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Who watches over Parliament?

RYDER GABATHUSE
Parliament PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO
It is assumed that Botswana Parliament is made up of honourable men and women of integrity. Therefore, it should act ethically and accountable to voters. Commentators acknowledge that the Constitution does not provide effective mechanisms for controlling Parliament except as prescribed in the checks and balances between the three organs of the State: Legislature, Judiciary and Executive. Mmegi Staffer RYDER GABATHUSE follows the story

FRANCISTOWN: Who really holds the National Assembly accountable, as an institution that provides checks and balances on the government?

This question is being asked for the umpteenth time, but it doesn’t seem there is a quick answer to it. It is also important to pose the question to the electorate in an attempt to appreciate what standard they really use to evaluate their legislators, councillors and general performance by government.

A long headline in opinion pages of a local weekly newspaper recently screamed: “Parliament watches over and checks the activities of government but it must also be watched!” The opinion piece raised pertinent issues, and its main focus was the tendencies of the legislators to successfully hike their salaries and allowances in Parliament.

The sad reality as articulated by the Leader of Opposition in Parliament, Dumelang Saleshando was that the Botswana National Assembly doesn’t even have a code of conduct for MPs. As a result, political commentators believe that majority of MPs in Botswana represent their personal interests rather than the interests of their constituents. Hence, they are generally perceived to be accountable to party leadership and not the constituents.

In advanced democracies, the power to elect is consistent with the power to remove one from office as the power to recall political representatives certainly ensures greater accountability if properly discharged.

It is apparent that there are no visible and viable platforms in the hands of voters to ensure political accountability on the part of the representatives. The Constitution and other laws protect poor performing MPs.

Despite lack of remedies, a retired public servant who spoke on condition of anonymity suggests that, “ one way of holding Parliament accountable could be through civil society and pressure groups.”

She further suggested the role played by the media through opinion polls and surveys in making the august House accountable since it may be difficult to have public forums.

“Our interaction with MPs is mainly through the kgotla, which is a sacred place and where issues raised sometimes are said to be politically confrontational and therefore, limits expression by members of the public,” declared our source worriedly.

In a democratic dispensation that Botswana is, issues of accountability and the role of electorate in holding their elected representatives accountable is a critical issue that even need to be protected through legislation.

University of Botswana (UB) lecturer in politics and administrative studies, Adam Mfundisi buttresses that Parliament is expected to operate within the constitutional provisions.

He says that Parliament checks the exercise of power by the Executive and the Judiciary ensures that all decisions made by Parliament are intra vires the Constitution. He was steadfast that the role of voters is not tacitly provided in the Constitution except the casting of votes during general elections and by-elections.

“Theoretically in a genuine democracy, sovereignty derives from the citizenry. And therefore, the electorate must hold elected officials accountable,’ he posited.

He added that in reality, voters once voted representatives to office have neither Constitutional nor legal powers to control them. The title Honourable, he says, assumes that representatives will be ethical and accountable to citizens.

The UB lecturer acknowledges that there should be an Ethics Committee to ensure ethical behavior and accountability of Members of Parliament.

To the best of his knowledge neither the Constitution nor other laws provide for standards for evaluating MPs, he says.

Different sectors of society use different judgements to assess their performance. But MPs have no obligations to account for their functioning and performance. Political evaluation has always been carried for or against

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public policy and government including elected representatives.

The civil society organisations are, “weak and parasitic to government.” Mfundisi is adamant that they have either co-opted or are weakened by government legislation and practices.

Equally, he notes that the media has been actively involved in ensuring government operates efficiently and effectively. It has been the voice of the voiceless. It has exposed scandals and corruptive practices in government.

But, he is worried that their (media) advocacy role has not been effective, as the state has promulgated legislation that controls the media and journalists.

The National Security Act and the spy agency, Directorate of Intelligence and security (DIS) criminalises certain actions and reports by the media.

“In respect of Parliament being held accountable by civil society organisations,” responses Mfundisi, “ there are no laws that empower them to exercise that responsibility.”

But he says, theoretically, these organisations have the power to constrain the powers of Parliament through advocacy functions. Their ability to hold Parliament accountability is far from being effective.

Since the last general election, the UB academic says some sections of the media seem to have been infiltrated and eventually captured by the state. Government is a monstrous institution controlling the commanding heights of the economy, society, politics and administration.

Another UB senior lecturer in politics, Dr. Kebapetse Lotshwao says in line with the concept of separation of powers, Parliament is watched over by other branches of government, especially the Judiciary.

“Thus, the Judiciary has authority to nullify laws and policies passed by Parliament if they are unconstitutional. The civil society, such as the private media, trade unions, and the academia also exercises oversight over Parliament to ensure parliament effectively discharges its constitutional mandate. The private media, for instance, regularly evaluates performance of MPs,” says Lotshwao.

In a democracy, he adds that there are two types of accountability, being horizontal and vertical accountability.

Horizontal accountability refers to oversight that is exercised by State agencies over one another. On the other hand, vertical accountability refers to oversight that is exercised by the electorate through elections.

When the electorate is happy, they reward by extending the mandate of representatives or government during elections. Whey they are not happy, they punish by voting out the representative or the government.

“Thus, in Botswana, like in other democracies, the electorate exercises oversight on MPS during elections. Although this form of accountability is effective, sometimes it is undermined by excessive partisanship where people just vote for a party and not candidate,” he notes.

Lotshwao is adamant that the proceedings and conduct of MPs are guided especially by the Standing Orders. However, the Standing Orders are meaningless without enforcement.

It is therefore, crucial to have a Speaker of Parliament, according to the UB academic, “who has the political will and the moral authority to enforce Sanding Orders and discipline in Parliament.”

The important yardstick used by electorate is the extent to which an MP represents and articulates their issues and interests. However, as Lotshwao has previously stated, partisanship and vote buying can undermine this.   

He however, credited the civil society for doing its best to exercise oversight over Parliament. His main worry was that most civil society groups in developing countries, including in Botswana, are underfunded, and as such lack skilled manpower that could effectively exercise oversight over parliament.   

Although there is no provision that empowers the electorate to recall MPs in between elections, he says at least the elections are themselves a tool that an organised electorate can use to exercise oversight over their MPs.



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