Once again, we feel compelled to mention our concerns about the role of a first lady in governance in Namibia. Last June, we probed the sensitive issue of the role of the first lady and many of our readers responded to that discussion.
We expressed our concern that while a vibrant, engaged first lady is an asset to the president as he does the job he was elected to do, a blurring of the lines between the de facto power of the first lady and that of the democratically elected president, ministers and Cabinet-approved policy actions, should be avoided.
The Constitution is clear about the role of the president in deciding and defining the policies, priorities and programs of the country. With all due respect, our honoured first lady enjoys no such constitutional designation or legal office.
The president is directly elected by the public, the first lady is not; the spouse of a president ascends to the title only by virtue of the president’s mandate. For this reason, the lines between what our first lady does and says, should be clearly separate from the official role of State House, the Office of the Presidency and Cabinet.
In our view, the official organs of government ought to not vie for the same space with the Office of the First Lady. Our first lady should never be the definer of laws or articulator and clarifier of government policies.
This week, we noted a photo on the cover of New Era that captured a snapshot of our president and first lady sitting side-by-side on a dais at an official event held in France. While this is only one photo, and admittedly we do not know the back story behind the event, some of our earlier concerns come to mind again.
We noted that the other French officials in the picture were not accompanied by their spouses on that dais, which normally is the protocol entrée for a first lady to be seated alongside of her presidential husband.
So we wonder about the role of our first lady on the dais during an official State visit at a business oriented program where Namibia is presenting government points of view. Why were the relevant ministers not on that dais to present official government responses to any queries?
Coupled with the above concerns, we note that during last month’s investment promotion conference, there was a gala dinner the evening before the opening of the event that was hosted by the first lady’s private One Economy Foundation at which the invited dignitaries, guests and delegates were in attendance.
The investment promotion conference was an official government program, the One Economy dinner was not. How then, were the two events paired?
Though we fully support the goals of the Foundation and applaud the first lady for its creation and management, we are concerned when a private effort that benefits a non-governmental trust hosts events in full or in part using State funds and the good offices of the presidency.
The lines between government programs and private charity organizations should be clear – if One Economy is an official part of the Harambee Prosperity Plan (HPP) and is noted as such in the Cabinet resolutions, then the blending of the Foundation with official government events is in order. But, if the One Economy Foundation is a private program and was the host of that gala dinner, then ideally, it should have paid the full costs and had its event de-linked with the investment conference.
We surmise that the union of the president and first lady just prior to the inauguration must have involved some practical discussions, partnership-style agreements and understandings about her role during the Geingob Administration in terms of her on-going business investments, personal priorities and her considerable talent for public presentations, business and finance.
We can imagine that the personality and interests of any first lady as well as her educational and professional background would fuel the projects she embraces during her husband’s elected term in office. Nevertheless, (fair or not, given the status quo) an articulate, modern, public, visible, demonstrative, business woman as first lady invites questions about the separation between what she says and does and official government policy.
We wonder at our perception of the relatively quiet posture of the prime minister this year and note that the first lady appears more prominently in the policy arena than the head administrator of government.
We have been informed that the first lady appears to be involved in some official State House duties, particularly that her approval is needed for some people before appointments with the president are set and on the staff travel list for various official delegations.
We reiterate that our role as professional media practitioners is to raise issues for public consideration based on information we perceive and receive, not to pass judgement. We remain highly respectful of our first lady and proud of her role in United Nations committees and other forums.
We bring these points raised in this editorial delicately, with an eye towards stimulating public discussion about the role of any first lady. We do not seek to denigrate the One Economy Foundation nor its important work to raise money for bursaries, counselling or mentoring for young women and girls across Namibia.