Heritage City, again

The government has taken too many risks with its public standing. Many controversies on non-issues have continued to plague it since early 2015. Mishandling of matters has landed it in trouble even where it was necessary to remedy things that had gone awfully wrong over several years. This tumultuous conduct of public affairs has been carried on to the point where opposition parties have felt re-invigorated enough to challenge it, so soon after their December 2014 resounding defeat at the polls.

Certain political observers have not hesitated to predict that, assailed as it was by an unending stream of internal contradictions, the government would not last long. The fault line was clearly visible: on the one side, there is the Prime Minister appearing to be staunchly supporting the Minister of Good Governance, including on the controversial Heritage City project for establishing a new political capital of the country in Highlands.

On the other side, there are the Minister of Finance and other ministers who would have taken objection to the lack of clarity surrounding this project. Though not opposed to the idea of re-locating the political capital, they decided not to endorse it the way it was worked out by the Minister of Good Governance and money allegedly paid to consultants on the project without following appropriate procedures.

This is why, after considering an adverse locational report on the proposed project from the senior adviser of the Minister of Finance, Cabinet decided, during the absence of the Prime Minister from the country, not to go ahead with the project as proposed, reversing its previous decision when it was presided over by SAJ. It looked like a face-saving device. But the Minister of Good Governance would not brook opposition, choosing to make a statement with the police accusing the senior adviser of the Minister of Finance.

A potential schism due to this show of force was in the air. It looked most insalubrious that the Prime Minister should publicly find himself in opposition to the Minister of Finance regarding the implementation of this project. Before leaving for the UN General Assembly in early September, therefore, the PM announced that he was contemplating giving up the position of prime minister. The conflict must have been becoming unmanageable on diverse fronts, given also his parental relationship with the Minister of Finance.

Expectations were rife on the political platform that the PM would have to choose between the Minister of Good Governance and the Minister of Finance on the respective contrary stands taken by them on the Heritage City project. The matter was either to be sorted out once for all or allowed to fester until it became altogether untenable for government to carry on, being given that the Minister of Finance is also the leader of the majority party in government.

A Communiqué issued by the Prime Minister’s Office on 11th October states that the following decisions were taken in this regard by the ministerial committee headed by the PM:

– the idea of having an administrative city to better manage government spending on rental of buildings for different ministries was being maintained;

– the location and phased implementation of such a city, which will also house a new parliament house, will be the subject of a new study; and

– a committee presided over by the Minister of Finance will lead the “new” project.

How the controversy regarding the project will eventually be resolved in practice, whenever that would happen, remains to be seen. What is important to note is that the decision has the effect of putting to rest the huge public controversy sparked off by what increasingly appeared to have become a thorn in the flesh of government. The clash by proxy between the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Good Governance appears to have been either avoided or postponed. Time will tell.

Hopefully, the ministerial decision of October 11th will give the government the occasion to focus on other subjects and to show a balance sheet in which assets will exceed liabilities before the next encounter with voters. It will possibly also have the merit of pacifying frayed feelings between the PM and his Minister of Finance at the personal level.

Succession to the prime ministerial position has been very much in the background of this controversy. The Minister of Finance is tipped to succeed SAJ, being leader of the majority party in Parliament. The question will then arise as to who will be the next Minister of Finance in that event.

In the interest of the country, it should be a person who understands how an economy works in practice and one who will not wreak havoc with the necessary confidence requiring to be re-instilled among potential investors. Already, it’s proving very hard to pick up all the bad luggage from previous decisions. Things should therefore not be made harder.

It is positive that the government has decided to cut the Gordian knot before the serious damage from undertaking the new administrative city project the way it was contemplated has materialised. Nothing short of ministerial cooperation will get the government out of the difficult pass it has put itself into for having proceeded impetuously with a project which has, independently of the proposal on hand, its own merits if properly undertaken. There are surely other priorities for the moment.

High politics is the art of compromise, seeking middle ground and moving away from sterile controversies. The storm-in-a-teacup outcome from the extensive debate about the ‘Heritage City’ project may after all serve as an honourable exit for the different protagonists involved in a project otherwise deserving but that actually ended up showing some darker sides of politicians.

M.K.

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