I will accept and be confident of the declaration of the President to end the moribund State Of Emergency (SOE) when it is scrapped. I, for one, do not have confidence and trust in the messages coming from government. It has promised many reforms but to no avail.
President Mokgweetsi Masisi, for reasons best known to him and his political advisors, snubbed the main opposition political formation, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), and consulted political leaders of fringe parties most of them devoid of parliamentary representation. The aim was for these leaders to sanitise the declaration of the SOE by the President. The argument by the President and the proponents of the SOE then was to take stringent measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The Public Health Act was deemed inadequate and insufficient to deal with the pandemic. There is no shadow of doubt that the Constitution of Botswana empowers the President to declare the SOE to deal with threatening situations to the lives and property of citizens. The President and his supporters, who at face value were genuine, presented the objectives of SOE. But practice has promised unintended consequences and ramifications to the lives of citizens and their businesses.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated social, economic, and political problems. Poverty, unemployment, inequality, criminality, and rising cost of living have grown exponentially. SOE has also worsened the socio-economic and political problems faced by the majority of citizens. SOE was implemented to undermine democratic principles and ethical and accountability responsibilities of government, particularly the executive branch. Corruption and maladministration have been witnessed perpetuated under the cover of SOE. Public officials have compromised transparency, openness and accountability willy-nilly. A top-down approach to decision-making has been adopted. The President and his henchmen/women have abrogated themselves supremacy in public policy making. The opposition MPs and civil society organisations have been marginalised and ignored by the current government. Parliament has become a lap dog because of the complicity of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party ( BDP) backbenchers that are coalescing with the Executive to undermine the rule of law and democratic principles. The oversight role of Parliament has been compromised as the Speaker and BDP MPs are bent on fulfilling the wishes of the President and his Cabinet. Policy proposals and advise from opposition MPs and civil society have been rejected and ignored. The government and BDP to achieve political elite interests, weaponised the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 funds from both government and donations have been misused to pursue partisan interests. SOE allowed for direct appointments for procurement and tendering for goods and services.
The Office of the President became a vehicle for awarding of tenders and procurement of goods and services to BDP functionaries and their business associates. COVID-19 millionaires have been created at the expense of the lives of the majority of citizens. Millions, if not billions, have been corruptively spent under cover of SOE to prop up BDP members. Several properties have been purchased amidst shortages in the health sector, namely, the acquisition of Tautona Lodge in Gantsi, Swedish House in Gaborone, etc. SOE should have been intended to beef up the health system, which had been neglected over many decades of BDP misrule. SOE, in theory and practice, are promulgated to provide the executive extensive and intensive powers to mobilise resources to contain, control, and mitigate a crisis. The health sector should have been a priority in the execution of the SOE but it has not been. The concentration of power in the President transcended into military and policing powers.
Draconian laws and regulations were introduced to undermine socio-economic and political rights of people. SOE by necessity should be proportionate to the threat of the pandemic. It should be temporary rather than a permanent regime. This is in part that SOE affects the rule of law and consolidate the powers of the Executive, which if unchecked can become a monstrous creature of great proportion. Some of the above narratives can be captured here. Abuse and/or misuse of power and authority by state actors have been recorded. In addition to corruption and maladministration, the security agencies have infringed into the rights and freedoms of individuals and groups. There were cases of beatings and 'torture' by the security establishment during lockdowns and subsequent enforcement of regulations. In addition, SOE was used to cover abuses in the spending of the public purse. The spendthrift by government in the acquisition of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) and marketing of COVID-19 vaccination.
The failure by the government to have a vision and strategy to combat COVID-19 led to many deaths, hospitalisation, and psychosocial impact of COVID-19. The relegation of the Ministry of Health and Wellness in the fight against COVID-19 was a grave mistake. The creation of a Presidential Task Force comprising only male advisors and tasked with the sole responsibility of combating COVID-19 was another misstep. Government has spent millions of pula per month to pay operatives in the Task Force with limited impact in the fight against COVID-19. The Task Force failed to provide strategic direction in combating the pandemic. It tended to deal with operational and/or administrative responsibilities rather than strategic leadership. The money spent or continued to be spent on propping the Task Force could be used fruitfully in acquiring vaccines and their roll-out to combat the devastating effect of COVID-19 pandemic. A multi-ministerial Task Force under the tutelage of the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MoHW) would have been a strategic move. Instability in the leadership of the MoHW made matters worse. Change of guard in the political leadership and the bureaucratic firing of Permanent Secretary (PS) and Deputy Permanent Secretary (DPS) further undermined the effectiveness of the health ministry to deal with the pandemic. Loss of jobs in the public and private sector continued during the SOE regime. Hunger and deprivation continued unabated during SOE. SOE facilitated introduction of series of taxes, levies, and other costs of receiving public goods and services. The cost of living has become unbearable due to the introduction of COVID-19 pandemic. SOE has done an indelible damage to businesses, welfare of citizens, good governance, democratic principles, and the rule of law. Poverty, unemployment, inequity, criminality, and despondence have grown to unprecedented levels. Majority of citizens are dissatisfied with the President and his government. Participatory democracy is one of the major pillars for sustainable political stability and progress.
The rule by law has promoted resistance amongst the population because of a heavy top-down approach and policy interventions. BDP politicians and their supporters have flouted COVID-19 protocols contrary to their professed drivers of the containment of the pandemic. Their words do not match their deeds. This in part has undermined the rule of law. Political polarisation and partisanship in the management of the pandemic have further eroded public confidence and trust in government and its leadership. Lack of transparency, openness, and accountability by politicians and bureaucrats have developed scepticism and cynicisms amongst the populace. Ethical and accountability mechanisms have been weakened during the SOE. Secrecy in the administration of government affairs has been a major obstacle to democratic accountability and ethical management. The Office of the President (OP) is the major culprit in dirty-handed dealings by public officials. The secret acquisition of Tautona Lodge for a whopping P58 million was abuse and misuse of power by government operatives amid the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic. The money could have been productively used to revamp our ailing public health sector. Many of our citizens perished between June, July, and August 2021 due to lack of capacity of the health system; lack of adequate beds, ventilators, oxygen supplies, and general PPEs. The health sector was overwhelmed but government priorities were elsewhere. Leaders must be held accountable for decisions made legitimately in secret. Public trust and confidence in government and its leadership is key to effective containment of the pandemic.
People must be involved in the policy making process and policies must reflect the felt-needs, interests and aspirations of the collective rather than the political elite. Numerous regulatory policies enacted by the government will fail because they do not reflect the above but a continuation of undermining the people. People resistance to draconian laws will grow and the regime’s continued rule will diminish. People have a legitimate right to chart their own destiny without imposition of laws by the government, which undermine their interests. Kleptocratic government, we witness, in Botswana, is an epitome of disaster to come soonest. We are sitting on a time bomb because citizens are disenchanted with the unethical and/or immoral behaviour of public officials. I do not understand why companies were barred from retrenching workers when the government was instrumental in firing and retrenching public officials.
SOE has not been effective in safeguarding workers' rights because many businesses went aground and therefore, natural attrition occurred. The truth is that many businesses did downsize their workforce during the SOE. What we can assume is that due to the continued economic and financial downturns and a gloomy picture, the remaining businesses that complied with the moribund SOE, will accelerate their restructuring and transformation, which may lead to loss of jobs. The haemorrhage of the labour sector will continue beyond SOE. To me, SOE has done more damage than good for the country. The sooner it is off the statute books the better. Effective oversight must kick in and public officials, both politicians and bureaucrats must be made accountable for the exercise of power during SOE. BDP backbenchers must rise above partisan politics and demand accountability by the Executive. They must join forces with the progressive opposition forces to ensure people's interests, needs, priorities, and aspirations are met. Its time to revamp and reform the Public Health Act to deal with future pandemics. Politicians are prone to abuse of power to pursue personal interests.
ADAM MFUNDISI* is a public policy analyst and University of Botswana lecturer in politics and administrative studies.