Thursday, July 16, 2020

Parliament is dead. Long live civil service

You know you are listening to a very powerful man if, when asked what he thinks of a parliament decision, he simply turns up his nose and sticks up his index finger.
Nico Czypionka, a P160 000 00 a month economic consultant based at The Office of the President, may be a foreigner, but he does not shy away from telling Botswana parliamentarians exactly where to get off. A respected economist who headed the august Business and Economic Advisory Council, (BEAC) comprising leading business figures, senior government officials and Bank of Botswana Governor Linah Mohohlo, recently shocked a lot of Batswana and irked members of parliament when he went on Gabz FM dismissing a motion by parliament seeking to stop the privatisation of Air Botswana.

But to Botswana-corridors-of-power watchers the script was all too familiar. A few years ago, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, Serwalo Tumelo, went on the national radio station to rubbish a report that had been put together by a Parliament watchdog ÔÇô the Public Account Committee (PAC), chaired by Member of Parliament for Mmadinare, Ponatshego Kedikilwe. In the interview, which was aired during the morning prime time, Tumelo was firing from all cylinders and Kedikilwe had the worst of it.

Welcome to the new Botswana that has been stood on its head ÔÇôCivil servants can stick up their index fingers at members of parliament throw out parliament motions and can even ignore a national budget that has been approved by parliament and construct a new one that suits their whims.

Former Botswana Defence Force Commander, Matshwenyego Fisher, two years ago found himself without money to pay officers’ salaries because the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning officials had thrown out the national budget which had been approved by Parliament and unilaterally put together an alternative budget which they forced on other ministries.

A report of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which was released last year, details how ministry of finance officials unilaterally de-constructed the 2003/2004 national budget after it had been approved by parliament and “went through painful process in constructing” a new one in a bid to dodge a budget deficit.

One of the strategies employed by ministry officials, to force a budget surplus, involved short-changing old age pensioners, Botswana Defence Force officers and other government departments out of part of their budget allocations which had been approved by Parliament. To reconcile the allocations made by parliament with their own parallel national budget, Ministry of Finance and Development Planning officers issued withdrawal warrant deducting money from a number of heads of expenditure which had already been approved by parliament. A total of P27 million was withdrawn from the BDF budget allocation for personal emoluments. Although this showed under expenditure on the projected national budget outturn, it resulted in an over expenditure of the BDF allocation.
The PAC report states, “The Botswana Defence Force overspent on personal emoluments as a result of budget cut and the withdrawal of funds on this item. Other ministries experienced the same problem of over expenditure as a result.

“The other example of a standing and unavoidable budgetary contractual obligation that was tempered with is the P154, 020,000.00 that was requested for the Old Age Pension Scheme, where only P147,2228,240.00 was allocated leaving a shortfall of P6 791 760.00 which has been withdrawn by the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning.”

The PAC complained that the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning had unfettered power to alter a budget that has been approved by parliament without having to consult parliament first. “The provision may need to be looked at again in order to appreciate the increasing role of other partners in the governing process. If parliament approves and passes financial provision that the executive warrants to ministries, exigencies that require withdrawal later during the fiscal year, therefore, waving parliament approved allocation must be a concern for parliament as well. Standard of good governance should accommodate a situation where guidelines on waving the approved budget must be fully accounted for to the Parliament Finance and Estimates Committee.”

For a long time, they have been called many things ÔÇô “lazy”, “unproductive”, “lacking in ambition” but civil servants are now packing quite a punch in the corridors of power, thanks to the power struggle between the executive and the legislature. You only have to look at the headlines on the newsstands to see that there is a systematic attempt to beef up the executive and nuke the legislature and indications are that this has shifted the balance of power in favour of civil servants. Each time a government official spits at parliament you can be sure there is a cabinet minister behind him. When Tumelo started cutting back at budgets that had been approved by parliament, he pointed out that his decision had been sanctioned by cabinet.

And when Czypionka stuck up his finger at parliamentarians, the Minister of Works and Transport, Lesego Motsumi, joined the fray on his side.

Prominent attorney, Dick Bayford, recently wrote that, “the Republic’s democracy is entering a scary phase and we all have cause to be alarmed. The executive wing of government (comprising Cabinet Ministers and the President) is prepared to unashamedly spurn Parliament. If this precedent is not arrested as a matter of urgency, we could well, in future, witness instances where the executive flagrantly defies judicial pronouncements ÔÇô an emergence of the unitary state and a total relapse into the dark ages.”

Bayford further stated that “in a parliamentary democracy parliament is representative of the public and its members are chosen at the pleasure of the voting public. The rationale behind the doctrine of separation of powers hinges, in part on this. If the government is really bent on continuing with the negotiations for Air Botswana privatization, despite parliament disapproval, not only would it be flouting its policy, but also the will of the people.”
The government, however, seems determined to weaken the legislature and beef up the executive.

For example, the ruling Botswana Democratic Party is mulling over recommendations to amend the party constitution to transfer power from party structures to the president. In what fits in with the emerging pattern of the attempt to sterilize parliament, three outspoken Members of Parliament of the ruling BDP (Botswana Democratic Party) will on Monday appear before select Central Committee members of the party in what is seen as the first step towards silencing them.

The three MPs – Boyce Sebetela of Palapye, Duke Lefhoko of Shoshong and Keletso Rakhudu of Gaborone North, have lately expressed misgivings on a number of government policies.

These, among others, included the half-heartedness with which government is implementing the citizen economic empowerment.

Lefhoko even tabled a motion before parliament on the subject which received overwhelming support from the nation at large.

On the other hand, Boyce Sebetela has since last year been tabling weekly questions in parliament demanding the executive to spell out how their various ministries and departments have been handling their procurement budgets vis-à-vis favouring citizen companies.

The three have also been part of an increasingly vocal ruling party bench that has questioned a number of policy decisions taken by cabinet including the privatization of Air Botswana.
The standoff between these outspoken MPs has lately grown so virulent and untidy with President Festus Mogae comparing some of them to “un-castrated young goats.”
In a number of public appearances, Mogae singled some of them for trying to blackmail him and his cabinet.

The President went as far as to warn that it could be time a disciplinary code is invoked against them as they were flouting the very rules and policies as contained in the party manifesto they used to campaign to get into parliament.

Popular thinking inside the BDP is that their summons before the Central Committee is the first step towards compiling a dossier which will be used against them in the build up towards primary elections due next year.

Under the new rules, the party leadership enjoys the power to vet out those members considered not to be toeing the official line.

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