Assets declaration Law, whose interests is it serving, politicians or public?

05 Aug 2019

BY VICTOR BAATWENG

The negative effects of corruption on the quality of democratic governance, economic prosperity for all and by extension societal well being are globally recognised, and have been the object of numerous international and national legal interventions.

Botswana is certainly trying to play catch up game on this one given the fact that it is only NOW that Parliament is debating a proposed law on Assets and Liabilities declaration.

It’s so unfortunate that those with powers, decided to bring this rather important law during an elections year - a silly season to debate anything important. But as the English saying goes, “better late than never”

As expected, so far the debate at Parliament has divided the house along political lines. The ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) knows very well that should the law pass, it shall be a box ticked for them. They will go out and use it as a political campaign tool. There is nothing wrong with that, provided the law in question was put up in good faith and was for the benefit of the public. In other words, the nation would have been luckier if this law was done for them not for politicians. There are many reasons why one is tempted to agree with those that say the Bill on Assets declaration, in its current state should be thrown out through the window of Parliament. The law’s PRINCIPAL host/custodian – being the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crimes (DCEC) is not fully independent. It is an organ which operates under or from the Office of the President. The director of the DCEC is appointed by the President. This is not the case in progressive countries. The call by many to have the directors of the DCEC and other vital agencies such as Directorate on Intelligence Security Services (DISS), Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) and the Financial Intelligence Services (FIA) continue to be snubbed by those with powers to do so. Independence of oversight institutions such as DCEC has always been subject of debate in Botswana and will remain so until the status quo changes.

Secondly, in its current administration/organisational structure, the DCEC is not in a position, atleast in our view, where it can spot suspiciously dramatic fluctuations in value of assets declared by the targeted group. By the way timely spotting fluctuations is at the heart of asset declaration systems’ effectiveness. The trick on assets declaration is to have those that the law have listed as required to declare their assets and liabilities do so at the time of assuming office, then on regular basis and most importantly when they are about to exit office. It is essential that whichever agency is given the responsibility to collect data on assets and liabilities of the targeted group does not only collect relevant data but also has the ability to measure the fluctuation of the assets and liabilities over time. The question then becomes whether the DCEC has been capacitated to that end. Put differently, are DCEC officers in a position where they can verify assets and liabilities listed by the targeted group? Verification of the asset information by the anti-corruption agency will allow for identification of any irregularities. We cannot win against corruption if we the agency is not well capacitated to do verifications and regular data updating.

Another reason why we believe in its current format, the law will to serve its purpose relate to its link to the public. The question how easy would it be for the citizens of this country or even potential investors to access lists of assets and liabilities listed by the targeted group? From where we stand, public access, including by the media to the collected asset information plays an important role in fostering transparency and could contribute to trust-building between citizens and the institutions such as DCEC which are set up to serve them. We have been told that those declaring assets will be declaring to certain individuals (not for public consumption?). But then again, in our view, asset declaration that is open to public scrutiny gives room to citizens to cross-examine their leaders (and public office bearers) and ensure that they do not abuse their power (and their privilege to access certain information) for personal gain or favouritism of friends and relatives.

The fourth reason why the proposed law appears to be crap in our eyes is because it is silent on the role that civil society in Botswana can play. Are the drafters of the law saying the civil society cannot exercise a disciplining function and nudge public officials towards living up to their legal obligations?

In as much as we know that mo single law can win against the corrupt, we believe that as we make laws we should make room for civil organisations to be able to hold those in power accountable. The Bill being debated now was one such piece of legislation that we could use to ensure that civil society organisations continue to play a crucial role of increasing transparency and accountability of public institutions to the citizens. Infact, in other progressive countries, civil society organisation continue to exercise a monitoring and control function. This is of particular importance to countries such as ours which for many years now has shunned the idea of solid and independent public oversight bodies.

As pointed above, there are many reasons why in its current format, the assets and liabilities declaration Bill will not immediately work in favour of the public but rather in favour of the ruling party politicians. It is our sincere plea to parliament to consider holding on to the law, amend it to a point where it serves the interests of the public not politician. The #Bottomline is that order for the proposed law to work for us in terms of curbing corruption as well as increasing transparency the custodian institutions need to first be well capacitated and secondly free from executive arm of the government direct control.