WINDHOEK – The debate on whether ministers and other top civil servants should be allowed to pursue business interests while at the same time holding public office rages on, especially after President Hage Geingob discouraged top politicians from doing business.
Geingob last week urged ministers and permanent secretaries not to pursue business interests, instead urging those who wish to do so to give up their government jobs before venturing into any business avenue.
Some of the ministers are known to have benefitted from fishing quotas, oil exploration licences while others own blocks of flats they lease out, fuel stations, taxis, cuca shops, butcheries, consultancy firms and shares in construction companies.
Critics have, however, over the past few days questioned whether it is practically possible to keep top civil servants out of the business field.
A number of Cabinet ministers own commercial farms and questions have been raised whether such investments will also be considered as a private business.
To make matters worse, it is difficult for the public as well as the President to screen business interests of parliamentarians seeing that MPs last declared their assets in 2009.
Geingob has urged lawmakers to declare their assets.
Ministers and other top government officials engaging in private business schemes portray a bad image for government and measures should be put in place to prevent serving top officials from pursuing other interests during their parliamentary terms, said law expert Professor Nico Horn.
Horn is of the opinion that it is possible to keep top civil servants away from the business scope provided that structures are put in place to keep top officials in line.
“This should not only be an order, structures must be put in place to make sure ministers abide by the rules. If a minister wishes to pursue other interests, that person must get permission from the Prime Minister,” said Horn.
As for commercial farmers, Horn said: “The emphasis must be on weekend farming, it should not be a source of income for them. As long as ministers are not awarded farms on the basis that they are ministers then there should be no problem for a minister to own a farm.”
Horn also touched on the issue of top civil servants being accused of meddling in affairs such as tender awarding and land sales.
“The way kids of politicians have benefited from the State over the last two years is just too much for it to be coincidental. I am not saying politicians are responsible for that because the tender boards might be the ones that are sensitive when relatives of politicians are part of the process,” he said.
According to Horn, the only way government can kill perceptions that those that are within close proximity with top officials receive preferential treatment is by ensuring ministers and other top officials exclude themselves from business schemes or being part of companies.
Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) executive director Graham Hopwood also said systems need to be put in place and made effective.
“Such a system should also set out what parts of the register should be made public. It is important that parliament moves fairly quickly to pass a code of conduct and introduce a workable asset declaration system,” he said.
“The Public Service Act needs to be reformed to require senior civil servants, including PSs, to declare their assets and interests in a transparent and accountable manner,” said Hopwood.
In the past, IPPR advocated for the appointment of an Ethics Commissioner to oversee the implementation of such systems, particularly for elected officials.
Similar cases transpired in past years whereby ministers owned businesses while serving the nation.