Wednesday, May 27, 2020

New set of MPs took unenforceable oath of office in 2019

The November of every year ending with either 4 or 9 sees a quarrel of self-absorbed bourgeoisie, ruling-party tenderpreneurs, champagne socialists as well as well-meaning but misplaced souls staking legal claim to occupy Parliament for the next five years. On the other end of a hard fought election, 57 winners took the oath of office.  Tragically, some will not always occupy their seats and in some cases, collapse the house’s quorum as a result.

The parliamentary oath is an empty promise – think of this in terms of a heavy-drinking reveller returning from a house-music nightclub at two in the morning and promising to get up early enough to occupy a front-row seat at a Kopong funeral: “I (Semang Mang) do swear that I’ll be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Republic of Botswana and that I’ll preserve, protect and defend the constitution of Botswana as by law established. So help me God.”

Whereas everybody else has a job description that details their responsibilities, MPs don’t and to all intents and purposes, this oath is the only job description they have. For all the solemnity it is invested with, the oath doesn’t actually make sense. What does it mean to bear true allegiance and in practical terms, how do MPs do that? In practical terms, how do MPs preserve, protect and defend the constitution of Botswana, especially when some of them have a tendency of playing hooky? There is certainly no way in the world that you can do all those things when you are halfway across town at a time that parliament is sitting. No less a person than former Maun West MP, Tawana Moremi, has made that same point using a different set of words.

“Madam Speaker, I wanted to caution that the standing order is silent on leaving the house thereby resulting in the collapse of the quorum collapse,” said Tawana, a lawyer by training. “So, it is our democratic right to make the quorum collapse when we feel like it.”

The Speaker, Gladys Kokorwe, neither tackled Tawana on the legality of breaking the quorum nor called upon the Parliamentary Counsel to give his own interpretation of the standing orders. She instead chose to remind Tawana that his words would reach his constituents back in Ngamiland. From a purely legalistic perspective, Tawana had a point and the Speaker doesn’t have any power to keep the quorum intact. Kokorwe spoke about the “pain” of watching “an honourable member leaving the house despite being told that if he or she leaves the quorum collapses.”

More interesting though is that unlike the judicial oath, there are no penalties for failing to do what one promised when they took the parliamentary oath. If you tell lies having sworn to tell the truth, you have perjured yourself in a court of law and you will be punished. Conversely, nowhere in the Commonwealth has an MP been punished for failing to preserve, protect and defend the constitution as by law established. Politics is basically shot through with fraud and such fraud is evident in the gentleman’s agreement between MPs and their voters. The latter vote for the former with the expectation that they will represent their interests in parliament. Put another way, voters hire MPs but this is an unusually employer-employee relationship, not least because voters (especially Botswana’s) don’t supervise MPs. The closest engagement Batswana have with politics is at election time when they have to make hiring decisions. However, they completely disengage with it the minute they leave the polling station. On an almost daily basis when parliament is sitting, the public gallery is empty and very few attend kgotla meetings addressed by MPs. This lack of supervision is one of the main reasons why most MPs underperform.

The case of the former Tati West MP, Guma Moyo, is the starkest illustration of what is asserted here. Making a dubious claim about an attempt on his life that just happened to coincide with revelations of a tax lien, Moyo fled Botswana and missed two meetings. According to the standing orders, an MP can only lose his seat if s/he absents him/herself from parliament for three consecutive meetings. A parliamentary year has three meetings: the first begins in late October when the president gives the state-of-the-nation address and normally lasts eight weeks; the second, which is the longest, begins in February when the finance minister gives the budget speech and lasts about 13 weeks; and the last, which is also the shortest takes place between July and August, lasting six weeks. Moyo missed part of the second meeting and all of the next and last meeting of the Twelve Parliament. Interestingly, as law rubberstampers, MPs have rubberstamped what are essentially stringent workplace rules for everyone. Such laws are enforced by the court system and in the past, the Founding Industrial Court judge, Justice Dawie De Villiers has ruled that employers can fire any employees who “persistently” absented themselves from work. When Moyo persistently absented himself from work, Tati East voters couldn’t fire him and for all the time that he was not around to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of Botswana as by law established, he didn’t suffer any consequences.

There are actually no rules that govern the work of MPs outside parliament. Standing orders impose workplace requirements on MPs only when parliament is in session and give the Speaker supervisory authority over them. As the administrative head of the National Assembly, the Clerk of the National Assembly maintains something akin to an attendance register. However, out in their respective constituencies, MPs are not supervised by anyone – not the Speaker, not the Clerk and certainly not the respective political parties they belong to. As far as the Standing Orders and the constitutions of those parties are concerned, there is no such thing as the Constituency Office because it is not mentioned in those documents.

In the final analysis, there are no formal processes to ensure that MPs are faithful and bear true allegiance to the Republic of Botswana and that they preserve, protect and defend the constitution of Botswana as by law established. God help us all because the parliamentary oath is no different from words on a sheet music.

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Sunday Standard May 24 – 30

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of May 24 - 30, 2020.