Monday, October 25, 2021

Should UDC MPs be threatening BDP leaders with jail?

Americans cringed with shock when then Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump said that if he won he would “jail” his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. One too many commentators pointed out that that is not how a democracy works. Trump would beat Clinton in the general election but never acted on his threat. However, the latter is not an issue – the issue is that Trump made such threat in the first place.

That is why it is deeply disturbing that two years before the 2019 general election, some leaders of the Umbrella for Democratic Change are threatening to jail the ruling party elite in the event power changes hands.

First it was UDC president, Duma Boko, who threatened President Ian Khama, Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi and Tati East MP, Guma Moyo, with jail. “We will give them three months to tell all that they did illegally,” Boko said describing one of the first actions of a UDC government. “I told them. I told them that they will tell us all they stole from government and just maybe we will forgive them. But if our investigations find out that there were some things they did not declare, then they will all go to maximum prison.” More pointedly, he mentioned names of suspects: “I know how to take someone to prison without even blinking twice… I have been trained to do so, and I am talking about the likes of Guma, Khama, Masisi and the lot.”

The Selebi Phikwe West MP, Dithapelo Keorapetse, has also identified individuals who will go to jail if UDC takes official power in 2019.

“You will go to jail Honourable Tshekedi Khama, because you are my chief I will come and visit you in jail when power changes. I will [visit] you Honourable Olopeng,” he said in parliament, referring to President Ian Khama’s younger brother and the Minister of Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture Development, Thapelo Olopeng.

Threatening to use the law as a weapon and not as an instrument of justice is tantamount to promise to abuse power of the office. It reflects a way of thinking about governing that is fundamentally at odds with constitutional democracy because it suggests that UDC leaders would have control over the judicial process and its outcome. As president and minister respectively, Boko and Keorapetse would not have legal authority to jail people. Such jailing itself would follow a protracted process that starts with an investigation. If the investigation yields strong evidence, the suspects will be tried in a court of law where they can be either convicted or exonerated. In itself, a conviction is not a guarantee that a culprit will go to jail ÔÇô a judge might decide to hand down a suspended sentence. In making such threats, both Boko and Keorapetse may have divested what might otherwise be an above-board investigatory and judicial process of its credibility. Credible questions have been asked about how Seleka Springs, a company associated with President Khama and one in which his younger brothers are shareholders, won lucrative tenders to supply the army with military weaponry and equipment over a long period of time. Questions as credible have also been asked about why this company knowingly bought out-of-date equipment while getting hundreds of millions of pula from the army. It is now common knowledge that the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime felt there was a strong enough evidence to pass the file relating to the dealings of Seleka Springs with the army to the Directorate on Public Prosecutions. That docket is gathering dust at DPP.

In a post-BDP dispensation, this case will definitely get very high priority but public proclamations of we-will-jail-you will not be helpful. Those being taken to task will say the government is on a witch hunt long proclaimed when some of its leaders were still in the opposition. Facts may prove that there was never a witch hunt but the matter will also be tried in the court of public opinion where perceptions matter as much as facts. Threats of we-will-jail-you are certainly going to create a public relations nightmare for government and UDC spokespeople whose job would entail managing public perceptions about the new government. Experience from around the world is that new governments don’t change everything (especially that which favours them) overnight. In the early days of a UDC government, when cases such as that of Seleka Springs’ relationship with the army will get renewed attention, a lot of powers would still be concentrated in the presidency. That basically means that the president will control the judiciary. Then as now, there will be accusations that judges do the bidding of the president. Past statements about jailing opponents will be referenced and associated with a president, who will control the judiciary.

The other thing to consider is that UDC leaders may be making a promise they may not be able to keep. The peril of a party ruling for a long time is that some of its leaders end up engaging in criminal activity with impunity. In the particular case of the BDP leaders, one cannot rule out the possibility of such crime implicating the death penalty. That is how high the stakes are and some have credibly suggested that the ruling party needs to import voting technology from India to forestall the possibility of a UDC win which might lead to murder trials. There are more than adequate examples from around the Third World of political leaders who lose but refuse to step down until and unless they are given cast-iron assurances that they won’t be prosecuted. It is a deal some wouldn’t necessarily like but is way better than risking armed conflict that results in the deaths of thousands. That is the reality of the Third World – which Botswana is part of. Under the current government, politically Botswana has been so deeply Africanised that such scenario is highly possible. If the outgoing BDP government negotiates a deal in terms of which its leaders will not be prosecuted, Boko and Keorapetse will not be sending anyone to jail.

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