NBSZ saga: End of an era remains elusive

By Farai Chirimumimba

The major focus of this article is to shed light on the complex dynamics of the debate around the National Blood Service of Zimbabwe (NBSZ) bloody operations and to consider how the blood donors, media and the general public can contribute meaningfully and constructively to the debate.

The debate should be balanced, that is it should offer a diversity of views, voices and perspectives. Also that the key aspects crucial to the topic are canvassed, NBSZ board and the Ministry of Health and Child Care (without interfering with due process) are expected, in healthy, democratic societies, to sustain the discussion and debate vital to democracy, transparency and accountability, as well as to provide fair, accurate and unbiased opinions of the way forward.

If debate is there for us as blood donors and other stakeholders to engage with problems with the view to potential solutions, then it is important for the issues at hand to be thoroughly contextualized and understood. This avoid a situation where myself and members from Masvingo together with donors from Harare refused to support the board driven Extra-ordinary general meeting (EGM) that took place on 4 February. The EGM had to be adjourned.

It is also important to investigate who speaks that is understanding the way in which dynamics of the debate is operating from what l know and have read in the media coverage. What voices are currently appearing on the debate? And what interests they appear to represent? Is there impartiality and objectivity, particularly understanding that some of the voices are former board members who maybe fighting so hard make their way back to the board. After all one member whispered has he pointed to one former board member whom he said used to supply some goods to NBSZ. When she was forced out the “deal collapsed” and now she is fighting to teeth to find her way back to the office of opportunity? Whether this is true or false, it will require an investigative eye of which although being a journalist l have no time for at the moment.

However, if the whisper was the plain truth then it brings a whole new dimension to the NBSZ saga. In that case there are three groups fighting for control. One is obviously the current board, two the former board member and three a “seemingly” neutral membership. At the last EGM it was the former board members and the “seemingly” neutral members against the board. What then happens when the former are able to push out the current board? Two scenarios come to mind. One the former board members may try to maneuver their way back to the familiar territory in the name of knowing the terrain better than anyone else. The second scenario is that the “neutrals” may want completely new faces on the board may fuel another fierce battle. In politics remember how ZANU-PF Lacoste and G40 fought together to ouster the so called Gamatox alleged led by Joice Mujuru’s only to turn against each other months later. This is exactly what may happen.

A closer examination of the opinions of the three groups during the unfolding EGM suggested that there were much more than mere platforms for debates to unfold upon, the board members played a key role in manipulating the debates. They chose to ignore the complications of the blood controversies, as well as the questions that were raised as a result of these controversies.

This provided me with the opportunity to better understand the board’s positioning on the debates around the controversies, as well as to highlight how they were measuring up to their role as facilitator of debate, and as a facilitator for, and protectors of the many and varying opinions meant to be held in safekeeping the board in a healthy, functioning democracy.

Besides the current squabbles, there is an Ernst and Young forensic audit of 2013 which was swept under the carpet. Let me refresh your minds. The report found that the current Chairperson of NBSZ retired Justice George Smith reappointed then CEO David Mvere less than 48 hours after he had resigned from his post. The CEO was given full benefits after his resignation and the next day was back at work as a “new CEO” Asked about the motivation for resigning the then CEO said he wanted money to buy a house. Mvere has since left the organisation.

The report also found that Justice Smith was using NBSZ offices for his personal business. However, at the 4 February EGM before he left during the debate he said: “l have worked for this organisation for many years (41 years as a board member) without being paid a damn cent.” Yes, but the damn cents come from using the NBSZ offices for personal business. NBSZ also failed to account for several thousands of US$ dollars which was unaccounted for after an alleged virus wiped financial information from the computers. The report also unearthed insider dirty and excessive loans and the channeling of funds meant for blood-for-mothers coupons under the European Union’s towards salaries.

Away for the forensic report, need l mention the change of the company name from a company limited by guarantee which is supposed to end with the word “limited” to a fully flagged private company ending with the words “private limited”. A press statement from NBSZ late last year alleged the company was erroneously registered as a private limited company and the anomaly was corrected. But do they not file annual returns with the register of Companies? How did the board and management fail to detect the “anomaly” for 5 good years? It took investigative skills of journalists and an alert blood donor to unearth the “anomaly”. The board also failed to register the 2013 adopted Constitution with the register of companies and only come with a set of new articles for adoption. All these are some clear evidence of conflict of accountability and integrity.

Questions remain on whether the board is willing to reform itself from power. Will they include an agenda to fire them from office on the next EGM? If they are to include such an agenda l bet my last drop of blood that they will again organise themselves like they did for the 4 February EGM and collect another 52 proxies for against such a resolution.

The onus is on the board to do the right thing and step down because in light of the current fiasco were people are not coming to donate blood as they used to, failure to come up with strategies to reduce the cost of blood which was only reduced to US$50 three months ago after government intervention but remain high for most families and also failure by the board to look for new sources for funding which is drawing embarrassing national attention to NBSZ.

Of concern is the role of the Ministry of Health and Child Care. The last time l read about them was when they issued a press statement encouraging people to continue donating blood whilst they deal with the corporate governance issues at NBSZ and when the permanent secretary retired Major-General (Dr) Gerald Gwinji held a joint press conference with NBSZ board members days before the 4 February EGM.

When will the ministry say now the red line has been crossed let’s step in (but not necessarily) like they did at PSMAS a few years ago? Is there a sound basis for separate treatment? Is the ministry involved in some patronage protection of the board? Considering that an EGM that was requested by some members before the recently adjourned was ignored by the board which seems untouchable.

I would like to believe it an unbiased referee that is a cornerstone of a vibrant, healthy democracy. However, only time will tell! In the meantime the media, blood donors and general public should as stakeholders to discuss the controversies surrounding the management of NBSZ openly and take their positions strongly through a more protracted and reflective approach. For instance can NBSZ attract funding if it continues to run as a company limited by guarantee? Is it healthy for corporate governance for a person seat continuously on a single board for 41 years? Should the board or the general meetings have more power? How and when can it be deemed necessary for the Ministry of Health and Child Care to intervene without necessarily taking over?