22 March 2013

Namibia: President Pohamba Must Act On the Health Probe

FINALLY, the commission set up to investigate the nation's ailing public health services handed their four-month health probe report to President Hifikepunye Pohamba on 31 January 2013. Since then no one seems to be talking about it anymore. Not the public. Not the media and civic groups. Not even President Pohamba, the man who ordered the investigation in the first place.

Perhaps it is an oversight on the part of the media and public. Or perhaps the president is still studying the report before taking an appropriate course of action. But oversights are nothing but dangerous.

To recap: President Pohamba ordered the sweeping and broad-level inquiry into the country's public health sector in August last year after a series of negative media reports. Stressing the urgency of the matter, the president demanded that the commission report back with their findings within three months. He said that he wanted value for public money allocated to the Ministry of Health and Social Services. However, the urgency and the energy we observed at the time the president introduced the commission of inquiry seem to be fading. Instead the urgency seems to be slowly replaced by complacency and 'business as usual' attitudes.

So far we don't know what the probe has uncovered (and recommended) about the nation's public health systems because the report remains sealed. What we do know, however, is that on the day President Pohamba received the health probe report, retired High Court Judge Simpson Mtambanengwe (the chairperson of the commission of inquiry) reportedly expressed the hope that President Pohamba would find the report useful in carrying out the "task of guiding the activities of the Ministry of Health and Social Services". Good words from the wise old man!

President Pohamba must act and act big to implement the commission's findings. But he must do so publicly in order to combat the public perception that he is a do-nothing president. History teaches us that every president leaves behind a legacy they are remembered for. Unfortunately, it goes without saying, the perception out there seems to suggest that the same cannot be said about President Pohamba. With two more years to go in his presidency, the president does not seem to have much of a record worth to celebrate in terms of policy and programme implementation. Think TIPEEG. Think 51% unemployment. Think the failing parastatals. And think the increasing corruption, especially in awarding of government tenders.

Health care is the civil rights issue of our generation. Therefore, if he makes health care his signature issue, President Pohamba will be the first president among his African peers to tackle and overhaul their nation's health care systems. The social and economic imperatives of doing so are instructive in terms of cost, productivity, and the nation's social well-being. If he succeeds with this mammoth task, history will remember him favourably!

In the larger scheme of open governance, President Pohamba (or any other president), choosing not to make a commission findings public may seem a minor blip. After all, it is the president's prerogative to do so or not. And there is also nothing wrong with a president addressing and implementing the findings of a commission quietly.

However, there is also another issue at play here, which is consistent with a pattern of behaviour that suggests a move towards a culture of secrecy. The large part of it started under the founding president, but increasingly the Pohamba administration is becoming sensitive and averse to even constructive criticism by the media, opposition parties and pundits. Well, maybe some criticisms are not justifiable, hence making the president hesitant to make the report public because it may be used as ammunition to undermine the government's credibility. But can you blame the media for reporting about a corrupt public official? Can you blame a pundit for pointing out the shortcomings of TIPEEG or any other public policy/programme? Can you blame the public for protesting the death of a mother and her infant during birth in a hospital? In short, the government is the author of most of the things it is being criticised for.

Secrecy or hiding a problem may be a time-honoured method of controlling the message, but it is not a solution. Nor is it a good public policy. Therefore my unsolicited advice to Comrade Pohamba is to release the health probe report because doing so is absolutely in the best interest of Namibia's public policy.

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