The death of Willie Samute will not just shock many, it will also sadden them. This I can bet with my index figure because generally he was a public servant extraordinaire. He aimed, from my observation, to make the public service be at the service of the public. He made you respond to public queries with honesty.
When the exigencies of service had demanded that I wind up at the Ministry of Information as Director of Information, Willie Samute had signed the redeployment letter. When I reported at the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) on 18th December 2012, the first person in authority I met was Willie Samute. He was clear and intimated
“We are not sure why we are under instruction to move you from the Ministry of Information. On this side of things we thought you were doing a good job; but as you know that position is government’s information highway and almost every president, as the appointing authority, has a choice of his or her own Director of Information. So not to worry, your contract is with Government and not with any particular Ministry and there is more than enough work for each civil servant in the public service.”
That soothed an anxious, and nearly angry, me.
SET UP THE PUBLIC AFFIARS UNIT – & RESPOND TO PUBLIC QUERIES WITHIN A WEEK
I interacted with Willie Samute several times after my first encounter with him. I believe Willie genuinely wanted a functional public service because this other day he stunned me. Stunned because I thought OPC always thought they were on the top of the game. He had sent for me quite early on the day. I was meant to see him at 09:00 hours. I arrived in his office at about 08:45am but the secretary in his office told me he was tied up with other visitors but he had left word that I should wait for him till he disposes of the task he had. I waited for close to 2 hours – and in he came from wherever he had been. I was ushered into his office and he “apologized” for the delay our meeting had suffered. I said “it’s ok”, in response. (Please don’t ask me if I was being honest enough in my response).
“Mr Ziba” – he begun the conversation. “Yes Sir,” I responded. “As OPC we think that we are not responding to public needs as efficiently as we should. (“So it’s known at this high level” – I said inside myself). “That being the case, I would like you to do two tasks for the office. Go and put in writing your honest opinion about the public image of OPC and secondly, I would like you to dig information regarding what used to be called, during the MCP era,the Public Affairs and Information Unit” in the OPC. Once you find that information, I would like you to propose a concept of rejuvenating a similar unit – without the oppressive components that the unit was associated with.” If you can, please submit those two documents in about a week’s time.
I was left wondering what this was all about. “My honest opinion about how the public views OPC?” “That’s a first”, I told myself and having been in the civil service for such a short time, I had learnt how sometimes authorities can trap you into a situation where you give yourself enough rope to hang.
With this fear at the back of my mind, I set out on that agenda almost immediately; but I told myself “I’ll be genuine.” I consulted a number of people within and outwith the public service. Within a space of three days I had gathered adequate information for me to be able to put those two documents together – and I wrote them. I submitted them a day or two earlier than the given dead line.
Within a week or so, Willie Samute was on the ball. He called me directly on my mobile phone and “summoned” me to his office. “MrZiba, thank you very much for the job well done regarding the public image of OPC as well as your proposal on the Public Affairs Unit – PAU as it was later going to be called. “We may just be at the verge of getting a person who we have been looking for forsome time. I will be recommending that we immediately make you the central point of communications from the ambits of OPC. For a start, take this file, there are a number of public queries to both OPC as secretariat of the presidency but also to the presidency directly.” I need draft responses to all the issues in this file as soon as possible.” “Wow” I said to myself, “there is indeed work for me around here.”
I went down to work. I drafted responses to the issues I was given and I remember three interesting cases in there – one was about the Manga’anja people, who had formed an association, and they were in need of recognition as a tribe and also that they wanted audience with the presidency; the second one, may be closest to my heart was about a case in Nkhotakota of a farmer who believed that authorities of one of the cane growers associations there had duped him and he needed the intervention of the OPC; and the third was about an ESCOM customer in Blantyre, Ndirande, who had paid all the dues to ESCOM for power connection but 36 months (3 years) had goneby and ESCOM was no where near connecting his house to power. I drafted responses to all these after I directly talked to all concerned parties. When I submitted the draft responses Willie Samute was elated, literally elated.
A few days after these submissions, he gave a directive that, albeit by word of mouth, that PAU be set up and implored me, as the first staff member in the unit, to make sure that OPC responds to people’s queries within a week. I went to work – and I tried to work hard. What satisfied me was that when Madam HawaNdilowe decided to relocate me to the Ministry of Health, I had been to Nkhotakota to deal with the farmer’s issue; I had been officially in touch with ESCOM and they had connected power to the man in Ndirande and I had spoken to the leadership of the Mang’anja Association regarding their letter to OPC and they were at the verge of getting an audience with the presidency.
What pleased me in all this was one thing and that was “please respond to public queries to the OPC within one week of receiving the queries. That was the man in Willie Samute.
DON’T GIVE UP ON THE PUBLIC SERVICE
While this was going on and all documentation was ready and lodged with the Department of Human Resources and Management (DHRMD) to resource PAU with officers, bang – the office of the Chief Secretary, then in the hands of one HawaNdilowe, saw that the exigencies of the service demanded that I be redeployed to the Health Education Unit as Deputy Director. I protested and protested vehemently. And that was my way out of the civil service. When I went to take leave of Willie Samute, he too was shocked at the redeployment instruction. Having said all and sundry, he concluded by saying“YOU HAVE A FUTURE, MR ZIBA, DO NOT GIVE UP ON THE CIVIL SERVICE.”
The rest as they say is history.
Fare thee well, Willie Samute!
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