Sunday, June 23, 2024

Should students, foreign dignitaries continue to visit parliament?

If the Swiss president, Alain Berset, had visited the Botswana parliament 10 days later, he would have learnt a particular Setswana word (it rhymes with “mallet”) that he wouldn’t have forgotten any time soon. That education would have come courtesy of Ignatius Moswaane, the hell-raising Francistown West MP.

Ahead of his visit to Botswana, Berset posted a message to his official Facebook page in both English and Setswana. The Setswana had certainly been ghost-written by Botswana Ambassador to Switzerland and by now, Berset would have forgotten all of it. On the very day that he arrived, Berset visited parliament and got to observe proceedings of the house. But what if he had visited parliament 10 days later when Moswaane wanted to short-circuit the system for asking parliamentary questions?

MPs are required to give the Speaker and ministers advance notice of questions that they intend to ask in the house. There is practical necessity for this: MPs ask questions that require precise details, which in some cases include names and figures. Staff at respective ministries have to put together that information and package it into a written answer. Parliamentary rules also allow MPs to ask questions without giving such notice but this provision is limiting because it gives the Speaker and ministers a lot of discretion. On the whole, the rules accord the Speaker a lot of discretion and his/her word is final. It is common knowledge that Speakers, all of whom have been members of the ruling party, routinely have abused such discretion, especially when dealing with members of the opposition.

When Moswaane sought to ask a question without notice about the acute shortage of medication at government health facilities, the Acting Speaker, Pono Moatlhodi, disallowed it. In protesting this ruling, Moswaane alleged that two ruling-party councillors who recently died did so because they couldn’t get insulin – suggesting that they were diabetic. Moatlhodi (rightly) ruled this revelation to be out of order. However, Moswaane persisted, getting agitated as he did so. The Speaker responded by switching off the MP’s microphone – which wasn’t altogether successful because his own microphone (which would have been switched on) amplified Moswaane’s voice as he launched a full-throated tirade against the Speaker and his “useless” health minister. Moswaane said that he wasn’t going to back down and invited the Speaker to “do whatever you want to do.” This tirade continued until Moatlhodi instructed that four security guards should “throw him out.”

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