Most Guyanese highly approve of the actions and plans that President Irfaan Ali’s government is implementing to address major challenges such as the global pandemic, an unstable democracy, the defence of territorial and maritime sovereignty, climate change and the development of infrastructure.
But success will be short-lived or unstable if a culture of corruption is allowed to grow and persist, and a small number of rich people get richer and poor people get poorer. In future elections, more Guyanese will judge politicians not by how they treat the highest citizens, but the lowest ones. More voters will not want to be accomplices in corruption and so they will not support corrupt politicians.
That is why Dr. Cheddi Jagan never denied, ignored or downplayed the fact that corruption is one of the main causes of instability, inequality and poverty. Corruption retards human development. It undermines democracy, human rights and good governance, erodes the rule of law, hampers economic growth, prevents competitive and fair business conditions, harms the environment, and facilitates the flight of financial funds from Guyana.
Regardless of ideology and ethnicity, it is without dispute that Jagan was respected nationally and internationally for his governments that publicly “set their face sternly against corruption and extravagance”. Fenton Ramsahoye, Attorney General of the PPP government from 1961 to 1964, testified that “no Guyanese should ever forget that it is possible to constitute and administer a government wholly devoid of corruption”. Cheddi’s governments set the example by dealing firmly and resolutely with corruption.
Fighting against corruption brings positive results. Under the governments that Cheddi Jagan led, from 1957 to 1964 and from 1992 to 1997, Guyana experienced the best economic growth rates, and social and economic development.
Corruption will undo President Ali’s people’s progressive programme to strengthen the human rights of at least 40% of Guyanese (312,000 persons), from all ethnic communities, who live below or near the poverty line, and who have to put up with less-than-adequate public services because they cannot afford private health care, private schools, private cars, electric generators and purifying water systems for their homes. Unchallenged corruption will prevent Guyana from achieving the United Nations Sustainable Develop-ment Goals (SDGs).
Corruption in Guyana is not rare. In a USA Vanderbilt University 2009 Public Opinion Survey in Guyana, 22% of Guyanese responded that they had to pay bribes to officials for the following services – police, customs, licences, electricity, water, construction and environmental permits, education, health and the courts. Among 24 Latin American and Caribbean countries, Guyana had the 8th highest rate for paying bribes.
Corrupt persons come from all political parties, ideologies, ethnicities, classes, genders, religions, ages, sizes, shapes and colours. But now, more Guyanese are no longer silent when they experience corruption. They are not tolerating excuses like “public officials are not well paid and they need a ‘top up’, or the paying of a bribe avoids bureaucratic delays, or it is not a big deal because everyone does it”. Most importantly, most Guyanese recently rejected electoral corruption.
At home and in the diaspora, letter writers to the Kaieteur News and the Stabroek News are speaking out against alleged grand and petty corruption. They are disappointed about how previous and present governments administer our new oil and gas sector. They want transparency and they expect officials to properly follow due diligence procedures. They do not accept the silence or “memory loss” of key officials about how licences and concessions are granted in the natural resources sector. There is no tolerance for premature claims that no laws are broken. They are calling for President Ali to set up an independent Commission of Inquiry, with international participation, to review all the allegations about the oil contracts. If any politicians and officials are found guilty of wrongdoing, then they want them to face the full force of the law, regardless of their political affiliation or ethnicity.
Letter writers are also highlighting concerns about alleged corrupt practices by politicians and officials in the hiring, appointment and promotion of CEOs, executive staff and Boards of Directors in Ministries and public agencies; in the awarding of public tenders where the most qualified suppliers and contractors are not selected, prices are inflated and substandard construction materials are used; in the granting of scholarships where some persons are chosen based only on political loyalty or ethnicity; and in the awarding of leases and sales of public lands, especially in key locations on the East Bank and East Coast of Deme-rara. People are also worried about the warning signs that some Ministers and officials have begun to demonstrate arrogant know-it-all attitudes and they are giving special treatment and advantages to their families and friends.
The greatest threat to Guyana’s future would be if corruption becomes entrench-ed, as in many oil-producing countries, where corrupt politicians and public officials act like “a class for themselves”. With impunity, they break or go around the rules, apply laws in a partisan way, discourage and obstruct investigations, and ultimately escape sanctions, fines and dismissal.
For example, in Angola, the overwhelming majority of the population lives in poverty and they have to pay bribes to access basic services. There is widespread corruption in the electoral system and in the military, police, judiciary, legislature, bureaucracy and media. Between 2007 and 2010, the culture of corruption and silence enabled Angolan politicians and officials to steal an unbelievable sum of US$32 Billion of state assets for their families, friends and associates!
Therefore, for the next 25 years, Guyana’s most existential (real) challenge is how we the people can minimize corruption so that the revenues from the oil and gas sector would bring life-changing benefits for workers, farmers, the unemployed, the under-employed, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the poor and the hungry in the Indian, African, Mixed, Indigenous, Portuguese, Chinese and European communities, especially among women, youth and seniors.
All countries have corruption. However, the lesser corrupt countries like Canada, Denmark, Norway and Sweden practice a high degree of social and economic justice. These countries recognize and actively work to minimize corruption. On the other hand, more corrupt countries have huge socio-economic inequalities, a culture of silence, little accountability and integrity, over-complicated procedures and high discretional authority for officials.
What is to be done? Guyanese do not have to be “trapped” in a corrupt system. The next letter will explore how, based on support from regional and international agencies, we the people, at home and in the diaspora, must become corruption hunters and resisters at the national, regional and local levels in Guyana.
Geoffrey Da Silva