Politics, Patronage and Public Policy in Namibia [opinion]

TWO weeks ago Gwen Lister in her ‘Political Perspective’ wrote that the suggestion by Prime Minister Hage Geingob to set-up a new ministry to govern parastatals seems to be a crazy idea given the fact that earlier arrangements did not work anyway.

At a purely practical or administrative level, I totally agree with her. But this issue must also be understood in the context of what political scientists refer to as political patronage.

Political patronage has been a common practice in political systems everywhere, to award positions of power or special favours to those people and businesses that helped the leader to attain the position. Also called a ‘spoils system’, the phrase comes from the adage, “To the victor, belong the spoils,” a shortened version of a speech by William L. Marcy, a democratic senator of New York.

Here, if I may, I have to cite an apt definition of this phenomenon in last week’s editorial in The Namibian. It reads, “A Government of Friends, by the People, for the Friends”.

And in order to share the spoils and benefits with friends and supporters, there must be elaborate governmental structures in place to cater for that. Thus Geingob’s suggestion of a new ministry to govern parastatals or state-owned enterprises (SOEs) is not a crazy idea after-all, but must be understood in the context of political patronage which in turn translates into (in) direct political control of subjects.

I do you favours and in turn I need favours from you. This takes the form of public officials of giving contracts or making political appointments to office in return for political support. It has been argued that the control of patronage significantly increases a party’s chances of staying in power as long as there are enough spoils to share or distribute.

It is usually argued that former liberation movements in Africa have been winning election after election because they ‘liberated’ their respective countries. This might be true, but what is overlooked is the fact that since they came to power when the colonisers departed, they quickly put the patronage system in place which has helped them to cling on to power and this system seems to be working quite well for them.

Let me now turn to the issue of patronage and the broader public policy issues. I will argue here that politicians’ or public officials’ general quest for patronage has blinded them to the fact that what is needed in certain cases are not elaborate government structures but a nuanced and enlightened policy to address problems.

Thus I am in agreement with those who argue that there is no need for another governmental structure, in the form of a new ministry, to govern the various monsters (the parastatals) that we have been creating over the years.

First, all the various SOEs have their own line ministries that are supposed to govern them and make sure they are run in the best interest of the public and the government that set them up by contributing to state coffers in terms of dividends. A few have periodically done that but many others have hopelessly failed to do that and ironically have become a burden to the state – depending on bail-outs instead.

Secondly, as if the line ministries were not competent enough, either because of political will or lack of resources we established the State-Owned Enterprise Governance Council (SOEGC) whose main function is to oversee the functions and performance and thus regulate activities of SOEs and how they are administered.

Thirdly, various performance agreements have been signed between all these entities and government over the years but all these efforts came basically to zero. Instead, the various boards and management teams have been running most of these entities like they were their own ‘cuca-shops’, basically increasing their salaries and benefits as they wish and some firing employees not supporting their corrupt activities, for example in awarding tenders – which has now become one of the channels for all the corrupt activities in this country.

The point is how will the new ministry address what has become an endemic problem involving corruption, arrogance and criminal waste of money at some of the SOEs (not all) by making wrong investment decisions. Remember the case of the technically bankrupt NHE, for example, forking out about N$600 000 to pay for a manager’s hotel bill? This wastage is symptomatic of other SOEs as well, for example, renovating the CEOs offices or head-hunting for new CEOs.

While still on structures, let me register my worry as to why we established the Namibia Development Bank, while we still have the Namibia Development Corporation and now the so-called SME Bank. In my view, these entities could be merged and so are a number of ministries.

We need a cheetah and not an elephant – a lean, fast and efficient public service that can deliver. We have to get the policy-side correct and not more structures whose main purpose is political patronage. There are other legitimate ways for public officials to enrich themselves.

Source : The Namibian