President Hage Geingob has delivered on the promise he made in his State of the Nation Address that he would publicly make known the extent of his wealth and health. He has further indicated that he expects all members of his Cabinet to follow suit and declare how wealthy and healthy they are. The majority of the voices that responded to what the President, in fact the first couple did, was positive. Most people who expressed their views saw this as a step in the right direction and a new beginning for a new culture of transparency and public accountability.
Most people appreciate and support full and honest disclosure to the Namibian public, whose votes constitute the democratic leadership of the day. It would appear that this general support is premised on the principle that more and not less information is the DNA of good corporate governance, and that it could only enhance confidence and faith people have in their elected leaders.
One, Namibia has been free for 25 years and never experienced a crisis as result of a lack of disclosure from the elected public leaders. The consternation in the nation has been and still is in the fact that corruption has not been fully addressed and appears to have been brushed aside whenever Government had reason to act. During President Nujoma’s tenure, there was a record of seventeen Presidential Commissions that investigated allegations of corruption in the public sector. None of these commissions’ reports saw the light of day. President Pohamba made a solemn pledge to the nation on the day he took office on 21 March 2005 that he would personally see to it that there was zero tolerance to corruption during his administration. Very little was seen as signs of the fight against corruption, except the odd catch of some small fish here and there. Pohamba chose a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ approach to corruption and the scourge of corruption appears to have become more and more endemic in the Namibian public sector, as more and more public officials continue to use their office and influence to acquire more and more land, get scholarships for their children and even get involved in government tender processes.
Recently the Anti-Corruption Commission announced to the nation that it stopped its investigation into the Chinese scholarship saga due to lack of cooperation from the Chinese Embassy and by extension the Namibian government. Yet, fighting corruption does not yet seem to be the big part of Geingob’s fight for good and ethical governance.
Two, disclosure should not be a matter of personal option or preference by a leader who feels like doing it or not. President Geingob made it appear as if it is his own choice and not embedded in the system of governance. If it was, he would have done something about it a long time ago. In the 25 years of Namibia’s self-rule, Geingob was Prime Minister and the Head of Government business in parliament for 15 good years! If it was an important matter he certainly would have done something about it, or he would have persuaded the Presidents he served under to create the foundation for it. After all, he is the leader of the party that has been in power since independence and is the raw material for any serious change or reform. In this sense, he created a space for more questions than answers to follow him in his oath as the new Head of State. And these questions are not only from outside observers, but from within Swapo rank and file who see Geingob not as a newcomer or someone coming to government clean and innocent: he was there and he has been part of the system, the only system the nation knows. Therefore, one of the questions people ask behind the backs of their hands is: what exactly is the President trying to say about our system in the context of what he knows firsthand?
Three, if it is an optional matter, it means that the President can either choose to be selective about what he declares, or even choose, someday, not to do it at all. Right now, there are gaping holes in the first couple’s disclosures. It is not clear where the massive cash “suddenly” came from when there are reports that there was a period during which Geingob could barely pay for his municipal bills and health care. People have long memories and recall that Geingob got money from that highly dubious UraMin and Areva deal while he was part of Government and which was not disclosed. His inability to tell the nation who paid his bills when he was unable to leaves a lot of questions about (a) full honesty; (b) his integrity; and (c) his authority to exert pressure on his subordinates to do the same or more, and for that matter, expose them to higher risks. In the final analysis, to do a half-baked disclosure is more risky for the Government than before, namely, that the nation will have endless doubt about their leaders and the entire public service.
Four, the disclosures in and of themselves are virtually irrelevant unless they lead to tangible results such as ministers losing their jobs for failure to disclose in part or in full, as the case might be. This was the case with President-Elect Geingob’s declaration that he was calling for curricula vitae of candidates for purposes of appointing them in appropriate positions. What we saw instead was that people were appointed on the basis of something else and not their curricula vitae. A similar good declaration was that of inclusivity. And we saw how only certain groups were included and others excluded with no logical explanation outside of political survival instincts. They say in leadership schools that the basis of integrity is ‘a promise made and a promise kept’.
Five, the disclosures might very well have unleashed turmoil within the ruling elite across the political spectrum. We would be very naïve to believe that in the last 25 years there are no leaders who have amassed wealth which they are hiding in different places inside and offshore. So far they have felt comfortable to loot and be protected. Now they are challenged by someone whom they might not even have gone for as their preferred leader if it were their exclusive choice. They are only likely to regroup and reorganise themselves using their most developed instincts, which they now sharpened into survival skills.
Six, the President’s intentions are noble, but as they say, the devil is in the detail and that the way to hell is paved with the best intentions. Unless there is a drastic reform of public institutions that enforce the good laws of the land, unless these institutions are ‘manned’ by competent people, the intentions are likely to go unaccompanied by results. Thus far, a good number of these institutions have been manned by very junior people, at times unqualified, and as a result did not possess the necessary confidence and standing in their professions to execute their mandates. For instance, South Africa had two male public protectors before Thuli Madonsela who, by virtue of the constitutional remit of her office, differed publically with President Jacob Zuma as a sitting President. President Geingob seems to continue to appoint people whose qualifications leave more to be desired, and therefore would not dare to differ with him for fear of who knows what!
Seven, given the levels of poverty in our country and the scramble for wealth, it cannot be the reality that all ministers, including those who have been always in the public service are millionaires and willing to declare their wealth. For personal and other reasons, there are those who are reluctant and therefore feel forced to declare. Those who are not well to do will only be subjected to ridicule in the voyeurism about which leader is poorer and which one rich. This unfortunate consequence of the disclosures could only lead to a further scramble for wealth as a sign that one has left the world of the poor and the wretched of the earth.
Eight, the history that produced the leadership we have today is the history of struggle, not of self-made merchants and barons who acquired wealth through legitimate means and later decided to enter politics. The political struggle was the entry point and therefore it is dangerous to conflate leadership with wealth accumulation and land acquisition. It is definitely not the type of role modeling a poor country such as Namibia needs. Leadership should be along the lines of being an example in society, not wealth accumulation and bragging about it. As a matter of fact, no country has ever been liberated by a rich man or a rich woman. Liberation is the toil of the suffering who want to make life different and better for others.
Nine, the President would have avoided much of what will follow if he did the declaration without the media conference and the smoke and mirror ceremony that went with it. People know better and that came across as boasting about being wealthier and healthier than others. Other and more successful democracies’ leaders make their disclosures in accordance with an established protocol, which principally protects the leaders, and still allows the public to have access to the information. It is not done in their face. An old saying in Afrikaans goes: Moenie mense ‘n stok gee om jou mee te slaan nie. The first couple exposed themselves to developments that would have been avoided in the long run. Cynicism abounds here that the President and his wife could NOT have done what they did if they were not a family of means, and that this amounts to boasting in a land of increasing poverty and where wealth distribution is the second worst in the world
Ten, even though the President did not mean to do this but as they say in the teachings of great leadership: never make an exception of yourself, but start with others. Whether he likes it or not, people will not remember the principle of transparency that the President wished to promote. What people will remember is that he was a very rich man, who married a rich wife, yet they continued to live off the salaries from the poor and travelled in lengthy motorcades that tossed the poor off public roads.
There is nothing wrong with the President’s intentions and indeed courageous moves to be transparent. In fact the President went beyond the traditions and did something very fresh and bold. There is, however, everything wrong with the context, and President Geingob is part of this context.