By Dr. Michael J.K. Bokor
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Echoes of the controversy surrounding the Minister of Health’s letter terminating the appointment of Dr. Frimpong-Boateng as Head of the National Cardiothoracic Centre at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital are still ringing loud in our ears. Certainly, the Minister’s action has touched raw nerves, and the sharp public reaction to it reflects the extent to which passions have been inflamed.
Many people have already given diverse opinions on the event, some from politically motivated perspectives and others from purely professional angles. The most dominant viewpoint is that the dismissal of Dr. Frimpong-Boateng is wrong for several reasons, the most important one being the manner in which the action was taken. Overall, some felt it doesn’t show any appreciation for Dr. Frimpong-Boateng’s invaluable services to the country apart from its being harshly done to suggest that he was being victimized for being a prominent member of the NPP.
We’ve all heard these comments and noticed the spontaneous reaction to the issue by surgeons at the Center who went on a day’s strike action in solidarity with Dr. Frimpong-Boateng. We’ve also heard the government’s response to the problem and how President Mills sought to solve it, meeting with a delegation from the Center and issuing a statement explaining the government’s official position on the matter. In the end, the dismissal of Dr. Frimpong-Boateng stands. What seems to be an amelioration is the extension of the period for his handing over from “with immediate effect” to one month. And as Dr. Frimpong-Boateng himself has revealed, he started preparing his handing over notes years ago. So, where are we and what will we learn from this incident? I sympathize with Dr. Frimpong-Boateng and agree with viewpoints suggesting that the tone of the letter divesting him of headship of the Centre was harsh and unbecoming. I see this particular incident as a clear demonstration of the wishy-washy manner in which we do things in our part of the world to worsen the very problems that we want to solve. How difficult was it for anybody in authority to begin solving Dr. Frimpong-Boateng’s problem through discussions prior to such a letter being written to him? Or to ensure that the message conveying his removal from the Center is not so written as to carry that irritating peremptory note as if he is being thrown away with the bath water? In protest, doctors and surgeons at the Centre laid down their tools as President Mills paid a surprise visit to the Centre on Tuesday as part of his intervention to restore normalcy. Obviously, the strike action by the doctors and surgeons has serious effects on the operations of the Centre and patients, not to mention the negative impact on the government’s image by the incident itself.
Many aspects of this impasse—in its cause, the Minister’s handling of it, and its impact—are troubling.
Let’s examine the cause part. We are told that Dr. Frimpong-Boateng has been in charge of the Centre in an “honorary” position, having already attained 61 years and should have retired as stipulated under Article 199 of the 1992 Constitution. Additionally, it is said that Dr. Frimpong-Boateng’s appointment in 2000 was “until further notice,” hence, was never intended to be a position for the preserve of any one person.
Again, he is said to have sought transfer from the Ministry of Health to the University of Ghana Medical School in 2000, where he is a Senior Lecturer. In this new capacity, then, Dr. Frimpong-Boateng has lost legitimacy to perform as the Administrator of the Center. The Ministry of Health, therefore, saw his continued stay in office as a breach of existing regulations, although provision exists for him to serve as a consultant if he so decides. Furthermore, there is already a substantive Supervisor of that Center who has responsibility for the day-to-day administration of the Center but can’t function as such until Dr. Frimpong-Boateng hands over officially to him. Revoking Dr. Frimpong-Boateng’s appointment, then, was required as the Minister of Health did. The Minister did nothing wrong by following this administrative procedure.
Indeed, the tone of that letter is the main problem, which the government itself acknowledged with the explanation that the Minister erred. Although the directive to Dr. Frimpong-Boateng to hand over “with immediate effect” is being overstretched as various political spins are put on it, it is nothing unusual in the history of Ghanaian civil and public service.
Problematic though it is—because it shows “scant respect” for the accomplished Dr. Frimpong-Boateng and suggests that the country is not honouring such a national hero—the official correspondence only reflects the norm. Over the years, it has been the practice for the appointment of people to positions of trust to be terminated by handled shoddily, especially through mere radio announcements.
Who will not remember the era of Nkrumah when top civil servants always dreaded the 1 o’clock news time? Why would they be apprehensive? Because that was the time when summary dismissals by Nkrumah were announced without any prior consultation or official explanation to soothe hurt feelings or assuage doubts about the victims’ performance in office.
The practice has continued to torment civil and public servants. The irony is that before their appointments were made, they would have been cordially treated and taken through all the processes of consultation, including interviewing, orientation, and the issuance of appointment letters to install them in office. But it won’t be so in their dismissal. Civility is thrown to the wind. Rawlings is noted for that brash approach to dealing with his appointees and top civil servants. Can we so soon forget how Kufuor also threw Francis Poku out of office? The events leading to Poku’s dismissal are known; so also is the ultimate blow delivered by Kufuor in the simple but damaging command: “Fri me fie,” (“Get out of my house!”), which was followed by the curt radio announcement and subsequent hounding of the victim into deserting the country in mysterious circumstances.
I am not raising all these instances to suggest that I support this crude manner of dealing with workers. I am doing so only to confirm that the approach by the Minister of Health reinforces concerns that there is no decency in the way we do things in managing the affairs of the country.
Those who are reading all manner of political meanings into this occurrence may be overdoing things. I don’t think that he is a victim of any politically influenced action, even though the writing is on the wall that Dr. Frimpong-Boateng allowed his political ambitions to interfere with the norms of the Civil Service that has employed him all these years.
Unless proved wrong, I maintain that one of the cardinal principles of the Civil Service is political neutrality. But Dr. Frimpong-Boateng did not respect that principle as he vigorously pursued his ambition to become Ghana’s President on the ticket of the NPP. His failure to clinch the flagbearership didn’t stop that quest and he remains in good reckoning within the ranks of the NPP. He is part of the campaign team for the party’s Presidential Candidate, Akufo-Addo. Under normal circumstances, he should have been the first to admit his flouting of that cardinal principle. He is politically tainted and his continued stay at post conflicts with the tenets of the very institution that he has depended on to make such a big name in his profession. As to whether his political allegiance influenced his professional conduct, I can’t say, which might be why his case has drawn so widespread a reaction. But it doesn’t absolve him of violating the norm of political neutrality.
Those condemning the government for disposing of him because he is a political opponent should not overlook the fundamental conflict of interest aspect of the professional equation. In this case, Dr. Frimpong-Boateng has compromised the terms under which he was employed in 2000 to head the Centre. He will be better off in a different capacity, which is what the government has sought to do. Now that the dust has settled and President Mills has extended the period for the handing over to one month (and no more “with immediate effect”), I hope a more sober reflection will be done to lay the incident to rest. The lesson should be learnt by those now in positions of trust in the public or civil sector so that they don’t get caught up in similar problems. And the Minister of Health too must bow his head in shame. In other systems, this lack of decorum in handling such an issue would have cost him his position. If he had any moral compunction, he would have either resigned his post to save the government from further embarrassment or come out to say something apologetic to show his humanity. But will he?
The government must also ensure that it introduces decency into its attitude toward workers, especially those whose services to the society have put them in high estimation and will provoke the kind of reaction that we’ve seen in the case of Dr. Frimpong-Boateng. I wonder why anybody will want to be harsh to the other as far as appointments and dismissals are concerned.
If serving the country is the overarching requirement, then, those who appoint need to be civil in their attitude to the appointees, whether at their assumption of office or at the point when their services are no longer needed for various reasons. Civility toward each other is mandatory so no one feels hurt in the end.
To civil servants too, I have a word or two. There are some who always fail to monitor their own circumstances, especially concerning age and the point of retirement. Many forget that they can’t cheat Nature and will definitely be required to retire from active service. They manipulate the system only to hit the brick-wall when they least expect it.
Retirement may be daunting in our Ghanaian situation when it is difficult to put away part of one’s earnings in readiness for that trouble-free rainy day. But that should not be an excuse to lose track of one’s standing because when the time comes and the appointing authority invokes the regulations, no hue and cry that they raise can prevent their crossing of the Rubicon. Doing public service is challenging but one must prepare for eventualities at the end of the road. The government can lessen the impact if it doesn’t act irresponsibly. Otherwise, it will not make Ghana worth dying for.