Be careful what you wish for

04 August 2016
The announcement of a ministry of public enterprises (MPE) warmed many in the country as finally institutional controls were to be put in place to manage economic and regulatory Public Enterprises (PEs). 
The public has clamoured for more accountability, transparency and efficiency in our public enterprises.  The Ministry will compel PEs to run by the rules and end/limit the multi-million dollar bailouts. 
But, the question begs if the power shift necessary to make those changes happen, entrusts too much authority in one set of hands.
Sometimes, we must be careful what we wish for; we just might get it.
We nodded in approval at the appointment of Leon Jooste as a honest, highly competent, intelligent and determined minister. 
Now that this has happened, something else has creeped into the national dialogue around this subject. 
It seems there are niggling concerns about the control that minister Jooste and his advisors will have over income-generating PEs operating in Namibia.  Jooste was quoted as saying, “The Ministry of Public Enterprises has now consolidated its mandate and this is a game changer. Changes will be made.”
We wonder if the rules of the ‘control-the-PEs-game’ are being tailored institutionally or if they have been personally fitted to one individual at this point in time.
News reports have already appeared where ministers previously responsible for PEs as line ministers have been forced to ‘share’ control of their erstwhile PE domains with Jooste.
Those ministers who previously had sole control of decisions on top post hiring/firing and suspensions, large budget expenditures, Annual General Meetings and audited financial statements, which companies should get tenders, and other major power areas, are now bereft of a slice of their omnipotence.
Some find themselves answering to a fellow minister who is of the same rank as themselves.  Minister Jooste, in effect, has veto power over the decisions of his colleagues vis-à-vis the PEs previously resorting under their ministries. 
Of course, this will present a logistical problem as some of these same PEs now answering to Jooste for their decisions that resort under the amended SOE Act, still get their operating budgets from their particular line ministries and not from the MPE. 
We will wait to see how this potential conflict is mitigated.
Surely, in a few cases, this situation has begun to stoke the flames of annoyance.  A Cabinet already supplanted by an A-Team of advisors to shape policy and influence the presidency, is further stripped of another aspect of its authority regarding PEs.
There is no doubt that the old SOE Act that was supposed to set down guidelines to substantially address the generally unsatisfactory management and financial state of many SOEs, failed.  It contained un-implementable dictates, clashed with existing laws and was unenforceable on important levels. 
There is no doubt that PE boards were being staffed with many well-meaning people, but also with a fair proportion of politically ‘correct’ individuals, people who used their access to information for self-enrichment schemes and others whose skills set were not matched to the tasks to which they were assigned. 
PE revenues and bailout funds went north, south, east and west, with a seeming lack of professional bookkeeping and external/internal audits and sometimes, with outright embezzlement and pilfering, rife. 
There is no doubt a massive re-think of how to make PEs viable and accountable had to be done.  But, who watches the PE watchers? 
Where are the checks-and-balances that control those who wield authority even when that authority is cheered and welcomed (for now)?  We should not do the usual Namibian dance of waiting until things go bad before recognising a problem and establishing failsafe protections.  
Rather than allowing power to focus in one set of ministerial hands, no matter how capable a particular individual is, we need to think institutionally and ensure that there are ample limits to the scope of that power for all who wield it in the future. 
A great thinker once said that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  We need to guard against power concentrations emerging from institutional decisions that are done on the basis of a particular individual who occupies a post at a singular moment in time.


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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