His Excellency the President Rre M.E.K. Masisi’s maiden State of The Nation Address (SONA) has come and gone leaving behind and conveniently so in my view, other important national matters hanging in the air. From where I stand and given the country’s body politic, SONA wouldn’t be complete for any President without adequately and sufficiently addressing them because they are some of the key indicators to our democracy, The Rule of Law, good governance and so forth. By conveniently ignoring them, the President is somewhat and with the greatest of respect, strangely suggesting I would posit, that they are not so important to him and by extension to the general populace yet they are at the centre of the country’s body politic as mentioned above. One could just speculate as to why these matters are conspicuously and strangely missing in the SONA but I choose not to state what the speculation could be. While the President has mentioned some in passing, he has completely and conveniently ignored some in totality.
These matters are the National Petroleum Fund scandal which has been described by some as the greatest heist of the public purse allegedly by the who is who of this Republic; corruption that appears to be ravaging this country day in and day out; the re-configuration and reformation of State institutions in so far as for example, removing them from the Presidency to avoid unnecessary political interference and manipulation; the issue of Botswana’s standing at the International Labour Organisation following trade union federations complaints thereat. It is acknowledged that the President has put to bed (albeit not out of his volition but the incessant pressure from some in the society) the issue of EVMs as contained in the Electoral (Amendment) Act of 2016. This issue had all the ingredients to plunge our 2019 General Election into political and constitutional crises. The President is in this regard therefore applauded. Let me briefly discuss some matters the President conveniently ignored which I feel were important to have been comprehensively addressed.
The National Petroleum Fund Scandal
Since this scandal broke out about a year ago, government has not come out to give direction on it since it was facilitated in large measure as widely reported in the media by senior politicians, public officers and private individuals. It will be argued that a parliamentary process is addressing it. Fair enough. But parliamentary processes are notoriously and generally known for their perennial and dismal failures to hold particularly senior politicians and senior public officials to account. The Deputy Permanent Secretary involved in the unfolding of this scandal was for example only moved to another ministry where he is comfortably rewarded by public funds. This scandal is reported to involve about P250 million of public money procured under dubious and controversial circumstances. It is important to note that a service to the public (procurement of fuel and other related products) which these funds were supposed to facilitate has been jeopardised where other funds for other deserving public duty elsewhere were diverted. With this background, it was expected of the President to have updated the nation on this matter firstly owing to public interest it has generated and secondly to dispel the perception that government is not according the matter the urgency it deserves and by extension shielding those implicated. The implications of this scandal tell us that: it is so easy as it probably has been the case in the past to access and siphon public funds under false pretenses for personal benefits; that processes and procedures to access public funds as in this instance are so lax that chances of recurrence are very high; that access to such funds may have been facilitated at the highest levels of government, resulting into some state capture of some sort. Nevertheless, he conveniently chose not to address the matter in his SONA speech.
Botswana’s developmental agenda and specifically the infrastructural component thereto, has been brought to its knees by largely and amongst others, rampant corruption which some refer to as being institutionalised. I am aware that I cannot vouch for this authoritatively because I do not have evidence. But whatever the case, I am convinced that the Palapye Glass factory; the Morupule B project failures; the North South Carrier project and such other multi-billion projects have largely failed due to corruption, abuse of office and maladministration. In the process, expected benefits to the nation chiefly in the form of creating sustainable jobs that would reasonably address poverty and other socio-economic related issues were lost. Put differently, Batswana have lost value for money in the overall developmental agenda in the name of corruption. While it is acknowledged that a Bill on Declaration of Assets and Liabilities is ready for presentation to parliament, I can’t wait to see if it will be what the doctor ordered or whether it will be a cosmetic Bill to only scratch the corruption surface. Bear in mind that the President’s political party has ferociously resisted this Bill as far back as over two decades ago when Mme Joy Phumaphi first presented it to Parliament. The President conveniently chose not to take Batswana into his confidence on the corruption issue.
Corruption grows and manifests itself when institutions established to detect and combat it are themselves constrained in one respect or the other when legislation thereto is itself challenged. The Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) has shown overtime that it is unable to take the big fish of corruption head on because the current legislation makes it easy to be ‘micro managed’ by the President as the appointing authority of its Director General. Take for example the case of the immediate past Director General of the DIS that has long being investigated but is yet to go to court. It is reasonable to conclude that political influence and manipulation has been at play to disable the law from taking its course. Forget the tired argument that the DCEC is independent because nothing suggests it.
The President may have, in my view and like his predecessors, diagnosed the ailments of Botswana but has failed to provide the correct cure by not addressing the cause which in this instance is corruption. I am arguing that much as the President may have re-emphasised not once or twice but many times the importance of making business easier for job creation, these and other initiatives he told us in his SONA speech will be a pipe dream when corruption is still reigning supreme with no desire from him to tackle it head on. As long as the DCEC in particular and other institutions in general remain largely configured as they have been for time immemorial, Botswana will remain stuck in the first gear with prospects of accelerating into higher gears for higher speeds unachievable. The point I am making is that because corruption has from the President’s SONA speech remained no priority, all else in that speech and however good they may be will fall flat as long as fighting corruption is more rhetoric than practical.
If you were to conduct a poll on whether the President adequately addressed the BCL conundrum or not in his SONA speech, I bet my last Pula that an overwhelming response would be in the negative. At paragraph 218 of his speech, the President says “Mister Speaker, BCL mine is under final liquidation….Liquidation is a judicial process which takes time. However, I am happy to indicate that Government has set-up a technical committee to work with the liquidator to enable it to have technical input especially in mining matters….” Particularly to those who were directly and personally affected by the mine closure and the direct impact such closure had on the broader economy, the President could not have addressed this matter in a four sentence paragraph because there have been conflicting and contradictory statements from Government on the matter. For example, there were reports from Government in the recent past that the mine will be re-opened with no clear cut details thereto. There are calls from former mine employees for example that they have not been paid some or all their due terminal benefits and other relevant matters pertaining to their former employer. Presumably responding to a comment from a Member of Parliament, the President suggested that the responsible Minister will provide further details on BCL. One should reasonably conclude that the President was somewhat passing the buck because as the Head of State the buck stops firmly at his door step. In the context of the SONA platform, the President had a duty to comprehensively address this matter with the same vigour and intent he showed in other matters he so addressed.
Parliament serious failure to hold executive accountable
The President has been the Leader of the House during his tenure as the Vice President. During that period, he oversaw a lot of Bills passing into law most, if not all of them, ‘served’ a narrow political agenda than the national agenda. The Presidents’ amended retirement and pension Act is one such example where such law created a perception that it was meant to serve the interests of former President Ian Khama. One is not oblivious to the reality that party interests are also served in Parliament. It becomes problematic however when these narrow party interests override the national interests to a point where the executive runs roughshod over Parliament. At paragraph 258, the President praises government institutions listed thereat by saying “….Efforts from these institutions have gone a long way in ensuring that public resources are managed prudently….” But there is ample evidence even to the blind Mr President that public resources in the literal and practical senses are not prudently managed as demonstrated by the National Petroleum Fund scandal, runaway Corruption, serious failures in Morupule B and Palapye glass factory projects to name but a few. Perennial revelations of bad financial management by various ministries at the Public Accounts Committee and state-owned enterprises at the Parliamentary Committee on Statutory Bodies and Enterprises all but confirm that Parliament is seriously constrained in ensuring that public resources are prudently managed. Consequently, a lot of public funds to better the lives of Batswana are always authorised by Parliament which in turn fails to effectively ensure that such funds are accounted for and that consequent management kicks in where and when failure to account is established.
While it is fair on one hand to give the President the benefit of the doubt in how he delivers on his SONA speech, it is equally worth mentioning and emphasising on the other that without the above topics in place, it will be difficult if not impossible to notice a significant shift from the norm. As long as corruption in particular remains some rhetorical subject unaccompanied by serious and demonstrable intent to combat it, whatever initiatives meant to drive the development agenda to improve the lives of Batswana will be ‘so near yet so far’. Without addressing the issues I have raised in this conversation, the true state of this nation is seriously incomplete and misleading. Parliament must stop from being an extension of the ruling party by effectively holding the executive to account with consequent management the order of the day; State institutions must be reformed from being the creators of strong men and women to being strong institutions that ensure the rule of law. Anything less is answered by the saying: ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. As a politician facing a general election in about a year’s time, one would have expected the President to have maximally used the SONA as an opportune campaign platform. Owing to his failure to address issues I am raising, he has in my view lost the golden opportunity to convince the undecided voter who has become smart, complex and hard to convince. Or, has he? Judge for Yourself! Send your comments to: