Stonegate: a test of public accountability

by Eusi Kwayana
Stabroek News
September 19, 1999

The declaration at the highest level that, to use the Forbes Burnham's own words: "This government sets its face firmly against corruption," is nothing new by now.

After independence it was first made in 1971 before a packed meeting of public sector representatives in the parliament chamber. On that same occasion, the then Prime Minister promised, "I have in draft a code of conduct and behaviour for ministers..." The draft never came to completion until December 1974, when it was proclaimed as part of the Declaration of Sophia. It promised declarations of assets, but to the leader of the ruling party. The declarations were never made public. Yet the statement in the parliament chamber had one bright spot. It opened any leader to examination by the Ombudsman on charges of corruption.

Two major enquiries, against two ministers, followed on the application of "enemies of the State." Such an enquiry has not been possible since, certainly not since 1992, when electoral democracy was restored and with it the over protection of the executive!

It is interesting to note that the PNC had been in office only for seven years and that it was ASCRIA, an African-pride organisation, which was pressing the government on the issue of corruption. So effective was the pressure that a leadership meeting determined on the containment of the Coordinating Elder (this writer) of that organisation. Many heads rolled, not for corruption, but on suspicion of leaking to the organisation reports of corruption. In speaking of 'containment' I have chosen a mild word in place of a much harsher one.

What can I think of organisations of Indian pride, whatever their chief or specific concerns--whether religion, or the physical safety of Indians--whose leaders remain dumb and silent in the face of evidence of corruption of a government of an Indian-supported ruling party? No amount of fencing and misrepresentation, twisting of phrases and misquoting, can excuse such behaviour. Such silence is a denial of everything that any worthy religion and they are all worthy, has ever stood for.

Take the Auditor General's Stone report. It goes a far way to remove the mystery from what had become a series of rumours about the importation of stone. Many have, or rather few in public life have dared to comment on it, although the suspects are not only Indian and include African persons. Those who commented are brushed aside as "antigovernment." with an agenda. Those clerics among us who were so forthcoming and so correct in pointing out the wrongs of the PNC administration, and they were many, have now lost all sense of right and wrong, while serving the same God. I do not regret my exposure of the misdeeds of the PNC, nor apologise for reminding the public of those of the present government. Silence on corruption or suspicion of corruption, on the part of those able to at least denounce it without libel, is not far short of criminal. Supporters should not remain silent at the misconduct of government leaders they have supported.

The stone buying, stone selling, stone diverting, stone misdirecting incidents revealed in the Auditor General's Report are worthy of the title Stonegate, after the famous Watergate, of the USA. With all my dislike of flippant borrowing, I find it most fitting. Stonegate also includes some election upmanship, since stone paid for with international funds and earmarked for the Essequibo road was supplied to named contractors--Dipcon, Seereeram and Tapp Construction. What were they engaged in? They were busy building streets in certain parts of Greater Georgetown in the teeth of the election campaign.

The Auditor General found evidence of under supply, of overpricing, of false documents of "unacceptable explanations" flying in the face of established facts and or downright falsification of accounts.

Crying out for explanation is the testimony of the Ministry of Works, which sought to blame the minister for the whole episode. It told the Auditor General that the minister had met the president of Lynwill, a firm central to the concerns, while on a visit to Canada, the headquarters of the firm; that the minister had brought back samples of the stone to Guyana and handed them over to be tested. This, they claimed, led to the agreement between the ministry and the firm for purchase of stone. This reveals at least a minister's misunderstanding of a minister's role. It is noteworthy that the samples dispatched in his care were in line with specifications for Dipcon's contract, and that this sticking to the specifications was not continued by the firm, once it got the nod.

The whole experience suggests one explanation of how corruption starts.

Corruption thrives when 'too few people control too much money'.

I have mentioned some precedents in the management or mismanagement of corruption to help the memory of the society at large. The mention will also warn decision makers of the present day not to rely on the self acting power of their own words. People expect more.

Moreover, serious investigations cannot be allowed to hang fire. They may not solve all problems, but the Stonegate report brings to light matters which no self respecting Cabinet will want to ignore or be seen as ignoring.

M. P. Rupert Roopnaraine and the Stabroek News editorial in that order of time have recommended that the report should go to parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC). Channel 28 commentator Kit Nascimento led public comment on the Report--all wrong people who cannot be right.

The PAC is chaired by a member of the major opposition party. Since the new President has promised Tender Board regulations after the parliament's recess, that may be a good time for the PAC to get going on the Report. The PAC has power to summon public officers and question them about their actions. It can be accountability season.

A © page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples