There are four major issues relating directly and indirectly to corruption facing Guyana at the present time. These are the establishment of the Public Procurement Commission, the reform of the Integrity Commission, the utilization of the Freedom of Information Act and the passage of Corruption legislation.
The Public Procurement Commission was recommended by the Constitution Reform Commission in 2000 and passed into law by amendment to the Constitution in 2002. Its composition and functions are set out in the Constitution but its essential role is as a body acceptable by both political parties to oversee public procurement. One would have thought that the then Opposition would have aggressively pursued its establishment. But obstacles rooted in a political culture of non-cooperation which has generated a permanent political strategy to eke out a disagreement out of every potential agreement, has prevented any progress. The issue of the Public Procurement Commission was a major one for Opposition parties between 2011 and 2015. Its rapid establishment would be a major step in the fight against corruption and the Transparency Institute of Guyana Inc (TIGI) ought to make it a priority.
The Integrity Commission has no fangs. The Opposition prior to 2015 has not cooperated with the Integrity Commission and I do not believe it has ever filed any returns, so contemptuous it has been of the Commission. I have no idea, now that the Opposition is in Government, if it has been showing similar contempt for the laws. But there is as yet no head of the Integrity Commission and no discourse as to how the work of the Commission can be improved. I have no idea whether this is a priority or not.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the Integrity Commission has powers of investigation and can recommend criminal charges. It did so against former Prime Minister, Basdeo Panday, for having an overseas account which he did not report. When Guyana reaches the stage where even a sitting Minister, much less a President, can be charged for a criminal offence relating to corruption at the instance of an independent body, we can say that Guyana is making progress. As a first step, TIGI should call for the appointment of a Chair and advance a considered view, on the transformation of the Integrity Commission into an investigative body.
Information is one of the greatest weapons in the fight against corruption. Our Access to Information Act was passed in 2011. Even though its weaknesses were recognized by stakeholders, the Act allows access to information where such was not hitherto available. But nothing has happened since it became law. The then Prime Minister said in the National Assembly during the debate that “when this Act is brought into being, there would still be lots of work required o make it effective, systems will have to be established and coordinated all across the government and public agencies for consistent ways in filing, detailing and retrieving of documents.” No one knows, or has sought to inquire, whether this work was done by the past Government or this one. The Access to Information Act has been largely forgotten and remains unutilised. Surely this is a matter which ought to have been in the forefront of TIGI’s work.
Guyana is in dire need of anti-corruption legislation. Our current laws are outdated and not as effective as they should be. The result is that many acts and omissions, which cannot now be prosecuted because of outdated legislation, can be caught and the perpetrators punished with modern legislation. Modern practice suggests that anti-corruption and anti-bribery legislation can be enacted in one all-embracing Act. Specimen legislation is available and Guyana’s foreign partners would, I am sure, be happy to assist with experts.
Guyana’s needs to climb up from the bottom end of TI’s corruption perception index in a hurry. Soon we will be joining the club of oil producers. If we allow Guyana to enter that club with corruption still festering, no amount of posturing about protecting oil profits in a sovereign wealth fund will prevent the corrupt skimming off from the top end of a significant portion before the funds reach the sovereign wealth fund. And even if such funds survive the passage into the sovereign wealth fund, how is its expenditure in beneficial programmes protected? Do we want to become just another corrupt oil country?
The Government of Guyana has all kinds of priorities. The economy is obviously its primary concerns with falling commodity prices and a struggling sugar industry. Seventeen prisoners have just tragically died as a consequence of a riot that many had been predicting for a long time due to bad conditions. We understand that there are priorities. But many of us are here this evening because we feel strongly that corruption should be one of those priorities. Its reduction will provide resources to improve prison conditions. We therefore have to carry the struggle and sustain a noisy campaign for corruption to also be at the top of the agenda. Guyana deserves a better fate than adorning the end portion of TI’s annual report. (Excerpts from an address on 5 March to attendees at the fourth annual dinner of Transparency Institute of Guyana Inc. at the Pegasus Hotel.)