(The following is an opinion piece written by former Attorney General and current Executive Member of the PPP, Mohabir Anil Nandlall)
Fear is one of the natural consequences of authoritarianism. When the PNC dictatorship was in its heyday in the late 70s to the mid-80s, raw and naked fear gripped this land. Atrocities such as the killing of the ballot box martyrs in 1973, on the Corentyne, the assassinations of Dr. Walter Rodney, Oheini Koama and Father Darke, the shooting of Dr. Joshua Ramsammy, the physical violence and brutalities meted out and the imprisonment of dozens of known political activists; the size and activities of the Guyana Defence Force, the Guyana Police Force and a host of para-military organizations established by the State; the agenda of the House of Israel and the State’s control of the commanding heights of the economy-all provided sound and factual basis for the fear which invigorated this land, then. The main source of the fear was the Government of the day.
Authoritarianism and fear
Fast-forward to 2017. There is an abundance of incontrovertible evidence that authoritarianism, has once again, begun to spread its tentacles in an institutionalized fashion across the constitutional apparatus of the State. In previous essays, I have detailed systematic attempts by the Executive to undermine constitutional offices and institutions whose functional responsibility is to check, oversight and scrutinize the Executive and to guard against excesses and abuse of power.
These include: the National Assembly, the Judiciary, the Judicial Service Commission, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Auditor General’s Office, the Public Service Commission, the Police Service Commission, the Public Utilities Commission and the Police Complaints Authority. In each of these organizations, there have been documented attempts to interfere with, undermine, or publically assault officers, as they attempt to discharge their respective mandate.
Fortunately, most, if not all, of these attempts have been made public. Some have resulted in litigation. In some instances, adverse rulings have already been made against the Government by the Courts. I am not naive to think that the interferences which have been made public are the only ones that have occurred. Indeed, I know of many that have taken place and continue to take place but officials have refused to divulge information because of fear of reprisal.
Dismissal, termination of contracts of employment and refusal to renew those types of contracts have been one of the weapons used by this Administration against those who have refused to dance to their tunes or from whom they suspect they cannot extract political loyalty.
This brings me back to exactly where I started. Authoritarianism has returned in an institutionalized manner and it has brought with it its companion: fear. Again, the main source of this fear is the Government of the day. Ministers are regularly reported in the press, speaking about locking up, charging and jailing people. The activities of SOCU have driven fear in the business community.
Draconian legislation which concentrate huge powers in the Guyana Revenue Authority to access people’s confidential financial information, raid their bank accounts and prevent them from exiting Guyana have had chilling sensations on the populace. The despotic SARA Bill, which creates an omnipotent monstrosity as a Director, is by far the most frightening piece of proposed law in the Caribbean, if not, in the entire Commonwealth. SARU, which is located in the epi-center of Executive power, the Ministry of the Presidency, has an octogenarian as its head, who regularly passes public verdicts on persons without any investigations even commencing.
In one of his reckless ramblings, he has identified the height of buildings as the basis for investigating their owners. Several dozen businessmen and women have been suddenly chosen for audits by the Guyana Revenue Authority, running into hundreds of millions of dollars.
In this atmosphere of apprehension, I could not get a single businessman who was prepared to institute a legal challenge against the VAT (Amendment) Act 2017, which empowers the Commissioner General of the GRA to prohibit persons from leaving the country whom he suspects owe VAT, although the VAT which may be owed have not yet crystalized into a final debt. Of course, I was prepared to act as a lawyer free of charge. I called several of them. They all confessed that while they believe that the law should be challenged, they were fearful to do so because of repercussions from the Government. In the end, I was forced to file the proceedings in my own name.
It is against this backdrop of trepidation that I must salute those who have stood up resolutely against the authoritarians. The single-mothers whose core-homes were being taken away by Central Housing and Planning Authority stood their ground and filed legal proceedings. They were victorious. The rice farmers from Region 5, whose leases were capriciously revoked by the MMA/DA, launched legal proceedings. They won their cases as well.
Then the President, himself, attempted to revoke their leases. Again, they stood up and filed legal proceedings. These cases are still pending. When this Government attempted to hound Carvil Duncan out of office, he stood his ground and challenged them in Court. Those proceedings are still pending.
When the Attorney General attempted to boot Zana Frank from her lawful appointment as Deputy Registrar of Deeds, she stood firm in resistance and challenged the unlawful interference in the High Court. She won her case. When the President attempted to expropriate the leasehold interest of the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre, they defied him; that matter is also pending in the Court. When the Attorney General attempted to intimidate and embarrass the Deputy Solicitor General and the Solicitor General, they both stood their ground and defended themselves, admirably, in the public domain, exposing his undeniable incompetence in the process.
When the City Council attempted to, dictatorially, impose a punitive parking meter system in Georgetown, a group of civic-minded citizens unleashed their wrath against it, putting the future of the project in doubt.
Judiciary as the bulwark
In most of the examples cited above, the Judiciary, although under attack itself, rose to the challenge and has played its conceptual role as the bulwark of the citizenry against Executive excesses. I salute our judges for so doing. I encourage them to continue to uphold the rule of law and the constitution of this land. Soon after the 2015 elections, I informed the leadership of the PPP that the Judiciary will become the most important frontier of the political struggle over the next few years. With every day that passes, I am vindicated. I harbor no doubt that it is the Judiciary that will determine how far we slide back into dictatorship.
In almost every instance of abuse of power to which I have made reference above, the PPP has played or is playing a major part, either in exposing, or challenging them. This has been the role and core function of the PPP from its birth, sixty-seven years ago. This week, the CARICOM Secretary General was moved to remark “imagine if there was no CARICOM in the Caribbean.” Likewise, I say, “imagine if there was no PPP in Guyana.”