CHALLENGES IN 2017: – The new year begun with peaceful protests, more scandals, cronyism, corruption and confusion in the coalition

Getting it Right By Dr Bheri. S. Ramsaran

Guyana entered the New Year embroiled in protests and revelations of more scandals and executive lawlessness.
The protests are gaining in number and all seem to be large or “mass” in nature.
That is to say, they have attracted considerable numbers of peaceful, but agitated citizens. The early January peaceful protests have attracted from 50 to as much as 220 persons. The geographic spread, too, is also of interest – in Regions 10 and Region 5. The protests are manifestations of the push back of the poor and powerless against the exploding blunders of the APNU+AFC Administration and its imposition of arbitrary interventions and its disregard for the rule of law.

Two major “mass” protests were in full swing last week.

Two “protests” stand out – firstly the West Berbice farmers’ pocketing of the Mahaica-Majaicony-Abary Agricultural Development Authority (MMA/ADA) over its recent increases in land local rentals. And secondly, the peaceful gathering of residents from five communities in the area of the Linden/Kwakani Road junction, supported by dozens of aggrieved motor vehicle drivers to protest the gross neglect of the road serving these communities.

Noteworthy, is the vast difference in geographical locations and backgrounds of the protestors and the nature of their complaints.

Of note, too, is the unresponsiveness of the authorities.

At the same time, the emerging scandal surrounding the government’s secret deal with a Trinidadian firm for the possible takeover of the lucrative GUYSUCO Skeldon sugar estate is generating more disquiet and concern in wide cross-sections of the population. And as if these were not enough disturbing revelations in the very first few weeks of the new year, more followed in quick fashion.

It is now public knowledge that a lawsuit has been filed by Banks (DIH) against the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) for some $28.5B worth of consumption taxes and interest, which the company says it overpaid to the tax body due to a legal error.The beverage company is claiming the sum as a refund for the period of 2001- 2007. PPP General Secretary and Opposition Leader, Dr Bharrat Jagdeo, had predicted this eventuality several months ago.

The trained Economist and International Public Dignitary had immediately commented comprehensively on the issue when the PNC/APNU+AFC Administration first revealed that it had given a similar waiver to another local beverage company — DDL.

Dr Jagdeo had stated many months ago that the APNU/AFC Government was setting a bad precedent by settling a court matter, with DDL. He opined that the Banks DIH court action now emerging vindicates his stance on the matter.

That case revolves around a legal challenge launched in the High Court by DDL in 2002, to the assessment by the Commissioner General of the GRA of consumption taxes owed by that company in a sum exceeding $1B for the period January 2001- September 2002. On taking office, the PNC/APNU+ AFC Administration meekly gave in to this challenge, allowing DDL to go free with huge sums of outstanding debts and opening the door to similar challenges from other companies.

The two mass protests of the very first weeks of 2017 and the DDL scandal are rollovers from the past year. The mood and mode of disquiet and unease seem to be the emerging feature, which will characterize our socio-political environment for 2017.

The unfolding controversial, arbitrary and non-transparent City Hall Parking Meter project reinforces this perception of widespread disquiet and concern.

The non-consultative and arbitrary approach of the APNU-dominated City Council has in the past few days generated concern, outrage and protests from yet two more sub-sections of our population – the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) and the Association of Disabled Persons.

More importantly, this perception is further reinforced by the more recent attempt by the APNU+AFC Administration to rig GECOM by undermining Article 161.2 of the Guyana Constitution, which speaks to the election of a Chairman for the Commission.

The Coomacka Protests
For seven consecutive days in mid-January large numbers of residents of the villages in the Linden/Kwakani area have mounted massive and well supported peaceful demonstrations to highlight their collective plight. The main road serving these communities has been in bad shape for some time now and continued neglect by the regional authorities in executing even the minimum of remedial works has led to it becoming almost impassable.

Some 220 residents on Tuesday last, gathered there to register their frustrations. This reportedly was the highest turnout. On other days, the numbers were also substantial – at times reaching 60- 80 persons. For days, was no official response, except for the watchful presence of a few ranks of the Guyana Police Force, under the supervision of a senior officer.

Residents from the communities of Siberia/Old England, Three Friends Mines, Coomacka Mines, Yariabo and Nottinghampshire, made their voices heard at the deplorable condition of the road.

These are poor communities. The peaceful protesters came out demanding a slice of the “good life for all” promised by the APNU+AFC Administration. Many among the peaceful protesters queried the claim by the Administration, both at the regional and the national levels, that there were no monies available for remedial road works in the area, while billions were recently spent on the Jubilee Celebration projects in the City.

They referred repeatedly to the controversial D’ Urban Park project.

The deterioration of the community road has progressed and has been known for almost the past two years. The plight of this poor community is not unknown nor is it new. The protesters and their families in these villages are incensed by the misplaced priorities of the APNU dominated Government.

$1B was spent on D’ Urban  Park, which is now unused and needs monthly weeding, but not a cent for the much needed road repairs.

No visit from the authorities
For the first several days of the high profile protest, there was no meaningful response on the part of the Administration. The only sign of officialdom was the presence of a small party of members of the Police Force.
A senior official finally visited and had a meaningful engagement with the aggrieved residents and vehicle drivers only on Wednesday last — on the seventh day of the peaceful protest action. Minister in the Ministry of Public Works, Ms. Annette Ferguson, visited the protesting residents on Wednesday last and undertook to have the Ministry of Infrastructure commence remedial works in 24 hours.

The peaceful protestors, in the spirit of compromise and reasonableness, constructively engaged the junior Minister, and on being informed of the Ministry’s pending early interventions, committed to defer further public protest action for the time being.

Observers, meanwhile, noted that while this protest was spontaneous and that there was no identifiable leader or leadership group among the protesters, that over the seven days, sentiments were hardening against the callous and non-responsive treatment leading to many saying that should the Minister renege on her commitments or deliver sub-standard work as a sop to the residents, they will once again take to the roadside protests and/or even extend them to the City.

Several of the more mature protesting residents have quietly voiced a demand that the communities be integrated into the design and actual supervision of the remedial works to be supervised by the engineers of the Ministry. Some, too, demanded that the workforce to undertake these remedial works must also include local residents. Other frustrated residents went even further in their recommendations requesting oversight and supervision of the remedial road works by suggesting that this function be given to members elected from the communities, who would have naturally a vital interest in seeing quality work done.

The West Berbice farmers’ peaceful protest & picketing
On Tuesday, 17th January, some 200 aggrieved rice farmers picketed the Mahaica-Majaicony-Abary Agricultural Authority (MMA/ADA). They were protesting the steep increases in the rental by the Authority. This increase is a direct consequence of the recently announced draconian measures of the Budget 2017. Many of the protesters were persons who have spent their entire life in the production of rice in the area. They know the industry “inside out”.
The disgruntled farmers/protesters openly identified the refusal of the APNU-led Administration to render any assistance to the rice industry, generally over the past two years, notwithstanding loud promises by Moses Nagamootoo and Khemraj Ramjattan. Many of them pointed out the total lack of support and/or incentive to this viral national industry reflected in the Budget 2017, as presented by the Minister of Finance.

The National Budget was officially presented in Parliament on 28th November, 2016, by Minister Winston Jordan.
Dr Jagdeo, in his scathing review of the Budget in his presentation in Parliament during the ensuing debate, exposed the callous absence of any budgetary measures to support the rice industry or mitigate the financial plight of the rice farmers.

Jagdeo pointed out that the politics of discrimination had taken precedence over rational economic thought. The industry supports thousands of rice families and even thousands more Guyanese indirectly.

The administration again refused to engage the peaceful protesters. The head of MMA/ADA hid from them, claiming that he had no authority to intervene. Similarly, no one from the central Ministry of Agriculture made any effort to engage. The farmers, having vented their dissatisfaction, have committed to sustained peaceful protest. Early follow up protest action is expected in the apparent absence of official response.

Interestingly, the Hope Estate residents and farmers are disquieted and are also expected to take to some form of peaceful protest to highlight their concerns and the unresponsive attitude of the APNU-led Administration.

Skeldon Estate Sell-out Scandal
Recent revelations that the Minister of Agriculture is engaged in talks with a private company to hand over the lucrative Skeldon sugar estate for a song have further alarmed Guyanese.

This move seems consistent with two approaches – a) dismantle the sugar industry and, b) hand over state property, lucrative state contracts and jobs to cronies.

This will not pass without protest, especially in the wake of the closure of Wales with no alternative option of livelihood given and the extreme hardships, which resulted for thousands of workers and even more residents in the adjoining communities.

But the latest insult to Guyanese is the move by President Granger to disregard the list of candidates for the post of Chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission submitted by the Leader of the Opposition as is demanded by the Constitution as a “consensus mechanism”.

The fear is that Granger is setting the stage for the unilateral, arbitrary and unlawful selection of a biased Chairman of the Elections Commission as a first step in rigging the 2020 General Elections as in the Burnham period.

Wide sections of the populace – even some supportive of the Administration – are apprehensive and shudder at the thought of Guyana going back to the dark Burnham days.

The clouds of more protest storms are gathering faster and faster.

This will indeed be a stormy year.