It is almost like every other week there is some accusation or suspicion of abuse of power or some form of corrupt practice in government. In this year alone, there have been several allegations of malfeasance appearing before us in some form or the other.
Everything from the rosewood issue to secret oil contracts to blatant nepotism show that Belize’s structures for true oversight are anaemic or just downright dead!
Last year, prior to the general elections, it was the mass naturalization issue. Not too long after that, there were the “Land Grab” scandals—which just became a tit-for-tat game in the House of Representatives. And what makes it even more glaring is the “there-is-nothing-wrong-with-that” position that these “men of power”—who apparently double as judge and jury for the merits of their actions and decisions—seem to have taken to such concerns.
When the deputy prime minister (DPM), for example, was asked about his part in that scandal, he openly admitted to giving his family members several pieces of land. But what makes it even more disturbing is the fact that he resorted to the same there’s-nothing-wrong-with-that attitude.
Looking at the current rosewood fiasco, we have the DPM’s brother exporting rosewood during the amnesty; and, to this, we hear it again: “If I have a business or my brother has a business or my son has a business and it is a legitimate business dealing in an enterprise that is not illegal, then I don’t see a problem with that and I wouldn’t countenance that as corruption.”
It’s right and wrong as they see, eh? There is no need for them to respect the objections of those voters who put most of them in power. The full symptoms of this disease called clientelism has surely had it’s way with us in this country. It’s certainly not reflective of a government of the people for the people by the people. It’s too Cabinet-centric for that.
Road to absolute power?
This type of thing, however, isn’t unique to this current government. It happens on both sides. And, it was during the People’s United Party 10-year reign that those public sharing agreements were signed with oil companies. These contracts, as of last week, have since been declared “null and void” by Justice Oswell Legall.
But, of course, Government has essentially down played the impact of the victory and said that it will appeal the judge’s ruling.
Similarly, the Bar Association won its challenge against the government as it pertains to the lifetime tenure of judges.
The Bar says—and quite rightly so—that in order for a judge to be viewed as completely impartial he ought to have tenure of office and not be subject to a contractual system where he might fall victim to wishes of the Executive Branch.
Again, the government has said that it will appeal this decision. Apparently, they prefer to keep judges on a tight leash.
Then there is the whole issue of the Public Accounts Committee and its sister standing committees of the House. While the Standing Orders say the composition should be reflective of the proportions in the House of Representatives, it obviously is not.
The Standing Orders also say that the number of committee members could be increased to nine. With those two factors alone, we could have had four members of the opposition and five of the incumbent represented in such committees. But, we have two to six, respectively.
Then there is the Integrity Commission, which the government of the day established.
How can we have the body that is supposed to guard against public officers using their powers to increase their personal wealth being staffed and funded by the very same people it is to oversee? The same thing is true for the Auditor General’s Office.
Separation of Powers
We have inherited a political structure that has the majority of the legislators doubling as members of the executive.
Isn’t it bad enough that our system revolves around this winner-takes-all principle whereby the incumbent government—even with its small lead over the opposition—can pass most Bills even if all 14 members of the opposition vote ‘no’? Then, whether that Bill goes to the Senate and/or to the relevant Standing Committee, the government has majority control in both of these bodies as well.
So, at this point in time, the Legislative Branch influences the Executive Branch, which—through its attempt to control the tenure of judges—could be said to be also trying to influence the judiciary.
This is a concern as it relates to the principles of true separation of power.
It is the ultimate breaking down of transparency, which has a direct effect on accountability; and, as long as this is allowed to persist, Belizeans will be left to complain to no avail.
Where can we go from here?
But, as Oceana and the Bar Association have both displayed, taking action now could have results—even if those results are appealable.
However, it will take the involvement of every Belizean to ensure and secure the type of democracy we want to have. But, what kind of democracy do we want?
Instead of talking about breaches of transparency and accountability, we have to demand it. Demand it not only in words but also through strategic and responsible actions.
The people of this country who are tired of being stuck at the elementary levels of governance, where we cannot even trust those we’ve voted for to do what’s right for the people, will have to unite and address this problem from the root: the lack of true systems of transparency and accountability that transcends the authority and influence of those we’ve lent those powers to for the greater good of Belize.
The real problem and the real solution
The real problem is not that some ministers of government are corrupt.
The real problem is that the system is too weak to address human nature. The system that is supposed to be protecting you and me from the curse of men in power is practically non-existent or nominal at best.
The problem isn’t that the Deputy Prime Minister gave land to his family: It’s that he was able to do it without any real checks and balances to hold him accountable.
The problem is not that the People’s United Party was able to sign dubious oil exploration contracts that have now been declared “null and void”, and the problem also is not that money from Venezuela that was to be used for a housing program was siphoned off and used elsewhere.
No! The real problem is that the system or structures of transparency and accountability are nominal at best, or, in many cases, just nonexistent!
And, quite honestly, it does not exist because we, the people, have allowed it to remain that way. Ask yourself this question: Is it logical to expect that the government of the day—PUP or UDP—to honestly regulate themselves when millions of dollars worth of temptation pass before them regularly?
No. It’s pitiful really. We are making the lives of these honourable men too difficult. They’re human after all, and the lure of nepotism, “cronyism”, bribery, absolutism, and clientelism (the process in which politicians promise voters “assets” in exchange for their vote) is too strong for these normal men in power.
So, making their life easier, the citizens ought to band together to enshrine real checks and balances.
A victory and a loss
Let’s look at the Oceana case, for example.
Calling on the powers of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the NGO had requested information regarding the contracts that GOB signed with the companies in question.
After two letters to the Geology and Petroleum Department’s Andre Cho in March and April 2011; a June 2011 letter to minister Gaspar Vega; and a July 2011 request to Ombudsman, the NGO received no real response.
Under the FOIA, at the very least, OCEANA ought to have received a formal response from the relevant ministry to inform why it was not able to furnish them with the documents.
Were the oil contracts, and information related to them, declared as ‘exempt document’? Was there some pressing event (which the over-considerate FOIA takes into account) that would have justified a delay in meeting the request? Was it because the government wanted to protect the companies’ trade secrets? The answer is that the group never received even an explanation as to why, even though the law—the FOIA—says this (and more) was what was to happen.
While the whole system needs to be upgraded, there are at least two key areas that we all should collectively address first in order to augment transparency and accountability.
First, the Freedom of Information Act needs to be revised.
A good example of where the weakness of this Act was manifested was again in the Oceana case.
It is interesting to note that the information that the NGO and the Coalition had asked for would have explained exactly what those oil companies would actually be doing in the country.
Based on those details, Oceana, the Coalition and the court would have been able to really assess whether or not those companies are indeed qualified to do any such work in this country. Is the government saying that you, the people, need not know this information?
Even when the judge—the JUDGE!—asked for the information, most of it was not presented to him either.
People, there can be no transparency when information is not freely available. That’s just a fact. It’s just not possible. So, something has to be done about the Freedom of Information Act. Actually, something has to be done about the free flow of information on a whole.
In the Cayman Islands, for example, the Office of the Information Commissioner operates on this principle: “The government should rarely, and only in compelling circumstances, possess more information than citizens possess.”
That office in the Cayman is authorized to investigate cases in which the government does not respond to or refuse a request under the FOI law. But, probably most importantly, the Commissioner’s decisions are binding.
The idea here is that the public official that offends the FOI laws ought to be held accountable for doing so.
Second, when it comes to oversight bodies, we have to move away from a structure that has the Executive Branch determining the make-up of these entities.
The PUP’s suggestion to have PAC be comprised of mostly opposition members is a healthy step in the right direction. This same type of principle ought to be applied to the other committees.
For example, with all the land-grab scandals and the public sharing agreements signed over the years, it pains one to think that there is actually a Standing Committee that is responsible for natural resources and the environment.
The complaining over the radio and on the morning talk shows are only but a first step in the overall process. This process’s ultimate goal is to have true separation of powers and to have true transparency.
But, this will not happen by a politician or government, without unified, consistent, well-organized, and unified (intentionally said this twice because it’s most important) effort on our part as Belizeans.