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The longer it takes to resolve the issue of the P250 million, the graver the consequences for the public image of the Botswana Democratic Party will be.
About a fortnight ago when parliament debated a request for more funds in the 2018/19 budget, Maun West MP, Tawana Moremi, said that ministers should “stop walking all over us and stealing from us.” That prompted the Francistown South MP, Wynter Mmolotsi, to contrive a point-of-clarification interjection in order that he could ask the rhetorical question of whether Moremi trusted “thieves who can steal so many millions of pula.” The latter rubbed it in with more accusations, adding for good measure, “Le magodu!” meaning “You thieves!”
Naturally, ministers took umbrage at that and the Minister of Mineral Resources, Green Technology and Energy Security, Eric Molale, would bitterly protest that “no one has been caught stealing millions of pula in this house.” Health and Wellness minister, Dr. Alfred Madigele, followed up by expressing concern that Moremi made it clear whom he was referring to by literally pointing an accusing finger at the Government Bench. Resuming this floor, Moremi only stated that he wanted to end his debate on the point about the theft of public funds.
“What?” Kokorwe asked
“Theft”, the MP responded.
“Are you saying they are thieves?” Kokorwe pressed on. “Who is a thief?
The response was that Madigele heard what he said and was the one who could answer that question. “I just mentioned theft in passing,” Moremi added.
Kokorwe deemed the MP’s word highly improper and asked him if he ever caught and prosecuted any thief.
“No but the case is before the court. Isn’t it we don’t talk about matters before court Madam Speaker?” posed Moremi, all the while remaining nonchalant about a matter that ministers were seething about.
The back-and-forth continued awhile with the MP adding that this time around the thieves have been caught, that he couldn’t name them because parliament’s rules prohibit that and that he would produce evidence to back up his claims at a later stage. Kokorwe did finally get him to withdraw his words but he had made his point.
Mmolotsi revisited the issue by using the same strategy this past week when he bluntly stated that “you have stolen huge sums of money” – “you” being the Government Bench. Reacting to a point of order raised by the Minister for Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration, Nonofo Molefhi and in compliance with an order by Kokorwe, Mmolotsi later withdrew his accusation. However, like Moremi, he had made his point.
Moremi himself thought this episode to be too good an opportunity to miss and backed up Mmolotsi.
“Indeed people steal,” the Maun West MP said. “There are thieves here and we know them. They are that side.”
Once more he got into a ritualistic joust with Kokorwe over the inappropriateness of hurtful words that he was lobbying that side. For what it is worth, he brought levity to this particular jousting by saying that he would withdraw his words because he didn’t want to lose his sitting allowance for that day. Mmolotsi was himself not done because on concluding his debate, he stated: “I apologise, I probably generalized when I was talking about thieves. Perhaps we should have said some of you are thieves.”
MPs are immune from prosecution for any and every thing they say in parliament. However, if the Speaker feels that they have overstepped the mark, s/he can order them to withdraw the words they said. The practical effect of this rule (which is antithetical to the Setswana saying that hurtful words can’t be unsaid) is that an MP can intentionally make a libellous statement to make a point, withdraw it on the Speaker’s orders without the slightest hint of sincerity or remorse and suffer no consequences. It is a mean little game parliamentary rules effectively permit and ministers are helpless – or not. In protesting the “provocation” of the opposition pair, the Minister of Nationality, Immigration and Gender Affairs, Dorcas Makgato, warned that she is within a heartbeat of retaliating in like manner.
“Madam Speaker, I am worried and I am unhappy because Honourable Moremi is doing this deliberately to taint us and claim that he has withdrawn,” she said. “If you have been listening to this debate, he is the brave one who pointed at us saying that those are thieves. Others have been talking in not so obvious words saying where is the money?, saying this and that.”
Speaking for herself, the minister said that Madam Speaker, she doesn’t like being provoked.
“We do not want a situation whereby when our children read the Hansard, they read a certain chapter which says that we are thieves. Perhaps they will not even arrive at a portion which says he withdrew. Let us be careful and tread very carefully because we are also capable of describing people by their bad habits. Everyone has his or her own habit here so let us tread very carefully. It is not only theft, there are serious habits that we can mention, so they should not provoke us. I do not want to be provoked,” she fumed.
One can predict with absolute certainty that more opposition MPs will exploit this loophole to dine out on the P250 million scandal in the stated or other forms. The scandal relates to the 250 million that was tricked out of the National Petroleum Fund by the Directorate of Intelligence Services and is now the subject of both an investigation by a Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC) and a criminal case before a Gaborone magistrate court.
With a little over a year left before the 2019 general election, it is certainly not in the interest of the ruling party to be on the wrong side of an issue that a majority of Batswana (a good number of them voters) feel very strongly about. One real likelihood is of the opposition constructing a whole anti-corruption platform to shore up its 2019 electoral bid. These are early days yet and more damaging information could be revealed as the PAC and the magistrate court delve deeper into the matter. For the BDP, the ideal would be to have the matter resolved speedily by identifying the culprits and thereafter undertaking extensive PR effort to disassociate them from the party. However, the reality is that the legal process is necessarily very slow and in this particular case, could well end after the general election. Worse still, the most damaging information could be revealed at the height of the campaign season.