Thursday, July 18, 2024

The danger of private declarations to the president

As a country we need to question the wisdom of secret declarations. What we hear currently is that these are done privately, some would prefer the term secretively, somewhere, between the president and a ruling party legislator. It is this arrangement that needs to be interrogated since in my view it is intrinsically flawed. Private deals are riddled with multiple pitfalls. A democracy like ours must be put under pressure to grow and develop. Citizens must continuously be open to the idea of refining their system of delivering a modern democratic system without immediately jumping to political point scoring. One of the ways of doing this is certainly through the declaration of assets, liabilities and incomes by those in parliament, in particular, ministers. This is a corruption preventative measure which works in the interest of both the MP and public property. We must accept that a minister holds much government property and information in trust of the public and makes decisions for and on behalf of the people of Botswana. He is privy to all sorts of information of tenders and planned developments that he can position himself, his family and friends strategically to benefit endlessly from tenders and beneficiaries of tenders. Because of the power that he wields, he is most likely to be a target of bribery and corrupt practice ÔÇô a case in point is the tale of Minister Mfa and a suit, a size small. Go tsampiwa ke sutu go a tlontlolola! It is therefore imperative that ministers declare their assets, liabilities and incomes for at least two reasons. First, many people who make it to parliament already have considerable wealth before becoming MPs. It is important that no one in the future accuses them of having acquired such wealth unfairly through their newly found positions. A declaration of assets will therefore shield MPs from unfair accusations, especially in this country mo lefufa le peperetlang. Second, a declaration is critical to protect the public from the natural human condition of perpetually sliding towards decay and not towards holiness. Left to himself, man becomes one sordid Lord of the flies in need of redemption. Corruption creeps in, nepotism comes naturally, and amassing wealth through crooked means becomes second nature. This can happen to any of us without exception. That is why checks and balances are necessary. That is exactly why I am for a total declaration of asserts by parliamentarians. To reject a declaration of assets and liabilities is to insult the public and to imply that those who are opposed have something to hide, which of course may be true. There are many people who are opposed to the declaration of asserts who are not corrupt but who have huge amounts of wealth which they wish to keep concealed. Some have farms which collectively are bigger than the state of Swaziland. They may have indeed acquired some of these legitimately, but they know that such rapaciousness is sickening. That is why I believe in the declaration of assets. I here use the term declaration in one of the OED senses to mean “A proclamation or public statement as embodied in a document, instrument, or public act.”

I believe such a declaration must be public and not private. Private declarations, however well intended, do not inspire public confidence. They suggest that one has something to be ashamed of or has something to hide. Second, unless it is in the public domain, how are we to know that such a declaration has been done? This is the same point which has been made by Ghana’s Centre for Democratic Development previously, which argued that the public in Ghana “continues to live with a public office holders’ asset disclosure regime that is inaccessible and non-verifiable thereby lacking in credibility.” Like the Ghana situation private declaration to the president lacks credibility since it is not open to public scrutiny. Such claimed declarations may be inaccurate or may have not happen at all.

For me, however the issue is not so much the private declaration of assets or their lack. The matter, for me, is that of conflict of interest. Conflict of interest here does not presuppose corruption, but presupposes that corruption is probable. So, whether a minister has declared his assets and liabilities to the president or not to me is immaterial. The issue is whether there has been a conflict of interest. Take a situation where a minister declares his assets and liabilities to the president and then moves to offer tenders to his brother’s company. His declaration of assets hasn’t insulated him from a conflict of interest situation. Therefore focus should be on conflict of interest and not private declarations.

A declaration of assets which is done privately with the president means little since the president doesn’t sit on tender boards and doesn’t pass such declarations to tender boards before they award tenders. How are tender boards to know if there is conflict of interest when such information is locked somewhere in a presidential file? Additionally, there is a possibility, regardless of how slim it is, that a sitting president may knowingly allow a conflict of interest environment to flourish. That is why arguments of whether Mr. So and so declared to the president rarely means little. What must be determined is whether there has been conflict of interest.

It is surprising that while this country has led many African states in matters of democracy and governance, it is the sticky issue of declaration of assets and liabilities which diminishes our international standing. I may be naive, perhaps one or two declarations of asserts cannot tarnish our image.

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