Saturday, April 26, 2008

Taking the President at his word

Taking the President at his word
Stabroek Business, April 25, 2008

If only because of the persistent charges of corruption that have been leveled against his administration, President Bharrat Jagdeo’s recent comments on the alleged Customs/Fidelity fraud – the pertinent details of which were set out in our editorial last Friday - are deserving of further, more thorough examination.
What makes the President’s pronouncement on the Customs/Fidelity matter really interesting is the candidness with which he conceded the high likelihood of a major racket in the Customs department as evinced, for example, in his reference to “shakedowns” involving Customs and to “major rings” inside the department, language that we have not come to expect of representatives of an administration – far less the head of that administration – that customarily goes on the defensive each time that charges of corruption are made against it.
The President also fingered “people in Civil Service jobs” whose assets he said are “a hundred times, five hundred times their accumulated income for a period” and even went as far as referring to the presumably political “reach of some of the people” and to those whom he said might seek to “lobby” him on the matter.
These pronouncements require no interpretation; neither, for that matter, does the President’s promise that the investigation will go “very deep” in order to get to the bottom of what he says is “not just one matter.”
What is also significant is that the President’s reference to a “major ring operating in the Customs area” is, he says, based on information brought to his attention by Commissioner General of the Guyana Revenue Authority Khurshid Sattaur. The importance of this revelation is its implication that the ensuing investigation will look to the Commissioner General himself to provide evidence of the claims which he made to the President concerning the running of a department for which he has responsibility.
And we are, incidentally, prepared to put up with the din of the cynics – those who point correctly to previous official promises of investigations into allegations of corruption that went nowhere – and, on this occasion, to back President Jagdeo to keep his word. After all, taken together, these are quite remarkable pronouncements and President Jagdeo will surely be aware that after holding forth with such profundity on the matter the Customs/Fidelity investigation must proceed along the lines of the virtual ‘terms of reference’ set out in what the Presi-dent said if he is not to end up with his personal credibility seriously compromised – to say the least. Further, the outcome (s) of the deeper investigation could surely mark a critical turning point in the ceaseless public and political debate on corruption in the Customs Department and corruption as a whole.
It all depends, of course, on whether the Presi-dent’s utterances on the Customs/Fidelity issue serve to give shape to the investigation or whether the enquiry turns out to be a shallow, cosmetic exercise in which the politically well-connected seek and find shelter and a handful of scapegoats are thrown to the wolves. Surely, the President will be aware, for example, that a repetition of the investigation into the remigrant/duty-free scam in which, at the end of the day and following an alleged multi-million dollar shakedown, just one, relatively jumior Civil Servant was “left standing” so to speak, will be unacceptable.
Over time, people have become cynical about the government’s preparedness to undertake genuine investigations into claims of corruption and have asserted that those who perpetrate corrupt acts get away with what they do because of their poitical ‘connections,’ a circumstance to which the President himself alluded when he referred to “the far reach” of some of the people who may be involved in corrupt practices. The President must surely understand, therefore, that this nation has become fed up to its proverbial ‘back teeth’ with investigations into scams which, in themselves, turn out to be scams and that we crave an enquiry that is fair, thorough and transparent and places blame where blame should be placed.
The President, we expect, will be aware that the depth and substance of his pronouncement has once again raised public expectations and placed the responsibility for a full and transparent investigation into the running of the Customs department squarely on his own shoulders. It is President Jagdeo, who, after all, has made the call in this matter and we must hope that the tone and content of what he has said is indicative of a preparedness to let the chips fall where they will.
In this regard the public will be immensely reassured if the investigation which the President said is already underway were to be pursued with a sense of diligence, alacrity and transparency and if his promises that the investigation will “dig deep” and that those implicated will not be able to find political shelter were to materialize.
And while we can perhaps expect that an investigation of the magnitude outlined by the President could take some time and that it would be impracticable to subject the investigatory process to a blow-by-blow account in the public domain, we ought to be able to anticipate – given the fact that this is a matter of particular public interest – that mechanisms will be put in place for providing periodic public briefings on the progress of the investigations and, upon its conclusion, full and complete disclosure of its outcome (s).
What makes this particular development interesting is that on this occasion we have more than a vague promise from some lesser government official – and there have been many such promises in the past - that a particular case of wrongdoing will be investigated. And while we have noted the response of the cynics to our earlier editorial on this issue we simply wish to point out that we see no harm in taking the President at his word and hoping that on this occasion his word will be his administration’s bond.

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