Monday, June 5, 2023

Parliament bouncer finally starts work after idling for 49 years

Having been mostly ceremonial for the past 49 years, the parliamentary post of sergeant-of-arms took on its bare-knuckled, medieval character this past Monday when the Botswana National Assembly experienced its very first Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) moment.

For the first time ever, a member of parliament was forcibly removed from the chamber on orders of the Deputy Speaker, Kagiso Molatlhegi. Nothing about the first day of the current session of parliament suggested there would be an EFF moment but that happened when Molatlhegi got into a protracted verbal joust with Umbrella for Democratic Change MPs over an urgent motion on the current water and power crisis. The most heated was with Gaborone Central MP, Dr. Phenyo Butale, who at one point, thrice told the Speaker that the ruling he had made to disallow an urgent debate on the motion was “misguided.”

This fruitless back-and-forth reached a point where Molatlhegi ordered Butale to leave the chamber but the latter would not budge. The dramatic high point of this stand-off came when the speaker ordered the sergeant-at-arms to “please usher Dr. Phenyo Butale out of the house.” The MP would still not budge, prompting a ruling party adversary across the floor to call out to those doing the ushering: “Lift him up.” The result was the sensational, unBotswana incident immortalised in press photographs of an honourable member of parliament being dragged out of the chamber by security guards kicking and screaming.

Francistown South MP, Wynter Mmolotsi, was the first to be ordered out and he complied with no incident. The motion was debated the following day and while Molatlhegi had earlier told MPs that the Butale incident would be discussed at a closed-door meetings for MPs (General Assembly as it is called), Mmolotsi was chomping at the bit. Immediately after the motion was debated (and defeated), he alerted the Speaker to the fact that the opposition bench was very uncomfortable about the presence of a certain police officer who wanted to “choke” UDC MPs the previous day.

“He is still around. Mr. Speaker, we feel very uncomfortable when we see him walking around. We want you to explain whether this police officer has powers and a right to enter the chamber when he is not part of the parliament security. Parliament has its own security officers. We also want to know whom he wants to choke,” said Mmolotsi, referring to the incident as “yesterday’s trauma”.

Molatlhegi reminded the MP of a meeting earlier that day at which it was resolved that the matter would be discussed at the General Assembly on Thursday.

“That is the agreement we have and that is the agreement I am going to hold on to,” he said.

Mmolotsi understood that agreement differently and replied that “I thought we made a compromise this morning that in the interim while we are still waiting to go to the General Assembly, the police officer concerned should not be allowed here until such a time that we have discussed this matter comprehensively, because when we see him we don’t feel comfortable.”

The Speaker closed debate on the issue but Butale rose to recommend that the house deal with the issue as yesterday’s “public spectacle” had “really generated a lot of interest.” The MP was ordered to resume his seat, with Molatlhegi explaining that all issues relating to the incident in question ÔÇô “including whether the Botswana Police is allowed inside this Chamber or not” – would be discussed at the General Assembly. Rising on a point of order, Mmolotsi said that if the Speaker wanted UDC MPs to feel comfortable, then he had to explain whether the police officer in question could enter the chamber during deliberations.

“Otherwise we will not feel comfortable,” the MP said.

The debate ended promptly when Molatlhegi ordered Mmolotsi out of the house.

“I don’t want a repeat of yesterday. Pack up your things and leave,” said the Speaker.

Once more, Mmolotsi complied with no incident. Sunday Standard learns that the Monday incident was indeed discussed at the General Assembly where both warring parties reached a truce, undertaking to foster a harmonious working relationship. That notwithstanding, Butale is said to have stood his ground, insisting that he was right and Molatlhegi was wrong.

The position of sergeant-at-arms goes back to 11th century England when its bearer a personal attendant (bodyguard) of the king, mostly responsible for arresting those suspected of treason. The British House of Commons (on which the Botswana parliament is modeled) had its first sergeant-at-arms around 1415. The sergeant’s formal role is “to keep order during meetings, and, if necessary, forcibly remove any members who are overly rowdy or disruptive.” A sergeant-at-arms may be a retired soldier, police officer, or other official with experience in security.

Why an MP has to be forcibly removed from a deliberative body tells the broader, less commonly known history of parliament. Contrary to the use of words like “honourable house” and “honourable member”, the House of Common started as a battleground – literally. An MP calling a colleague across the floor “Honourable” is the equivalent of anybody else calling their enemy “friend” – as in “My friend, don’t call me your friend, my friend. I’m not your friend, my friend.” Around the time that sergeant-at-arms were introduced to the House of Commons, the red lines in front of the government and opposition benches served a practical purpose – to prevent either side attacking the other during a debate. The benches were two-sword lengths apart, more than the distance a man can reach with a sword. This rule was made because members were allowed to carry weapons into the house in its founding days. As a nod to legislative customs of a former colonial master, the Botswana parliament has a white line that separates the government and opposition benches which MPs are not allowed to cross during debates.

South Africa’s EFF routinely gets into spats with the Speaker and in at least one occasion, there has been a fist fight between its MPs and security officers called in to forcibly remove the former.


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