Sunday, July 5, 2020

Judgement on 2015 events reflects how civil service still operated in 2019

It would be very easy to blame former president Ian Khama for the unbridled Third World mess described in a High Court judgement relating to the expulsion of Micus Chimbombi.

As president, Khama introduced a performance super league for ministries and until 2015, the best performer was the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security which Chimbombi was Permanent Secretary of.  By a process of loose extrapolation, one can, on that basis, assert that Chimbombi was the best-performing civil servant. However, in 2015, the Permanent Secretary to the President, Carter Morupisi, and General Counsel at the Office of the President, Abram Keetshabe, were leaning hard on Chimbombi, trying to offload him from the civil service. In a court case that followed, Morupisi stated under oath that he was acting on Khama’s orders.

In pursuit of this goal, Keetshabe showed up one morning at Chimbombi’s workplace with a draft of what was basically the dismissal letter. He requested an urgent meeting at which he proferred advice not as a lawyer but a Christian “brother.” Giving evidence in court, Keetshabe said that Chimbombi was a Christian friend of his and that both of them led prayer teams in church.

“From the Christian perspective, he believed that Chimbombi needed some form of protection, and that was why he went to him,” reads a judgement by Justice Rainer Busang. “He was going there in his capacity as Chimbombi’s praying mate.”

In his judgement, Busang found that “both Keetshabe and Morupisi showed great determination, enthusiasm and desire to have Chimbombi exit the civil service at the earliest opportunity.” The judge frowned upon Keetshabe’s conflation of professional duty with religious beliefs: “During working hours civil servants are expected to discharge their mandate in terms of their contracts of employment. Our religious beliefs are private matters which should not affect our professional responsibilities and cloud how we discharge our professional mandate.”

The fact of the matter though is that a judgement that describes events that happened in 2015 still has a lot of currency in 2019 because the same objectionable conduct happened right across the civil service this year.

In one respect being an extension of the social welfare programme, the Botswana civil service is not meritocratic and it is not surprising that events unfolded the way they did. It was widely expected that upon becoming Vice President in 1998 and president a decade later, Khama would bring Botswana’s labour productivity to the desired level. This optimism overlooked the fact that Khama himself cut his teeth within this same civil service and had thus had no experience of operating within highly efficient workplaces. As president, some of his personnel decisions – like Chimbombi’s dismissal – clearly subverted meritocratic virtue. Chimbombi was PS from 2008, when Khama became president, until September 2015.

“In that period, he received only one letter about the cabinet memorandum he authored, from the former PSP [Eric Molale] in which he said he could have done better,” Busang’s judgement says. “He was never warned that his performance was an issue, despite being reviewed twice a year. Evaluation was done once a year and his ministry scored the highest mark before September 2015.”

Many more civil servants across the civil service can bring cases similar to Chimbombi’s to the High Court and it would be revealed that high performers are routinely punished – often by supervisors who know they don’t qualify to be where they are. Right across the civil service, people who never imagined being in positions of power when getting back test scripts throughout their schooling are now calling the shots.

These and related issues affect labour productivity in the civil service. Interestingly, the culprit could be the man who made Botswana what it became in its glory days – President Sir Ketumile Masire. Under his predecessor, Sir Seretse Khama, Botswana had the most efficient civil service in Africa. That changed in the early 1990s when, according to Professors Mpho Molomo and Brian Mokopakgosi of the University of Botswana, the Botswana Democratic Party began “to reward party activists and supporters by appointing them to positions in the diplomatic and civil service, and the councils, land boards, and tribal administration.” This development would certainly be linked to the fact year in year out, the Global Competitiveness Report scores Botswana’s national labour force the worst in terms of work ethic.

The judgement illuminates the manner in which, against what the constitution says in stark terms, Christianity has commandeered secular, official processes. In the ideal world that Justice Busang describes, “Our religious beliefs are private matters which should not affect our professional responsibilities and cloud how we discharge our professional mandate.” The fact of the matter though is that government facilities have become veritable churches. This largely has to do with the spread of “Fire!” churches and the government’s own contravention of what the constitution prescribes. The separation of church and state remains a mirage because Christianity has been mainstreamed into official processes that should remain free of religion. When it’s not Keetshabe dropping rushing to the Ministry of Agriculture headquarters to proffer non-professional advice to a Christian brother, it is a nurse at a government clinic conducting a worship service at a time that she should be providing medical attention to her captive audience/congregation. Given the rate at which “Fire!” churches are spreading like wildfire, it is likely that some health workers are using patients to practise for future lay pastor gigs at their own churches. What church people don’t seem to realise is that as enshrined in the constitution, freedom of religion entails freedom from religion.

Interestingly, while church membership is going up exponentially, the amount of goodness in society is going in the opposite direction. Busang’s judgement alludes to that: “In my view, Keetshabe’s conduct on the day was unbefitting of both a Christian and a lawyer. Christians are known to have a sense of empathy and compassion; I do not see that in the way Keetshabe approached the matter. He was in my view not motivated by any altruistic considerations; on the contrary he was serving other interests that are best known to himself.” Generally, most Christian believers prioritise observance of liturgy over Jesus-like conduct.

Chimbombi’s judgement should be describing a past that has gone by but tragically, describes a present that loomed large in 2019 and will loom larger in the coming years.

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.