Violence erupted on the floor of Parliament on Tuesday afternoon when Mogoditshane MP Sedirwa Kgoroba, in a fit of anger and frustration, threw a water bottle at Deputy Speaker Kagiso Molatlhegi for failing to reprimand BDP MPs who took turns joking about the late UDC leader Gomolemo Motswaledi's death. The ruling party MPs accuse opposition members for what they term growing incidents of unruly behaviour in the House. Leader of the House Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi said in a statement on Wednesday that the Tuesday incident was totally unacceptable behaviour. Security has since been intensified in Parliament. Questions are being raised over the capability of Speaker of the National Assembly-Gladys Kokorwe and her Deputy to control and facilitate debates fairly in the august house, following violent clashes and exchange of unsavoury utterance midweek.
When Kokorwe defeated Margaret Nasha for the position of Speaker in November 2014, some critics dismissed her as just a pawn, who was roped in to serve the ruling party’s interest in Parliament. She, on the other hand, maintained that as a non-partisan position, she had no intention of politicising the Speakership. Kokorwe declared that she is prepared to exercise and take a non-partisan stance in her facilitation of Parliament proceedings. Fast-forward 2016, the current session of Parliament, which only started two weeks ago, will go down in history as one characterised by violence, drama, absenteeism, unruly behaviour and bitter exchange of words by members from across the aisle. There is a lot of finger pointing. While Kokorwe feels MPs are frequently out of order they, especially from the opposition, blame her for the chaos.
Is Kokorwe to blame?
Political commentator Anthony Morima said opposition’s outcry against Kokorwe’s conduct is not misplaced. Morima agrees that from the recent developments in Parliament, the Speaker is biased against the opposition. Morima argues that Kokorwe and her Deputy Kagiso Molatlhegi seem to be hell bent on reprimanding opposition MPs and ignoring the conduct of the ruling party MPs. Morima, a qualified lawyer, said Kokorwe’s recent decision to deny MPs an opportunity to rise on Points of Order and Procedure during question time is an infringement on their rights. According to Morima, Kokorwe erred in her decision not to recognise the office of the Leader of Opposition during Namibian President Dr Hage Geingob's visit to Parliament on Monday. This, he said is not only an embarrassment but was a divisive gesture. “The Leader of Opposition should be respected and it is the Speaker’s duty to make sure of it,” he said.
Morima however do not agree with insinuations that Kokorwe is incompetent to execute her duties, but rather her judgment is clouded by allowing partisan politics to influence her work. He warns that if the Speaker’s actions are not rectified they will reflect negatively on the country’s reputation and even impact negatively on efforts to attract foreign direct investors. “Kokorwe is a competent leader who has proven herself over and over in the past positions of leadership she has held,” he said.
Another analyst, University of Botswana Political Science Lecturer, Professor Zibani Maundeni agrees that in a case where the Speaker is perceived to be prejudiced against one group it is likely to cause instability in the house. He, however, said the connection between an unproductive Parliament and the overall democracy of a country is minimal. According to Prof. Maundeni in such a situation, it is most likely that the prejudiced group would feel that whatever they say and raise in Parliament is ignored and cast aside, hence they will either destabilise the house or choose to withdraw from participation in the house which will in turn lead to an unproductive house. He explained that the marginalisation of the opposition can again give the ruling party a chance to pass bad laws, which will not only disadvantage the house but the nation at large. “The marginalisation of the opposition however should give other groups an opportunity to speak out against government,” he said. But BDP Chief Whip Liekat Kablay is quick to come to the defence of the Speaker. He said the Speaker is fair and executes her duties in the most balanced manner. Kablay said there has been misconduct from members on both sides of the aisle and the Speaker has always exercised her powers to reprimand them irrespective of party affiliation.
Kablay refuted claims by opposition MPs that they are targeted by the Speaker and her deputy and that her conduct is not in line with the Standing Orders and the country’s democratic values. He further dismissed reports that Kokorwe is biased and is only in Parliament to serve the interests of the ruling party. “The Speaker uses Standing Orders to guide her, it is a pity that opposition MPs complain loudest when they are reprimanded for misconduct,” he said, adding that the only way to win when an MP displays unruly behaviour is to expell them. The Opposition Chief Whip Wynter Mmolotsi differs with Kablay. He laments what he terms failure by the Speaker to conduct Parliament proceedings fairly. According to Mmolotsi, usually things mix up in Parliament when the Leader of the House portrays unfavourable conduct and is not fit to lead. The Speaker, he says, is a critical position in any country’s democracy and if not handled in the right manner may end up causing disarray. Kokorwe’s conduct according to Mmolotsi is distasteful and thus should be condemned. Parliament, according to Mmolotsi, is the only place where legislators are at liberty to express their frustrations under full protection of the law and if the speaker denies them this right, chances are that they may vent out their frustrations in different ways. “She is likely to further polarise the already polarised house,” he said. What is further disheartening, according to Mmolotsi, is that the ruling party is using state owned media to portray opposition MPs in bad light knowing that the same gesture will be hardly extended to them.
In her first address of the current (July) session, Kokorwe did not mince words when she ‘read the riot act’ to members of the 10th Parliament. True to her word she has since cracked the whip by suspending two opposition MPs-Dithapelo Keorapetse of Selebi-Phikwe West and Gaborone North's Haskins Nkaigwa, from attending Parliament business for a week. She invoked standing order No. 60. which among others provides for members to be suspended from the house. The two had repeatedly requested to stand on "points of order and procedure". The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) has since filed a lawsuit seeking the courts' intervention in interpreting the powers of the Speaker. Their argument is that Kokorwe is abusing her powers and in the process not only contravening the house ‘standing orders but is also trampling upon their rights too as members'. Keorapetse is also challenging the decision to suspend him, saying the decision was arbitrary and influenced by emotions. Keorapetse maintains that the Speaker is employing tyranny tactics to instil fear among opposition MPs, demoralise them and simply intimidate them into toeing the line.