Little confidence that SARA is designed to prevent abuse of State assets

In principle, the State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA) is a positive development. Anytime, we have a mechanism in place to preserve, protect and recover State assets, it has to be viewed as a good thing. Of course, abuse and theft of State assets is a crime and there are laws that prevent such abuse and theft. But if making it easier to preserve and recover State assets is the motivation to establish a special agency, then national support should be a major priority for the Government and the Opposition.

For one, it is imperative that SARA be implemented in an environment of trust. There are examples of such specialised agencies in many countries where recovery of State assets is just an excuse for Governments to pursue political intimidation and vindictiveness against their opponents. The Agency, far from operating to protect and preserve State assets, becomes a “creature” for the Government to harass, humiliate and prosecute existing and potential political opponents.

In Guyana’s case, such a concern was expressed by the Opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP) in and out of Parliament. The PPP is not singular in its trepidation about the SARA Bill. Concerns have also emanated from the Private Sector Commission and the Guyana Human Rights Association. The independent political commentator, Ralph Ramkarran, a former Speaker of the National Assembly and a person who has become an unofficial spokesperson for independents in Guyana, while conceding that an agency that is designed to recover State assets is a good idea, expressed the need for national support. He argues that it is incumbent on the Government of the day to create an enabling environment for national support. These concerns have largely been ignored by A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change (APNU/AFC) which has railroaded legislation to establish SARA.

The suspicion that APNU/AFC is motivated by sinister intentions in creating a State agency to preserve and recover State assets was intensified when the SARA Bill was passed by the Parliament of Guyana last Thursday without a full debate. It was passed after APNU/AFC used its one-seat majority to shut down debate on the Bill. Embarrassed and cringing from the Opposition’s effectiveness in exposing the weaknesses inherent in the legislation and the plausible case the PPP made that the legislation is more designed as an instrument for political victimisation and vindictiveness, APNU/AFC obscenely aborted the debate. The speakers from the PPP who did get a chance to speak clearly made APNU/AFC uncomfortable as they exposed the real motivation – creating a legal instrument for the Government to pursue political intimidation. Rather than provide answers, APNU/AFC decided to shut down the debate, preventing several speakers from the Opposition speaking.

Further, APNU/AFC missed an opportunity to garner support and inspire confidence by not agreeing to send the SARA Bill to a Special Select Committee. The long and extensive Bill is one of the more consequential Bills presented in the 11th Parliament so far and would have benefited from consideration in a Special Select Committee. It would have provided an opportunity for public contributions and hearings. APNU/AFC’s rejection of this approach in Parliament germinates the suspicion that APNU/AFC is seeking another political instrument to carry out political vendetta. Incidentally, the 11th Parliament rarely uses the Special Select Committee anymore, even though the 6th to the 10th Parliaments made extensive use of Special Select Committees in the consideration of Bills.

APNU/AFC insists that no one should worry since the Bill will also apply to APNU/AFC. The problem is it is APNU/AFC which is presently abusing the powers of Government to intimidate and harass its opponents. It has used SARU – the State Assets Recovery Unit, in the Ministry of the Presidency, as a State tentacle for “thuggish” behaviour and making wild, reckless statements that show political biasness. APNU/AFC has used the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU), another State entity, which was supposed to be dedicated to thwarting money laundering, to intimidate and humiliate political opponents. These entities have been used as political “creatures” to spread fear as they intimidate citizens with no and little credible evidence. They operate by condemning people as guilty even before any evidence and even before any charges have been laid.

In such an environment, trust and confidence that such an agency will be used legally to preserve and recover State assets is low to non-existent. This is even more pronounced when one considers that the people in control of SARA will be people appointed by APNU/AFC. There is no provision made to ensure that people appointed to SARA will be people with broad support, since all appointments will be made by APNU/AFC. It is such arbitrariness that leads to vulgar actions like the seizure of assets belonging to the Enmore NDC, the arrest of a businessman and illegal excursions to spy on people’s bank accounts.