Cabinet downsizing welcomed

Analysts say the move is not the ultimate solution to the ballooning public wage bill, but the president had to start somewhere.

03 January 2020 | Government

JEMIMA BEUKES



Analysts have welcomed President Hage Geingob’s promise of a leaner cabinet from March this year, but hastened to caution that the move is not the panacea to government’s alarming wage bill.

Geingob made the announcement of a learner cabinet in his New Year’s message to the nation this week.

The president gave a hint earlier last year that he would downsize his cabinet, in part to contain the public wage bill.

Speaking to New Era in an interview in March 2019, Geingob remarked: “The biggest elephant in the room is the government wage bill. Something has to be done. It’s not affordable – it takes up close to 60 percent of the national budget. It’s the one area government must tackle. Also, cabinet is too big.”

He continued: “When you are a new man coming in, a younger one, a peer group, it’s always difficult. President Nujoma had authority of a founding father and liberation hero. He enjoyed respect and authority. When President Pohamba came in, you could see the difference. It’s going more and more relaxed. With me, I took over at a time when anyone from my peer group could have taken over. And therefore pressure was more on me. What we did was to create a bit of balance in how you create cabinet to accommodate [people]. If you have excluded people it could’ve been worse. But this is no more affordable. One way to cut down on the wage bill is to look at cabinet.”

In his New Year’s address, Geingob promised to cut his bloated cabinet and pledged to make it more gender balanced.

“I made it clear during the final cabinet meeting of 2019 that we can no longer conduct business as usual. The size of cabinet shall be reduced and an attempt at 50/50 representation shall be made. Persistent lack of implementation of government policies and programs cannot continue any longer,” he said.

Political commentator Ndumba Kamwanyah said the real test is in the type of people the president will appoint, their knowledge, skills and merit, to his cabinet.

“This shows that, finally, the president heard the public outcry against his bloated government. [But] failure to appoint the right people would make the whole trimming exercise a mockery,” Kamwanyah said.

There are concerns that Geingob’s plan to reduce his cabinet could be a ploy to get rid of his perceived detractors in government.

Kamwanyah said: “As long as the president will use merit, as opposed to politics, in his selection processes, then he is safe.”

A prominent source within the ruling party Swapo conceded that reducing the cabinet was long overdue and a good thing, but dismissed Geingob’s announcement as a ‘mind game’.

According to this source, Geingob must remember that reducing the cabinet was not part of the party’s manifesto which brought him to power.

“I wonder what Swapo supporters will make of this because they expect him to start fulfilling the promises made in the manifesto. Besides, the bloated cabinet was created by him. Between 1990 and late 2000 there were fewer ministries. It is not an emergency. He created this mess. He must instead focus on the manifesto,” the source said.

Political commentator Henning Melber, on the other hand, thinks these suspicions are prematurely articulated but certainly express a not too farfetched concern.

“We should give Geingob the time and opportunity to make the changes, including the appointment of the eight non-voting MPs. Both will be indicators.”

He added: “But we should comment on facts, not on assumptions. It certainly will be interesting to see how Geingob responds to the challenges posed by independent presidential candidate Panduleni Itula during election time and the election results, which showed the rift in the party.”

Melber however believes that if Geingob is true to his yew year’s remarks on mutual respect and to "agree to disagree" without "denigration of “our brothers and sisters" that he should resist the temptation.

“As a matter of fact, announcing the trimming of Cabinet is a step in the right direction and one which has also been demanded by the opposition and not least Itula, so one could also welcome the announcement and wait with any further comments before crying foul play,” he advised.

Melber also said Geingob should also not only "attempt" a 50/50 representation in Cabinet but make it a reality as well as including a few younger and more qualified people based on competence and professional merits.

The Landless People’s Movement’s (LPM) Henny Seibeb emphasised that the agenda for the next five years must be how to rebuild the Namibian economy, create jobs, and not about Swapo's internal factional fights.

“It is a prerogative of Geingob to appoint whoever he chooses to appoint. He doesn't necessarily even need to choose his cabinet from Swapo parliamentarians only. Factionalists in Swapo must not cry crocodile tears.”

Geingob’s bloated cabinet has come under a lot of scrutiny over the last five years.

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