Following the Afghanistan debacle, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson recalled parliament for an emergency sitting on August 18. This happened when our own parliament was also sitting but the contrast in the conduct of proceedings couldn’t have been starker.
Even where they disagreed strongly, British MPs used civil language, referred to each with proper official titles, stayed on topic, avoided playfulness of any sort, didn’t interrupt each other or perform extended punchline-less stand-up comedy routines at the expense of debating important issues and, never once did anyone nitpick minor missteps by opponents by persistently raising procedural points. It was a meeting of adults and professionals who understood that they had to make productive use of the limited time they had to discuss an issue of national importance. Naturally, these attributes enhanced the quality of the debate.
That was the direct opposite of what was happening on the same day and about the same time in a parliament modelled on the House of Commons – our very own Botswana parliament. On an almost daily basis, the Botswana parliament has shameful moments and the culprits are to be found on both sides. Not too long ago, the Mahalapye East MP, Yandani Boko got into a verbal spat with the Minister of Youth Empowerment, Sports and Culture Development and Mogoditshane MP, Tumiso Rakgare.
“O bua eng wena?” Boko blurted out at Rakgare while the latter still held the virtual floor, meaning “What are you talking about?”
In the next breath, Rakgare was trying to caution Boko against using disrespectful language against the elderly and even-tempered Assistant Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, Kgotla Autlwetse. At this point Boko asked of Rakgare in an angry voice: “Are you the class monitor?” The verbal spat ended prematurely (when the combatants’ microphones were remotely switched off on the instructions of the Speaker) but not before Boko could be heard accusing Rakgare of “insulting my parents.” The Assistant Minister of Health and Wellness and Boteti East MP, Sethomo Lelatisitswe, expressed dismay at the scene that had just unfolded by stating that “I have never seen anything like this.”
By far the worst miscreancy would have been when, at the start of a special session called to discuss COVID-19 pandemic last year, some MPs interrupted the Coordinator of the Presidential Covid-19 Taskforce, Dr. Kereng Masupu and the Director of Health Services, Dr. Malaki Tshipayagae. “Some” is an important qualifier to use when describing this issue because there are MPs, who may actually be in the majority, whose conduct is always mature and responsible.
Both the Chief Whip, Liakat Kablay and the Opposition Whip, Motsamai Motsamai, have expressed disquiet about the misconduct of some MPs in their respective benches.
“This issue is very worrisome,” said Kablay, citing as examples of such worrisome conduct, the trading of insults on the chamber floor and fixating on minor issues of parliamentary procedure at the expense of debating real issues. “A small thing like a point of order can be nitpicked over for more than two hours.”
The Letlhakane-Lephepe MP said that the process of making laws requires sober and mature conduct by those undertaking such process and that the level of hostility, disinterest in official business and excessive playfulness was dispiriting to watch.
“Some ministers engage in this misconduct,” he adds. “They use cellphones when they are live on air and you can actually hear them speaking on their cellphones while debates are in progress.”
Next to being personally worried about the misconduct of his colleagues, Kablay says that he has received telephone calls from members of the public, some of them his constituents, who are as worried.
“People, especially those in rural areas, still cherish values like restraint and respect for others and are horrified by what they are seeing on TV.”
The Chief Whip says that he has tabled the issue at the Botswana Democratic Party parliamentary caucus. The message was: people are watching you and expect better from MPs of a ruling party. For what it is worth, Kablay says that having impressed the need for decorous conduct on BP MPs at a caucus meeting, he expects them to behave more appropriately in the next session of parliament.
Likewise, Motsamai says that the conduct of some of his colleagues in the Opposition Bench, who “behave like children”, is cause for grave concern.
“As the Opposition Whip, I am very worried about this conduct, which occurs on a daily basis,” says the Gantsi South MP, adding that there are instances when he has attempted to help the Speaker restore order but adds that even he gets overwhelmed sometimes. “At the end of the day, the undesirable conduct lowers the dignity of the house.”
Motsamai is particularly concerned about the shouting matches, the excessive playfulness and general disorderly conduct.
“You are the second person to raise that issue with me and I know many more people outside the house are concerned about what they are seeing on TV,” he said.
However, Motsamai feels that there are instances when it is proper for MPs to raise a ruckus. That would be when the Speaker or the BDP seek to muzzle opposition MPs for expressing genuine concern about issues that affect the welfare of their constituents. He cites an example of the Government Bench wanting to debate a bill on tobacco when the Opposition Bench felt debating Covid-related issues was more urgent. Motsamai says that in such instances, MPs are well within their rights to literally raise their voices and be disruptive because it is part of their responsibility “fight” for the rights of their constituents.
While the BDP caucus has discussed this matter as Kablay reveals, Motsamai says that he plans to table it at the opposition’s own caucus because of the urgency it has gained.
The physical violence witnessed in some parliaments may not be too far off. In the last parliament, the Mogoditshane MP, Sedirwa Kgoroba, threw a water-filled bottle at the Deputy Speaker and Gaborone South MP, Kagiso Molatlhegi. Owing to Covid-19, parliamentary debates happen virtually and Kablay says that this has helped keep peace because in the physical realm, some altercations might have turned physical.
But why is all this happening? Kablay says that live broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings may have been motivation for some MPs to play to the gallery.
“Politicians like praise and some are trying get such praise by engaging in the sort of antics that you see in parliament. On the basis of such antics, they also get to boast outside the house to members of the public about how powerful they are because they can attack anybody, including the president.”