The Bharrat Jagdeo Presidency: A dozen years of degeneration and decay
By ARIF BULKAN | 0 COMMENTS | IN THE DIASPORA | MONDAY, NOVEMBER 7, 2011
Arif Bulkan teaches human rights law at the University of the West Indies in Barbados.
What would an honest evaluation of the Jagdeo Presidency reveal? Its genesis lay in naked constitutional manipulation, for in the 1997 general elections Bharrat Jagdeo had not been elected as President or Prime Minister by the People. Thus when Janet Jagan disclosed in August 1999 that she could no longer continue as President due to her declining health, Jagdeo’s succession was contrived through a circuitous route. First, Sam Hinds was required to resign so that Jagdeo could be sworn in as Prime Minister on August 9th, and this was followed by Janet Jagan’s resignation and Jagdeo’s assumption of the Presidency on August 11th. This process gave fair warning to the Guyanese people of how slender national ‘democracy’ was, for in a country where one party has a stranglehold on power, the only hope of forestalling imperial rule is if that party’s internal structure has processes and mechanisms by which its leader(s) can be held accountable. But Jagdeo was a handpicked successor, revealing the imperial nature of the power possessed by the head of the ruling party and that party’s fundamentally undemocratic nature. More troubling was that his installation in office required the circumvention of the supreme law of the land, but this did not seem to give the PPP as an institution any cause for discomfort. All this was an ominous portent of things to come. Janet Jagan may have thought that she was installing a puppet – but just as she was able to exercise maximum power as President, so too was her creation eventually able to function, uncontainable even by her (there’s a lesson there for Jagdeo and Ramotar, but that’s another story).
Back in 1999, a battered electorate gave little thought to PPP intrigue, despite the very public manner in which events unfolded. Jagdeo’s youth represented a refreshing antidote to the old guard and party loyalists, and his selection on the eve of the millennium could have been taken to herald both literal and symbolic rebirth. And to be fair, in the intervening twelve years there have been instances where Jagdeo has demonstrated solid leadership – notably in the principled stand he took with regard to the Economic Partnership Agreement being forced down the region’s throats by the European Union, despite the considerable opposition of his counterparts in CARICOM. Sadly, however, for the most part Jagdeo’s rule has been a bitter disappointment, where any initial promise was quickly extinguished by an autocratic, intolerant, vindictive, incompetent and verbally abusive style of governance. I could go on, for there are many negative adjectives which can be used to describe Jagdeo’s presidency, but when I saw the photograph taken of the President at the India Day parade in New York City, I thought that it said it all.
This week’s column will focus on two prominent features of his presidency symbolised in the photograph: 1) the way in which he has consistently indulged himself, the public purse be damned, and 2) the way in which he has materially indulged his cronies, again without regard for the public purse.
Jagdeo’s personal financial dealings need little recounting. As I pointed out in an earlier column, the sale of his first state-subsidized house and land in Goedverwagting at a price that far exceeds market value and to Guyana’s consul in Trinidad and Tobago is one that reeks of impropriety and would have been immediately investigated in any functioning democracy.
Immediately after this sale Jagdeo acquired more state-subsidized lands, but at a price far below market value. A number of irregularities surrounded this second transaction: the President obtained more than 4 times the amount of land a re-migrant can purchase; he paid barely one-sixth of what a re-migrant would have had to pay; and the allocation to him was made by Cabinet in violation of standard policies that state-subsidized land is only to be distributed to persons who do not own or have not owned property in the previous 5 years. Most obscene of all, as pointed out by Bro. Eusi Kwayana, the lands awarded to the President form part of a post-emancipation village. That many of the descendants of those first villages still live in squatting areas while the choicest lands built through the sweat of working people are reserved for Jagdeo and his cabal of supporters, is a monstrous injustice.
It then emerged that 29 tons of building material was shipped to Jagdeo from alleged criminal Ed Ahmad. Mr. Ahmad has other unsavoury antecedents – in the US he “loaned” money to Congressman Meeks, which was only re-paid when the authorities commenced an investigation. Sometime before (or after) Ahmad sent the container of building material to the President, he secured lands from Guysuco on the West Bank. We will have to do the math, because unlike in the US, there will be no official investigation into these events.
Then it has been reported that on each trip abroad, Jagdeo receives a US$5,000 (G$1 million) out-of-pocket allowance over and above the funding for the trip, for which he does not have to account. Compare that to the minimum wage of G$35,000 per month and Guyana today is like France under the Bourbons (of the ‘let them eat cake’ period).
Then there is the presidential pension, which will afford Jagdeo a life of post-retirement luxury. How the $3 million monthly figure has been computed is a mystery to me. Under the law passed by Jagdeo’s minions in parliament many of the benefits are uncapped, so the cost to the taxpayer could conceivably exceed $3m given the standards presently exhibited.
A key feature of the Jagdeo Presidency is the majestic enrichment of a select cabal of his supporters. The examples are endless.
1.The recently released report of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee reveals major irregularities in public spending for the 2 years it reviewed (2007-8), including overpayments to contractors and payment to contractors for work that was not completed. It is public knowledge that the vast majority of national infrastructural works are awarded to a select few contractors. The latest in a long string of examples is the award to a favoured contractor, BK International, of a $138 million contract for upgrading the Supenaam stelling. This comes less than 2 years after BK drew down more than $400 million for work on the same stelling that was completely botched, leaving it unusable for over 2 years. In other words, the same company is being given more money for a job that it already bungled, when in the normal course of business it should be sued and ordered to repay or finish the job properly.
2. Or consider the case of the single-sourcing of drugs from New GPC by the Ministry of Health. This has been going on since 1997, and after 2003 in direct violation of the Public Procurement Act. Since 2003 the practice has been facilitated, arguably unlawfully, by Cabinet decision. Between 2003 and 2008, it resulted in over G$3 BILLION for New GPC. Single-sourcing of any good means that the purchase price may not be competitive, and as if that were not irregular enough, it was revealed in Parliament that the drugs were paid for up front – in other words, Guyanese taxpayers funded the company’s operations, something absolutely unheard of in business. To add insult to injury, New GPC’s parent company then turned around and loaned money for the construction of the Berbice River bridge at between 9-11% interest, which interest will not be taxed! As is well known, New GPC is a subsidiary of the Queens Atlantic (QA II) group of companies owned by the Ramroop family, one member of which is a close friend of none other than Jagdeo himself.
3. The same QA II was illegally granted certain tax concessions by the Jagdeo administration. When Mr. Yesu Persaud spoke of these concessions at the launching of Guyana Times on June 5th 2008, he was publicly attacked by the President. Later, when accountant & attorney Chris Ram exposed the administration’s lies on this point, the Jagdeo government hurriedly passed a law to retroactively legitimize their earlier, unlawful act.
4. In 2009 Fidelity Investment evaded taxes and customs duties in excess of $321 million, but even though customs officers raided their premises and found over 73,000 cases of Polar beer for which the company could provide no import documents, the case against the company was discontinued by the State with no explanation given to the special prosecutor or to the public at large.
5. Earlier this year the one laptop per family project was announced, but in the public domain there was much inconsistency regarding its cost as announced by the government. Worse, a price to be paid for each laptop was announced, even though the tender process had not even been commenced.
6. The Amaila Falls hydro-electricity project has been dogged by similar concerns over the cost of the project and the lack of transparency surrounding the bidding process. All that is known to the public at this stage is that there is a US$200 million gap in the actual cost of construction and the original estimate given (the latter has since increased by another US$135 million, making that gap now US$335 million). Where or to whom is that extra money going?
7. Earlier this year the government leased almost 2 million acres of land to a businessman from India for 30 years at G$394 (yes, a little less than two US dollars per acre). Again, this lease was not the subject of a transparent or competitive bidding process, and Guyanese do not know what other benefits attend the deal. Does it attract special tax concessions? How come the company is reportedly being allowed to export species for which there are existing bans in the law?
One can continue to list the secretive and scandalous deals by this government, but the underlying features are similar. Principally, key oversight institutions have been either run into the ground by the government or are simply not functioning. Anand Goolsarran, who as Auditor General brought many irregularities to light, was run out of office in 2004 when he attempted to investigate a dolphin scandal involving the President’s adviser. Since then, the vacancy left by Dr. Goolsarran’s departure has not been permanently filled, so even were the incumbent minded to act courageously the precariousness of the position is an obvious impediment. The government refuses to appoint a Public Procurement Commission, which means that there is no transparency in and scrutiny of the procurement of goods and services and the execution of public works. This state of affairs facilitates overpayment and shoddy performance. Most of the beneficiaries of this largesse tend to be friends and associates of the President, hence the charge of cronyism. Where foreigners are involved, the deals are invariably negotiated in secret. The end result is the stifling of competition, a higher cost of living, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a favoured few.
Add this up and the picture is clear. Notwithstanding the low salaries, unlivable pensions and general impoverishment of most Guyanese, President Jagdeo shamelessly grabs whatever he can for himself (and his chosen friends) – lands, container of goods, lavish US dollar allowances, overseas trips, maids, gardeners and pension for life – wherever he is, and irrespective of who is looking on. In next week’s column I will conclude by examining the intolerance and decay that, taken together with the cronyism, characterise Jagdeo’s 12 year period of rule.