Monday, July 4, 2022

Fears Office of Ombudsman been weakened since Khama saga

The Office of the Ombudsman has said that it has thus far received two high profile cases which it cannot share with members of the public because investigations are still at an infant stage.

The Ombudsman was responding to a questionnaire from Sunday Standard about growing concern that the office has become a public relations exercise; thus it has become irrelevant to members of the public.

In 1999, the then Ombudsman, Lethebe Maine, in what is believed to have been the only high profile case contained in the organisation’s annual report, ruled that it was illegal for the then Vice President Ian Khama to pilot Botswana Defence Force (BDF) planes. This was after the office received a complaint from the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) about Khama.

Fresh allegations have also emerged that since then the office has swept under the carpet some high profile cases brought to it by members of the public and uses a legal exemption contained in clauses within the Act.

Speculation of lack of impartiality was also heightened following President Khama’s appointment of former Director of Public Service Management (DPSM) Festinah Bakwena as the Ombudsman.

Commenting on the matter, an expert in Public Administration and Management, Professor Mogopodi Lekorwe, said Bakwena was appointed at the time when the country was experiencing serious strikes by civil servants and “the incumbent was sitting on the other side”.

“Then all of a sudden this individual has to come to the other side and protect the same individuals— it is difficult to actually buy this. For obvious reasons it may be very difficult in small economies for one to bite the hand that feeds her—so it will always be a challenge for one to be impartial,” said the University of Botswana academic.

Government, he said, is omnipotent and it controls almost everything such that it may block anyone from employing “you should you really expose their maladministration.”

“So all in all I agree that it may be very difficult to be impartial whenever government is violating certain provisions,” he said.

Casting doubt on the effectiveness of the office of the ombudsman, Lekorwe said its effectiveness was questionable due to the powers bestowed in it.

“The ombudsman makes recommendations to the government and it is well known that in our emerging democracies the word recommendation is interpreted literally to say without obligations to take what is recommended. It may not be based on principles and what the intention was,” he further observed.
Lekorwe added: “You can recall the number of complaints that the late Maine used to lay with respect of the powers that he had. Think of the helicopter issue that the opposition made noise about.”

Some observers also believe that the office has a limited mandate; as a result it faces criticisms of being, weak, ineffective, and without the resources to function effectively.

“The whole thing boils down to the powers that the office has. The office must be proactive in terms of influencing government to accept certain standards about the office. It is important that the Act must emphasise shall rather than may—he/she must be given enough powers to prosecute like the South Africa public protector does,” observed Lekorwe.

He said once the ombudsman is given such powers then he or she will be given the due respect and will also need the necessary protection knowing very well what he or she is capable of doing.
“At present they may be doing a good job but it is not known. Full-scale educational campaigns to teach people about the role of the office are critical,” Lekorwe advised.

The ombudsman is appointed by the President in consultation with the leader of the opposition.
“But currently we do not know the level of consultation that takes place. Again consultation may be tricky here. It may mean the president informing the leader of the opposition his intention without any commitment to what he may say,” he said.
Ombudsman’s Public Relation Officer, Fenny Letshwiti, said they have not received any complaint from any political party in the last three years.

“So far we have only received two “high profile” cases which are still at infancy stage and thus not amenable to being shared in view of Section 6 (2) of the Ombudsman Act that provides that “every investigation shall be conducted in private…” he said.

Letshwiti said in the past six months they made two recommendations and the first has been acted upon whilst the second, which is relatively recent, is still awaiting action on the part of the concerned Ministry.

He pointed out that the great majority of complaints are from members of the public service itself and prisoners complaining of delayed preparation and dispatch of case proceedings by the lower courts to courts of appeal and thereby delaying the hearing of their appeals.

According to Letshwiti, the great majority of complaints they received are individual complaints that require resolution and redress but not publicity.

Letshwiti reiterated that the law requires that investigations be conducted in private and to that extent their annual reports always capture selected case summaries that capture the issues, department concerned and the outcome of investigations minus the names of complainants.

“In addition, we equally publish selected cases minus the complainants’ names in the Ombudsman column in the Daily News newspaper weekly,” he said.

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