On Thursday, the eGovernment Project Execution Unit, accompanied by the State Assets Recovery Unit (SARU), descended on the Enmore/Hope Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC) and seized 15 computers. Its reason for doing this, according to a statement from the Ministry of Public Telecommunications, was that it had become aware of a plot by the NDC to sell the computers.
The ministry statement added that the computers were a donation from the Basic Needs Trust Fund (BNTF) and were intended for use by residents of the community and therefore, could not be sold. Further, the ministry statement said that the minuted decision of the Neighbourhood Democratic Council at their statutory meeting of 16th November, 2016 to sell these computers was illegal. It said that upon receipt of the report of the impending sale, the eGovernment Unit, which it says has “oversight of government’s ICT assets, quickly responded to prevent the illegal act.”
The ministry statement went on to say that the computers will be returned to the Enmore community once it has been agreed that they would not be sold or otherwise disposed of and they will first be serviced by the eGovernment unit.
For its part, the Enmore/Hope NDC said: “There was no such plot and nothing clandestine or unlawful was intended. The truth is that these computers are the property of the NDC. They are outdated and most of them were malfunctioning. As a result, a decision was taken by the NDC that these computers would be sold, if possible, and replaced by the NDC with a new (complement), so that the community can continue to benefit from their use. This decision was made at a public statutory meeting of the NDC and recorded in the Minutes. Therefore, there was nothing sinister, secretive or illegal about it as has been suggested by the Government.
“The Enmore NDC is an autonomous legally elected body that is independent of the Government and is legally authorised to make its own decision. SARU and the Government have no authority to interfere with decisions of the NDC. Therefore, we reject the Government’s attempt at justifying SARU’s illegal actions of trespass and unlawful deprivation of the property of the NDC.”
Any effort by prescribed law enforcement agencies to thwart the illegal disposal of state assets is welcome. In this case, however, there was clear overzealousness in the actions of the eGovernment unit and such seizures of equipment are unacceptable and should not be tolerated.
In the absence of a legal framework underpinning its law enforcement activities, SARU had no business accompanying or spearheading this operation to retrieve the computers. If there was some belief that a crime was about to be committed, the relevant information should have been submitted to the police for action.
Second, there appeared to have been no dialogue between the NDC, the eGovernment Unit and SARU on the concerns surrounding the computers prior to the seizure. One would have thought that the advisable course of action for anyone concerned about the computers was to approach the Council or its Chairman for clarification. The Ministry’s statement itself acknowledged that there was a minuted decision at the council in November 2016 for the sale of the computers. There was evidently no intention of secretly selling the computers. It was all out in the open. It would be the height of foolishness for a NDC attempting an illegal act to have a full discussion and to minute its decision. The question that the council would have had to answer and will still be required to do so is whether it was permissible for the computers to be sold.
Third, the eGovernment Unit has not provided any information to establish under what conditions the computers were provided by the Caribbean Development Bank-funded BNTF to the Enmore NDC. Was there a proscription against the sale of the computers? Did the Unit and SARU attempt to establish this first?
Fourth, the holding of historic local government elections just over a year ago could not have contemplated that a NDC could be so disrespected by central government agencies. The NDCs have autonomy of action and must be treated with due respect. Descending upon the Enmore/Hope NDC office without notice and seizing equipment it is in control of is redolent of strong-arm behaviour of the past. The eGovernment unit has also unacceptably taken it upon itself to set terms for the return of the computers to the NDC.
Sixth, the modus operandi of the eGovernment Unit and SARU in this instance could well lead to concerns that big brother is at large, frantically looking for the slightest transgression with any computer that may remotely have some link with the government. The Ministry of Public Telecommunications should release information on all similar seizures of equipment that have occurred in the past and the grounds for these. The eGovernment Unit would be far better employed, for instance, with ascertaining from all of the recipients of laptops from the previous government’s One Laptop per Family programme, how their equipment has been functioning and whether it has been useful at all to them.
Last, while it has no bearing on the issues related to the computers, it won’t escape many that the eGovernment Unit and SARU descended wantonly on a known stronghold of the opposition PPP/C and behaved in an unbecoming manner. This is the type of insensitive act that can have wider fallout than merely the seizing of 15 computers. Better judgement must be exercised by these government agencies.