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There is never a dull moment in this beautiful country of ours. Every day, it feels like we, here, in Guyana, and, I am sure elsewhere, in the world, are treated to political antics with high entertainment value. It looks like a national masquerade. Had it not been for the seriousness of this strange governmental behaviour, by the Ali- led government, it would have made for good laughter. The sorry reality is that the amusing behaviour of the ruling party- PPP/C has consequential implications on the advancement and sustainable development of our society.
The most recent antic is the one about the government signing a contract for a Single Electronic Identification System and cards. According to media reports, the Government of Guyana (GoG) signed a US$35 million contract with a German-based company, Veridos Identity Solutions for a Single Electronic Identification System and cards that will be issued to Guyanese. Without a single bill in Parliament on this issue, the government went ahead full throttle and signed the contract.
The official contract signing between the Government and Veridos, took place, a few weeks ago, virtually from the State House. President Irfaan Ali as well as Prime Minister, Brigadier (Ret’d), Mark Phillips; Senior Minister within the Office of the President with responsibility for Finance, Dr Ashni Singh and Minister within the Ministry of Public Works, Deodat Indar attended the signing ceremony. It is important to note that no one from the private sector, civil society or minority groups were present at the signing. So much for inclusive politics.
Subsequently, the President in a feeble attempt to justify this indecent act- signing of the contract, sang praises to the virtues of the electronic identification system. He said that the new system will enhance the ease of transactions; improve access to all citizen-centric Government services; bring us in line with solutions used by the most developed economies; position Guyana to be a competitive sphere in a world that is advancing drastically along a technological landscape; allow for the issuance of work permits and resident identification; promote the idea of one citizen, one identity by assigning a unique national registration number to each citizen for use by all Government agencies; allows the capture of individuals’ biographical and biometric information based on international standards and stores it to provide identity-based services to individuals and other Government offices.
At first glance this initiative appears to be the most sensible thing to do, and it is a sensible initiative. In fact, Guyana might be the only country in the Caribbean without such a system. However, if one were to take a closer look at the way this project is being handled, by government then one would recognise several red flags. These worrying signs must be appropriately addressed, if not by the government, by stakeholders, and all Guyanese, whose lives would be fundamentally affected by the implementation of this national electronic identification system.
First, the government, by going ahead to hurriedly sign the contract, did much violence to the National Procurement System. Government hand- picked that company without any reference to our national procurement system and policy. No other company was accorded the opportunity to tender for that project because it was never publicized or advertised. It was first mooted by the Vice President, Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo, not even the Minister of Home Affairs, whose portfolio must include national security matters, said anything about it.
One can successfully argue that, this makes the entire transaction vulnerable to corruption, unlawful and unfair to competing companies, in that industry. In so far as adhering to national procurement requirements are concerned, the incumbent is a very poor role model. If the government is breaking the law then it is undermining its own authority and integrity. I would not go to the trouble to unravel the government’s claim about this contract falling in the category of national security emergency and all the other political fluff. Nothing can justify this action to sign on to a contract without complying with the requisite laws. Further, there is no word on options available to Guyanese. Will the card be a voluntary identity/ travel card or a compulsory identification card?
Second, the cost- $US 35M. Since there was no proper tendering for the national electronic identification system no one knows if we, Guyanese, are getting the bang for the buck; real value for money. Is it the case that we have so much money that without knowing whether or not we get Optimal Returns on Investment (ROI) the government can go ahead and sign the contract?
Perhaps, a comparative study or an analysis of the current national identification system and the new initiative would have revealed that, that huge sum- US35M- could have been spent to enhance other important areas of our national security systems. For example, would it be more profitable to use that sum to build capacity of relevant institutions, up-grade the remuneration packages of our police and military personnel, or use another model?
Again, no scientific or other analysis and/or study was conducted, by the government and/or its actors, [ none was publicly announced] to find out if the new system would, in substance, improve national security or make it more vulnerable to international crimes, including cybercrimes. This is shocking because the government of an oil economy has gone ahead and entered into a contract with an overseas company for a national electronic identification system without doing the necessary research to determine its true value to the Guyanese people. No wonder, the Attorney General is only now trying to put in place legislation to cover this new initiative; putting the cart before the horse. Still, the real issue will be the database, what information will be in it, how would that information be used, who will have access, and how the unique numbered identifier will be used.
While in opposition, the PPP/C was quick to shout corruption whenever it felt that the then government- APNU-AFC- had breached procurement procedures: Now, the PPP/C in government appears to be recklessly unconcerned about such matters of procurement policies and rules. But, there might be a number of reasons why the government is behaving in this manner.
One such reason is that they have an overflow of oil money at their disposal; they don’t have to rely on the cooperation of citizens to implement revenue initiatives, and public taxes. This encourages them to be less accountable and respectful to the people. It is settled knowledge that governments of oil rich countries tend to be less accountable to the people. It is part of the Dutch Disease. Another reason is that the appropriate institutions and commissions are either weak or non- existent. The Public Accounts Committee cannot be convened because government officials are consistently absent; no accountability to the people.
I have noticed that since the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) objected to the way the government engaged and managed the national electronic identification system transaction, that body is been hounded down by members of the ruling party- PPP/C. The Attorney General himself, in what seems like reprisal, attempted to publicly embarrassed the Association, by claiming that it owed taxes to the Guyana Revenue Authority- GRA. But, the government has no moral authority to speak about that because it owes the city council over one billion dollars in taxes for government properties. It is now very clear that once you criticize this authoritarian regime, you run the risk of its ire. Nevertheless, citizens should entertain no fear of government threats and actions, in exercising their right to free speech.
Third, there was no public consultation about the new system. One would think that if the government wanted to introduce a system that facilitates more surveillance, in our society, that it would have consulted with the people; not so. By deliberately refusing to consult with the people the government has shown totally disrespect and disdain for those, who elected them to office. This is a fundamental point, here is why: one of the challenging issues of this card is identity theft.
The problem is that the more valuable an identity document is, the greater the temptation to create forgeries. The assumption is that because the card will have biometric identifiers on it, it will be almost impossible for someone else to steal the card and the identity attached with it. However, what this overlook is that the key element of this entire scheme is the database and the most important identifier on the card is that unique number by which an individual is known to do serious damage to someone’s identity one does not necessarily need to steal the card; one can do much damage by simply stealing the number. For that and other reasons, the government should have engaged the people on this matter.
Every government that practices good governance knows that such matters as introducing a national electronic identification system and card requires nationwide consultation. The Ali- led government does not see the need for public consultation on this important project. Instead, it is busy masquerading as a democratic government that touts inclusivity, equality and justice. But it is fooling no one.