As the curtain came down on President Hage Geingob’s well-attended town hall meetings on Thursday, analysts have opined that the meetings were a disappointment to the thousands of citizens who religiously followed the president across the country.
Political commentator, Professor Henning Melber, told the Windhoek Observer on Wednesday that the town hall meetings by Geingob and his army of advisors and Cabinet ministers were meant to confuse the electorate ahead of the November 27 Presidential and National Assembly election.
“As far as I can judge, the town hall meetings four years ago did not have major impacts. Those now are part of electioneering and campaigning to create the impression that government delivers. But the recession speaks another language,” Melber said.
He said through the town hall meetings, the president and his team including Vice President Nangolo Mbumba and Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, have created misleading impressions and told stories that create a smoke screen to cover up their own failures.
Melber added that the president and his Cabinet toured the country claiming progress while there is little evidence to show for it.
Popular Democratic Movement Treasurer General Nico Smit told the Windhoek Observer on Thursday that the meetings were clearly a disappointment for the people who turned up to share their problems and hopes with the president.
“He had no solutions and mainly used this platform to insult people and accuse them of causing their own problems,” Smit said.
The veteran politician said the idea behind the meetings was good, but the fact that the president had waited until just before an election to go to the people made him suspicious.
“This is something he could and should have done on a regular basis and much earlier in his term as president in the spirit of his much-vaunted Harambee policy,” Smit said.
“Surely one talks and listens to the people in “your house” on a regular basis. The PDM thinks the president shot himself in the foot by exposing the fact that he is out of touch with the people and that nothing has improved in the past five years.”
The Member of Parliament also said there is no way that these meetings could have made any difference, because the government is clearly out of touch with reality and refuses to accept the negative role it has played in the Namibian economy over the past 29 years.
‘People are not stupid’
Melber warned government against ‘lying’ to the nation about the real cause of the country’s worst-ever economic crisis that has led to crippling austerity measures being implemented by the state and unprecedented job losses across many sectors.
He told the Windhoek Observer that the Geingob Administration was trying too hard to distance itself from the country’s economic crisis.
This comes after Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila told an Outapi Town Hall Meeting on Tuesday that two consecutive years of drought in 2016 and 2017 were to blame for the country’s financial downturn.
According to the Namibian Presidency Twitter handle, the prime minister said it is not true that the economic downturn was due to a mismanagement of the economy, but was a result of external factors.
Melber said while the drought was one of the many contributing factors to the economy’s decline, it should not be used as a convenient excuse.
“A world market with low commodity prices was another external factor. And the lacklustre economies in Angola and South Africa added further to the critical situation. Like all economies, Namibia’s performance is also affected by a variety of external shocks. But this is only half the story and should not be used as convenient excuse.”
He said Namibia has been living far too long above its means with a bloated civil service that has absorbed too much of its annual budget.
“A waste of money was also observed with SOEs, dubious tenders and other misappropriation of funds. Since this government resumed office in 2015, the writing had been on the wall, with no direct consequences in terms of stricter fiscal policy,” Melber said.
He said the government and both houses of parliament were expanded to add further costs, and since late 2015 new loans had to be taken as bailout to maintain a minimum liquidity.
Melber further said a drought is nothing exceptional in Namibia, rather the order of the day, and so is the fluctuation of world market prices for the country’s natural resources.
“Given such vulnerability, in good years provisions have to be made for bad years. By the way, the economies of some countries in the region with very similar constraints did not deteriorate as dramatically.”
He said Kuugongelwa-Amadhila’s statement in Outapi was more political talk than the truth.
“The truth is not as simple that you put the blame squarely on a drought and abandon any responsibility. Governance requires forward looking planning. Namibia’s government has failed to do so,” he said.
Melber said that he does not understand why the current administration was trying so hard to distance itself from the economic challenges facing the nation.
“That is a question I am asking myself. Why does the government not admit that there are challenges through an economic crisis, which leads to retrenchments and stagnation?
“People witness the effects of the on-going recession on a daily basis. International rating agencies testify to the dismal performance by downgrading the economy to junk status so being in denial makes no sense, people are not stupid. They feel the pinch and live the realities.
“The only explanation I have is the fear that in an election year this [admission of culpability] could be seen as government failure and cost votes. But the perception of failure already exists, and being in denial makes it worse.”
University of Namibia Lecturer Ndumba Kamanyah said it would have been more credible if the prime minister had provided evidence linking the current economic downturn to the 2016 and 2017 drought situation.
“In the absence of such supporting data, her statement remains a guessing game,” he said.
“More so, both the PM’s statement and the Presidency Tweet about the economic crisis not only sound more like a defensive action, but also reveals that the government has no clue about what drove or is still driving our economy down the drain.
“As a result the government is busy addressing the symptoms. I tell you this; we will not solve the current economic situation if we do not know the root cause. That’s where data is important in guiding us and in identifying the causes as well as help us project possible solution.
“Politicking about the current situation is not helpful either because we will not politic our way out of this situation. This is real economic problem that requires strategic approach not your usual politics. Politics will make it worse. And that’s why I think that the town hall meetings operated at the political level, judging from responses given that did not generate sound economic solutions. It was good politics, but bad economics.”
Smit also said while the drought contributed to an extent to the economic downturn, the current economic crisis cannot be attributed solely to that or to external factors.
He said economic mismanagement had its origins during the prime minister’s two terms as minister of finance. At the time, the current Finance Minister Calle Schlettwein was her deputy.
“All countries are exposed to external factors that influence their economies, but SWAPO with its socialist background believes that it must centralise the economy.
“It believes that government must drive the economy and not the private sector and this has led to the creation of more and more SOEs that every year have required more and more taxpayers’ money to keep them afloat without most of them ever showing a profit,” Smit opined.
“The bloated civil service is another case in point that illustrates government mismanagement.”
He said SWAPO sees the civil service as part of its socialist dream, with everybody working for the government and everybody being controlled by the government.
“As a result, our civil service payroll has become so huge that it is completely unmanageable and is an intolerable drain on the small taxpayer base we have.”
Smit said it comes as no surprise that SWAPO blames external factors and the drought for Namibia’s dire economic situation because it would have to admit that its socialist policies have been a failure.
“Proof that SWAPO doesn’t understand how to run the economy is the investment summit held last week. They were clearly not properly prepared for the summit because no projects were put forward for foreign investors to invest in.
“It must be said that it came as a surprise that foreign investors actually pledged N$4 billion dollars - which shows that there is still a little goodwill out there towards Namibia - but we must remember that a pledge is not money in the bank and is unlikely to become money in the bank if our government doesn’t ditch its socialism and change its policies as soon as possible.”
He further said that it’s very clear that the SWAPO government is in panic and has no plan of how to save the economy.
“The summit was a farce – the projects mentioned have been in the pipeline for many years and there was nothing new on the table to interest foreign investors. Thus the PDM sees no hope of an economic recovery within the next three years,” Smit said.
In an interview with the Namibian Sun on Thursday, Presidential spokesperson Alfredo Hengari denied allegations that Geingob's town hall meetings were a disguised election campaign taking place at taxpayers' expense or that anyone was excluded.
Hengari said no one was denied the opportunity to take part in the town hall meetings, on the basis of political affiliation.
“Anyone who says that is spreading falsehoods. The meetings are open to all Namibians and the list of those who asked questions and made submissions demonstrates the diversity of views expressed in the town hall meetings and across the political divide,” Hengari said.
He said all the meetings were “open, inclusive and transparent”, while “respecting the cardinal principle of inclusivity”.