Business Page  The Jagdeo Presidency - Conclusion

Sunday, November 13th, 2005

(Conclusion)

Following the first part of this piece last week, I was sent the text of a presentation by Dr Brian E Henry at a Leadership Forum in Grenada late last month. The choice of venue was influenced by the devastation of Hurricane Ivan and the need for that special type of leadership which the circumstance demanded.

That should be a must-read for all of those in leadership positions whether in the private or public sector, and perhaps the sponsors of that forum - Development Finance Limited - might like to repeat it here in Guyana given their current and future investment plans for Guyana.

I will return to Dr Henry's presentation shortly. But first I look at two very recent issues which shape the Jagdeo presidency - the VAT legislation and a Bill to amend the High Court Act.

The VAT legislation:

On October 31, Minister of Finance Saisnarine Kowlessar issued Regulations No. 12 of 2005 under the Excise Tax Act and an Order under the Value-Added Tax Act 2005. Under the order, VAT will come into operation from July 1, 2006 while registration will begin on April 1, 2006. To the credit of the government it has agreed that both these items of subsidiary legislation will be referred to a select committee for discussion before the National Assembly affirms them. That, however, does not impress many in the private sector who believe that the government has acted in bad faith by its initial decision to take the July 1 date out of the act and replace it with a date to be set by the minister.

Given the strong reasons advanced by the private-sector representatives and others to the select committee that considered the bill, there was an acknowledgement that at least on the question of a starting date, the government was prepared to listen. But then the government turned around and did exactly what it had signalled it was prepared to be flexible on.

It is hardly how credibility and respect is earned. And to believe that one can introduce legislation that would require major system changes in the middle of the calendar and for what is the fiscal year for many, shows a remarkable lack of understanding of how systems operate and a callous disregard for the private sector.

The High Court Act:

President Jagdeo has dithered over the appointments of the Chancellor and Chief Justice following the departure of Chancellor Bernard to the Caribbean Court of Justice earlier this year. The Constitution of Guyana provides that "the Chancellor and the Chief Justice shall each be appointed by the President, acting after obtaining the agreement of the Leader of the Opposition." During the several months since the departure of the former Chancellor, Chief Justice Carl Singh has been performing the functions of the Chancellor as well as his substantive functions as Chief Justice.

There was a single meeting several months ago between the President and Leader of the Opposition Robert Corbin. Since that time the President has announced that he has set up - apparently unilaterally - a search committee whose membership, terms of reference or time-frame for coming up with recommendations, he has not disclosed. Word was that Mr Corbin was prepared to respect the judicial pecking order and have the Chief Justice confirmed as Chancellor and Justice Claudette Singh, the next person in line elevated to Chief Justice.

There has been much delay and little enthusiasm in resolving the issue and this has in no way been helped by Bill No. 17 of 2005 transferring to the Chancellor several of the key powers and functions now vested in the Chief Justice.

As the leader of the country, President Jagdeo cannot allow the perception that politics takes precedence over the rule and conduct of law in Guyana. In pursuing this bill into law, the government could be accused of undermining the courts, including, ironically, Justice Carl Singh with whom it seems particularly comfortable. More dangerously, however, it would be putting out a challenge to Mr Corbin which he would have to take up if he is to restore any credibility to his image as the effective leader of political opposition. What if Mr Corbin refuses to agree to Mr Carl Singh? Stalemate in the judiciary? Wherever the judiciary goes, there goes the country.

Having dealt with the poor performance of the economy since Mr Jagdeo assumed the helm of the Ministry of Finance and his indecisiveness with the courts we can now turn to other areas for which he has ministerial responsibility or has exercised some overriding authority.

Crime:

Crime is perhaps one of the egregious examples of poor results which must at least in part be attributable to poor management. It is now thirteen years since all we have had is excuses. Last week there was a report of three persons being killed having escaped from the lock-ups, and yesterday five escaped from the Mazaruni jail. In the police force we are in a cycle of near-retirements which makes longer-term planning quite difficult. The former Minister of Home Affairs who admitted contacts with some highly questionable characters has been sent abroad to promote the country's image and interest, while critical studies on the force have been shelved. There is no doubt that under the President's watch, the crime situation has worsened.

NIS, the Bank of  Guyana and VAT :

The National Insurance Scheme which is the only retirement fund for the majority of the working poor is facing financial difficulties and calls for refinancing the scheme from the billions we have been spending over the years have been ignored.

The Bank of Guyana for long periods was without a board while the former Governor was never confirmed. Even now and in contravention of the law, the bank is both without a deputy governor or independence. A proper functioning economy requires an independent and accountable central bank, but here again we are missing out as we are with the Statistical Bureau, another important institution which took years to publish a national census but can enter a political debate within 24 hours.

The self-employed still evade taxes with impunity, despite the billions invested in the GRA, and the tax burden remains one of the highest in the world, a burden in danger of becoming worse with the introduction of VAT. The basic element of equity is now completely absent from the tax system while the poor bear a disproportionate share.

The University of Guyana is a mess while the Public Service is in shambles. With more ministries now than ever before we do not have a Minister of Agriculture with responsibility for rice and sugar - the mainstays of our economy. Lean and clean government is dead and huge tax-free, US dollar salaries, some of which are obscene and others illegal are the order of the day. Our foreign service is in so much mess that no one bothers to think about it, and some of our diplomats are now on lifetime postings while showing no returns for the expenditure.

The Office of the Auditor General under new legislation is the weakest it has ever been, and accountability and corruption are now attracting international attention. And talking of new legislation we pass laws and then ignore them, and one only has to think about the Money Laundering Act, the Deeds Registry Act and the Trafficking in Persons Act to realise how deeply mired we are in poor management.

Micro-management:

How is the President responsible for this? I recall at a meeting several years ago, Mr Jagdeo being described as being thoroughly familiar even with the colour of the paint used in the Ministry of Finance. In other words, his strength is micro-management which is the quality least expected of a leader.

President Jagdeo would do well to learn from the presentation by Dr Harry who quoted Henry Longfellow as calling on leaders to "lift their shoulders and lift their gaze." Leaders have to be able to view patterns as if they were eagles operating at 35,000 feet. Leaders have to see a context for change or create one, said Dr Harry:

"Without the capacity to move back and forth between the field of action and the high view, to reflect day to day, moment to moment, on the many ways in which an organization's habits can sabotage adaptive work, a leader easily and unwittingly becomes a prisoner of the system. The dynamics of adaptive change are far too complex to keep track of, let alone influence, if leaders stay only on the factory floor. Without the perspective from on high, leaders probably would be unable to mobilize people to do adaptive work. Getting the high view is thus a prerequisite for good leadership skills development."

Yet what have we had from technician turned Minister turned President? He has slavishly followed the prescription of the International Monetary Fund for whom he has become almost a poster child and a model student.

Conclusion:

In assuming the presidency, Mr Jagdeo took on a role for which he would be judged long after he leaves the post. It is not his fault that he did not have the experience or qualities for the job, and unfortunately learning on the job is not an option.

It is one of the paradoxes that for the most important job in the country, qualification and experience do not count. While as said above, that is not President Jagdeo's fault, his success is not entirely out of his control. His record has been below expectation and it will not be an easy task for him to have confidence restored in his ability, and to create even a modest legacy.