Saturday, July 4, 2020

Senior civil servants still feel more powerful than ministers

When he left the civil service to join politics, Chapson Butale would have made a good impression on President Sir Ketumile Masire because he soon appointed him to cabinet. However, years later and when Masire had been replaced by Festus Mogae, Butale, who had been a rising star under Masire and was associated with a powerful group called “The Big 5”, had returned to the backbench.

To everybody else, this was a result of Mogae not having enough confidence in Butale to entrust him the various and complicated responsibilities of ministerial office. However, as Butale himself explained during a parliamentary debate in the early 2000s, his demotion was a result of sabotage by senior civil servants at the Ministry of Health – as it then was. As a matter of fact, he actually claimed that these civil servants had actually told him to his face that they had the power to demote him to the backbenches.This background is useful for reflecting on what the former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness, Solomon Sekwakwa, said in an interview with Sunday Standard last week.

Alongside his Deputy Permanent Secretary, Dr. Morrison Sinvula, Sekwakwa was fired from the civil service in a manner that was evidently designed to humiliate him because the Office of the President released a statement that his contract had been terminated. What normally happens is that senior officers are either transferred out or quietly fired.Prior to this firing, there had been an as unusual a development. The Director of Health Services, Dr. Malaki Tshipiyagae, had, in exercise of his statutory powers, publicly announced the enforcement of mandatory self-quarantine of all arriving travellers from affected countries for a period of 14 consecutive days at their places of residence. Sekwakwa has revealed to Sunday Standard that not only did Tshipiyagae not consult him as the administrative head of the ministry, he also didn’t notify the ministry’s political head – the Minister of Health and Wellness, Dr. Lemogang Kwape. Upon learning about the impending lockdown, Kwape instructed Sekwakwa to reverse Tshipiyagae’s order.

At least as described by Sekwakwa, Tshipiyagae’s actions give one pause: a director can issue a historic order without consulting either his immediate supervisor or the minister. That Kwape didn’t know about the order is circumstantial evidence that President Mokgweetsi Masisi would also not have not known about the order because it is the former who updates the latter about all developments at the ministry. In a situation in which a nation of 2.4 million was about to be legally required to comply with historic health regulations – two elected public officials, who are accountable to members of the public, were kept in the dark about the quarantine order by someone who is not. Yet, it was elected public officials that the public would have sought answers from.How could something like this happen? The answer lies not in focussing on this episode but on how the Government Enclave operates. 

It would be easy to focus on this episode and cast aspersions on Tshipiyagae but decades after he has retired, the office he currently holds would operate no differently. If, in the late 1990s, a health minister (Butale) was vulnerable to demotion precisely because of the intrigue that was happening in the ministry, the current minister can also suffer the same fate.Part of the answer for why this is happening, which is provided by a long-serving and now-retired civil servant, requires a spotlight on a period of time that predates both Butale and Kwape. At independence in 1966, the upper echelons of the civil service were almost entirely lily-white and British and the cabinet was almost entirely indigenous and black. The former, some of whom were university graduates, were technocrats with deep knowledge of a how a civil service is run while the latter were mostly ordinary Batswana with no university education and no real knowledge of how a western-style government is run.

Knowledge is power and this relationship dynamic automatically conferred a lot of power on white civil servants. There would also have been a racial element to this power because Bechuanaland Protectorate was blatantly racist.The cumulative effect of this situation was that white civil servants came to have more actual power than ministers – who basically relied on these civil servants to discharge their duties. When it suited their purpose, the civil servants would reportedly either withhold information from ministers or just mislead them. Beyond the racial element, these civil servants also came from a society with a rigid class system. The net effect was that race, position and class created a chasm between the white civil servants and their black juniors. Meanwhile, a localization whirlwind was underway and by the late 1990s, most senior positions were occupied by indigenous people.“The very first thing most of them did was begin replicating the behaviours they had observed in the white civil servants,” says the retiree source. “They wanted to wield as much power as they had observed white civil servants wield over ministers.

They basically wanted to run the show, with ministers as mere spectators.”He cites an example of something that happens one too many times: ministers passing false information to parliament and when found out, retracting it.“Whom do you think gives them that false information in the first place?” poses the source before answering the question himself. “The same civil servants but it’s important to realise that this anomaly is not attributable to individuals but an entrenched culture in the civil service. All in all, the power relations at the Government Enclave have not changed from what they were 40 or 50 years ago.”

In illuminating petty aspects of how the present reflects the past, a still-serving civil servant says that most senior civil servants make no effort to maintain cordial social relations with their juniors.“Some of them don’t even greet you back when you encounter them and greet them out of respect and in observance of indigenous culture,” she says. “You guys don’t know who some of these people are and how they behave behind closed doors. If you see them acting like normal people, it’s just for show.”She adds that there is a long-running practice of senior civil servants, notably permanent secretaries, inducting pliable ministers into this sub-culture, with the result that the latter end up being carbon copies of the former. One manifestation of such sub-culture relates to the use of passenger lifts at the ministries’ headquarters. Common sense says that in a country where power supply is unreliable, where resources are scarce and where, at least at a rhetorical level, punctuality is important, there should be nothing wrong with sharing a lift.

There is no memorandum that says that junior officers shouldn’t share lifts with ministers but there is a Government Enclave-wide understanding that doing that is a taboo. So, a lift that could carry eight people carries just one (minister) and the rest have to wait for the next one. As an experience of a senior journalist that replicates the 12th century shows, some of the senior civil servants who become ministers can acquire a demi-god status. This journalist was interviewing a Permanent-Secretary-turned-Minister when there was a knock on the door that was followed by the entrance of a Permanent Secretary holding some official-looking document. The Permanent Secretary, now retired, immediately dropped to his knees, then clapping his hands and murmuring “mong wame” (master) all the way, crawled on his knees to reach the minister and give him the document sign.

The journalist was horrified because he was experiencing a sub-culture that he didn’t know existed; conversely, the minister remained as nonchalant as to suggest that he had witnessed this otherwise scene over and over again. In no way are we vouching for what The Voice reported some time back but the similarity between the latter and what the paper reported are striking. According to the paper, then Ombudsman, Festinah Bakwena, crawled in the exact same manner towards a seated President Ian Khama at the Office of the President. But there is a plot twist. The white senior civil servants, most of them hold-overs of the colonial government and steeped in the Whitehall culture of meritocracy, were so super-efficient that during President Sir Seretse Khama’s administration, Botswana had what was widely regarded as one of the best civil services in Africa. Today, Botswana’s entire labour force is, at least according to successive Global Competitiveness reports, one of the worst in the world. Whereas indigenous civil servants fully embraced all the trappings of power and attitude of their white predecessors, they consciously decided to stiff-arm their work ethic.

Whereas the upper echelons of the entire civil service should be a meeting of minds, some trained at the best universities in the world, all too often it coagulates into a hotbed of perpetually warring cliques. This toxic culture cascades down to the bottom and the result is a dysfunctional civil service which successive Global Competitiveness reports describes in the manner stated.Ultimately, the issue is not what Tshipiyagae did or didn’t do but how the Government Enclave works. On the basis of what Butale revealed in the early 2000s and of the ministry he talked about, it should give one pause that nothing has changed almost two decades later.


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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.