The Press Secretary to the President Rre Batlhalefi Leagajang whom I will hereunder refer to as the Press Secretary was ‘at pains’ on two private radio stations this week to defend, while at the same time justifying the President’s business interests. At issue amongst others was for him to clarify the President’s business interests, whether these business interests do not pose a conflict of interest on the part of the President given his position and whether importantly, they do not reflect badly on the President. The Press Secretary duly confirmed that the President is involved in business interests. The central issue for me is whether a sitting President is committing a good or bad error of judgement by getting involved in business. I believe the latter is the case. In recent times probably more than ever before owing to people being more enlightened and capacitated to question the conduct of those in leadership positions like the President, the relationship between politics and business have become bad bedfellows. Botswana is in my view at the crossroads because of the unregulated relationship between politics and business.
While the Press Secretary came out clear with respect to the legality of the President’s businesses for which I will take his word, he seemed to be skirting around whether or not it is ethically correct or acceptable for the President to be in this somewhat politics/business quagmire. As soon as the President assumed the presidential position, he ceases to be an ordinary Motswana like me in many respects during his tenure. The fundamental difference is that he occupies a position in which he becomes the embodiment of moral, ethical and upright leadership which should cascade down to all and sundry. The President is on record to have directed his Ministers to stay clear of all tendering procedures and processes in the noble context of avoiding conflict of interest, insider dealing/trading and any other unfair business practices. By issuing this directive, the President was correctly and simply saying: it is absolutely wrong and undesirable for his Ministers to get involved in such activities. Following the directive on his Ministers, I expected the President to replicate it in his own case where doubts on his business interests would be avoided. But lo and behold, he does the opposite. Otherwise the Ministers would be aggrieved and rightly so on the seemingly double standards by their boss. Because I am not an expert on these complex matter of ethics, let me see what some experts say to appreciate the President’s predicament.
The question of ethical behaviour may be aptly answered by Dr Eva Tsahuridu, a policy adviser on professional standards in a 2015 article titled ‘Why ethics and the law are not the same thing.’ Therein, she says ‘ethics and law are not identical. Typically, the law tells us what we are prohibited from doing and what we are required to do. It is said the law sets minimum standards of behaviour while ethics sets maximum standards…Further, businesses and other organisations, which are increasingly considered citizens of society, are required and expected to not only comply with the law, but to be ethical.’ Michael Blake of the University of Washington wrote in his article: ‘Must the President be a moral leader’ by stating ‘…A President whose decisions are not grounded in the right sort of ethical values may be less well-equipped to respond well-and more importantly, might be frighteningly unpredictable in his or her responses.’ He concludes by saying ‘….If there is sometimes a reason to seek an ethically flawed President, it does not follow that all ethical flaws are equally worth defending.’ Chris MacDonald PhD and an Ethics Consultant says ‘Laws and ethics can conflict quite easily. Some behaviours are ethical but illegal and some behaviours are legal but unethical.’
If I apply the above to the President’s ethical conduct which I hereby do so, it obtains that he has only satisfied the minimum standards of legality in the equation while falling far too short of doing the same with the maximum and critical standards of ethical conduct. Like MacDonald posits, the President’s behaviour is legal but unethical.
Does the President’s involvement in business potentially expose him to conflict of interest? Without doubt I argue. Let me also see what experts say a conflict of interest is. Troy Segal says a conflict of interest occurs when an entity or individual becomes unreliable because of a clash between personal (or self-serving) interests and professional duties and responsibilities. Such a conflict occurs when a company or person has vested interest….which puts into question whether their actions, judgement, and/or decision making can be unbiased…’ Predictably, conflict of interest will obtain in this instance primarily as a result of the relationship between politics and business. As it stands, the President is already conflicted by virtue of him as a politician and a businessman at the same time and he is therefore serving two masters at the same time. The argument raised by the Press Secretary in an attempt to defend the conflict of interest issue to the effect that the President has, as a condition, impressed upon his business associates not to do business with government is simply a fallacy more than anything else. And this is why.
The President holds a powerful and influential position that cuts across the broader spectrum of society directly and indirectly. People from all persuasions be they politicians, businessmen and ordinary folks are in an intense scrum akin to that of rugby to be closer to the President for their own interests. This scenario puts him in a difficult position wherein ethical and conflict of interest imperatives are expected to become his guiding principles. In the current instance therefore, it is not enough to say the President is not conflicted because he has given out an instruction that the companies he is involved in should not do business with government. The simple fact that his name and position are intrinsically linked with such companies would give them an added, but unfair business competition. A lot of that unfair business competition would more likely be pushed by his business associates behind the scenes whether he knows it or not hence the conflict of interest narrative in this regard, seriously lurking in the horizon.
The last straw that broke my back is when the President allowed himself to be associated with a business partner whose credibility and uprightness in some way, have been in the news for the wrong reasons. And I am talking about the President’s business partner Mr Ottapathu Ramachandran. To be fair to Mr Ramachandran, he is credited with having played a meaningful role this far in the economic development of this country in one respect or the other though labour-related issues have been raised at his Choppies Holdings. If my memory serves me well, he recently contributed about P 10 m to the Covid-19 Relief Fund. That said, it appears he has not covered himself in glory if the latest developments and allegations are anything to go by. There are a plethora of business allegations against him which border on bad corporate governance. The President has pronounced himself on good corporate governance without flinching. Among these are forensic reports by both the law firm Desai Law Group and auditors Ernst & Young which cast a bad light on Mr Ramachandran’s governance credentials.
With the above as public knowledge, is it reasonable to accept that the President performed due diligence test on Mr Ramachandran as suggested by the Press Secretary as a business associate given the negative impression it could cast on the President and the high office he holds? Even if the offer from Mr Ramachandran to the President was too good to ignore, logic and reasonableness given the circumstances, should have necessitated it to fall away.
It has become more apparent than ever before, that parliament comes with a definitive law that regulates how the President of Botswana should deal with their business interests once they assume the high office. I am not so sure, given the current construction of the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities law, whether it deals sufficiently with this aspect if at all.
When all is said and done, the President appears to be deep in a hole he cannot dig further. Any spin-doctoring by the Press Secretary and however eloquent it can be with respect to the glaring ethical misconduct by the President together with the equally glaring conflict of interest, will damage the personal profile of the President together with the position he holds. It is indefensible that the Press Secretary seems to discount, ignore and dismiss with contempt the issue of perception out there. They say in politics, perception matters. I am deeply entrenched in my belief that the Press Secretary to the President Rre Batlhalefi Leagajang is defending the indefensible. I am prepared to be persuaded otherwise as always. Judge for Yourself!