While called lawmakers, Botswana MPs don’t in actual fact make laws but merely rubberstamp them. In what is shaping up to be the most acrimonious parliament in Botswana’s history, those in the Opposition Bench complain about a biased speakership that limits their freedom of speech.
In a dispensation where MPs rubberstamp laws made by the executive and feel that they don’t get to speak as freely as they would want, parliamentary questions should at least give them some leverage over the executive. However, Gabane-Mankgodi MP, Pius Mokgware, is unhappy with the manner in which ministers answer questions. The parliamentary system works this way: MPs give advance notice of questions they want to ask ministers in parliament; the questions are forwarded to the relevant ministries and the questions crafted by relevant staff; subsequent to that, the minister reads the written answer in parliament; and, where they feel there are information gaps, MPs ask supplementary questions.
As the winter session closes, Mokgware has officialised great displeasure about the way ministers answer questions. He raised this concern on a day that Ministers’ Question Time featured the Minister of Lands and Housing, Prince Maele and the Minister of Agriculture, Patrick Ralotsia in that order.
“Every time we receive all sorts of answers which are sort of general,” Mokgware said addressing himself to the Deputy Speaker, Kagiso Molatlhegi. “It is almost like the answer which was given by the Minister of Lands and Housing. They do not answer the specific questions and I was tempted to say something to you because I am not comfortable with the answer which was given by the Minister of Lands and Housing in Question Two. Does it matter if we bring the same question again so that they can answer them, because the answer is not satisfactory just like the other one which was given by the Honourable Minister of Lands and Housing? I know that you are looking at the timing yourself.”
The last statement referred to the time limit (45 minutes) imposed on Question Time.
Indeed the answers that the ministers give are not always helpful and some are clearly evasive – with very good reason. Received wisdom is that Botswana’s High Commissioner to India, Lesego Motsumi, lost her ministerial post after she answered a supplementary question about a company associated with President Ian Khama family the “wrong” way. In some instances when ministers have given false answers and called out on it, they have gone back to parliament to correct the record. The latter is usually followed by a “Minister So-and-so misled parliament” newspaper headline.
With an educated class of educated opposition MPs, the 11th Parliament presents a peculiar problem for ministers. Gaborone North MP, Haskins Nkaigwa, had asked Ralotsia whether the government was happy with the return on investment on the Integrated Support Programme for Arable Agriculture Development (ISPAAD). The minister’s response that “the return on investment by this programme is positive” prompted the Gaborone Bonnington South MP, Ndaba Gaolathe, to ask one highly sophisticated finance question: “I would like to know exactly what you mean by that. What exactly is the return in terms of internal rate of return and net present value? You said it is positive. I would like to know what you mean by it being positive.”
Ralotsia restated what he said in his answer about the total crop production in 2013/14 shooting from 55 000 tonnes to 396 000 tonnes but later revealed that he didn’t have all the information that would enable him to answer Gaolathe’s question. To that the MP posed: “How then do you make the claim that the return is positive when you are not aware of what the actual returns are in terms of the different matrix available to measure return on investment?”