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Democracy Deferred: COVID-19 and Legislative Oversight

There has been controversy surrounding State of Public Emergency (SoE) purportedly necessitated by COVID-19. Pundits, MPs, particularly from the opposition, media and civil society doubted the need for a six-months SoE.

The President and the Leader of Government Business, Vice President, used the ruling party majority to achieve the emergency nonetheless.  How has the COVID-19 related SoE and related public policy positions impacted on the role of Parliament provision of oversight on the government?

The Constitution of the Republic provides at Section 50(1) that cabinet shall be responsible to the National Assembly “…for all things done by or under the authority of the President, Vice President or any Minister in the execution of his office”. Botswana’s democracy has enjoyed accolades from many observers owing mainly to its periodic free elections in a continent where polls could easily be postponed or incumbents increase their terms of office.

However, more profound yardsticks of parliamentary democracy reveal serious pitfalls. Parliament is less independent, depends on the Presidency for material and human resources and therefore hamstrung to provide effective oversight.

Parliament Business is normally dominated by Government Business; Bills, motions, policy statements, tabling of papers such as policies, reports and Statutory Instruments and presentations.  How has COVID-19 exacerbated this already existing encumbrance?

Under normal circumstances, MPs can table ordinary or urgent motions, regular questions or questions without notice, themes or Ministers Questions and they can table Bills. The Leader of Opposition can make a statement on any issue, as long as the Speaker agrees.

MPs can also cause Ministers to make statements on any topical issue. This could not be possible during COVID-19 restrictions mainly because Parliament adjourned sine die to prepare for lockdown. The executive was free to decide and action its decisions without any meaningful role by the legislature.

When Parliament convened to consider a proposal for SoE by the President and when it met again to consider the SoE regulations amendments, no Private Members Business was included or allowed, even on COVID-19 related matters. No Bill, motion, question or theme, statement by LOO or any private item was permitted.

This is notwithstanding burning issues on how the whole COVID-19 response was conducted by the executive. Parliament, in the last session, was not accorded adequate time to even consider the amendments to the regulations, MPs were given 24 hours to study and approve the document. This detracted from Parliament’s oversight role.

The opportunity for MPs to talk about COVID-19 related matters for seven minutes each, should not be misconstrued to be a meaningful provision of oversight. Proposed amendments by the opposition were thrown out. The executive used Parliament to amend the regulations as they deemed fit and no MP could do anything about it.

When Parliament convened to consider the amendments, there were burning issues; food distribution problems across the country, reports of allegations of corruption, direct appointment of companies in COVID-19 procurements and political elites benefiting from the corona virus related large purchases.

No concrete resolution resulted from MPs lamentations on these matters. Parliament, it was clear, was convened to rubberstamp executive decisions. Parliament, as is usually the case, was reduced to a talk show without any reasonable oversight resolutions.

Whilst in other jurisdictions Oversight Committees sat and held the executive to account, in Botswana this was not done. The Finance and Estimates Committee, Public Accounts Committee, Statutory Bodies and other oversight Committees couldn’t not sit for hearings since Parliament adjourned for lockdown.

Government indicated that it intended to spend more than P2 billion on COVID-19 related procurements. This should have been scrutinized by the Finance and Estimates Committee, particularly on what was to be procured, why, where and how, as well as the cost implications.

PAC has a backlog of two financial years of unexamined books or accounts and the restrictions made it impossible for it to hold hearings.

Fortunately, because of the relaxation of the restrictions, MPs serving oversight Committees will be workshopped for a week and PAC will resume its hearings from the 23rd June. No one knows with absolute certainty, except the executive, when Parliament will convene, or whether there would be prorogation before it convenes.

No one knows except the sovereign, on the status of the Mid-term Review of the National Development Plan 11, which was supposed to be a key agenda item in the approved almanac. Whatever the case, COVID-19 pandemic has proven to many Batswana that the Executive doesn’t take Parliament seriously and care less about the oversight role of the House.

This was also because proceedings were televised. Even more serious is a possibility of Parliament being lied to by the executive about a likelihood of exposure to a corona virus infected nurse deployed during the SoE session. The nurse, who is now negative, doubts if he was ever positive.

The revelation at the time prompted the Speaker to constrain the debate so that the House could quickly approve the SoE and adjourn so as to have MPs quarantined for 14 days. That the nurse may be negative is no surprise to MPs and many Batswana, not only due to general increasing mistrust on the government but also because of how the whole thing was handled. The nurse has slapped the government with a statutory notice and is probably heading to court.

Whilst the legislature in Botswana has inherent weaknesses, there is effectively no accountability of the executive regarding COVID-19 Public policy positions and procurements and democracy has been deferred. MPs receive periodic COVID-19 official updates and information the same way the general public does, through media sources.

This is despite media reports on widespread corruption and numerous blunders. Decisions are made by the executive secretly and arbitrarily. The only time that PAC can examine the books of accounts of government for COVID-19 year is around mid-year 2021 after an audit report by the Auditor General. It may be too late!

Dithapelo Keorapetse is MP for Selebi-Phikwe West, Chairman of PAC and Treasurer of SADCOPAC. He can be contacted at 75048833 or dithapelokeorapetse@gmail.com

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Moses vs Ramesses

28th July 2020

Moses returns to Egypt to reclaim the Pharaonic throne

When Moses was deposed as Pharaoh Akhenaten of Egypt in 1352 BC, General Atiku, he was not officially banished from Egypt: he was obliged to flee Egypt as he was not hundred percent sure of his safety.

Ideally, the place he should have headed to was Harran, in modern-day Turkey. Harran was apt in that not only was it the place of his ancestry but it was the major domicile of the Hykso-Hebrews. There, the Hykso-Hebrews abounded more than in any other place on the globe, including Canaan.

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Turn CEDA into a Commercial Bank

28th July 2020

The announcement by President Mokgweetsi Masisi that CEDA now was in position to loan sizeable and therefore worthwhile sums the nation as a matter of course greeted with enormous glee.

As much as I too was euphoric at the news, I could not at the same time help a feeling of censorious pique which dates back to the time I was CEDA chairman from 2006 to 2008.

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Parley July meeting: an executive affair

28th July 2020

Monday the 27th Parliament will resume its July meeting. What is specifically on the agenda of Parliament in this coming meeting? A lot! There will be government and Private Bills, policy proposals, questions, themes and motions.

The meeting is also likely to be punctuated by statements from ministers on a variety of issues. Some statements may come as preemptive strikes to prevent the opposition from either making speeches on the subjects ahead of the government or to simply forestall questions on same.  The House is expected to be active for five weeks nonstop. It is obviously a very short time considering the agenda.

Before its adjournment sine die in March, Parliament was supposed to discuss the National Development Plan 11 Midterm Review. This is what will become a priority of the government in its order of Business or scheduling. The government is expected to table an addendum to the already tabled review document.

The reason is simple, COVID-19 has not only gobbled funds from the fiscus, but has also resulted in a sharp decline in government revenue. The mainstay of the economy is mining, particularly diamonds revenue. These germs are mainly luxury commodities which are prone to international market changes.

Diamonds and other precious goods are seldom needed in large quantities during turbulent times such as these. Those countries that depend on them, such as Botswana, are always at high risk of external shocks. Southern African Customs Union revenue is also likely to decline because of slump in trade.

Tax collection has gone down due to many obvious reasons. Tourism has been shattered. Non-mining sector has also been negatively affected. Therefore, the estimated revenue has declined, necessitating a serious review of the development plan.

Which Bills are likely to be debated in this coming meeting? Two Botswana Defence Force Amendment Bills have been Gazetted; one is Private and the other a government proposal.

The private Bill is proposing to rectify the injustice of not fully paying soldiers who are on indictments or suspensions. The government Bill is a minor amendment relating to the BDF Court Marshall Judge Advocate General position.

Other government Bills include Income Tax Amendment, BURS Amendment, Citizenship Amendment, Legal Practitioners Bill, Environment Assessment Amendment, Financial Reporting Amendment, Accountants Amendment, Citizen Economic Empowerment Bill and a controversial one on Floor Crossing.

More interest will be on the anti-defection Bill and perhaps the citizen economic empowerment proposal. Other Private Bills to be tabled include Police and Prisons Amendment and the Media Practitioners Repeal Bill. Parliament will also debate the following policies; Climate Change, Tourism, National Energy and Minerals.

Whilst there is nothing on COVID-19, MPs are likely to ask questions on the pandemic. So many things come to mind as possibilities of issues likely to be raised. MPs are likely to ask the Ministry of Health, Office of the President and the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development about the whole pandemic fighting strategy.

There may be questions on the capacity and reliability of COVID-19 testing. Questions may be asked on positive cases that quickly become negative and or false alarms cases etcetera.

More focus may be on the budget and procurement. Some controversial tenders are likely to be questioned by MPs. It is expected that given the chance, MPs will likely lament the stoppage of food rations distribution by the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development.

MPs will raise other miscellaneous issues on corona virus related policy decisions. These include the terms of engagement of the COVID Task Force and enlisting of the public relations private persons team from outside the government to help.

There may be questions by MPs on the business dealings of the President and his intention to acquire a government ranch, Banyana Farm. Clarity may be vehemently sought on these issues. Corruption related issues may be on the agenda of Private Business. So many issues have been reported; direct appointment of the 100KM NSC water pipe tender and other controversies may crop up.

There may be clarification required from the ministry responsible for international relations on the implications of the engagement of an Advocate working for Afri-Forum white supremacist organisation. The consequent and seeming tension between South Africa and Botswana will probably be on the agenda of MPs.

Recently the country has experienced serious fuel shortages. It is likely that parliament will raise issues on this matter and get the Minister to explain further.

Whilst this issue has been all over the media with clarifications offered by the Minister and the Permanent Secretary, parliament is likely to engage on the matter to get assurances into the record.

Answers will be demanded on the exact cause of the shortage, policy failures to predict the crisis and to avert it as well as the way forward.

Power issues have also irked MPs, particularly the recent tariff increases and recent threats to increase them even. All is definitely not well at Botswana Power Corporation, so MPs are probably going to probe these matters further.  It is clear that there is a lot that Parliament will deal with.

The disheartening fact to note is that most of the Government Business will be expected, by the executive, to pass through parliament rather than be passed by it. There is condescension for free and adequate debate as well as ostensible intolerance of alternative views from the backbench and the opposition by the frontbench.

The ruling party caucus will discuss all these matters and once explained fully by technocrats, the expectation will be for MPs to swiftly rubberstamp executive ideas without raising controversial issues or simply reasoning on the floor.

There will be no time to reason! There is likely to be limited time allocation, in terms of minutes allocated to individual MPs per debate, on all these matters aforementioned. The Speakership, which traditionally is the gatekeeper of the executive, is likely to fully cooperate and not protect the MPs against the executive wrath.

The executive will reason that five weeks is too short and that all business must be dispensed with before time elapses. Whilst the backbench will be unhappy with these decisions, there’s nothing it will do, it is numerically weak in the caucus.

The opposition will face the whole ruling party bench and be defeated in their protest for adequate debate time. That’s just how things work in Botswana parliament. The legislature is a governing tool of the executive; it is used to pass through policies, laws and budgets for the ruling party’s own political ends.

It is not an independent institution which can hold the executive accountable effectively. If Bills or policies are not completed and there’s about week remaining, everything could be squeezed into that one last week. It has happened before; the House can pass many Bills in one sitting, even if it means staying up until late night or wee hours of the morning.

There are private motions which if not withdrawn and replaced with new ones, may not address topical issues that arose as a result of or during COVID-19. These are motions which may seek accountability of the government on corona virus related policies.

One of the likely motions is the motion touted by one of the opposition parties; motion of no confidence on the government. If this motion comes on urgency, it may die on arrival.

The ruling party MPs will be under strict instructions to kill it the moment a question is put on whether the agenda should be changed to allow a debate on it.

The only way it can be debated is if it comes in through the normal process. Even that way there is no guarantee; the ruling party MPs may stay outside to kill the quorum like they do with motions they don’t want debated.

They may also debate it and unleash their ‘attack dogs’ and put their views across before defeating it. Other motions which may be tabled include COVID-19 related motions. Expectations of the general public should be managed; the next meeting may be the usual ruling party show to do as they please.

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