Friday, September 30, 2022

What if Festinah Bakwena was as “useful” as Thuli Madonsela?

A recent constitutional court case in neighbouring South Africa has motivated this commentary. The same case has brought back the debate amongst among our people on the roles and powers of our own ombudsman. 

For the sake of those who have not followed up the issue, a constitutional court in neighbouring South Africa on Thursday 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 center and a helipad ÔÇö were necessary to ensure his safety and that the cost should be borne by taxpayers.

However On Thursday, 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, a sizeable number of Batswana were closely following the issue. They debated about it even before South Africa’s chief justice read out the verdict late this past week. This made us 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.  To be frank, very few Batswana seem know what the job of the Ombudsman is. Atleast our ombudsman. That’s a sad reality. 

Another sad reality is that whilst we continue to applaud both the office of the South African ombudsman and that country’s constitution that gives it powers, it is very hard for us to do the same about its counterpart here. We wish could say something positive about this respectful office but nothing come to head on the tip of fingers. This is solely because the office is too quiet for anyone’s liking. 

For instance while the contents of our Auditor General’s report make news headlines every year when it’s released, the same cannot be said about Festinah Bakwena’s office. As far as we are concerned, for all the reports that have been presented before the National Assembly over the past few years, none of the issues raised by the ombudsman have been debated thoroughly. 

Recently our Members of Parliament took turns to argue and expose how “toothless” the Ombudsman is as they said it is unable to use its powers to hold top government officials accountable. But is it really powerful or it is just a toothless dog? Only the public and tax payers can answear that question. Officially, the Ombudsman’s job, put broadly, is to protect the public against abuse of office by public officers. This surely should entail abuse of public finances. Where is the office of the ombudsman when the Botswana Railways board fails to deliver an efficient passenger train? Are we ever going to witness any case that has been initiated by Festinah Bakwena’s office or maybe the public has no grievances? 

Or maybe Festinah Bakwena’s silence is caused by the fact that in our country the Office of the Ombudsman investigatory powers are highly restricted. As it stands, the Ombudsman does not have jurisdiction over matters certified by President or Ministers which affect relations and dealings of government of Botswana and other governments or any international organization.

It is also quite clear 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 only serves as a ventilator in a grievance ridden public service. At the same time, it seems to us that the office is forever careful not to annoy the powers that be, who, by the way, are not only the appointing authority but also paymaster. (Who would bite a hand that feeds them anyway?) 

The #Bottom-line 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. Maybe our legislatures should help and make it even more powerful….change of appointing authority maybe?



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