On Thursday President Irfaan Ali said that his new ministers were expected to be results oriented, efficient and transparent, and that they would be held accountable. To cynical Guyanese ears it all sounded like the usual platitudes; after all, with the experience of 23 years and then five under a different administration behind them, citizens had no reason to indulge any great degree of optimism. And as for his immediate agenda, the President said that in part it included constitutional and electoral reform, as well as revamping the security sector. Exactly what all of this means, only time will tell, since the PPP/C came late to intoning the mantra of constitutional reform, and never gave even a hint of what they thought it might involve.
In the case of this particular governing party, what is significant is not just which ministers are appointed, but whether their attitude to governance has changed. And where that is concerned, they have always operated with one watchword: control. The PPP/C has never been amenable to allowing any non-political organisation which they have not penetrated to flourish. It is the main reason why after 1992 civil society remained so attenuated. Their ministers in previous administrations reflected this central theme, and one suspects that this time things will be no different.
Furthermore, like their current counterparts in opposition, Freedom House has always had a habit of rewarding loyalty rather than seeking out talent, and in a general sense that has applied to ministers as well. In many countries ministers are the formulators of policy, although they are unlikely to have much leeway in that regard here, but that aside, in Guyana they need to be good administrators above all else, and administrative skills have always been in short supply.
Given the above, one can ask why Mr Kwame McCoy, a divisive figure over whose head a number of clouds hover, was named a Minister within the Prime Minister’s office before Mr Mark Phillips has even been given a portfolio. In the first place, Mr McCoy with his record should not be in government at all, and in the second, installing him in the Prime Minister’s arena raises suspicions about how far the party trusts his superior.
Then there is the matter of the Ministry of Local Government, which is to be headed by the controversial Mr Nigel Dharamlall who lacks a reputation for civility, among other things. He is to be supported by Channel 69 owner, Mr Anand Persaud. What does this bode for central government’s relations with regional and local government authorities, particularly those which did not vote PPP/C? The citizens of Georgetown in particular will be nervous in case they will be facing another spell of the victimisation they experienced prior to 2015.
The re-named Ministry of Amerindian Affairs is another department of government over which a question mark hangs. The none-too emollient Ms Pauline Sukhai has been re-appointed there, and given her conduct in the post the last time around, there can be little confidence that the administration’s approaches to the Indigenous people have changed. Once again, one suspects, the objective is control of the communities with a view to ensuring they vote for the PPP/C the next time around.
Some of the other old hands have also returned, including Dr Frank Anthony, this time as Minister of Health. At least the population will have greater confidence in him to deal with the pandemic than they did Ms Volda Lawrence, who appeared quite incapable of rising to the demands of the post. Mr Anil Nandlall unsurprisingly has been appointed AG, who whatever his limitations, is a huge relief after five years of the utterly incompetent Mr Basil Williams. Mr Robeson Benn, a confrontational man, has re-emerged as Minister of Home Affairs, although it remains to be seen whether his style will be appropriate to managing that tricky post. One imagines he has been placed there with the overseeing of the police force particularly in mind.
Mr Juan Edghill who over the years has been admitted to PPP/C circles, has been named Minister of Public Works with Deodat Indar as Minister within that ministry. Ms Priya Manickchand is back in the Ministry of Education, and while her previous stint there was less than stellar, it was not disastrous, and once again is enhanced when viewed alongside the incomparably poor performance of the APNU+AFC’s Ms Nicolette Henry.
Ms Gail Teixeira’s appointment as Minister of Parliamentary Affairs comes as a surprise to no one, since she is far and away the most knowledgeable member of the governing party in that field.
Some appointees, however, are either not publicly known, or come as a surprise. There is, for example, the case of Mr Zulfikar Mustapha, who takes on the portfolio of Minister of Agriculture, and who has given the assurance that the government will relentlessly pursue the reopening of the sugar estates which were closed down. This sounds like pandering to the party constituency, rather than serious agricultural policy, let alone sound economic policy. While looking for ways to assist those laid off make a living would be more than justified, reopening estates is not. It might be noted that political interference in the management of the sugar industry played a large part in bringing it to the dire straits it is in now, and it looks as if this is not to change. It represents the triumph of politics over economics.
If Mr Mustapha is not to enjoy much autonomy, the same could possibly be true of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which goes to a complete newcomer, Mr Hugh Todd, who is altogether more sophisticated than the bumbling Dr Karen Cummings. However, he does not have much background in the field – not that he couldn’t acquire it – and traditionally foreign policy under the PPP/C has been managed from the Presidential Secretariat (now the Ministry of the Presidency). The most difficult area is the boundary, which requires the acquisition of considerable knowledge, and in view of the fact that the matter is currently before the ICJ, one hopes that the new government does not go interfering in any significant way with current personnel arrangements which could affect the presentation of our case.
The appointment which has surprised everyone, however, is that of Mr Vickram Bharrat, a former teacher and technical officer, who is now the beneficiary of the portfolio of Natural Resources. The general expectation was that it would go to Mr Charles Ramson Jr, because he has a qualification in oil and gas enterprise management. He has not been overlooked, but has been given Culture, Youth and Sport. What is not clear as yet is whether Mr Bharrat will also be given responsibility for the petroleum sector, a critical area in the new Guyana. Since the new Minister is not a well-known public figure, it is difficult for anyone to make judgements about how he might perform.
Other newcomers include Ms Oneidge Walrond at Tourism, Mr Collin Croal and Ms Susan Rodrigues at Housing and Water, Dr Vindhya Persaud at Human Services, Mr Joseph Hamilton at Labour and Ms Sonia Parag at the Public Service. At least the citizenry will be pleased to see there is not a total recycling of old hands.
One critical portfolio, however, has not been allotted, and that is the Ministry of Finance. The public suspicion is that this will go to Mr Bharrat Jagdeo, whom the head of state has already named Vice-President. There are two things to say in this regard. One is that if it happens, it lends credence to the talk that President Ali is playing Medvedev to Mr Jagdeo’s Putin. After all, it is believed this happened before when Mr Donald Ramotar was president.
Secondly, it will confirm the perception that this will be a recycling of the earlier Jagdeo presidential era. While he is very popular with his Indian base, he is correspondingly extremely unpopular among the Africans. Apart from the activities of the ‘phantom squad(s)’, he has never been regarded by that particular constituency as either fair or even-handed, although he was not above ‘buying off’ specific groups when he regarded that as necessary.
Finance is the most powerful post in the country and if that is given to Mr Jagdeo, therefore, the inevitable conclusions will be drawn by half the population. It is not just that they will regard President Ali as a ‘puppet’, but that they will believe his government is in office for the benefit of one segment of the society alone.