Guyana’s oil fund law faces legal challenge over validity of December passage

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Christopher Jones, Guyana’s Opposition Chief Whip, and Norris Witter, a trade unionist, have together approached the High Court to contest the validity of the Natural Resource Fund Act which was passed by the National Assembly last December. But Guyana’s Attorney General Mohabir Anil Nandlall, who is named a respondent in the case, said parliamentary proceedings are immune from inquiry by the Court.

The Opposition had promised this legal challenge after failing to prevent a simple majority vote on the chaotic night of the law’s passage – December 29, 2021.

When it was time for the law to be debated, Opposition Members of Parliament (MP) had gotten up from their seats to occupy the center of the Parliament Chamber, shouting “No thiefin’ bill must pass!” as Finance Minister Dr. Ashni Singh attempted to argue in favour of the law. Seeing that the Minister persisted in his elocution, Opposition MP Annette Ferguson rushed to dislodge the Speaker’s Mace from its position in the House.

The main argument that Jones and Witter are making before the Court is that parliamentary procedure necessary for the passage of the law was not followed, due to the absence of the Speaker’s Mace. The Speaker, Manzoor Nadir, had allowed the vote to proceed with a smaller replacement Mace, and held a press conference the day after the parliamentary session to confirm that the law was legally passed.

The fixed data application (FDA) filed with the Court asks for a declaration that the “passage of the Natural Resource Fund Bill No. 20 of 2021 by the National Assembly on December 29, 2021 in the absence of the Mace is ultra vires the Constitution, Common Law, the constitutional values of the Rule of Law, Democracy, and Inclusive Governance, unwritten constitutional principles of the Rule of Law, and the Standing Order of the National Assembly, illegal, null, void and of no legal effect.”

The lawsuit also contends that the Government did not adhere to constitutional and other requirements for consultation with citizens and stakeholders.

Witter, the trade unionist, said in the lawsuit that he and over 60 other citizens had submitted a petition through a MP, which sought a pause on debate to facilitate engagements with the Opposition and civil society.

In the leadup to the tabling of the law in Parliament, government argued that it would be superior to the Natural Resource Fund Act 2019 which was passed by the now Opposition. The current administration has long questioned the legality of that Act since it was passed after a successful no-confidence vote was brought against the then government. It also said the configuration of the previous law consolidated too much power over the management of the Fund in the hands of the Minister of Finance. But some contend that the new law also gives politicians too much control of the fund, just in a different way.

This lawsuit comes after US$607 million has already been withdrawn from the fund, by an act of Parliament in February, to support Guyana’s massive 2022 budget.

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