Tuesday, September 29, 2020

“Let us be a nation in dialogue”

The turn of events in the local political landscape in the last two years has proven that Botswana is sliding backwards and becoming a country with a culture of intolerance to alternative and opposing views.

This is clearly a diversion from Setswana proverbs like “Mahoko a kgotla a mantle otlhe” and “mmualebe o a bo a bua la gagwe” which, for many years, have guided national dialogue. There has also been a shift in terms of how we do things amongst┬áthem the execution of alleged criminals without due legal process. Batswana generally live┬áin fear and do not trust each other anymore.
They can’t speak freely over their phones. This scenario is worrying because we should be moving towards making our country more open and democratic.

Last year there was a court case involving a popularly voted secretary general of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and the president of the party and the country. This court case followed some actions of the president which some ruling party central committee members thought were not in line with the party constitution.

To try and reconcile differing opinions in the interpretation of the constitution, the then secretary general of the BDP sort some legal opinions from some three different lawyers on the powers of the president.

This seemed like a right move as it involved getting legal experts to interpret a legal document. The BDP president did not see it this way and consequently the secretary general was suspended from the ruling party which ultimately disqualified him from standing as BDP representative for Gaborone Central.

The matter ended up in court where the final judgement was technical due to immunity of the sitting president. Due to the culture of intolerance and dislike for public discourse in the BDP, the court ruling was an end to the issue which brought about the court case. There was never a determination on the part of the ruling party to appreciate the merits of the secretary general’s concern for divergent interpretation of president’s powers as provided by the constitution.

The perceived ambiguity of presidential powers in the BDP constitution as suggested by the former BDP secretary general still exists. What the court judgement has achieved is deferring the issue and there’s no doubt that it will┬áhaunt the ruling party. In fact it has already started as there is now a breakaway party from the BDP called Botswana Democratic Movement (BMD).┬á┬á

As a nation we need to be speaking to each other and explaining to each other so that everybody can understand our point of view. Surely a judgement that is based on a technicality does not solve a political issue. The right approach is to engage society to have a debate on the issue at hand i.e. how do we manage the situation of presidential immunity without making the president unaccountable and taking the rights of fellow citizens away. We should not substitute debate by taking short cuts and having cheap victories in legal processes.

The Botswana National Front (BNF) position was circulated early this year on the need for a limitation clause within our constitution. This was guided by the concern that absolute presidential immunity has potential for abuse and national interests can be subordinate to personal interest.

Sometime this year there was a motion in parliament on declaration of assets and liabilities by members of parliament, cabinet ministers and other decision makers. Typical of the ruling party and their attitude towards issues they less favour, the motion did not even get to be debated to establish the merits of having such a law. His Honour the Vice President was even quoted in a local publication saying he will not let his privacy be invaded by such a law.

Clearly the vice president missed the point. The law was never meant to establish how much the Vice President, MPs and cabinet ministers earn. It was rather meant to present a watch dog mechanism to ensure that public figures do not use their positions to benefit financially from public money.
The money that is at the disposal of the ruling party is public money held in trust to develop the nation.

When a law is proposed to ensure that MPs and cabinet ministers do not unduly benefit from tax payers’ money, it is important for ruling party MPs and cabinet ministers to be mature and separate their private lives and irritation from a credible motion to achieve accountability and improve issues of corporate governance.

The proposed declaration of assets and liabilities law is meant for public representatives to account to the very same people who give them the mandate to govern and make decisions.
To say the cabinet ministers declare their interests to the president is not enough as long as those interests are not made public. If the BDP as a ruling party cherished the concept of “a nation in dialogue” this motion could have been debated at parliament and various national forums to collect alternative views and establish its merits. It is not right to push a motion out of parliament because it will bring discomfort to some public figures.

It is wrong and makes a mockery of a democratic dispensation if one section of the society influence debates to suit their personal interests. The BNF position is that MPs, Cabinet Ministers, Permanent Secretaries, Heads of Parastatals and other decision makers should declare their interests, assets and liabilities.

For many years now the BNF has been calling for funding of political parties. Every election year election observers make recommendations that the government should introduce political party funding to level the playing field.

The BDP instead of engaging society on debate to establish the intrinsic worth of such a move which is synonymous with progressive democracies dismisses opposition parties as not being creative in fund raising initiatives.

All along the BDP has been giving the nation the impression that they have think tanks and in-house strategies for fund raising. To confirm what we have always said, it transpired sometime this year in a newspaper expose’ that it is not through creativity that the BDP goes into every election with millions of pulas for election campaigns but rather incumbency advantage.

The De Beers Scandal vindicated us. It master minded a succession plan for the ruling party and has not only been funding it, but also bailing out its leaders. Major Companies in the country may have an incentive to finance the ruling party in exchange for an influence on its policy position to their benefit.

It is wrong for the BDP to dismiss a debate on political party funding and ignore the merits thereof because they have the benefit of state resources and are in a bargaining position for donations from companies doing business with government.

Every election year the BDP has an opportunity to elect over 100 of their functionaries into government structures through special election to parliament and councils. Some of the people nominated are those who have been rejected by the voters in the General Elections. 

This provision distorts election outcomes and comes at a massive cost to the tax payer. For many years the opposition, in particular the BNF has called for the abolishment of this provision. The BDP is not interested in views of the section of the society that is opposed to this move because it benefits them financially through monthly contributions made by those nominated. A debate on this is essential to ensure that alternative views are considered.

The BDP has to enable Botswana get into the list of progressive countries by promoting public discourse where society is engaged in debate of issues of national interest. As the BNF we believe that governance and nation building is a collective thing. Election into public office calls for constant engagement with society to stimulate debates that can improve our democracy.

It is wrong for leaders to project themselves as reservoirs of absolute wisdom by imposing their views on the society on national issues and debates. Public figures who have a thin skin to irritation and those who are intolerant to opposing views present a threat to our democracy. It does not help talking democracy when you cannot practise it.

Self-centred approach has no place in our politics as it kills the essence of democracy which is debate and governance of the people by the people.

*Mohwasa is BNF Information and Publicity Secretary

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The Telegraph September 30

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 30, 2020.