A greater pandemic: An (un)open government!

Special Parliament session PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES
Special Parliament session PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES

The Botswana Parliament has moved to impose a six-month-long state of public emergency as a response to give adequate leeway to health officials to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The debate dragged on for too long. This should have been a simple debate for President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his team, following the simple rules and format of the British Parliamentary style of debate. There were several burdens of proof to satisfy in the President’s case. The majority of the burdens of proof should have been laid out and partially satisfied in the President's first speech to Parliament.

The data, transmission and risk projections, overall grand strategy for mitigation, prevention, planning processes etc should have been clear to point out what exactly the executive wants to do, and most importantly, why it needs to take six months to get it done. 

The experts should have led the debate from the beginning, furnishing the public with data projections and analysis of possible transmission trajectories. Unfortunately, the debate came down to a lot of slippery claims and assumptions that spread over the entire debate by almost all Members of Parliament. Many questions remained unanswered. What is the overall grand strategy of government? What do they need to plan for in addition to social welfare programmes? How much is it going to cost? Who's paying for it?

The underlying argument here that I think opposition should have led with, is that gone are the days when we had to take the President's word for it. Democracy does not function that way anymore, fortunately. The leading concern that I equally share with the opposition is the need to guarantee oversight and accountability. There needs to be solid guarantees in place to safeguard against any possible abuse of office, fraud, corruption and any other malice that may occur in the absence of normal day to day safeguards. I do not think anyone is accusing the presidency of lacking goodwill and good intentions for its people. Since these are special circumstances happening during a unique period, the country and especially Parliament need extra assurances and guarantees for accountability and transparency.

In Hungary, the Prime Minister has just orchestrated a power grab in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, seizing the opportunity to get the Hungarian Parliament to give him sweeping powers to rule by decree with no mandatory oversight in place. Revered political scientist Ian Bremmer put it aptly when he said that ‘times of panic are prone to exploitation by political strongmen’. Botswana is not immune to political strongmen, and we must, by all means and at all costs, safeguard against any possible abuse of power now and in the future.

The greatest existential threat to any democracy is a government that continues to conduct its business in the dark, without proper oversight and accountability mechanisms. The President has options. One is to simply set up a special oversight committee with equal representation of all stakeholders; opposition Members of Parliament, ruling party members, bureaucrats, media, business and civil society. This would perfectly serve as the needed oversight (beyond and in addition to the already existing oversight instruments) in a time when the majority of people are staying home or working from home and government is literally in the hands of a few.

There's more than enough multi-partisan consensus on the limitations of our constitution. It simply isn't enough to assume the President's goodwill will carry the day. It should be strange to the ruling party, that in a modern democracy, they are still arguing on the basis of ‘see no evil, hear no evil’. One of the key responsibilities of sitting Members of Parliament is to craft the outlook and tone of future Parliaments. Parliaments of the future must not find themselves in this same predicament, arguing back and forth over semantics for two straight days. Presidential power must be uncompromisingly limited and checked, not just procedurally and formally, but substantively as well.

There are incredible lessons to be drawn from countries that have moved swiftly against the virus with democratic responses and effectively contained the spread. The key lesson as they have said is identifying and quarantining infected individuals as quickly as possible, preventing them from perpetuating viral transmission. As one of the President’s taskforce members Professor Mosepele Mosepele also argued, the first and most important response strategy is having a standard operating procedure.

South Korea’s strategy essentially calls for five steps: an aggressive and transparent information campaign, high volume testing, quarantine of infected individuals, treatment of those in need, and disinfection of contaminated environments. These may seem like obvious measures, but proper execution is ultimately what decides their effectiveness. Transparent information is always the essential first step in any containment effort.

While important, governmental measures cannot work alone and be effective without the large-scale cooperation of the public. It is imperative that government builds a culture of trust with the public, not through words and rhetoric, but through meaningful and responsive action. The President has a bigger task ahead of him, and he must move swiftly to begin the processes of strengthening key legislation that builds a strong, transparent and open government.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a political economist with interests in politics, trade and foreign policy.

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