Kaieteur News- The late Dr. Walter Ramsahoye once proposed that any person who takes up a political office should leave poorer than when he or she first entered. The former head of the Guyana Medical Council was addressing the issue of ministerial corruption, and as far as he was concerned, the office was one of service and not self-service.
I understood that his proposal was a safeguard against using public office for private gain, but I never agreed with the doctor on this score. I shared a different view: persons who hold political office should be well paid but, equally, they should be held to extremely high standard of public correctness.
The error, which Ramsahoye made, was to consider the issue of ministerial corruption divorced from the context in which it is taking place. That context in recent times has seen a proliferation of political appointees to public office, and the encroachment of these political appointees on the work of career-employees, and because of their political connections, they are immune to sanctions. What exists is a highly politicized system of government, which feeds a corruption frenzy.
Arresting corruption and self-aggrandizement is a much more complex issue than is assumed. It involves ensuring a fairer system of appointments and remuneration as well as removing the resistance to disciplining government Ministers.
When you are a government Minister in Guyana, you can easily escape sanctions for wrongdoing. The political directorate operates as a clique, they do not oppose each other and the powers-that-be who can discipline Ministers for wrongdoing, adopt the position that if a Minister is fired or demoted then this indicts the entire Cabinet.
Once a Minister’s hands are caught in the cookie jar, there is almost a reflexive action on the part of the political administration. Instead of decisively dismissing that person, his colleagues rush to defend and protect the accused – something that is called circling the wagons.
Even Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham were intolerant of Ministerial wrongdoing. Burnham knew that one of his Ministers had misappropriated public funds for his private use. And Jagan had to know that a contractor had gifted a car to the son of one of his Ministers.
Greed, sometimes, knows no limits. Paying a Minister what he or she is worth will help but not necessarily eradicate corruption. The sterner test is severely punishing a Minister for wrongdoing.
Having square pegs in round holes is a contributory factor to corruption. Many political appointees are pretenders. They lord over competent public officials whose work is unrecognized and undervalued. Both the APNU+AFC and the PPP/C are guilty of paying their friends and conies super-salaries, while competent persons are paid below market rates.
A related problem is the false assumptions as to who is suited for what post. It is assumed that academics should administer the university; it is assumed that doctors make the best health managers. But no one assumes that teachers should be running the Ministry of Education or that an environmentalist should head the environmental department and an oil-expert should be in charge of the oil industry. The records will show that doctors neither academics are necessarily the best administrators.
Heads of most government agencies now are being assigned to non-career employees. People who work within the system have come to accept that there are limits to their upward mobility, that when the time comes for them to be promoted to the upper echelons, be it the Guyana Water Authority, the Guyana Sugar Corporation, the Guyana Oil Company, the Environmental Protection Agency or the Guyana Revenue Authority, they are going to be bypassed in favour of a political appointee.
Many political appointees consider themselves as chosen ones. Some of them are given all manner of fancy titles, but lack the ability to do the jobs to which they are assigned. Many of them are learning on the job.
This can discourage competent persons from pursuing long careers in government department. They stay long enough to earn experience and then move on to greener pastures.
For Ministers the pastures are evergreen. The job carries privileges. Ministerial office comes with attractive benefits but it also entices unofficial perquisites. There are persons out there who have calculated that it is in their interest to lavish Ministers with things, including gifts and bribes. It is the nature of the deformed post-colonial states that it has become a sacred canon for public officials to be bribed in order to get things done.
No amount of rules or codes of conduct is going to eradicate public mischief. There will be persons who see Ministerial office as a means to enrich themselves. And the sort of power that is reposed in political appointees often makes them develop a haughty and domineering attitude, which lends to corruption.
If the corruption is to be pruned, then there has to be a complete rethink of appointments, rewards and sanctions within the public sector. But more importantly, the circling of the wagons evidenced by persons rushing to their colleagues’ defence has to give way to a more ruthless approach to ministerial wrongdoing.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.)
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