June 8, 2004
Few would deny the President of a republic such as ours the prerogative of dispensing certain official favours and some discretionary expenditure in order to further the legitimate business of the Government. When, however, does presidential prerogative cross the line to become political patronage? What is there to prevent personal interest from being represented as the public good?
Agencies such as the President's Youth Choice Initiative (PYCI) and the President's Youth Award Republic of Guyana (PYARG), by their titles, indicate the source of authority and legitimise a significant body of activity and spending.
People outside the administration may not comprehend the practice under which millions of dollars, derived from official state revenue or from the proceeds of the Guyana Lottery Company's games, should be dispensed without approval of their representatives in the National Assembly. This is especially worrying when those activities and agencies seem to be managed by personnel, and motivated by mandates, which are not part of the public service and therefore may not be subject to regulation, convention and control.
The PYCI and PYARG may be quite legitimate and efficiently administered agencies. But they are not the most costly, and certainly not the most controversial, of the devices available to the President for dispensing patronage. A much wider area of activities exists beyond the purview and control of the Parliament and other organs of public scrutiny that is under the President's personal authority.
For example, the Commissioner of Police last month publicly thanked the President for a payout of a bonus to the entire Guyana Police Force under a hitherto unheard-of scheme called the President's Initiative (PI). Similarly, the President, on occasion, has authorised multi-million dollar payouts to certain businessmen who were affected by the catastrophic fires in the Georgetown and New Amsterdam central business districts.
Where does all this money come from; how is it accounted for; when do payments start and stop; and who is qualified to benefit from this semi-official largesse?
Presidential patronage is not restricted to monetary gifts, of course. Although it is well-known that as Chancellor of the Orders of Guyana the President has the authority, based on the advice of the Advisory Committee, to grant national honours to whomsoever he sees fit, many were astonished at the award of Guyana's highest honour - the Order of Excellence - to the non-resident head of a regional institution in a year when no other national honours were announced to the public.
The President could also use his enormous authority and power to favourably influence, or discountenance, the engagement of the services of professionals - accountants, attorneys-at-law, engineers etc - as consultants; the granting of contracts to individuals and companies to provide goods and services to the Government; the appointment of businesspersons as ambassadors and honorary consuls, and the nomination of members to scores of agencies, boards and commissions.
Over the years, patronage has become a useful instrument of social control to neutralise the hostility of union leaders, opposition politicians, and ethnic, religious and social critics and to win the support of the rich. Extending favours to a few representatives of such groups, even on a token basis, can create the illusion of inclusivity which can have a mass appeal even though the entire group derives no tangible benefit from such gestures.
The presidency of Guyana, unlike the prime ministerships of other anglophone Caribbean countries, possesses an almost unfettered power of patronage. In the final analysis, how much good does it do?