The Holness Administration is entering a critical period of its life. Seventeen months into its term in office the Government is being surrounded by increasingly gloomy, if not stormy, political conditions. The honeymoon is over. Blaming the previous PNP governments for the many ills afflicting the country is no longer acceptable.
Time come! It’s time for Prime Minister Holness and his team to start putting runs on the board. This is now an imperative if they are not to slip into a hole that will be very difficult to dig themselves out of.
The mid-term blues of first term governments are looming.
Crime is not going down as the PM promised on the election campaign trail. Murders are surging. The fear of crime is growing. Neither the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) high command nor the National Security Minister are generating any confidence that they are getting a grip on the wanton criminality besieging too many parts of the country. The new Special Operations Zone and Community Development Act has been welcomed by and large. It is inspiring hope because it recognizes some of the deep-seated problems that have contributed to our failure to contain and reduce crime over the last 45 years.
The Bill was largely crafted by the Prime Minister, the Attorney General, and the Justice Minister. I am struck by the extent to which they went to put in safeguards to protect poor Jamaicans in crime-ridden communities from being abused by members of the JCF. Members who believe that unlawful and “tough” policing characterized by wanton physical violence is the way to deal with whom the security minister, Robert Montague, calls “dutty criminals”.
The fact that the authors of the Bill have told the JCF High Command that they will not have sole authority and control in the special operations zones is a strong signal. A senior JDF officer, of at least the rank of Major, in what is being dubbed a Joint Force Command, breaks new ground. Soldiers will have the powers of a police constable as well, giving them equal authority to arrest. The powerful message being sent is essentially: the JCF cannot be trusted to act professionally and lawfully. They need to have the far more trustworthy and credible JDF beside them on the streets when it matters most.
The Administration is being sensible, if not cautious. It has to use what’s in its toolbox until such time when it has the political power and capital to pull from outside of the kit. Too much is riding on this special operations zones law. Candidate Andrew Holness in the run up to last year’s general elections caught that rampant political disease which infects politicians on the campaign trail. It’s called ‘foot in mouth disease’. Over promising in that desperate moment in search for votes, candidate Holness told supporters in Hanover and the wider Jamaica, that people should vote for him and the Jamaica Labour Party and the crime monster will disappear to the point where they will be able to sleep with their doors and windows open.
It was sheer nonsense. Now he’s being confronted by a deepening problem of crime. Under his watch there is widespread lawlessness. Indiscipline and criminality are all pervasive in virtually every urban centre in the country. Motorists break the rules of the Road Traffic Act with impunity. Women and girls are being routinely abducted, raped, and in too many instances killed in the thousands of illegal taxis on the roads. The police force is useless in stemming the lawlessness on the streets, despite the PM vowing three months ago that there will be a zero-tolerance policy against the indiscipline in public spaces.
When they are not being mere bystanders, the police are quietly being complicit in the lawlessness through their ownership of many of the illegal taxis and buses proliferating in the public transport system.
How can we catch the murderers and “shottas” when we cannot maintain law and order on our major thoroughfares and in town centres in broad daylight? Capital city Kingston, Half Way Tree, Spanish Town, Montego Bay, May Pen, Mandeville, Savanna-la-Mar are all in a mess. The local authorities are absent, except when they make their half-hearted attempts to collect fees from time to time. And yet we pretend that we need all of 13 of them to deliver local government services.
The local government system is a sham to provide work for the low and mid-level tiers of the two major political parties. Time to end the charade and deliver clean roads and communities, a decent, safe and efficient public transport system and public spaces where the rule of law and order is actually maintained.
The Administration must start to demonstrate that its push back against murders, shootings, and lawlessness on the streets is making a positive impact. Mr. Montague’s tough talking and use of the Jamaican vernacular as a ‘country man’ is beginning to wear thin. Increasingly, people are not taking him seriously. I know his heart is in the right place, but he has shied away from dealing decisively, like all of his predecessors, with the elephant in the room — the decrepit, discredited and untrustworthy Jamaica Constabulary Force. It is unable, as presently constituted, to do the job of being the country’s premier crime fighting and law enforcement institution.
We must recognize that it is being poorly led and managed. Its internal systems of command and controls is in a shambolic state. It has lost its capacity to think and act strategically. It is very good at reciting that gangs are the major producers of murders — up to 70 percent. It has been saying so for more than 10 years. But it has failed abysmally in dismantling a fraction of the more than 200 gangs operating in the country.
One of their better leaders in recent times, Owen Ellington, told me recently on radio that the intelligence capacity of the JCF has been eroded. In other words, they are groping in the dark when it comes to preventing and detecting major crimes such as murders. This at a time when the criminals are in the ascendancy. Prime Minister Holness and his security minister must, sooner rather than later, bite the bullet and tackle the JCF menace head on. If for practical reasons they cannot disband it, then they should seriously consider merging it with the JDF.
What compelling reasons do we have for not combining the both of them? We are short of money and technical resources to bring the changes needed to fix the JCF. It needs to take a leap forward in the use of technology, the management of its human resources, especially internal discipline and controls. Its leadership ranks are bereft of real talent and ability. The JDF is short of boots and financial resources to maintain and upkeep its military infrastructure. However, the JDF is much better at managing its resources — financial and human. It continues to recruit, train and develop an officer corps that can hold their own among the best in the world. Why not merge the both of them into the Jamaica Security Service (JSS)? Keep a battalion for the unique engineering services the JDF provides in times of national emergencies. Deploy its leadership corps to take control of the policing functions of what was the JCF. And in doing so they can improve fairly quickly the level of discipline within the ranks — from top to bottom.
The new JDF-dominated leadership corps should be better able to root out the criminal and corrupt elements who inhabit the JCF now.
We do not have time on our side as a country. Crime is costing upwards of 6 percent of GDP per year. People are losing faith. The economic growth that was accelerating over the last 8 quarters flatlined in the first quarter of the financial year. The Administration’s much touted 5-in-4 economic growth target is receding.
The Labour Party climbed a mountain to eke out a 1-seat victory last February. It does not have a deep reserve of hardcore support as the PNP does. Mr. Holness and the JLP Government must demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that it deserves a second term by putting a solid first innings score on the board. None of its starting 11, so far, have gone beyond a half century in the 17-months at the wicket. Nor has anyone, with the possible exception of the PM himself, been very impressive.
The twin challenges of managing crime and the economy must be mastered quickly. The Finance Minister, Audley Shaw, and his team at Heroes Circle have been steady. They have been generating confidence in their management of the economy. But robust and accelerating growth has eluded them so far. With the crime monster roaring, Holness is facing the most difficult and testing period of his premiership. How he responds over the next 12 months will largely determine whether he will be Jamaica’s third consecutive one-term Prime Minister in a decade. He has to be bold now in tackling crime and accelerating economic growth so that people can feel the gains in their pockets.