Sunday, November 29, 2020

Well done to the ombudsman but……

In April 2016, a constitutional court case in neighbouring South Africa ruled that President Jacob Zuma violated the constitution when he failed to repay government money spent on his private home. For years, Zuma had derided demands that he repay the state for upgrades to his private homestead in Nkandla near Johannesburg. The South African president maintained that the home improvements ÔÇö including a chicken coop, a cattle enclosure, an amphitheater, a swimming pool, a visitor centre and a helipad ÔÇö were necessary to ensure his safety and that the cost should be borne by taxpayers.

However in April 2016, South Africa’s highest court ruled that Zuma had violated the Constitution by refusing to pay back some of the millions of Rands saying he flouted laws meant to safeguard that country’s democracy. 

Judging by social media comments and updates made then, a sizeable number of Batswana closely followed the issue. They debated about it even before South Africa’s chief justice read out the verdict that fateful day. This made one wonder whether these debates was necessitated by the fact that we love South Africa that much or maybe we would want to see similar events in our own soil.  The roots of the said case are actually directly linked to the former good work of the former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela who had compiled a report on her findings regarding Nkandla. Given the allegation against Zuma then, Madonsela then stepped up to protect the public and South African tax payers. This is the same role that our very own ombudsman should be doing or has been hired to do.

To be frank, very few Batswana seem know what the job of the Ombudsman is and how they can use the office to get the best public service. That’s a sad reality. Another sad reality is that whilst we continue to applaud both the office of the South African public protector and that country’s constitution which gives it powers, it is very hard for us to do the same about its counterpart here.

This week however we have heard about the bravery of the relatively new ombudsman, Augustine Makgonatsotlhe. We call it bravery because given the circumstances under which holders of such office are appointed; they generally tend to protect their jobs as opposed to protecting the interest of the public. They would not want to bite the hand that feeds them.

However, in a report released this week, the current ombudsman has indeed been brave enough to shed light with the public on what has been going-on at the national television ÔÇô Botswana Television. In this same report, a response to the complaint by Rev Dr Prince Dibeela against Botswana Television, Makgonatsotlhe ruled that the national broadcaster should immediately take steps to ensure “equitable, inclusive and balanced reporting”.

Just as background of the case, through a letter dated 15 February 2016, Dr Dibeela lodged a complaint against Btv in which he alleged that, although it is a public broadcaster and thus sustained through taxes paid by all citizens, Btv instead serves the interest of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).

Makgonatsotlhe is definitely right to remind the nation that for a democratic country such as Botswana with institutions such as Btv established by law, there is need to clearly spell out their mandates and governance structures. This would certainly go in a long way to ensure that such public institutions are transparent in the discharge of their mandates and functions whilst at the same time accountable to Parliament and by extension to the nation.

Put broadly, the Ombudsman’s job is to protect the public against abuse of office by public officers. As such the decision by Makgonatsotlhe and his office to first accept Dr Dibeela’s complaint, investigate the matter further and ultimately release a report with recommendations is commendable. The good act of the week will end the general notion that although the office of the Ombudsman is mandated to promote adherence to best administrative practices through public sector compliance, with rules and procedures, it has only been serving as a ventilator in a grievance ridden public service.

In the past even Members of Parliament argued and exposed how “toothless” the office of the ombudsman is. Their assertions were made on the ground that the office is unable to use its powers to hold top government officials accountable. Until this week’s report, the office has been very careful not to annoy the powers that be, who, by the way, are not only the appointing authority but also paymaster.

Whilst we congratulate the office of the Ombudsman for this week’s report, in the same breath, we also make a call for the powers that be to ensure that institutions such as this one are strengthened and, more importantly, redefined. Our legislatures should consider helping to make it even more powerful. This could start with a change in its appointing authority. The #Bottom-line though is that 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. 

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Sunday Standard November 29 – 5 December

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of November 29 - 5 December, 2020.