What is the first lady’s role?

02 June 2016
Author  
The country has recognised the talent, skills and business acumen of our First Lady Monica Geingos.  We agree that a first lady has a role in assisting the president on many aspects of his legal obligations to the public that elected him.
 
But increasingly, we have heard murmurs of concern about perceived incursions by the first lady into policy areas that many believe are regulatory and law-making and therefore are not under her remit.
 
We are obliged to examine these points and comment on whether statements and actions of the first lady has put her office in conflict with the office of the PS of State House, the A-Team and the president’s administrative staff, or the Office of the Minister of Presidential Affairs. 
 
While the first lady is arguably a de facto part of government, she does not have a de jure role in the governance of Namibia nor has she been elected or appointed to any legal policymaking position within the public service.  In many of her public presentations, the first lady has stated this point.
 
We recognise that a vibrant first lady with a positive agenda to utilise her high platform to support projects and programmes that complement the national policies of the elected government, is a positive step forward. 
 
But, things seem to get a bit murky when the first lady, who is actively involved in running profit-making going concerns, operates as if the ‘clout’ of her title and direct access to the base of power in Namibia has no impact on decisions made by potential clients and corporate competitors.  
 
We have become aware of concerns from management and directors of companies approached for marketing and sales reasons by a company owned by the first lady where those executives feel pressure as they decide on whether to engage certain services offered. 
 
We note that a board of an SOE appointed by a minister who answers to the president could feel that it would be difficult to reject a business proposal from the company owned by the first lady. 
 
Their feelings of pressure to comply with the business request by companies owned or partially owned by the first lady may not come from direct statements and actions, but the fact that it exists nevertheless, cannot be ignored.
 
The first pillar of the Harambee Prosperity Plan is on Good Governance, but a situation where the president and the first lady are involved in private profit-making business ventures (whether private housing developments that benefit family trusts or E-Bank) could strengthen the perception that self-enrichment schemes could be underway. 
 
This, if true, can push some people to begin to doubt the sincerity of the president and the first lady’s commitment to poverty reduction, anti-corruption and good governance. 
 
If the president has asked the first lady to clarify government positions on his policies, and her comments and speeches emanate from him, so be it.  Perhaps a public statement to that affect would be appropriate. 
 
But with a full Cabinet, an A-Team of advisors, and a State House media office, we begin to question whose job it is to speak, clarify or answer questions about government, regulatory actions and challenges.  
 
We think there are a few articulate and well-received spokespersons available than Monica Geingos. 
 
It is worth noting that we do not support the idea of a myopic and sexist ‘gilded cage’ in which many first ladies around the world are forced to live, emerging only when someone else decides they have a role to play.  
 
We do not feel that the first lady’s role is only to speak when spoken to and even then, only on issues of cooking, pregnancy, children, fashion, menus for State dinners, flowers and table settings.
 
Increasing examples of educated and executive level business women whose husbands happen to be elected to high office are forcing a more modern and inclusive interpretation of the role of any senior politician’s spouse.  
 
That said, there must be a clear line between the policy positions and regulatory role of the person elected by the people and a first lady’s chosen work agenda and private business concerns. 
 
The usual friction between the competing factions around a powerful president for policy-making influence and access ought not to be exacerbated by inordinate interventions by the first lady into the scrum for power.
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