Thursday, February 9, 2023

The Ombudsman remains a toothless bulldog

Although the office of the Ombudsman is mandated to promote adherence to best administrative practices through public sector compliance, with rules and procedures, it only serves as a ventilator in a grievance ridden public service.

Without any power to enforce or ensure compliance with its recommendations or sufficient resources to act beyond its present limitations, the office of the Ombudsman has been reduced to a toothless bulldog.

The Office’s annual report, released early this year attests to that.
To confirm this, the Ombudsman, Ofentse Lepodise, laments in his latest report, which spans 2006-2007, to parliament that the National Assembly would be enjoined to pick up issues raised by reports for discussion and come up with relevant conclusions.

“It is notable, however, that for all the reports that have been laid before the National Assembly since the inception of the Ombudsman, none of the issues raised have been debated.”

Lepodise said that this is worrisome because once a report has been ‘laid’ before parliament, the Ombudsman has no further role to play in connection with any matter so raised.

Thus, he can only feature when called upon to make clarification in relation to any matter which may be the subject of discussion, adding that, at any rate, that is an indispensable standard of international practice.

Trouble, according to the Ombudsman, is manifest in section 9 (2) of the Act, which establishes the Ombudsman, and provides that he shall lay his report before the National Assembly.

It is not specifically elaborated as to what the National Assembly would then do after receiving the Ombudsman’s report.

“However, the fact that the report must be laid before the National Assembly necessarily implies that the Ombudsman is a messenger of the National Assembly,” submitted Lepodise.

When asked, if as a result of the absence of feedback from parliament, the Ombudsman remained a toothless bull dog, the office of the practice official choose to play in words.

“Statistics generated from cases that have come through this office indicate general public sector co-operation with the Ombudsman, albeit at a slow rate, which is typical of Government administrative machinery,” read the response.

So, ‘it is only slowness of response as opposed to lack of it,’ which is a cause for our concern.

Yet the real source of frustration for the Ombudsman could not be hidden for long.

“… Since the Ombudsman is the creation of the legislature, it would only be logical that reports of the Ombudsman should attract attention and debate by National Assembly on a regular basis,” highlighted Lepodise in response to our questionnaire.

Against that background, a recommendation made to the effect that a Parliamentary Select Committee, which would determine when and how the reports of the Ombudsman would be debated once they are tabled before parliament, be established.

“This is necessary because once the Ombudsman has laid his report before the National Assembly, his hands are tied, … and has no further role to play,” continued the response.

A typical indicator of the situation the Ombudsman finds themselves predicated in, is cited by a book called, Transparency, Accountability and Corruption in Botswana, by UB Democracy Project (2008), involving a case in which a member of the opposition Botswana Congress Party, (BCP) in 2000 lodged a complaint “regarding irregularities” by then Vice President, now head of State Lieutenant General Ian Khama.

Khama was accused of improper use of public officers and piloting of the Botswana Defense Force (BDF).
The authors lamented that it took the office of the President 26 months to respond to the Ombudsman’s recommendations, which had been filed April 2001.
“This is despite the provision in the Ombudsman’s Act for action within a reasonable time, failing which the Ombudsman can file a special report with the National Assembly,” the authors argued.

Strikingly though, when he got to responding, then President Festus Mogae could only attack the findings of the report and rejected its recommendations.

Apparently, refusal to accept the recommendations of the Ombudsman’s report by the highest office in the land means they cannot be implemented. Thus, the effectiveness of the Ombudsman as an oversight institution remains to be seen.


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