SONA glossed over critical national issues

Under fire: Commentators say Masisi’s SONA did not deliver 
Under fire: Commentators say Masisi’s SONA did not deliver PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO

Botswana Forum for Action and Reform (B-FAR) notes with concern the scant regard for and gloss over critical national issues in President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) 2021.

While inevitably peppered with self-praise and gloating for some of the accomplishments, SONA 2021 failed to address some of the pressing social, economic and political challenges the country is currently facing. In failing to broach these, the national address consequently failed to provide plans and clear articulation of government’s agenda for tackling these.

Unfortunately, the themes put forward as guiding principles of SONA 2021 at best glossed over pertinent issues currently afflicting the country. These are the COVID-19 pandemic, corruption, national security, a declining economy, rising gender-based violence (GBV), poverty, inequality and high unemployment rates.

The world is smarting from the traumatic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on human lives and livelihoods. The pandemic has severely impacted the lives and livelihoods of many Batswana, in particular, vulnerable communities. However, the Reset Agenda that is proffered as a response that will save Botswana‘s population from the pandemic lacks the depth, direction and purpose to fulfil its intended goal.

The procurement of COVID-19 personal protective equipment (PPE) and vaccinations has been chaotic and marred with allegations of corruption while the vaccination programme has been painfully slow and haphazard. In addition, a COVID-19 Relief Fund that was intended to mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic, “with best-practice interventions that included a range of targeted fiscal, monetary and financial market measures to help affected households and businesses,” was established and subsequently abused.

From the very beginning, reports of corruption by the country’s leadership and those entrusted with the administration of the fund surfaced. The recently released Auditor General’s Report on the COVID-19 Relief Fund confirms this and states that there were deficiencies pertaining to the country’s preparedness and response to the pandemic. It warns that while COVID-19 is still evolving with a great negative impact upon the nation, it is important to change the control environment in order to guard against irregular spending which could result in negative economic consequences.

The report states that procurement of PPEs and medical commodities was not done at market rates and not in compliance with emergency procurement processes. Further still, the Auditor General’s Report observed weaknesses in the effectiveness of the internal controls in the exercise of oversight to ensure performance and financial accountability as evidenced by inadequate planning and coordination of responsible personnel.

B-FAR calls on government to act and implement the recommendations of the Auditor General for long term strategies of dealing with such pandemics, development of human capital for such eventualities and development of preventative and therapeutic medicines for pandemics. The country’s painful experience with the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), which failed to ensure equitable access to vaccines and the remarkable achievements of the Botswana Vaccine Institute provide both compelling justification and solid competencies for local medicine production.

Still on the issue of medicines, B-FAR reiterates its earlier support for the use of Ivermectin in the local COVID-19 prevention and treatment protocols. A growing body of knowledge reveals that the “broad-spectrum antiparasitic agent Ivermectin has been found to inhibit SARS-CoV-2 in vitro and proposed as a candidate for drug repurposing against COVID-19”. The country cannot ignore that the COVID-19 pandemic has fuelled much research efforts towards repurposing the existing Ivermectin drug as a possible antiviral agent. The proposed therapeutic strategy is largely based on pre-existing data for the preceding coronaviral outbreaks.

On corruption, B-FAR observes that corruption is the bane of societies and while it is an endemic sociological occurrence that appears with regular frequency in virtually all societies on a global scale in varying degrees and proportions, its epicentre in Botswana is the Office of the President. A picture is emerging of ever-increasing maladministration, malfeasance, unscrupulous and illegal use of political power for personal gain and recklessness at the Office of the President. A flurry of reports from the First Office indicates a situation where funds and resources intended for public use are misdirected for private interest and those of the leadership’s cronies.

President Masisi fails to lead by example, his bold pronouncements on the fight against the scourge of corruption, and delivery on good governance, peace and security are not backed by action.

Rising instances of corruption on his watch and at the Office of The President do not bode well for his purported “clean-up, reformist agenda”. The SONA 2021’s silence on corruption speaks volumes and his lip service on good governance, peace and security is demonstrated by the country’s declining performance according to several governance indicators on corruption, the independence of oversight bodies, and access to information and media. Instead, we notice increasing instances of conflicts of interest and harassment of political opponents emerging from the Office of the President.

The retention of the Minister of Nationality, Immigration, and Gender Affairs, Anna Mokgethi and deputy Speaker, Pono Moatlhodi, who both have unresolved matters before the courts, does not augur well for good governance and neither does a meddlesome Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS), which is increasingly becoming a rouge institution operating outside the confines of the law. B-FAR observes that while DIS is fiddling, the country is burning with an escalating spate of heists and armed robberies that harm social peace and are a hindrance to social development.

On the Sustainable Environment theme, B-FAR notes the contentious disjuncture in the roles of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks and the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) in anti-poaching operations. The discord in these two security organs has resulted in an escalation of poaching incidents in the country and threatens the substantial socio-economic gains tourism brings to the country. The disharmony is further indicative of challenges of poor policy coherence, weak implementing authorities and poor natural disaster preparedness in the country’s Sustainable Development and Natural Resource Management.

On Social Upliftment, B-FAR notes the commendable strides achieved in the appointment of women to leadership roles in government. While a lot more still needs to be done, we commend government for the notable progress on this matter. However, we note that while existing policies and programmes provide for vulnerable groups such as women and children, youth and people living with disabilities, these lack coordination and assistance does not always reach those who need it most. Programmes have also failed to address underlying issues of violence, gender inequality and respect for human rights. Government must do more to improve the quality of life for society’s most vulnerable. In addition, B-FAR calls for the expedited transformation of the social welfare programme, Ipelegeng to make it more productive and sustainable.

The critical issues under the Economy and Employment theme that have been omitted in the SONA 2021 are the marginal participation of citizens in the country’s economic space. We note that barriers to citizen economic empowerment are the low command of economic power in business in the form of investment, higher technical skills and entrepreneurship. Many citizens still live below the poverty line, with little prospect for accumulating wealth. We call on government to fast-track the Citizen Economic Empowerment law.

The Botswana youth unemployment rate stands at 35.56% and having a significant number of young people out of work negatively impacts a country’s economic growth and development. If left unchecked, youth unemployment will have serious social repercussions such as economic inactivity, threat of social exclusion, anxiety, crime and a lack of hope for the future. We lament the ever-shifting goalposts of the Botswana Development Corporation (BDC) partnership with Milk Afric to establish a dairy farm that was touted to revolutionise the local dairy industry and yield much-needed jobs. This project was launched in April 2016 and has repeatedly featured in past SONA’s yet the venture is still to take off.

In conclusion, B-FAR calls for an inclusive team for the review of the country’s Constitution. It is important that the team is representative of a broad section of society and not made up only of civil servants and friends of the ruling party. This will ensure that the revised Constitution contains buy-in from the ordinary Motswana and an obligation to the most important rules of our political system while protecting the rights of the people inside the country, and explaining their obligations to the rules.

We make this submission to keep government in check and call for action and demand reform beyond the bold pronouncements and lofty plans of the current administration. At the end of it all, the President will be measured not so much by what he says but by what he has done. His legacy will be judged not by what he says but by the actions and reforms his presidency delivers.

Fatshe leno, la rona!

*The Botswana Forum for Action and Reform (B-FAR) is an independent and non-party, lobby, pressure, advocacy or interest group established by a group of concerned Batswana to advocate for an accelerated and radical structural socio-economic (and quasi-political) transformation agenda for Botswana. The organisation’s focus areas are citizen engagement and empowerment; inclusive and participation growth; innovation economic diversification; and rapid and sustainable development.

B-FAR works by calling for action and demanding reform to truly and successfully transform Botswana into a prosperous, inclusive and high-income nation

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