principle involved, Vladimir Putin has sat alone in the Kremlin for two years thinking his own thoughts and only advised by officials who think like him. And the consequences of that have been tragic. All our politicians have still to learn the art of engaging critics and heeding contrary advice, whether President Ali deems it ‘constructive’ or not.<

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  • lallbachanhardeen  On 03/07/2022 at 9:37 am

    Hopefully the Cadre of defenders will take heed to those criticisms that alter the trajectory of those not so correct decisions made by the governing party and use them to alter those items that in retrospect are not in the best interest of the country.
    It is of utmost importance that those governing and the opposition sit down like grown ups and lay the lasting foundation that will alter the course of the country’s development for all and not play the game of tit for tat.
    The comparison of Guyana’s development to that of Dubai’s will take “grand visions” and subsequently readjustments of those visions on a massive scale to defy some short sightedness and poor businesspractices. Good luck to all sides and remember that the visions must ultimately be inclusive of the ” population” today and those yet to come.

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