Wesbank

Shortcomings of Botswana's democracy 

SHARE   |   Thursday, 21 December 2017   |   By Ditiro Motlhabane 
Shortcomings of Botswana's democracy 

Five years after setting out to analyse Botswana's parliamentary democracy, a team of academics mainly from University of Botswana finally delivered a book last month, which provides comprehensive examination of democracy in Botswana. The researchers are quick to justify the delay, with one of the editors of the book Professor David Sebudubudu explaining that they had a difficult time securing a publisher and later had to shelf the project to accommodate outcomes of 2014 general elections.The book, which comes in four parts, offers a thorough and path-breaking analysis of critical aspects of Botswana's unique democracy. It also provides a conclusion and possible lessons to be gleaned from the country's experience of a sustained multi-party democracy. In a chapter where they assess "Shortcomings of Parliamentary Democracy in Botswana", academics Professor Mpho Molomo and Dithapelo Keorapetse, conclude that a number of institutional reforms are necessary to ensure that Parliament is robust and effective in its functions, law-making processes and oversight of the Executive. "To enhance its effectiveness and responsiveness, a concerted attempt should be made to ensure that the proceedings of Parliament and all committees are open to the public. This decision should not be made by the chairperson of the particular committee alone," they suggest. 

Independence of Parliament 

In terms of structure and process, Botswana Parliament is a department in the Ministry of State President while the office of the President is the bastion of Executive power.  Parliament neither has the power to appoint its own staff nor to set their terms and conditions of service. In terms of its operational autonomy, Parliament needs to have its own staff and a separate structure from that of the civil service. In strict adherence to the principle of separation of powers, the Speaker, as the head of Parliament, should be responsible for the promotion and transfer of its staff. The latitude of Parliament to initiate and draw its own budget is an indication of its independence from the Executive branch of Government.  The independence of Parliament in Botswana has been a moot question, when it is expected to asset independence and jealously guard the separation of powers, especially between Legislature and the Executive. Because of the Executive-Legislature interface, numerous motions debated and passed by Parliament failed to see the light of day when the Executive ignored or refused to act on them. Examples include the 1988 motion calling for the independence of Parliament and another in 2004 pursuing the same objective; others include motions on floor crossing and declaration of assets.   Freedom of speech is inherent attribute in a parliamentary democracy, hence parliamentarians enjoy immunity from prosecution or other proceedings for the votes they cast, statements made in Parliament and acts carried out as part of their parliamentary function. However, in an unprecedented fashion, the then MP for Tonota South Pono Moatlhodi, was strongly rebuked and withdrawn as a BDP candidate for his constituency for a statement he made on the floor of parliament complaining that the civil service is being militarised. Former MP for Gaborone South Botsalo Ntuane was also reprimanded and forced to withdraw his statement after criticising the Government's anti-alcohol campaign, which he said threatened to turn Botswana into a fundamentalist state. Other party stalwarts who were brought before the BDP disciplinary committee for utterances they made when debating a motion of abolishing specially elected councillors include Ponatshego Kedikilwe, Daniel Kwelagobe and Kavis Kario. Such intolerance by the ruling party extends even outside Parliament where the likes of Kabo Morwaeng, Gomolemo Motswaledi and numerous others drew a heavy wrath and were rebuked for indiscipline after they challenged some decisions in the party.  

Role of opposition 

The biggest challenge in Botswana is that the BDP has been in power since independence in 1966, and the opposition has not been able to dislodge it from office. The political landscape of Botswana is that of a predominant party system, which is promoted by the First Past The Post electoral system and by a weak opposition. Opposition party MPs have to hold the BDP Government accountable for its actions through probing questions to ministers and by tabling robust motions. Although Botswana is one of the oldest serving democracies in Africa, it has yet to pass the democratic consolidation test by having a double alternation of power. Although opposition parties contested 2014 general elections as a united front under the banner of UDC, they still remain fragmented, divided and polarised. Democracy thrives, among other things, on competition and circulation of political elite. If the political elite stays in power for a long time, it tends to become complacent and arrogant as in the case of Botswana. Democracy is inherently about choice and alternatives. Ideally, the opposition should contribute to the process of policy formulation by constructively criticising positions tabled by the ruling party. Therefore, opposition have a duty to offer the electorate alternative policies to those of the incumbent government. In other jurisdictions, the opposition, which is perceived as a government in waiting must also have a shadow cabinet and should promise better delivery compared to the incumbent. By offering alternative policies, they assist in expanding and deepening frontiers of democracy. Paradoxically, in a predominant party system, such as that of Botswana, the role of the opposition is often circumscribed and limited by numbers. The numerical strength of the ruling party, despite opposition MPs being vocal, always overshadows them when it comes to voting in the House. The BDP dominance of Parliament means that Parliament has resisted persistent calls by the opposition to bring about electoral reforms such as direct election of the President and to abolish automatic succession by the vice President when the office of the president falls vacant for any reason. 

Intelligence services

The paradox of intelligence services in any democracy is that their efficiency and effectiveness are underpinned by secrecy and confidentiality. If information is publicised before action can be taken on it, the success of intelligence operations is likely to be compromised. Such considerations are at cross-purposes to established democratic norms of public accountability, transparency and openness. Secrecy under the cloak of national security has been used to undermine parliamentary oversight of security budgets and procurement. However, the imperative need for oversight and transparency does not mean being oblivious to issues of national security that cannot be discussed in public.  "Such concern about national security should be extended to security agencies as an exception rather than as the norm, and therefore, no institution funded by public funds should be treated as if it is above the law. When that happens, corruption is likely to set in," Prof Molomo and Keorapetse observe. Further, the political analysts conclude that the biggest problem Botswana faces in terms of oversight of security agencies is the lack of a national security policy which is overarching, and which defines and harmonises the various security agencies. Moreover, they caution that there is a need to instil a sense of professionalism in security and intelligence structures and personnel, to ensure that they do not overstep their mandate and jurisdiction. "The political context in Botswana underscores the need for a judicious balance between secrecy and accountability to promote democratic governance. What is significant in any oversight process, especially with respect to security and intelligence bodies, is that there must be a balance between security needs and individual liberties. In addition, the law should clearly define sensitive and classified information that requires secrecy," the duo declares.