PENAMA Arise! ‘We are a People of Destiny, so Start Dreaming Your Future.’

On the partly sunny/cloudy afternoon of 15th Sept – the eve of Penama province’s Silver Jubilee – the former Secretary General (SG) of the Malampa Provincial Government (MPG) Pr. Keith Mala thundered the above words to his very own people of Penama on Saratamata’s historic provincial grounds. The veteran senior civil servant now-retired and serving as a well-respected Pastor in his Longana People’s Centre home village was unequivocally clear in his call for serious reforms at the provincial level.

Mala’s electrifying 30 minutes public oratory literally kept the listeners on the edge of their seats the entire time. This speech should have also shaken the provincial Government and its Council to its foundations, if they were listening attentively and with humility. In his heyday, Pastor Mala spent some 2 decades as the MPG SG. The people of Malampa wouldn’t let him leave earlier as he was such an effective and exemplary leader. Good, solid leadership is exactly what Penama needs today. We should have learned from the other five provinces and from our own difficult past by now. But we obviously haven’t. Twenty-five years is a long time! Mala called on the provincial leadership to envision the next 10 years of its plans and to let the people know. Of course, ‘where there is no vision, the people perish! (Prov. 29:18).

Remove the Scapegoats

We cannot possibly explain the PPG’s demise through the lenses of TC Pam in 2015, Manaro’s volcanic eruption of Sept 2017, or TC Harold and Covid-19 in 2020. These are mere scapegoats. Individuals, communities, islands and countries rise up out of dusty conflicts, ordeals, wars and disasters. Our old folks use the wild cane bush that gets flattened during a cyclone and regrows a few days immediately after the disaster with new shoots to illustrate ‘resilience’. Cultural folklore has taught us this (and other) invaluable lessons since childhood. But this seems true for individuals and for others except the PPG. Penama’s provincial leadership has continued to wallow in the mud and almost forever at the bottom-most rung on the development and leadership ladder compared to all other provinces in the country for many years, which is very worrying and extremely unsettling because we know we’re capable of doing far better than this.

Penama’s HR Capabilities?

It is public knowledge that Penamans are among some of the most-educated elites in this country – for almost 40 years since Independence! Separate Penama from the rest of the country and we could almost run the ‘new country’ without needing anybody else in Vanuatu’s help. Pilots, doctors, surgeons, lawyers, judges, planners, bankers, architects, engineers, captains, mathematicians, economists, administrators, carpenters, electricians, nurses, educators – we have them all, and a lot of the best too! Our skillsets, expertise and talents are vast, though quite frankly there’s nothing really special about us than anyone else. We’re all created equal in God’s eyes. Difference is, our forefathers made conscious decisions to invest heavily in the education of their children – our education. They rallied wholeheartedly behind the principle that “education is the key to success”. That’s why. And Ambaeans, for that matter, know this important history all too well. Our Parents did it not to compete with anybody, but rather because it was the right thing to do. And they were dead right!

YET, the shameful fact that we cannot politically, administratively and professionally run our own provincial Government and that we rank almost 6th in provincial leadership ranking in Vanuatu is mind-boggling and shamefully embarrassing. Why is the Torba provincial government a far-better-managed one than Penama, when people tend to refer to Torba satirically in Bislama as ‘last province (or last island) last tingting’? Why is it that with all our boasted educational achievements our province is only capable of faring at the bottom compared to others in the country?

High time for policy, structural and Leadership reforms

As alluded to in last week’s article, the PPG requires serious HR, structural and policy reforms and to get it overhauled; to breathe life and fresh air back into it.

The fact that elected Councilors continually threaten the Administration over financial commitments is sad. No commitment, you get sacked at the next golden opportunity. The rest of the world has moved on, but at Penama, we still live in the stone-age era of running administration as if it was part of a cowboy town. When asked, a senior former staff of the PPG also advised of the need to engage good SGs who are experienced, well-versed with provincial governing systems and who are disciplined administrators. Political SGs (which the province is all too familiar with by now) can’t be trusted either.

Strict adherence to proper protocols and respect for national leaders is also a very scarce commodity at the PPG, as observed during Penama’s 25th anniversary celebrations last week. The night before the Jubilee day the provincial top political man got excessively drunk, arrived pretty late to the formal ceremony (while 3 State Ministers kept waiting with all other dignitaries), which then delayed the arrival of the Hon Prime Minister and the Head of State to meet a crowd that had waited without food for several hours. He stumbled through a speech that he obviously only saw for the first time on stage that mid-morning. He provided no courtesy reception (let alone refreshments) to host the Head of State, Prime Minister and 3 senior Ministers – and we’re talking here about a provincial Government’s Silver Jubilee. A mixed bag of politics, possible ignorance and lack of basic protocols and respect portrayed a very bad image not only of the provincial government but also the citizens of Penama who were in attendance, in front of the highest national leaders of the land. The people arrived in big numbers ready to celebrate, while their provincial government portrayed a rather disorganized leadership.

PENAMA has to arise out of this long sleep and carve out a new development pathway for its people. Diverting from that route will not lead the PPG anywhere but downward.

Howard Aru is current CEO of the Vanuatu Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (VFIPA) and former Director General of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity, and the Ministry of Health.

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