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Changes at Health Ministry: A presidential error of judgment?

SEPTEMBER 15, 2014 By Abu-Bakarr Sheriff

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER … President Ernest Bai Koroma
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER … President Ernest Bai Koroma

I have been following the reaction of the public since the demotion of Miatta Kargbo as Minister of Heath and Sanitation to a staffer at the grandiosely named Strategy and Policy Unit (SPU) at State House. This presidential action saw the elevation of her former deputy, Dr. Abu Bakarr Kargbo, to the post of Minister of Health.

To begin with, the decision came as a surprise as it took the president months of pondering before he finally brought the curtain down on Miatta Kargbo’s short lived tenure at the health ministry. By then, many souls had been lost to the deadly Ebola virus, with the attendant impact on all facets of our society, including the economy, education, tourism, and aviation.

That notwithstanding, I am a firm believer of the cliché “better late than never”, hence the president cannot be faulted on that note for axing the much maligned Diaspora import from that strategic ministry, although recycling her to the SPU leaves one wondering for what good? She surely needs a break, in football parlance, a mandatory loan deal to another ‘club’ probably in the Diaspora, with a view to a permanent transfer.

What I find more fascinating is the decision to appoint her in the first place as a full minister and her successor her deputy. I know as a matter of fact that the onus of hiring and firing ministers and their deputies is the exclusive prerogative of the president, subject to parliamentary approval or endorsement. But, in a nascent democracy like ours, where parliamentarians, including those in the opposition, are particularly disinclined to upset the first gentleman, presidential nominations are a foregone conclusion, as even those with questionable academic or integrity backgrounds are approved.

Such leaves one wondering whether it is the president who made the wrong judgment in appointing certain people to key positions in his ‘Brazilian’ team or Parliament has been less than helpful in helping him appoint the right caliber of players. The sad reality though is that many presidential nominees, not least Miatta Kargbo, had sailed through Parliament with ease.

But, as the saying goes, the buck stops at the desk of the president, who we all gave a second and last term to rule until 2017 or 2018 to steer the ship of state. Accordingly, by appointing a non-professional as minister of a highly technical ministry, to be deputized by someone who is now being touted as highly qualified and cloned for that ministry, leaves more questions than answers as to what considerations, if any, are employed in the appointment or selection of certain people to key positions in government.

Miatta Kargbo, I am told, is quite versatile in management. I can also vouch that she is quite at home in the business of talking, her American accent coming in handy to mesmerize her audience. But it became apparent that she was in the wrong ministry no sooner the Ebola outbreak in May. Her gaffes were many, including in public relations and interpersonal relations with health professionals.

Yet in all this, she was the Pa’s chosen one, while her deputy, with whom she was reportedly not seeing eye-to-eye, was in a better position to serve as political head of the health ministry, like his counterpart in Nigeria, for example, being a consummate and likeable health professional himself.

The president may have realized that only too late perhaps that, just as he cannot appoint a layman as Minister of Justice, so too he should in future sidestep the temptation of selecting a virtual political rookie to serve as minister in a highly technical ministry like the health and sanitation, notwithstanding whether that individual is Harvard trained or speaks English better than Obama. Indeed certain ministries need the right caliber of people to calibrate; the justice, health, finance, foreign affairs, energy and power need technocrats, not novices to superintend.

I could be vindicated by the number of changes in the aforementioned ministries since 2007 when the current administration took the reins of governance. For example, the Energy and Power Ministry has not only seen numerous changes in political leadership, it has since been partitioned into two components  – power generation and power distribution – with the hope that those at the helm can perform and produce tangible results, instead of just the illusory high scores accorded them by those who administer the controversial performance contracts.

The appointment and ratification of the new Minister of Health and Sanitation have been greeted with universal approval. Even nurses, instead of being on duty where they were most needed were present to provide support to the ‘new kid on the block’ as he unsurprisingly went through parliamentary vetting with flying colours.

The new man at the helm has started on the high. According to a local tabloid, he has questioned the mode of data collection employed by the former minister. In essence, he is saying the figures were being sexed up, and that he has the formula for coming up with the ‘correct’ figures.

A fantastic start! But one may be tempted to ask few pertinent questions. And they are salient questions: Why did it take the erstwhile deputy minister approximately four months to voice this, after hundreds have died from the deadly virus and our lives have been subjected to the worst inhumane treatment one could imagine. The norm is that ministers and their deputies should work as a team with the latter making salient contributions to the success of the team – ministry – reminiscent of a head coach and his assistants. Perhaps, only perhaps, if the new health minister had revealed the ‘winning formula’ earlier than before he was made minister, many doubting Thomases would have believed the virus is real and behaved appropriately, thus saving more lives.

Hence, could it be that the current health minister undermined his predecessor just so that he could be appointed a full minister? Of course Miatta Kargbo deserves the flak for the mess we are in at present. However, it is my considered view that under the principal of collective responsibility she and her team – the new minister inclusive – should have gotten the sack or demotion for presiding over a ministry that shambolically handled a deadly virus which has decimated our population and placed the populace in constant fear.

Again, if the new minister genuinely felt his views were not taken on board by his former boss he should have resigned to set the records straight. But, by failing to do the honourable thing, including posing to the public that all was fine between them – by way of pictures and denials – is rather disingenuous and self-seeking, and does not bode well for the country.

That said, President Koroma should take full responsibility for appointing people who are not fit for certain positions or placing the wrong individuals ahead of those who are better qualified for the job. Such create room for dissent between ministers or public officials, which is evident in some ministry and state institutions.

In sum, even though he seemed to have made amends in one of many errors of judgment, it is in the interest of the country and citizenry that presidential nominees be well vetted within the presidency before their appointments are made public. By so doing, the embarrassment of recycling ministers and officials will never arise.

I hope also that hard lessons are being learned during this Ebola crisis.

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