by Ralph Ramkarran
I wrote and spoke about the issue of corruption in Guyana last year. This issue can no longer be ignored by the Government. Last Sunday’s newspapers carried almost a dozen stories in which allegations of corruption featured. Many of them were exaggerated, frivolous or speculative. But several of them are serious enough to compel the Government to take note. Corruption and allegations of corruption are not going to disappear if we do nothing else other than call for proof, claim that we now have regular reports from the Auditor General, or that we declare our assets to the Integrity Commission while the Opposition members do not. The time has come to take action.
Like many developing countries Guyana has not been able to contain corruption. Since 1992, spending, especially on infrastructure and procurement, has multiplied to levels that we could not have imagined. In any country, much less one with historically weak systems like Guyana, and a sharply divided and adversarial political system, it is not surprising that actual corruption and allegations of corruption are so rife. Admitting that corruption exists ought not an to be issue. It does exist and that cannot be denied. The challenge for the Government is to understand that the opposition is going to make the most politically of corruption and allegations of corruption and to recognize that the answer is to do something about it, not beat its breast about what it has done, which only exposes the inadequacy of its efforts.
I know of enough verifiable instances of corruption to be satisfied that it is pervasive. Victims of corruption do not wish the circumstances or their names to be revealed because they fear victimization in their continuing lawful activities. As a result, while incidents of corruption are known to many, disclosure of the evidence is a major problem. This applies not only to Guyana. It is a worldwide phenomenon. This situation is known by the corrupt and enables them to feel safe and for their unlawful activities to proliferate and to ensnare more and more people. Unless something is done about it now, it will become a monster, if it not already is, that will engulf us all.
The Constitution Reform Commission made its report in 2000. It recommended a Procurement Commission as a constitutional body with important functions to deal with corruption. The legislative changes were made in 2001. It is a shame and disgrace that ten years on the Procurement Commission has not been established. For years it has been held up by one of the most ridiculous excuses that can be imagined – the rejection by the Opposition of the Government’s proposal that they nominate some members and the Government nominates the others. The Opposition has demanded that all the members must be agreed. This kind of deliberately created gridlock aids only the corrupt in our society and both the Opposition and Government should be aware of this. We have elected them and we pay their salaries to do a better job. In this they have failed us. The Procurement Commission cannot take more than 72 hours to name, if the tripartite discussions are serious.
The President needs to articulate new, more advanced and comprehensive legislative and administrative programmes to be implemented in a timely manner which would strengthen transparency and accountability. The instruments to be established must be wide enough in scope to embrace all sectors of the society and all activities which are generally acknowledged to require accountability and transparency. They must give sufficient independent authority to deal with the corrupt. But we must not stop even there. Wider areas such as the payment of taxes by the self employed and accountability by political parties of donations received taking into account their concerns, and everything in between, must be areas that are eventually included in the scope of the effort.
Dealing with corruption requires expertise which may not exist in Guyana. But the UN, Carter Centre and many other impartial international bodies have extensive experience in advising, recommending and preparing measures to deal with transparency and accountability. The Government ought not to wait for more accusations from the Opposition or more allegations in the press, or for agreement in the tripartite talks, but should immediately initiate discussions with one or more of these international agencies to seek out assistance. Some of them have offices in Guyana and such discussions can be embarked upon in one week.
There is no doubt that corruption allegations are being used as a political weapon. But this happens not only in Guyana, but all over the world. If the Government continues to treat with the allegations only politically, or defensively, on a case by case basis, it will not win the argument, whatever the facts. To win such arguments, systems must be in place and be demonstrably seen to be functioning independently. If notwithstanding this, corruption or allegations persist, these would then become matters for the agencies established to deal with them or for the Police or both.
Corruption is a tax on development, according to the World Bank. It retards growth and development by a significant degree. In Jamaica it is estimated that the economy could have grown by 1.5 percent more had it not been for corruption.
During the last elections allegations of corruption by the Opposition was a major platform in its campaign. The results of the elections show that the Opposition made gains. There is little opinion polling in Guyana to determine what motivated the electorate and what were its concerns. Such as there were from Vishnu Bisram showed that corruption was a major concern. The Government should not ignore these events.
A crusade against corruption by the Government will introduce a new dimension to its agenda. It will demonstrate to the public that it means business. It can pay great political dividends because it will silence the Opposition and the press and will be a major mobilizing factor for the next elections.