Saturday, May 30, 2020

Fighting Covid-19 reawakens the old boys clubs in the public service

When an evaluation report is finally made on how Botswana responded to coronavirus, a chapter and a half will be dedicated to why and how Solomon Sekwakwa and Dr Simvula ultimately lost their jobs.Until they were sacked, the two men were at the coalface of fighting the virus.The evaluation will look at the meetings in the build up to expulsions. But also, the personalities in those meetings.Sekwakwa was sacked as a Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health.

Dr Simvula was his deputy in the same ministry.The moment an announcement was made that Sekwakwa and Dr Simvula had been summarily sacked, the rumour mill went abuzz.Everybody tried to search for answers. None were forthcoming.A few senior government officers called the sacking “long overdue.”“The search for a scapegoat has been ongoing,” one of them said.Others called the sackings a diversionary tactic.We are where we are – in a new territory. And mistakes are inevitable. In fact, the public will gladly forgive mistakes made in good faith.

The sacking of Sekwakwa and Co will underscore and highlight a scary fact that instead of fighting as a united front, Botswana has been caught up in the middle of turf war.Another civil servant has talked of a nostalgic veterinarian, plugged out of retirement and given excessive powers as Covid-19 coordinator,” powers that are already going to his head.”But still the stakes are too high to lose focus. It remains a matter of life and death.Those of us outside of the public service are gobsmacked, confused but also uninspired.We want to trust. But nothing around us inspires trust.Sekwakwa was clearly a likeable character. But so far there is no evidence to suggest he was a particularly distinguished career civil servant.But his sacking is already casting a long shadow over efforts to fight Covid-19 in Botswana.His sacking has become a huge national event. But also, a distraction.Even those who never heard about him are now asking about him.

That is the nature of politics.Events always have a way of shaping and even determining the route of politics.“Events, my dear boy, events,” a British Prime minister once replied when asked what could derail his campaign.There is no doubt that Covid-19 comes at a time of immense political dearth inside government, including and especially at cabinet.Divisions between political parties are also leading to is too much grandstanding.A pandemic of this magnitude requires not just epidemiological expertise but also crack management skills.Lapses from bad luck and mistakes of bad judgement will always happen.In our instances they were mostly a lack of grasp of the gravity of the stakes.The Head of State has been quarantined, not once but twice.Thankfully in both instances he eventually tested negative.But there is no denying that both country and government was missed his direct leadership, especially in the second quarantining where an entire cabinet and parliament were forced to go on quarantine.We can only blame that on the leadership, but also on the clumsiness of the expert team assembled to lead us through the pandemic.Fighting Covid-19 requires skills in logistics.

Logistics is not guesswork. It is engineering based science.These are complex skills that premier policy makers at the government enclave often shy away from.Those skills extend to procurement and also distribution.Botswana Defence Force remains by far the most developed home of such skills and expertise in the country.The pandemic has also exposed structural defects we have always known existed in Botswana’s public service.Forty years on, the country has not produced logistical experts.For the last forty years Botswana continues to rely on one man to manage huge logistical efforts entailed in Covid-19. His name is Gabriel Seeletso.In the early 1990s Seeletso managed cattle lung disease in the Ngamiland. It was a huge budget undertaking specifically to rid the area of lung disease, pay the farmers and restore Botswana’s share of the European union beef market share.

After that Seeletso was again at hand when Botswana created the IEC (independent Elections Commission), he was called to come and establish the IEC as its founding Chief.Most recently he was called back to come and run an ill-fated EVM (Electoral Voting Machine.) that was on course to delivering an unprecedented electoral anarchy.Seeletso should consider himself a very lucky man who never goes away. Every time the country needs a magician to run logistics he is ever at hand.Two weeks ago he was yet again called to be the country’s relief coordinator.

There is no denying that old alliances and personal friendships including inside cabinet have played a big hand.Seeletso should count himself a lucky man.Every time the country runs into a crisis he is never out of reach.To be taken for such a key existential matter, not once, not twice but thrice because no other serving public servant is as good would take special skill, special attribute and special talent.No nation should rely on one man for so long to resolve so many catastrophes.There is yet another concern.To this day briefings have still not graduated to higher more informative levels.They are still about the rudimentary issues.There have not as yet graduated to other equally important aspects like ventilators, testing capacity and protective equipment for frontline personnel.

One hopes these are not the reasons why Sekwakwa and Dr Simvula were sacked.Surprisingly even the experts briefing the nation seem mesmerized by confirmed cases even as they know that the numbers are by all measure an understatement of reality, given low testing capacity.Their strategy seems stagnant; “awe and shock.”That cannot be. Batswana have paid with their lives to get where we are.Somebody should tell us what is next.

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Sunday Standard May 24 – 30

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of May 24 - 30, 2020.