Wednesday, September 23, 2020

What has happened to calls for MPs to declare their interests and assets?

The Directorate on Corruption has charged two men for living beyond their means.

I have no problem with that.
But when I heard about it I could not help but grin that the people who should have been charged first were some of our politicians.

Many of our politicians lead lifestyles that simply defy their known sources of income.

Hence there is a near universal consensus among political watchers that Members of Parliament, right from the President down, have to publicly declare their interests.

Such a declaration would entail stating almost to a stick what sources of income each one of them has and also making public their commercial interests.

Rightly, the thinking among ordinary Batswana is that a failure by our MPs to declare such interests is akin to signing themselves blank cheques.
In Botswana, Members of Parliament are a powerful set of people.

Such power grows when the MP is also an assistant minister or senior Minister.
Hence politicians, their families and friends sprawl almost every business sector in the economy.

Not only do ministers control huge budgets under their ministries, they also have a string of other indirect forms of influence and largesse at their disposal.

People are by their very nature fallible.

And like everyone else, left on their own vices, politicians can very easily become greedy as to be venal and open to bribery.

There is always a real danger that Members of Parliament, especially those who sit in cabinet, could be tempted as to start shuffling some of the public assets into their personal use. That has happened before; here in Botswana and in other countries. In fact, some politicians have served jail sentences as a result.

Declaration of assets is a stop cock that we need to reduce such risks.
In a way, it is an insurance against possible corruption.

Thus, a cogent case therefore exists for MPs to publicly declare their interests.

It’s absolute madness that we like to brag that we have one of the best political systems in the region yet continue to fail to fulfill what is in other jurisdictions looked at as an elementary requirement ÔÇô accountability.

In SA, for example, although the system is not foul proof and has consistently been circumvented, it is mandatory that MPs should declare their assets.

A failure by our MPs to declare their assets is a disgrace, in fact, an enduring blight that has to be corrected on an otherwise impressive, enviable and working democratic set up.
Experience has shown that left on its own democracy is a hollow, even deceptive concept.

It works best when it is supported by levers of checks and balances, oversight, controls and restraints.
Left on its own it can easily be a tool of deceit, employed even by dictators to help them achieve their ends.

Publicly declaring their private interests would naturally curb the politicians’ inner drive for greed.

The winner will, of course, be politics, which is looked down as a vile profession practiced by vultures. But the ultimate victory shall be to the voter.

Some time ago, during Festus Mogae’s tenure as President, it was intimated that a law calling on MPs to declare their assets was imminent.

As Minister of Presidential Affairs, the erudite Phandu Skelemani was tasked with presenting the Bill to Parliament.
Unfortunately, cabinet decided to withdraw the document just as Skelemani was attending a regional security meeting in Zimbabwe.

It is not clear why after creating such a legitimate public expectation, government decided to shelf a law that would have easily become one of their most selfless showpieces.

Despite the setbacks, a way has to be found to resuscitate the law; personally I will not complain even if such a law was to be implemented at half the speed with which the notorious Media Practitioners Act was passed by our parliament.

At the time of shelving the Declaration of Assets law there were musings from the government enclave that cabinet preferred a code of conduct.

We note with dismay that even such a diluted code has still not arrived.
There is nothing particularly wrong with a code of conduct, especially for ministers.

But on its own, a code of conduct can never be a substitute for declaration of assets.

In fact, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Government decision to drop the declaration of assets has left us with a profound sense of suspicion.
There are now more questions than answers.

When DCEC charges two people for living beyond their means, in a way we are all being called to account and declare our sources of income -all of us, except politicians that is.

What is it that they are really hiding?
It is surprising that even the opposition benches are silent on this issue.

In fact, apart from a burning desire to increase their salaries and perks, a rejection of a law calling on them to declare their interests is one thing that most unites MPs from across the political divide.

What our MPs should understand is that their intransigence against declaring their assets annoys the public. It smacks of corruption.

It’s like our politicians are stalling calls for honesty and integrity.

Coming to think of it, this is one area where opposition MPs should take the lead and claim a higher moral ground.
Opposition MPs should seriously consider declaring their interests even without a statutory instrument requiring them to do so.

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.