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Our Parliamentary independence is a mockery!

Publishing Date : 27 April, 2015

Ndulamo Anthony Morima

One of the ideals for which our democracy is internationally acclaimed for is respect for separation of powers. The international community has been made to believe that in Botswana the three arms of government, namely the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary are independent of one another. Yet, recent events show that this may not be the case, especially with respect to the relationship between the Executive and the Legislature.

Following the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP)’s success after the October 2014 general elections to dethrone Margret Nasha as Speaker of the National Assembly, the Executive has continued to demonstrate lack of regard for the independence of Parliament.

During her tenure, Nasha attempted, in vain, to make Parliament independent from the Directorate of Public Service Management (DPSM) and Office of the President (OP). For instance, Nasha had wanted to facilitate the tabling of bills before Parliament that would reduce the President and Executive’s powers in relation to Parliament, thereby enhancing Parliament’s independence.

Obviously, in such pursuit she worked with Parliamentary staff including secretaries, clerks and the Parliamentary legal counsel whom some in the BDP and in government accuse of having exhibited bias towards Nasha’s ideologies.

Reportedly, some Members of Parliament (MPs) and Cabinet ministers have been threatening such employees with transfers and dismissals. Indeed since Nasha’s departure such employees have been transferred, seconded or their employment terminated under questionable circumstances.

How can it not be questionable when the Senior Manager Corporate Services is, on urgency, transferred to the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development as District Commissioner and shortly thereafter the Secretary to the Clerk and that of the Speaker are transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs?

This is questionable, especially after the Deputy Clerk’s contract has just been not renewed. Don’t such transfers adversely impact on continuity, especially that there is a new Speaker and Deputy Speaker.

Parliament’s Principal Public Relations Officer, Karabo Marumo,’s assertion that the transfers aforesaid were never forced and have nothing to do with Nasha’s departure are devoid of truth. Is it a coincidence that only high ranking officers have been affected? Why were the transfers with immediate effect? Marumo’s contention that the transfers were with immediate effect to address the exigencies of the Public Service is lame.

What exigencies were there at the ministries of Agriculture and Labour and Home Affairs that cannot have waited for normal transfers? Do the skills and experience that the officers acquired in relation to Parliament’s work not count for anything in considering the exigencies of the Public Service?

What exigency can there have been which even when an officer pleaded with the authorities to keep her in Gaborone for a while she was nonetheless transferred to a different Government office in Gaborone? Can’t the officer have continued working at Parliament in the meantime pending the transfer?

Is it not odd that the very month the new Speaker, Gladys Kokorwe, assumed office the Parliamentary Legal Counsel’s secondment from the Attorney General Chambers was terminated? Doesn’t it make sense that he should have remained to assist the new Speaker settle?

Is it unreasonable for one to think that the secondment was terminated because of the legal advice he rendered to Nasha during the constitutional case regarding the elections of Speaker, Deputy Speaker and nominations for the Vice President?

There is no doubt that this action by the Executive is meant to rid Parliament of all the officers whom it suspects are sympathetic to the deposed Nasha or to the Opposition. This flies on the face of Botswana’s long held principle of a neutral public service that should serve the government of the day.

This, if it goes on unchecked poses a serious threat to our democracy. To ensure the independence of Parliament, Parliament needs to be removed from the Office of the President. Parliament should be an independent body which prepares its own budget, procures its own resources and employs, deploys, transfers, promotes and dismisses its own staff. The Speaker’s office should, in relation to Parliamentary staff, be the office of last resort.

Also, at a constituency level the officers in the MPs constituency office should be under the Speaker’s absolute control. Not even the MPs should be in control of their employment, deployment, transfers, promotions and dismissals. If the MPs determine their employment and tenure they will not serve the public fairly, but are likely to serve with bias towards members of their own political party.

For as long as Parliamentary staff serves at the pleasure of the Executive and their terms and conditions of services are controlled by DPSM, independence of Parliament shall remain an enigma. The staff’s loyalty will not be to the Speaker, but to the Director of DPSM whose job is to exercise the will of the President and the Executive. This has serious implications on the law making function of Parliament since the Executive can use such staff members to frustrate, delay or block Parliament’s legislative program.

Botswana, despite being labelled as a mature democracy, still has procedures which treat MPs like employees who are accountable to the Speaker and the Executive. For example, it is the Speaker who sanctions the meetings of Parliamentary portfolio committees. The result is that if the business for which the portfolio committee wants to meet is inimical to the Executive’s policy such meetings are thwarted.

In fact, our Speakers have even been as contemptuous as to disband parliamentary portfolio committees. For example, it is reported that the Speaker recently stopped the portfolio committee on Youth, Sport & Culture from working on issues relating to the mass termination of contracts of employment for Botswana National Youth Council (BNYC) employees. It is highly likely that the Speaker acted as such on orders from the President or as a result of being lobbied by the Minister for Youth, Sport & Culture or the BDP Chief Whip.

In such mature democracies as the United States of America, Parliament is so independent that it can, against the Executive’s will, invite a head of state from a foreign country to address it. Recently, Congress invited Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to address it on the impending Iran nuclear deal. This, the Congress did, despite President Barack Obama’s opposition and it had support from across the political divide.