Guyana: The Mahdia Fire – Criminal incompetence  

By R M Austin

Ronald Austin

The details concerning the fire which swept through the heavily grilled dormitory of the Mahdia Secondary School are yet to be fully known. Hopefully, a genuine Commission of Enquiry will tell all about this tragedy. Even without that investigation there are certain knowns.

This is possibly one of the worst disasters that has overcome this nation. It has seared its soul. The eyes of the picture of the nineteen dead female school children, and one male, stare from the pages of national and global newspapers and other media outlets in mute incomprehension and accusation. Those stares seem to speak of the snuffing out of precious young lives, of tragedy born of rank incompetence and inefficiency. And its does not seem to end. As this is being written another young student has died.

Here is an unedifying spectacle. Guyana is under the Global spotlight because, according to the experts, it possesses the fastest growing economy in the world. Its oil resources are responsible for this positive development. Yet Guyana seems incapable of protecting its most precious asset, its children.

A recent Stabroek News editorial referred to the tragedy of the fire at Mahadia as “the single biggest loss of life since Jonestown and a body blow for any ruling party.” This is not merely a negative commentary. It dramatizes the incompetence which pervade our political culture. And incompetence there was. Adult supervision of these children in the dormitory was absent.  

The dormitory was grilled and locked from the inside. Exit was impossible. There was no fire fighting equipment; no water or sand. The hazardous condition of the dormitory was drawn to the attention of the education authorities in February. Nothing was done.  

Then there was moral incompetence. Mobilizing the cabinet and the diplomatic corps to visit the burnt out dormitory was more showmanship than human concern. Parading some of the survivors from this fire at a public event day after the tragic occurrence of the fire did not speak well of the values of the sitting administration.

This painful episode in our History again emphasizes that region 8, where this tragedy occurred, like the other nine regions, are regarded as adjuncts of the national administration rather than an integral part of it, as studies have shown. How else can we explain the lack of bathrooms in the dorms and the under-equipped Fire Service which was almost useless in the circumstances of the fire. What is equally unforgivable is that there was clearly no routine inspection of the dorm by the Regional Administration and the Ministry of Education. Such an inspection would have turned up the parlous and dangerous situation of the dormitory and possibly led to a solution.

In the seventies, Eusi Kwayana pointed out that the PNC government of the time, in responding to a strike at Linden, had resorted to heavy handedness, threats, and the outdated methods of governance. What was required were more enlightened methods of resolving a critical national question. It seems the current administration seems intent on going down the same road.

The official action taken so far it seems to be calculated to evade any responsibility of the government in power. It is the old playbook. It seems unfortunate; it may be uncaring. Putting a very young woman before the courts for setting this fire, when complementary action must be taken, only adds to the culture of moral dereliction.

The Government, unlike previous ones in the past, must take responsibility for this tragedy. These are different times. Guyanese are much better informed and cannot be fooled. There is enough evidence to finger officials for not doing their duty, even before a major investigation is done.  And there must not be a one-sided Commission of Inquiry intended to whitewash official responsibility.  

Such an enquiry must be broad based and include all elements of the society. Unless the population sees the entire exercise as fair and free of partisan politics there will be no healing. For healing there must be. If not, the eyes of those nineteen young people, now twenty, will stare at the rest of the nation in accusation and condemnation.