Sat | Sep 23, 2017

Martin Henry | Mombasa grass and governance

Published:Sunday | May 21, 2017 | 5:00 AM
Karl Samuda, mombasa grass
Hugh Graham
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At the root of 15 acres of Mombasa grass on a government minister's dairy farm are important issues of governance. Grass for cows has become fodder for public debate. We need to move the discussion beyond Minister Samuda's integrity and dig deep into the governance issues.

If public boards, like the Jamaica Dairy Development Board (JDDB), functioned with greater autonomy and more transparency, there would be few, if any, of these instances. The minister directs policy and planning and appoints boards. Boards appoint CEOs and supervise delivery on policies and plans. CEOs implement policies and plans as directed or get fired for non-compliance or incompetence.

The ministries, departments , and agencies of government should be rules-bound, which is what 'bureaucracy' means in its pure and neutral meaning. Those rules should be predetermined, publicly known, applicable to everybody, and applied with consistency. Any minister who interferes with them should be exposed and fired and possibly face criminal charges for abuse of office.

Minister Samuda, a bona fide dairy farmer as the former Minister of Local Government Noel Arscott caught up in the controversy describes himself, should not have had much thinking to do in having the experimental Mombasa grass planted on 15 acres of his dairy farm. Mr Samuda, in a "personal explanation" facilitated by the Standing Orders of the Parliament, used parliamentary privilege to defend his integrity. He named several persons and a major company, who, with the exception of Noel Arscott, himself a member of the House, enjoy no such privilege and do not even have legal recourse outside of Parliament under the rules of the Constitution, which protects parliamentary privilege.

Among those named was Byron Lawrence, then acting CEO of the JDDB, a public servant, from whom Mr Samuda said the suggestion for the grass planting on his farm came and which he was initially reluctant to accept but "was prevailed upon to accept". In his manly mea culpa, Samuda confessed that "had I thought about it more carefully, and if the opportunity should ever arise again, I would not have gone the route I did. It raises questions, it gives rise to speculation, and, in that regard, it is unquestionably an error on my part not to have safeguarded myself appropriately ... . I regret not having taken appropriate measures to protect my integrity in the whole process."

No such deep thinking should be necessary, or any new and extraordinary action required, to safeguard the minister and to protect his integrity. And the integrity of those he chose to name without them having a right of response is also at stake.

Let me make abundantly clear immediately that I do not share the widely held public view that would seek to exclude politicians from normal economic and social life. We resent them for making a living off politics and we resent them for seeking to engage in regular economic activity with politics. It's almost as if politicians should do only politics or starve.

 

National outcry

 

A national outcry was raised against JLP participant Audley Gordon being appointed manager of the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) although he was highly qualified for the job. An independent board bucked public opinion and appointed Gordon, who is doing a pretty decent runningof the NSWMA. Cheers!

Mr Samuda is a bona fide dairy farmer, as is Noel Arscott of the Opposition. There is no justification to punish them for being politicians when it comes to planting the experimental Mombasa grass free on selected farms. As there is no justification to favour either or both of them for being politicians. A clear "bureaucratic", i.e., rules-bound, selection process should be equally applied to all livestock farmers.

Indeed, having heard Mr Samuda's privileged and passionate self-defence, the Jamaica Dairy Development Board owes us a public explanation of the selection process and either justify the minister's inclusion by the rules or take the opportunity to demonstrate that Minister Samuda muscled his way around the rules.

Normally, public boards should get on with their business quietly out of the limelight, but a public controversy has arisen that justifies the JDDB board speaking out.

A board that has accommodated any breaches of procedure should be dissolved forthwith, and since appointed by the minister in question, should be dissolved by the minister's boss, the prime minister.

Minister Samuda has enjoyed unilateral free play and under the shield of parliamentary privilege. What about the other players in the Mombasa grass saga and that other matter raised by the Opposition Spokesman on Agriculture, Dr Dayton Campbell, the application for, licence by a major Jamaican company, Wisynco, to import milk powder from Colombia? Hugh Graham's integrity and reputation have been dragged in the dust after his contract was not renewed as CEO of the JDDB. Did the board let him go? And why? Did the minister influence the separation because of clashes over the importation of milk powder? We have Mr Samuda's mixed story.

Byron Lawrence, acting CEO of the JDDB, has been named as the initiator of the offer to plant the Mombasa grass on Minister Samuda's farm. What is his story? Did he play by the rules? Was he overruled?

A major Jamaican company with a reputation to jealously safeguard has been publicly named as the applicant for a licence to import milk powder from Colombia, an application which was rejected by the minister. What is the Wisynco story? Would there not be, should there not be, clear bureaucratic rules prescribing the importation of milk powder and other dairy products, especially in light of the Government's clear policy commitments both to resuscitate the dairy industry, hence the Jamaica Dairy Development Board and the Mombasa grass, and the policy to have affordable food available to consumers, especially the poor? Rules that would reduce ministerial discretion in granting import licences to almost zero? You qualify, you are in. You do not qualify, you are out.

In paying for the grass, the minister has done substantial damage to his spirited defence of reputation. The argument will be lost on most of my fellow citizens who firmly believe in paying to save face and mek dem know she wi nuh have fi depen' pan dem fi nutten.

Entirely the Samuda stance. Quite frankly, 15 acres of Mombasa grass planted at a cost of just J$546,000 on a minister's farm is no big deal. A milk powder import licence may be a little bigger deal. The really big issues at stake are the governance ones. In the interest of fairness and good governance, the Samuda saga is deserving of full investigation by an independent tribunal reporting to the prime minister.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.