Wobbling Utoni explains to Ombudsman

The labour minister has eaten a humble pie and blamed the “wrong interpretation” of the law for his appointment of the deputy labour commissioner without consent from the Public Service Commission.

07 October 2021 | Local News



Labour minister Utoni Nujoma limped from one excuse to another to justify his appointment of the deputy labour commissioner without following due process, a decision that has since been rescinded after the Office of the Ombudsman put him to the sword.

The Office of the Ombudsman sought an explanation from Nujoma on how he arrived at the unorthodox decision to appoint Kylikki Sihlahla as deputy labour commissioner without following the public service recruitment process. Sihlahla and Nujoma are related.

Nujoma only scrambled to legitimise his acts retrospectively, having approached the Attorney-General’s office for a legal opinion nearly four months – in August – after he had arbitrarily appointed the deputy labour commissioner in May.

Although the Public Service Commission, usually the first port of call for civil servant jobs, was contacted to consent to the appointment, Nujoma went ahead with the process before the commission replied. By the time a reply arrived on 30 June, Sihlahla had already been on the job for a month – having assumed duty on 1 May.

Ministerial insiders say Sihlahla is, by all accounts, qualified for the position, but due process was skipped to favour her.

A chief arbitrator from 2008 to 2014, she became a deputy director in October 2014, responsible for conciliation and arbitration.

In March, the ministry wrote to Secretary to Cabinet George Simataa asking to be allowed to fill the position. Permission was granted, but on condition that the Labour Act was complied with fully in filling the vacancy.

Excuses, excuses

Nujoma, in response to the Ombudsman’s queries on the matter, blamed many things but himself for the controversial appointment.

In a letter shared by ministerial insiders, Nujoma said he interpreted relevant laws that he had “full discretion to make the appointment without necessarily having to follow public service recruitment processes or to consult the Public Service Commission”.

He also pinned his decision on “precedents on the way in which appointments were made for that position in the past” and the urgency with which the position needed to be filled.

His action was a genuine error in law made in good faith, he told the Ombudsman in a long response.

“Any allegation that the appointment was an exercise of abuse of power by the office of the minister and based on one or the other irrational or arbitrary ground is denied and rejected with the contempt it deserves,” Nujoma said.

‘Valuable lesson’

Sihlahla replaced former deputy labour commissioner Tuuliki Shikongo who retired. She served for four months before pressure piled on Nujoma, who then rescinded her appointment. The position was finally advertised last Friday.

Nujoma said Sihlahla, who is a deputy director, was the only management-level person the ministry had when Shikongo retired “and availed herself to my call to rescue this very important office at a very sensitive and volatile time”, characterised by the long absence, through illness, of the labour commissioner Henri Kassen.

A humbled Nujoma wrote: “The ministry has learnt a valuable lesson and is committed to prevent any repeat thereof.”

Attempts to get comment from Utoni since Monday proved futile.

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