Thursday, December 2, 2021

On a moral scale, Botswana’s corruption is at its historic worst

One very important point that former president Sir Ketumile Masire was keen to stress during a post-interview chat with the writer was that corruption has always been part of indigenous society. Even before independence, he asserted, dikgosi were the main purveyors of this dark art. And indeed, history is replete with more than enough examples of dikgosi doing what, at least by today’s standards, qualifies as corruption. Post-independence, the corruption continues in a different context, under a new (political) type of leadership and often involves those leaders themselves.

Doubtless the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) is doing what best it can to fight corruption but on a moral scale, the one that we are currently witnessing is the worst ever. That Transparency International has no measure for morality (being written or unwritten rules that society uses to determine good behaviour) is of no consequence because the index that the international watchdog uses has been badly mis-calibrated. For instance, when foreigners engage in corrupt practices (like when some employed by the Department of Lands illegally allocated huge chunks of land to other foreigners in the late 1990s and early 2000s), such corruption is attributed to the country where such corruption occurs and not where the culprits come from.

While Botswana has always had corruption and while it is possible that corruption of the past could be larger in scale, such corruption has never ever happened under dire life-and-death circumstances.

As the rest of the world, Botswana is battling a wily enemy in the form of a virus (COVID-19) that has claimed millions of lives around the world and is poised to claim even more. Parallel to the emergence of COVID variants has been the emergence of a new variant of COVID-related corruption in Botswana. The purveyors of this corruption know full well that lack of funds can frustrate effort to acquire vital medical supplies and save lives. They do. However, that has not stopped them from engaging in immoral conduct that occasions such shortage and has obviously lead to COVID-related death. Some will counter-argue that that is the basic nature of corruption at any time period. That is true but we are dealing with a historic medical emergency – that is what makes the current situation unique.

COVID corruption reared its ugly head in the early days of the pandemic. For very understandable reasons, public procurement law allows the direct appointment of suppliers and it is understandable why such provision would be invoked in a medical emergency. However, when companies owned by certain individuals are the only ones that are directly appointed, something is seriously wrong. Direct appointment is very expensive and this happens at a time that, in the words of the song, money is too tight to mention. One particular advantage of competitive bidding is that it keeps prices down but if you don’t have to compete with anyone, you can just pluck an astronomical figure out of the air because you don’t have to compete with anyone on price. All in all, direct appointment has always been abused; the current medical emergency has provided cover to abuse it even further.

The early days of the pandemic was also when a panicked government imposed a national lockdown and undertook to provide households with food rations to last the entire of the lockdown. The whole scheme was badly mistaken because it didn’t differentiate between people who were making a killing from direct appointments and the desperately needy. Along the way, it was alleged that some councillors and social workers were immorally procuring food while some households went without for days on end. Obviously, this corruption happens all the time but the difference this time was that people could possibly die because they had been prohibited from venturing outside to hustle for food.

At least according to freedom-square rhetoric, the current administration is supposed to be righting the wrongs of the past. However, it is ironic that COVID-19 procurement has echoes of the economic stimulus package (ESP) that was introduced during the administration of President Ian Khama. Most problematic about ESP was that through it, the Office of the President usurped the powers and responsibilities of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (which disburses public funds) and the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Board (which adjudicates tenders). Then Leader of the Opposition and Gaborone Bonnington North MP, Duma Boko, described ESP as a “grand scheme to loot” the national treasury. Minutes of a closed-door meeting between the Botswana Corruption Curbing Task Force and leaders of the country’s construction industry revealed perceptions inside the construction industry that ESP was designed to essentially institutionalise and legitimise corruption.

OP is once more both MFED and PPADB as it serves as the staging ground for battle against COVID-19. Questions are being asked about OP’s exercise of these extra dual roles and some have used the word “corruption” to describe what is happening with public funds. With the level of control it exercises over parliament, OP has been able to easily shoot down a parliamentary motion that called for an audit of COVID-19 tenders. The dramatic highpoint over COVID-19 funds has been a cabinet reshuffle that evidently targetted the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Dr. Thapelo Matsheka. The latter is said to have suggested routine audit of COVID-19 expenditure. It has become clear that such expenditure deprioritizes purchase of the COVID-19 vaccine because if it did, Botswana would be far, far ahead with its national immunization programme. The delay in getting the vaccine and other essential medical supplies – for which corruption has been mentioned as a factor – has resulted in the loss of life.

It is likely that a lot more money was looted from ESP than from COVID-19 funds but there is a very important moral distinction: the ESP misadventure didn’t happen during a medical emergency and nobody died as a direct result of the looting. Unlike the ESP phase, the current circumstances should effect compassion but it would seem that some people seem to have decided that since Vision 2036 doesn’t require them to be compassionate – like Vision 2016 did, then it is okay to engage in homicidal greed.

Perhaps the most immoral dimension of the chaos we are witnessing has been a secret plan to single out Asians, designate them a deceptive label (“VIPs”) and vaccinate them ahead of everybody else at a special vaccination site purposefully left out from the published list of other such sites. That a few real VIPs from others races were sprinkled in seems to have been a ploy to disguise the real motivation for setting up this site in the first place. Meanwhile the poor are dying because COVID-19 affects them the most and statistically, there are no poor Asians in Botswana.

President Masisi is said to have personally inspected the VIP vaccination site but didn’t do so with all other sites. The irony of it all is that it was the same Masisi who complained about acidic racial talk that targetted Asians in a national address that he gave during the 2020 national lockdown. The special treatment given Asians at a special vaccination site has certainly revived such talk.

Botswana will probably get position two in the 2022 Transparency International Index but a historically high number of people would have died as a direct result of the moral bankruptcy that is currently playing itself out. 

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