1 February 2013

Namibia: The Public Side of Minister Abraham Iyambo's Health


MINISTER Abraham Iyambo says his health is nobody's business. I agree. But it is (if it is true) the public's business when an ailing minister (or any other citizen for that matter) travels abroad to seek medical attention. What does that say about Namibia's healthcare system?

No ill-intentions meant. I pen this piece with a heavy heart knowing fully that his health is private and a sacred matter. For that I can only hope that he continues to recover well. But Dr Iyambo being a minister is also a public person, and this public aspect of his life is what I am interested in.

Since he was first admitted to the intensive care unit of the Roman Catholic Hospital in November of 2011, Minister Iyambo's health has been a subject of public speculation. The media reports inferred that he suffered from stress-related symptoms, but we still don't know more than that. What we do know, however, is that he hasn't focused too much on his ministerial duties because he was on an extended medical leave for the better part of 2012.

The nation should be greatly concerned about a minister's health, especially if that minister is Dr Abraham Iyambo. His stewardship seems to have brought a diagnostic approach to the education sector. We also know that he has left (or the public perception is) an impressive record at the fishery ministry. While Iyambo seems to be the right person for the education ministry, the same, however, cannot be said about his tactics of showing up (with a camera crew) at schools unexpectedly in order to make teachers show up for their classes. Namibia is such a vast country, so how much can he really achieve with this strategy of surprising (if not ambushing) teachers is beyond me.

Nonetheless, his health problems seem to affect his agenda to improve Namibia's education. For example, the implementation of most of the recommendations from his national education conference seems to have stalled. And not to forget that Namibia's education crisis largely remains unaddressed. So when seeing him battling with his health one is not only concerned about him on a human level but also from a national perspective.

That being said, Dr Iyambo should not be surprised that the media are abuzz about his health, especially with regard to him seeking medical attention in Cuba. To be sure, it is his constitutional right to seek medical treatment anywhere in the world. The larger story is that seeking medical attention abroad is a luxury average Namibians cannot afford. Apparently it is also a reminder that Namibia's dilapidated public health system is not only unacceptable to ordinary Namibians but also for ministers and the affluent as well. To that effect, minister Iyambo is quoted as praising Cuba for having one of the best healthcare systems in the world. He is not far from the truth, but what could also be true is that some of the mothers and their babies who supposedly died under dubious circumstance at the Katutura Hospital could perhaps also still be alive today had they been in the situation where they could afford the opportunity to travel to Cuba.

Iyambo is not alone in seeking medical treatment abroad. What is different is that he is speaking about it openly. Every year ministers, politicians and private citizens take excursions to other African countries (especially neighboring South Africa) and overseas in search for better medical treatment. The most publicly cited case is that of Hompa Matumbo Ribebe of the vaSambyu people in the Kavango Region, whose health problem forced her to seek medical treatment in the United States of America in 2009. The government of Namibia promised to foot the bill for her medical expenses but only to change course after a public backlash.

This same practice of politicians seeking medical treatment abroad is not only common to Namibia, but is also practised throughout Africa. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is known for shopping for his medical needs in Asian countries, especially Malaysia. The late Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua spent most of his last days in Saudi Arabia for medical reasons. Tanzanian ex-President Benjamin Mkapa has his share of medical treatment abroad. In Ghana, former President Kufuor flew abroad in 2008 for a thorough medical check-up. So did Prof John Evans Atta-Mills. In Togo, President Gnassingbe Eyadema died while being medically evacuated abroad. In Zambia, the late ex-President Frederick Chiluba halted his corruption trial in order to allow him travel to neighboring South Africa for medical treatment.

The problem of our healthcare system is complex and deep-seated. Besides, 22 years of independence is not enough for the country to have state-of-the-art medical facilities. So let's give Namibia a break. However, let's also not ignore the signs of the times - the reality that there is a link between minister Iyambo seeking medical attention abroad and our dysfunctional healthcare system. And that link may be connected to how we administer and run the country's health ministry. Therefore, it should serve a wake-up call when one of our best has to travel to a foreign country just to get better medical treatment.

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