Reading snippets of information in the local media about the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearings would make one believe that unlike other Parliamentary Committees and other oversight mechanisms, the PAC was not only highly effective but more importantly ruthless and uncompromising. Other publications even went further to highlight the probing abilities of the Chairperson of the Committee and few other dedicated Committee members.
While the line of questioning, confidence and firmness allowed them to exhume some information that is normally denied the public, it is doubtful that such a remarkable exercise or rather the report therefrom is ever taken seriously by the Executive. In the words of Honourable Dithapelo Keorapetse, ‘the Committee asked third degree questions to senior government officials in order to get them to account’ (Mmegi, 12th June 2015). It is one thing to ask tough questions to collate information and produce a detailed, hard-hitting, no holds barred report that is going to gather dust on a shelf and another thing to enforce compliance and action accountability.
Year in, year out Botswana oversight institutions produce thought-provoking quality reports that give the impression that those in charge of the republic cares when the naked truth is that these noble exercises are mere pretences and plain stupefying annual rituals with no effect whatsoever. Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. In 2016, the PAC will again summon accounting officers and ask the same questions and get the same responses they have been getting since day one.
The PAC is a vital tool used by Parliament to oversee government expenditure and ensure that public monies are used wisely. Unfortunately, owing to the deliberate emaciation of state institutions by President Khama’s administration, the PAC has been reduced to becoming a memento whose only role is to criticize hapless accounting officers on certain expenditures without powers to impose sanctions on wayward ministries and departments. In fact, even some of the Committee members who are honest with themselves do not take the Committee seriously to a point where they abscond regularly.
In spite of the commitment and insightfulness of some members of the sacred committee, the PAC lacks meaningful oversight of expenses largely because like Parliament, it can only make noise and issue stray threats. Its lack of actual powers has reduced it to a pet dog thus undermining legislative audit. Most crucially, the PAC lacks institutional capacity with a majority of its members not adequately knowledgeable about financial management. In effect, accountability is a much sought after but very elusive operation.
In fact, a good number of the committee members have been nominated on account of their poor knowledge in public finance management ostensibly to ensure that there is limited probing due to some members’ inability to understand and interpret complex financial statements. This lack of expertise and skills means that the PAC is, to a larger, extent incapacitated, allowing shrewd technocrats room to shift goalposts and manipulate figures in order to give information that may be of interest to the public but without necessarily divulging shocking specifics.
Many of us always tend to believe that the business-minded approach adopted by the PAC mirrors its effectiveness. This is erroneous and some kind of unqualified contentment with the performance of committee members. In the first place, it has to be remembered that Parliament legal powers are suspect. Moreover, Parliament has over the years been reduced to a heaven for lazy sleep walkers who successfully transform into highly distinguished politicians on account of their praise singing skills. Many MPs (especially those from the ruling BDP who prefer to raise their hands to vote against opposition proposals rather bring forth their own proposals) hardly take themselves seriously and therefore do not inspire the tiniest confidence in Parliamentary Committees they sit on. Under the circumstances, it would take the work of a retarded mind to have confidence in committees whose majority of members are chaps who prefer to show up their hands rather than use their brains to debate issues.
Former President Mogae once likened MPs to un-castrated he-goats simply because they desired to be business-minded and subject proposals presented to Parliament to hard scrutiny much against established tradition where MPs were celebrated for providing comic relief to members of the Executive. Thus, President Mogae was taken by surprise by the newly found MPs’ agility when they have always been known to be unimaginative lackeys of superior rank. Ordinarily, if Parliament is an embarrassment of repute, its committees cannot be expected to be any better.
Thus, before Parliamentary Committees could be effective, Parliament itself must grow teeth. At this moment in time, there is no clarity over the powers of Parliament, at least beyond the confines of idealism. Like many worthwhile reports produced by Parliamentary Committees that gather dust on shelves, our Parliament is nothing more than a souvenir shop that only serves to remind us about our fading democratic practice. Thus, the no nonsense approach adopted by the PAC is simply over the top showboating by politicians who are eager to make a name for themselves and enrich their political profiles.
Their aggressive, animated and combat-style probing is mere political grandstanding intended to generate more heat than light and attract favourable attention from an electorate that is desperate for political action. PAC members appear to find contentment in throwing tantrums at defenceless accounting officers while they know full well that the source of the rot is the untouchable Executive. In truth, accounting officers are made scapegoats and used to shield their inept political superiors who hardly care about what goes on at PAC talk shops and tea parties.
This is unwanted emotional blackmail that invariably makes PAC members accomplices to the misuse of public stores and monies by fooling the electorate into believing that the PAC expertly and sufficiently ensures that standard are met and wastage of public resources is kept at a minimum. Ultimately, it would seem that the PAC members’ focus is to attract applause for their uncompromising attitudes at the expense of document examination in ways that evoke feelings of bravado. But again, the inefficiency of the Public Accounts Committee mirrors the state of our republic and is an epitome of everything that is not working well and characterizes misplaced public excitement generated by the tiniest pretence to seriousness and efficiency of government.