In the past the executive secretly concealed the battle for the soul of parliament through careful manipulation of the Speaker of the National Assembly.
Past speakers such as Patrick Balopi would recall later that the expectation of the executive seems to be that, parliament will rubberstamp what the executive provides. Those who worked under Balopi say under him the executive always found a way of manipulating parliament business as they wished. But now with a more liberal speaker in Dr. Margaret Nasha the battle for the soul of parliament is now in the open as she is not a pushover.
In the days to come the battle will intensify. What is clear though is that there is a problem with regards to the independence of parliament in Botswana. This week Friday two Botswana Members of Parliament -Bernard Bolele and Frank Ramsden-are expected to be in South Africa to observe the country’s general elections that will be held on the 7 May 2014. Two other MPs, Mmoloki Raletobana and Charles Tibone are expected to be in Malawi to observe the country’s 20 May general election. Assigned by Nasha, all MPs are under the auspices of the SADC Parliamentary Forum (SADC PF)-a regional inter-parliamentary body composed of Members of Parliament from SADC member states national parliaments. The move has angered the executive who view this as a clear defiance of president Ian Khama.
The Botswana government has taken a decision not to suspend its participation in SADC observer missions. “Government of Botswana raised its concerns about compliance with the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections,” read a statement from government spindoctor Jeff Ramsay early this month.
Acting minister of presidential affairs, Shaw Kgathi this week reaffirmed government’s position in an interview, adding that they are still waiting for a response from SADC. At the time of going to press the SADC secretariat had not yet responded to this publication’s questions. However, Nasha is unmoved. The four MPs will be going, and her defence is that they will not be representing the Botswana government, but the SADC PF, which is an autonomous body. She explained in an interview Wednesday that, after their mission the MPs do not even report to the Botswana government but to the SADC PF general assembly. They do not even report to the executive.
Initially Nasha was supposed to head the delegation but was refused permission by the Office of the President. She is the one who was supposed to table the final report before the said general assembly. However, the executive used the only weapon at its disposal; the so-called Green Book to block Nasha’s trip. Officially the document, which sets the duties of the president, his deputy, ministers, assistant ministers, deputy speaker and the leader of opposition is called, “The President, The Vice President, Ministers, Speaker, Assistant Ministers, Deputy Speaker, and Leader of Opposition Functions, Pay and Priviledges.”
The Green Book, under the subtopic, “Authority for duty travel-Minister, Speaker, Assistant Minister and Deputy Speaker” states at Section 20.A (1) that when a minister, the speaker, an assistant minister or the Deputy Speaker proposes to undertake a duty trip outside Botswana, prior written notification giving dates details as well as stating the estimated cost and the item head of the estimates from which funds are available shall be given to the secretary to the cabinet in writing for the information of the President and in order to seek authority.” This is what the OP used to deny Nasha the go ahead, a move which has also rekindled the debate on separation of powers in Botswana.
Nasha would not be drawn into discussing why she was denied permission to travel to South Africa and later Malawi. She however explained that she was asked late last year by the SADC PF to submit names of MPs who will be representing the organ from Botswana and she did so. “I assigned the MPs, this is about me not the MPs, I have the responsibility to assign them,” she said. Meanwhile, Kgathi is of the view that should the MPs go to South Africa or Malawi then that will be a defiance of president Khama. According to him the government has taken a position and it should be respected. “If the head of state has taken a position, where do you derive the authority to say you can go and observe?” he queried. Kgathi who noted that he was not aware that MPs will be going warned that if anybody were to give an order to say MPs should go and observe elections then that would be an absolute defiance and thus there is bound to be repercussions.
The minister dismissed Nasha’s argument that SADC PF is an autonomous body saying all SADC protocols are signed by head of states. Asked why Nasha was denied permission Kgathi noted that the president is not required to explain his actions saying it is normal practice. “It has never been a cause for concern in the past, what is so special about this one?” he quipped, adding that in the past ministers including him have been denied permission to travel. Nasha is a proponent of separation of powers and in 2011 she organised a workshop for MPs where the issue was discussed. At the time she said the National Assembly needed to look at the constitution and decipher what exactly separation of powers entails. “The old fashioned and outdated expression that, ‘if it ain’t broken, we should not fix it,’ does not belong here. My position is, ‘let us examine it, to see if indeed it is not broken.’ It is only after thorough examination that you can determine whether or not it needs fixing,” Nasha said at the time.
The battle for separation of powers is a battle that must be won, whether by Nasha or the next speaker in line. Ironically the phrase “separation of powers” appears nowhere in the Botswana constitution. According to Justice Key Dingake, in a paper he presented to the Southern African Chief Justices’ Conference in 2009-unlike the South African constitution, the Botswana Constitution, does not have any express provision requiring that each organ of the state respect and support each other. He writes in the same paper that separation of powers in Botswana is loose, and that over the years the three organs of the State have exhibited respect for each other’s sphere of operation and have avoided overstepping their legitimate boundaries.
Are we now seeing a different Botswana where the executive wants to control parliament? Kgathi does not think so. He argues that the issue has nothing to do with the executive trying to control parliament. “It has no relevance.” But one thing is in no doubt. The gloves are off. The hidden battle for parliament’s soul will be a blown out war in the coming weeks or months.