Most Parliamentary Standing and Portfolio Committees have not held meetings besides their elections of Chairpersons since the start of the twelfth-parliament.
No training of MPs on oversight or on Committee works have been held. COVID-19 pandemic can only be partly to blame. The most notable Committee which has sat since 2019 elections is the Finance and Estimates over budget matters.
More serious is the fact that no Committee has held hearings since COVID 19 outbreak to oversee related matters. Behind the scenes, the Leader of Opposition and Chairpersons of Committees, especially from the opposition, have been pushing for Committees to meet.
There have been two contradicting legal interpretations from Parliament legal team over whether Committees could sit or not, the latest being that they can go ahead. The Speaker had, in the last two weeks, given a go ahead for the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to meet.
Parliamentary Committees such the Health Committee, Finance and Estimates, Statutory Bodies and PAC should have been allowed to meet during COVID-19 State of Public Emergency. They didn’t meet because of the negative attitude that the executive has on the oversight mandate of Parliament.
Accountability achieved through these committees is unimportant to the government. It was imperative that when Parliament agreed at its last meeting to amend the COVID-19 Emergency Powers Regulations to permit certain meetings to straightaway begin Committees hearings.
The lockdown restrictions have since been relaxed and there is absolutely no excuse for these Committees not to meet. Moreover, Cabinet has been meeting and even the ruling party Central Committee has met during lockdown. Schools have been reopened and churches are also allowed to meet.
Members of Parliament in oversight Committees were scheduled to be workshopped from the 15th to the 19th June. However, the event was postponed due to last week’s short-lived lockdown and a misinterpretation of the Emergency Regulations on the conduct of Parliament Business.
A virtual workshop has now been organized from around the 22nd. PAC was to start its proceedings from the 23rd but it would appear that its meeting may be delayed by a week or two. PAC has a backlog of two financial years.
According to Standing Order 106, it is the duty of the Finance and Estimates Committee to examine whether the funds are well allocated within the limits of the policy implied in the Estimates and to suggest alternative procedures in order to bring efficiency and prudent management.
This Committee should have examined the allocation of COVID-19 budget so as to understand how much was needed and for what purpose. It could have scrutinized envisaged procurements.
The Committee is known to have occasionally met on emergencies and did its work swiftly, for instance during supplementary Estimates proposals. So, the excuse of the need for expedited decisions during COVID-19 cannot hold. Decisions could have still been made quickly with the Committee involved.
The pitfalls of Botswana’s parliament have been extensively discussed. It is in a nominally democratic country such as this where weighty health issues can be dealt without a slightest input of the Health Committee. This Committee should have been the eyes and ears of the Public on COVID-19 policy matters.
There are so many unanswered questions, slip-ups, ambiguities, falsehoods and procrastinations by the COVID-19 task force. The task force has lost integrity, public trust and confidence and has somewhat become a joke. The mendaciousness of its members is told in part by the body language of the Director of Health Services and the equivocation of the leader of the team.
The COVID-19 committee only tells the nations what it wants them to hear. It only properly accounts to the executive, it would seem. Its recommended policy decisions and legislation, e.g. for the regulations, should have been first examined by the Health Committee.
It is the Health Committee which should have subpoenaed Gaborone Private Hospital, Ministry of Health and the COVID-19 Task Force to account for the false alarm which resulted in the greater Gaborone being on lockdown for a few days. The Health Committee should have investigated the scandalous issue of the nurse who triggered all Members of Parliament to be quarantined for 14 days.
What really happened on these two matters remains a mystery. Batswana have little idea on what is available and not available regarding COVI-19 health materials; the extend of the country’s capacity is unknown. Do we have enough test kits? Are there rapid test kits, if not why and what are the merits and demerits of having them? What is our public health and private health capacities?
The absence of the Committee sittings has resulted in rise to speculations, rumors and innuendoes. The Health Committee was supposed to clarify all these matters. There is nothing that should be secretive about COVID-19.
The pandemic management can’t be a preserve of the Executive. That is not what the framers of the Constitution and other Botswana laws such as the Standing Orders had imagined.
There are ordinary parastatals and State-Owned Enterprises which remained active during COVID-19 lockdown. University of Botswana (UB), especially its Faculties of Science and Engineering and School of Medicine, Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST), Water Utilities Corporation (WUC), Botswana Power Corporation (BPC) and a few others remained open.
BPC and WUC did so because of their importance to the day-to-day life. BPC increased its tariffs by 22% during lockdown and load shedding has become a new normal. Crucial and controversial water projects decisions have been taken during the State of Emergency.
In fact, a project previously rejected by Parliament is back on track through a direct appointment. It should have been the responsibility of the Statutory Bodies Committee to gather all the facts and inform Parliament and Batswana about these matters.
The other reason why it was and is still important for Committees to meet is that Parliament has not met for a long while. In other words, there has been no Private Members motion on COVID-19 related matters or a question or theme or Bill.
So, health policy decisions, procurement and other related matters were dealt with entirely by the executive, which only called Parliament twice to rubberstamp their decisions. Committees should have provided oversight and clarified matters. The continuous errors and fumbling of the COVID-19 task force should have been dealt with and more accountability achieved through Parliamentary Committees.
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.
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.