Trevor Munroe | 2020 lessons for 2021: For greater accountability and more equity
While “COVID still a keep” and each of us must better observe the rules to manage the pandemic more successfully, 2020 is now history, and history has lessons to teach, providing we are willing to learn. Two such lessons we need to emphasise.
One is that the more we stand up to the abuse of power, whether by white collar or blue collar lawbreakers, ultimately making use of the courts, the more chance that we shall get the accountability, which democracy proclaims but often fails to deliver.
The second lesson is similar: that the more we expose and not cover up wrongs, the more we speak out against unfairness, primarily through the media, the more likely we are to deal with unacceptable inequities in our system. Learning and applying lessons such as these as we embark on 2021 shall help us not only to recover stronger, but with greater accountability and less inequity.
Take one recent case: The multimillion-dollar three-storey apartment on Birdsucker Lane in upper St Andrew. Had not 10 residents stood up for their rights and their attorneys taken the developer to court, the judge would not have been able to find that this structure was illegal, the developer in breach of law, the rights of the community being abused, and consequently, the citizens would have continued to suffer in silence. Moreover, once again, white collar lawlessness would have got away as well as the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation and the National Environment and Planning Agency escape accountability.
So the choice for us in 2021 is clear: suffer in silence or come together for justice. Citizens being abused like the Birdsucker residents can either keep quiet or take what attorney Gavin Goffe (who represented the residents) called a “clear path” to stop “these highrise apartment buildings being constructed next to them in breach of planning laws and regulations ... and to hold the KSAMC accountable for having allowed them to be constructed.” ( The Gleaner, December 17, 2020).
Some communities, like that of St Andrew Park, with National Integrity Action help a few years ago, took this “clear path” to hold the powerful lawbreakers to account. Others like the Acadia Citizens Association, the Leas Flats Citizens Association are learning that accountability, more often than not, comes from citizens demands and not as a gift from above.
On another level, during 2020, the Uchence-Wilson trial in particular is teaching us in 2021 that the gangsters and violence producers need not enjoy impunity and run amok across Jamaica’s parishes. These criminal gangs behind so much murder and mayhem can be held to account. The Uchence-Wilson gangsters were caught, tried, convicted, and jailed but only because witnesses came forward, skilled investigators did their job, prosecutors and judges exercised high professionalism, integrity, and courage in upholding the law without fear or favour. Applying the same formula, the corrupt in one of the most significant recent corruption cases, that of the $400 million stolen from the Manchester Municipal Corporation, are now behind bars. In the coming months, the Clansman gangsters must also pay the price for the lives they have taken and the crimes they have committed.
EXPOSE THE FACTS
The year 2020 has also taught us that in 2021, wrongs will remain hidden and inequity unchallenged unless those among us behave with responsibility to expose the facts and speak out against unfairness.
In this regard, how many of us would have known, and when would we have discovered, that Norman Horne was a citizen of the United States when wrongly recommended and appointed to Jamaica’s Senate in breach of our Constitution had not Nationwide done its investigation and exposed the truth?
Similarly, would not uptown yacht parties in breach of the law be still going on at Maiden Cay while downtown entertainments were being locked down had not the media exposed this double standard and citizens from all walks of life cried out against this inequity? Should not the uptowners be arrested when in breach in the way that the downtowners are often charged?
And what about the unfairness that threatened the 400 Golden Grove farmers and ex-workers promised land and then told to vacate by July 30, 2020. We in 2021 must learn that had they suffered in silence, had they not come together and spoken out against this inequity, had not investigative journalists exposed this unfairness and the Public Defender taken up their case, today, these 400 Jamaicans and their families would be landless, unemployed, and wondering how they would survive. Instead, these farmers and ex-sugar workers are about to secure the leases to the land that they were promised and justly deserved.
In the first days and weeks and months of 2021, the issues are already on us that urge that we apply lessons from 2020: more accountability and greater equity shall come to us primarily when we assert ourselves and come together as citizens.
Issue number one: The spending of public money and the award of government contracts particularly during this time of economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recall that between April 2019 and March 2020, public bodies were awarded over 20,000 contracts, costing taxpayers almost $140 billion. We must commend the public officers who adhered to the law in this exercise but demand that others responsible for breaches of law and regulations in this exercise be held to account.
Start with the recent Compendium Report laid before Parliament and on the website of the auditor general relating to road infrastructure, dating back to 2015. This investigation found that the National Works Agency, the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, and the St Catherine and Kingston Municipal Corporations awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts on a non-competitive basis without adequate justification, exercised poor-quality management oversight of road construction and thereby could not guarantee value for money spent by taxpayers. These irregularities demand that parliamentarians of integrity, from both sides, who sit on the PAAC and PAC, leaders of our churches, private sector, civil society organisations, citizens’ associations, youth, women and student groups – all who want to see Jamaica recover stronger with greater accountability - must stand up. We must demand that wastage be rectified and that sanctions be applied. The public officers and private contractors alike colluding to breach procurement law, to benefit illicitly from irregular spending of scarce resources, which could go to help us recover stronger, must be held to account, especially in the face of this unprecedented economic crisis.
Another issue demanding that our voices be heard: the crime-corruption pandemic. Terrifying as coronavirus remains, four times as many Jamaicans were murdered in 2020 than died from COVID-19. Most were slaughtered by guns, facilitated entry into Jamaica by the corrupt, largely engaged in the guns for drugs trade, some protected by accomplices in security forces, and many preying on the vulnerability of thousands of marginalised Jamaican youth for gang recruitment.
The year 2020 laid foundations for us in 2021 to tackle the crime-corruption pandemic with unprecedented consensus. In August, for the first time ever in Jamaica’s 58 years of independence, the Government, led by the prime minister; the Opposition, led by the leader of the Opposition; and 21 private sector, civil society, and citizens’ groups came together, negotiated, and signed off on a range of agreements with defined timelines to deal with crime, violence, and corruption. This consensus is being monitored by an Oversight Committee on which I have the privilege to sit on which both Government and Opposition are represented. The first three months of 2021 under this consensus must see overdue agreements being implemented; the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption agency become fully independent of the Jamaica Constabulary Force. Secondly, the regulations must be approved by Parliament to reduce cronyism and nepotism and increase the merit basis for the appointments to the boards of public bodies. However, these and other deliverables will be better accomplished to the extent that our investigative journalists, or captains of industry, our church leaders, and honest parliamentarians, as well as “the man in the street” remain vigilant and insist on accountability.
- Professor Trevor Munroe CD, DPhil (Oxford), is principal director, National Integrity Action. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.