Should corruption be upgraded to treason?

Unimpressed: Members of Parliament are concerned that deficits are rising while leakages continue in public finance expenditure 
Unimpressed: Members of Parliament are concerned that deficits are rising while leakages continue in public finance expenditure PIC: PHATSIMO KAPENG

Minister of Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration, Kabo Morwaeng on Thursday said corruption should be elevated to the legal status of treason. However, ordinary Batswana who are carrying the pain of higher taxes to support weaker government finances, want more action than talk, especially as a new budget containing more bitter decisions, is being finalised. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports

In the wake of the damning results of the Auditor General’s findings into the millions of pula misspent, wasted and abused in the first eight months of the pandemic, more scrutiny is being piled onto how fiscal authorities monitor public expenditure.

The pandemic burnt a large hole in public revenues, with government drawing down P12.6 billion from the country’s reserves in 2020 to support the budget and COVID-19 spending. That some of these funds were spent on the fly-by-night suppliers and inflated procurement has enraged Batswana who have had to put up with tax and levy increases this year to patch the holes.

The finance ministry has since updated figures for the immediate past financial year and the upcoming budget, showing that from an initial estimate of a P5.2 billion deficit for 2020-2021, the budget actually incurred a P16.5 billion shortfall.

Yesterday, at their Budget Pitso, legislators received their first taste of the estimates for the upcoming budget, revealing that for the upcoming 2022-2023 financial year, the deficit has been adjusted from an initial forecast of P6 billion to P7.2 billion. With the government reserves drained by spending in 2020, the deficit will again be funded through domestic and external borrowing.

Bitter decisions such as the rationalisation of the civil service and parastatals, as well as introducing taxes on the digital economy, are being considered. The rationalisation of the civil service and parastatals is expected to be announced in the upcoming budget speech in February, a move that will, directly and indirectly, affect thousands of workers and their families.

Finance ministry technocrats told legislators that these measures, combined with spending reprioritisation, including cuts, as well as expected higher revenues from mining and SACU would help return the budget to surplus in 2023-2024.

Wastage, corruption and poor project implementation, however, are amongst the leading risks to the precarious projections for a return to fiscal stability. Corruption is particularly a sore point for Batswana, as the 2022-2023 budget process comes in the shadow of the Auditor General’s recent report.

While opposition legislators have consistently accused government of sanctioning or committing corruption, at the Pitso on Thursday, it was Cabinet ministers who led the cries against corruption.

Of note was the Minister of Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration, Kabo Morwaeng, who said it was time for harsher treatment of corruption.

“On corruption, because it is such as a problem, maybe we should think about it along the lines of treason so that it can be seen that we are serious,” he said during the Pitso.

“Those who know the law should make it so that corruption is treated like treason, as they do in China and other countries. “Maybe it would help us.”

Assistant Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, Molebatsi Molebatsi was equally blunt. “As long as there is money being eaten by corruption, it’s difficult to convince our people to pay tax,” he said.

“These projects where monies go from P1.2 billion to P1.5 billion people are watching and if this continues, they will not want to pay tax because they believe they are financing corruption.

“As government, we have to clamp down on this.”

Assistant Minister of Health and Wellness, Sethomo Lelatisitswe brought case studies from his constituency of Boteti East to the debate. He gave an example of a maternity clinic whose costs for Debswana were pegged at P5 million, but for government had been estimated at more than P20 million.

“There’s a mall being built in my constituency and the private sector developer is using P40 million.

“I was saying to others that if it was the government, it would cost P500 million.

“That corruption and wastage is a lot in government when the funds for one project could be doing more.

“Even the Bank of Botswana has been saying the same thing about this for the past six years.

“Some of the people involved in the tendering at Debswana come from government, but in Debswana they found strong systems that don’t allow that.”

Lelatisitswe said it was time for action to be taken against public servants involved in wastage or corruption.

“In government, if a driver has an accident, they say he must pay for the damage, but with the senior officers taking projects from P1 million to P20 million, no one says they must pay.

“Can we crack the whip on these officers who say a project has not been delivered and they need more money to finish it?”

Government has previously decried the tendency by suppliers and contractors to overprice their goods and services when public procurement is involved.

“We have seen that even a bottle of water that costs P5 when it comes to government, it becomes higher,” said Ellen Galetshetse, principal commercial officer at the EDD Unit previously.

“Why are you changing the price? “Your goods should be competitively priced.”

As Cabinet ministers speak out against wastage and corruption, criticism continues that very few high-profile corruption cases have been successfully prosecuted in the country. Efforts at eliminating wastage have been equally less than successful, with a 2017 study by the IMF estimating that 37% of public expenditure on infrastructure in 2017 did not deliver value.

The Public Finance Management Act provides 10 instances where public servants can be directly surcharged for wastage and losses of public revenue, ranging from negligence to fraud, and others.

Finance minister, Peggy Serame previously told Mmegi that while the act provided for surcharging public officers who cause or permit misuse or loss of public funds, the matter was not as clear cut.

“The challenge is usually establishing evidence against individual officers to be surcharged, given the nature of the public service.”

Fiscal authorities have pledged to tighten spending efficiencies throughout government, including more intensive pre-approval assessments of projects, increased site surveillance and other measures.

The stakes for the country, in terms of corruption and wastage are higher. Not only is every thebe being asked to produce more, but the variables facing the budget are delicately balanced and do not provide room for failure.

In addition, with more of the budget and project spending, being funded by external financiers such as the World Bank, eyes outside Botswana are looking at the efficiency of expenditure and the appearance of wastage and corruption.

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