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Mid-last week, the fiasco with street vendors, at New Market Street, and the subsequent dramatic arrest of Georgetown Mayor, Pt. Ubraj Narine made bold headlines in our dailies and social media. There were protests and counter protests by both sides, on Regent Street. Amidst the noise and confusion, right-thinking Guyanese are fully aware that the Central Government is on a path to diminish the role of the Georgetown Municipality and local democracy in its evil quest for direct control of the nation’s capital. In another column I will unravel the government’s plan to get a hold of all the levers of power, and make local government bodies useless.
However, it seems to be the case that, for all its political antics, disrespect and disregard for local government bodies, particularly those that are perceived to be controlled by APNU+AFC, the Irfaan Ali-led government appears to want to hijack local democracy to achieve its own hidden agenda. Nonetheless, it must never be forgotten that the notion of local government is very important in democratic society, which ensures the meaningful people’s participation and local resources mobilisation for the enhancement of the life of people and their local communities.
Whilst the entire situation was unfortunate and sad it stirred, in my mind, certain important questions about governmental reverence for local government bodies and good governance. Some public commentators highlighted and deemed a set of words used by the mayor as racial or exciting racial hostility. It remains a mystery how words uttered by the Mayor, that night, at New Market Street, could actually excite hostility. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the Mayor’s remarks were more about religion; not race. It also seems to me that he expressed a personal opinion on the government’s strange way of governing without enlisting the cooperation of the council on municipal matters; a disincentive for the promotion of local democracy; a right covered by Article 146 of the Constitution. Be that as it may, members of the ruling party PPP/C do not have any moral authority to condemn the Mayor for his remarks. Offensive comments made by certain high- ranking members of the PPP/C, at public rallies, and other such events are now a matter of public record. Therefore, these recent events should cause Guyanese to pause and think about the action of the Guyana Police Force to arrest the Mayor as against the complacency with which that very state agency allows snide public remarks, by members of the ruling party, to slide.
I am sure that citizens remember, the controversial black role models statement by Culture Minister, Mr. Charles Ramson Jr., November 26, 2021 on a public programme, where he sought to lecture the black community. Minister Ramson Jr. said: “I think that in the black community, young black kids also need lots of examples of success because they have to be able to see that there is a pathway in order for them to live that successful life. And it bothers me a lot when I hear people who just came out of government, who spent 1.4 trillion dollars in this country and failed the black community and still are walking around the people as if they were capable of giving the leadership to help to create wealth in the country and in the black community”. Funny enough, the Private Sector Commission (PSC) did not even mildly rebuke, let alone, condemn the Minister for that callous statement.
Even so, in his remarks on the situation, the mayor raised a fundamental question on the powers, rights and responsibilities of the council, and its jurisdiction. In doing so, he quite rightly highlighted that the government, through the Ministry of Public Works, had breached the jurisdiction of the Council, to wit: agents of the Ministry of Public Works had entered upon a council road- New Market Street- to carry out an exercise, which in essence disrupted the economics and social lives of individuals, without consulting with the competent authority – the City Council. Sections 274 to 280, of Chap 28:01, have conferred special powers on the council for certain roadways (council roads) in the city. No one [even if that person is an agent of a government ministry or agency] has the right to enter upon council properties including roads, drainage or any other council property to carry out works or any exercise without the permission, or at least consulting with the council.
That, notwithstanding, for quite some considerable time now, Central Government has been attempting to usurp the authority of the council for its own political purpose. This is manifestly evident in the way they have been doing works on council roads, drainage canals and other related waterways and channels, community grounds, and even the Le Repentir Cemetery. Of course, some will argue, and perhaps, justifiably, that the council has not been carrying out its statutory responsibilities, in those areas. But the inaction of the council to fix roads, desilt canals and provide other municipality facilities does not diminish its legal and statutory authority and responsibility for those facilities. Therefore, the Minister of Public Works could not properly carry out the exercise it did, to remove those vendors, without consulting with the council.
The government cannot be heavy- handed, “lick them down, shove them out” and bully vendors out of their livelihood. In fact, they have said nothing about an alternative place or arrangement for those poor and vulnerable Guyanese. Again, one can make the argument that the government has no obligation to find an alternative area for the vendors. Nevertheless, when one considers the harsh economic and social realities of our country then such an expectation would not be considered unreasonable. This raises a wider question: the noticeable uneven manner in which the government is treating Guyanese in different parts of the country.
Recently, it was reported in certain sections of the media, that Minister of Local Government and Regional Development, Mr. Nigel Dharamlall met with vendors at Mon Repos and successfully resolved issues relating to the construction of stalls and placement. Prior to that meeting Vendors had expressed their frustration and satisfaction with new vending arrangement being put in place by that ministry. However, a similar level of respect and courtesy was not accorded those vendors, plying their trade at New Market Street; the government used a heavy- handed bullish approach. If one were to consider the different actions of the government, in the two vending scenarios then one would have to conclude that the government has different sets of rules for Guyanese living in different regions; some appear to be more equal than others. This Orwellian action of the PPP/C government is inconsistent with fairness, justice and good governance. Also, it betrays its mantra of “one Guyana”.
It is obvious even to the causal bystander that, the government is doing whatever it very well pleases in any and every part of the city without as much as notifying the Mayor and City Council about its intentions or the projects it is executing on properties and municipal facilities for which the council is the custodian. If the government believes that it could hoodwink the people by doing the work of the council, while denying that local government organ resources, then it is highly mistaken; the people are much wiser than that. Further, if the government continues to bypass the City Council and behave like that local authority is non- existent then whither goes local democracy?
Empirical evidence seems to suggest that the incumbent political administration has very little regards for the importance of local government bodies, and, in fact, the whole notion of local democracy. Just look at the way the minister appropriated to himself the authority of a constitutional body- GECOM- and adjusted boundaries of local government areas.
Considering extant political and other circumstances, I am of the view that, the unprincipled action of the government to remove vendors from a council road is part of a wider collective attitude by the ruling party to disregard those statutory bodies and totally dominate and control every aspect of our society.