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President Irfaan Ali and his ministers are meeting with public officials and warning them against corruption in office. The No Tolerance for Corruption mantra would ring true for any other administration but the present, who has within its leadership many who have brought Guyana into disrepute and derision as a pariah among international nations. There are many in the administration, who were in past key leadership positions, when Transparency International ranked Guyana the most corrupt country in the English-speaking Caribbean.
It was the A Partnership for National Unity and Alliance For Change administration that was working to remove that stain. This was evident in the institutions they had put in place and Guyana’s improving rating by Transparency International during the period. There is a famed Guyanese saying, ‘once a dog is accustomed to sucking eggs it is hard to stop.’ President Ali should not think he deceiving Guyanese into thinking there will not be a continuation of the corrupt past. Past action reminds of the phrase that “old habits die hard” particularly given from whom the message is being spouted by.
Guyanese are well aware shouting zero tolerance for corruption will not necessarily translate to this. It needs more than that. Guyanese are not bemused or fooled into believing that government warnings to lower and mid-level staff will amount to anything meaningful when those in high office think it is acceptable not to practice what they preach. Ours is a small society and in the case of corruption have felt the brunt of deprivation and the tale of two societies it has created. Like rotten eggs corruption can be smelled from a distance.
Transparency International defines corruption “as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” The watchdog organisation warns that “corruption erodes trust, weakens democracy, hampers economic development and further exacerbates inequality, poverty, social division and the environmental crisis.”
Since the beginning of the 12th Parliament, former Minister of Public Infrastructure David Patterson, who is the Alliance For Change Member of Parliament, has been asking Speaker of House Manzoor Nadir to do what is necessary to have the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) established. This parliamentary committee oversees government’s spending. There is reason to ask why is the government, through the Speaker, unafraid to have the PAC up and running. A government, who is frequently warning public servants against corruption, should have nothing to hide. Or should they?
Since August the government has been spending like drunken sailors, borrowing against projected revenue from the oil and gas industry, but refusing to allow the PAC to oversight their spending. Additionally, critical institutions, such as the State Asset Recovery Agency/Unit (SARA or SARU), that were established by the Coalition Government to curb and eliminate corruption in public office were disbanded in record haste.
A government that is serious about corruption would not have had the State Organised Crime Unit or the Director Of Public Prosecutions withdraw charges against them when they served as former ministers and officials. Being serious about anti-corruption means the accused would have been unafraid to answer their charges in court, and based on the evidence have the court convict or exonerate them. That would have been setting the tone and right example for zero tolerance for corruption.
Thus far the government has not proven to be serious about fighting corruption. They have failed the litmus test in the fight against corruption. Recognition of this does not mean that it is too late to get it right but the importance of getting it right. It has to be leadership by example. Indications the government seems to be running scared and afraid to be exposed would not help.
There should have been no hesitancy to have the PAC established. There should be no hesitancy to have MP Patterson and others oversight government spending. There was no need to disband anti-corruption institutions if there were any interest in zero-tolerance for corruption. Transparency International has already forewarned that “exposing corruption and holding the corrupt to account can only happen if we understand the way corruption works and the systems that enable it.” Government is trying to do everything not to let this happen.
The zero-tolerance warning against corruption rings hollow. When anti-corruption systems are removed, undermined, not allowed to work, the corrupt are not being held to account. There should be no discrimination in the fight against corruption. The fight should not only target the little and medium fishes but also the big fishes, and the latter even more given their influence and the gravest harm they do to a nation and its people.