While there is still much to be learnt about what has transpired, the ongoing turmoil at the Guyana Oil Company will be a test of the PPP/C government’s professed intolerance of corrupt behaviour and commitment to good governance. On the sidelines of an event at the Dharm Shala on Friday, Minister in the Office of the President with responsibility for Finance, Dr Ashni Singh was pellucid when he stated, according to the Department of Public Information, “We have absolutely no tolerance in this government for any corrupt practices…we would be guided by the results of the Auditor General. I assure you that we will take combined action against any parties, who might have been, in the event of any inappropriate practices being identified”.
Following the allegations that have swirled around GUYOIL over reputed arrangements for the purchase of a shipment of oil, Dr Singh invited the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) to investigate the matter. That move is quite unusual when the normal course of action would be to refer any alleged corrupt behaviour to the police for investigation and the possible laying of charges. The OAG has no locus standi as it relates to questioning, for example, the person who is alleging that he was in the midst of the sale of a cargo of oil to GUYOIL. This would require the so-called “confrontations” organised as part of police investigations. Furthermore, there is no transaction for the OAG to audit as what was allegedly transpiring was off the books and not in keeping with procurement procedures. In this case, the origins of text messages and calls will have to be investigated, a task out of the ambit of the Auditor General’s office. The OAG could end up presenting an undue delay in the determination of this matter and the assignment should be withdrawn from it and transferred immediately to the police and one of their specialised units. One hopes that their investigative skills in this area have been bolstered.
The sudden sending on leave of the former General Manager, Mr Trevor Bassoo who had only been appointed in October of last year and his subsequent decision to resign immediately raise red flags. The manner and swiftness of his appointment last year signal that Mr Bassoo had the confidence of senior members of the administration so the abrupt end of his tenure in the lead up to the allegations is puzzling. Mr Bassoo has been adamant that his departure has nothing to do with the allegations surrounding the purported fuel transaction. If so, his being sent on leave and subsequent resignation are all the more puzzling when one considers that he said that on Wednesday, April 14, at 20.24 pm he emailed the Board of Directors (BOD) of GUYOIL “to advise that representatives of (Aaron’s Realty Inc) reached out to me expressing their dissatisfaction with specific officers of GUYOIL, and of their intention to go to the media to expose corruption. In that email (a copy of which could be obtained), I also advised that I suggested to the Aaron representatives that they should reach out to GUYOIL BOD first to seek redress. I forwarded to the BOD the email that I had received from Aaron representatives (a copy of this email could also be obtained).”
It is unclear why Mr Bassoo had any dealings with Aaron’s Realty in the first place and worse, advised it to reach out to the BOD to “seek redress”.
Surprisingly, Mr Bassoo said that the following morning he was called to the Charlotte Street office of the Chairman of the GUYOIL BOD, Mr Paul Cheong, where he was handed a letter sending him on administrative leave. “The letter further stated that the BOD would conduct a performance review of his tenure as General Manager”, according to Mr Bassoo. It is unclear what led to the decision to send Mr Bassoo on immediate leave and this should be explained by GUYOIL. Why any member of its board was in contact with Aaron Realty on matters properly within the purview of the company’s management also needs to be explained. Surely after so many decades in business GUYOIL has long-established procedures for inviting interest in procurement from pre-qualified or reputable suppliers. The antecedents of Aaron Realty would seem to immediately rule it out of contention in such transactions.
The state of affairs at GUYOIL also raises the question of the quality of appointments to state boards. Appointments to boards such as GUYOIL, GuySuCo, the National Procurement and Tender Administration body etc should be merited and should carefully take account of the skills and backgrounds of appointees. PPP/C governments in particular have had a hazardous policy of doling out board positions to cronies, representatives of political parties who have been their allies and sundry nondescripts. This policy has as a subset the notion of inclusive governance i.e. involving as many persons from the political directorate and other parts of society in the boards of state entities. This is all well and fine except that the appointees should undergo some due diligence after nominations are made and where they should be excluded they should be.
With Guyana a signatory to the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption and having been part of its follow-up mechanism for implementation (MESICIC), the government should pay careful heed to the recommendations that were made in the last evaluation in 2017 on matters such as whistle-blowing and bribery. The PPP/C’s legislative agenda thus far has not been impressive and it can certainly advance many of the outstanding recommendations under MESICIC which make eminent sense.
In particular, the Committee of Experts made the following recommendations in their 2018 report which have not been addressed: “Modify Section 338 (2) (a) of the Criminal Law Offences Act, so as to make it more fully consistent with Article VI(1)(a) of the Convention, by incorporating therein, the elements of directly or indirectly accepting a bribe by a public servant or soliciting it.
“Modify Section 338 (2) (b) of the Criminal Law Offences Act, so as to make it more fully consistent with Article VI(1)(b) of the Convention, by incorporating therein, the elements of directly or indirectly offering a bribe to a public servant
“Criminalize those who act as accessories after the fact with respect to corruption offenses, as required by Article VI(1)(e) of the Convention”.
Whether the PPP/C government is serious about battling corruption and acts which appear to engender it will be seen in the type of examination mounted of the GUYOIL contretemps. The government has already failed the test as it relates to explaining the award of two trawling licences under the Ministry of Agriculture.