What constitute conflict of interest
Like Michael Dingake (Mmegi, 12 January 2010) I couldn't believe my eyes when I read the story in the Christmas Week 2009 edition of The Voice about the alleged interest of our minister responsible for Defence, justice and security, Ramadeluka Seretse, in a business said to have supplied security equipment (among other things) to the Botswana Police Service.
I couldn't believe my eyes because I found it impossible to imagine a worse example of a conflict-of-interest situation.
Here was the political head of the government ministry responsible for the police service, who was alleged to have a direct interest in a company reported to have at least once won a tender to supply the department with security equipment!
The minister was reported to have poured cold water on suggestions that his involvement in the company was a clear case of conflict -of-interest, arguing that conflict of interest wasn't something that was "permanently there otherwise we would stop living". This implies that conflict-of-interest is something that is only temporarily there.
But even if this was the case, I wonder how it would help the minister's case because normally, any conflict-of-interest situation is unacceptable irrespective of whether it might be described as temporary or permanent.
Especially in a country like Botswana, which is doing so much to fight corruption, conflict of interest of whatever description should never be condoned.
According to Voice article, in defending his position the minister also argued that his (at this stage of the article) company's tender to supply equipment to the police service was, after all, not awarded by the police service but by the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Board (PPADB). In other words, the transaction was done at arm's length and should therefore not be a cause for concern.
But although this appears a reasonable position for the minister to have taken, it is not so in actual fact. My understanding of the state's tendering process is that the PPADB doesn't itself do the initial evaluation of public tenders. This is the responsibility of ministerial tender committees, which then make recommendations to the PPADB.
So, contrary to the minister's argument, the police service would indeed have been directly involved in the early evaluation of the tender, which is the most crucial stage because it indicates to the PPADB beyond any doubt what the top preference of the client department is.
I'm also concerned that the minister allegedly disregarded a valid question by The Voice reporter concerning the likelihood that as the minister responsible for the police service, he might have been aware of its "budgets and requirements, and could therefore [have been] privy to inside information."
This is a serious matter that goes to the core not only of the concept of conflict of interest, but also that of good governance.
It's therefore disappointing that the minister regarded the reporter's relevant question so lightly. Another concern about Minister Seretse's comments is that while earlier in the article he seemed to acknowledge that he was involved in RFT Botswana (Pty) Ltd, he later reportedly dissociated himself from the company, arguing that it was owned and run only by his wife.
This, of course, doesn't undermine the argument that the alleged business relationship between RFT and the police service seriously violates the concepts of conflict-of-interest, good governance and transparency. The argument remains valid whether the company is owned by the minister and his wife or only by the wife.
I wonder why the minister would involve himself in such an embarrassing contradiction.
However, this episode of the story published by The Voice should greatly embarrass not only Minister Seretse but also the entire government.
It illustrates the big danger posed for this country by the continued refusal of different Botswana Democratic Party governments to enact the 1996 declaration-of-assets Bill.
What puzzles me is whether the governments concerned aren't aware of the harm that this does to their credibility and integrity.
To many people in this country, this stubborn refusal suggests only one thing: that there are probably countless skeletons that our governments are determined to keep permanently locked away in their dark cupboards.
For instance, how many more stories of this type exist in this least corrupt country in Africa? How many of our government ministers are of high-enough integrity to resist compromising themselves? No one can tell until we have a strictly enforced declaration-of-assets law. I have to admit, nevertheless, that I don't see any threat looming for our government in the foreseeable future.
Like its predecessors, our current government is aware that whatever number of seemingly damaging accusations of indiscretion etc the media may throw at it, none are likely stick come Election Day.
In this country, unfortunately, it's the easiest thing in the world for governments to get away with mediocre standards, given the gullible society that Botswana's electorate largely represents. The question is how much longer this is likely to last; and as indicated above, I personally don't see it change in the foreseeable future-thanks largely to the continued dearth of serious and credible enough opposition politics.