- Matsheka is the case in point
Botswana is gripped by the fact that the Minister of Finance and Economic Development Peggy Serame is the first woman in this Republic to have presented a budget speech. It is fair and proper to acknowledge this fact. Congratulations should be in order to her for having achieved this feat. Other than this, there is nothing more to celebrate. And this is because she is directly appointed by the President and therefore serves at his pleasure. As soon as she crosses the President’s path over points of principle, the door will be widely opened for her to exit. By all standards, Minister Serame meets all the requirements to serve as the Finance Minister given her strong credentials in the finance/economics fields. Her academic achievements speak loudly in her favour. She is a worthy candidate who has worked in government for so long.
But her appointment to political office has less to do with these credentials but more with the aspirations and interests of the appointing authority, the President. It doesn’t get as brutal as it is. The President has become allergic to fighting corruption, the rule of law, good governance, accountability and transparency. I have repeatedly discussed these issues on this platform and see no need to repeat expanding on them. Most if not all the problems and challenges facing this country are as a result of the allergies mentioned above.
For a Minister to work for the President, they must be loyal to him. Loyalty in the world of politics as it has emerged, means the appointee must do as the President says. In cases where appointees are professionals in their own right, the unwritten rule is that in providing loyalty to the President, they forego their professional ethics sometimes if not in all cases, violating them for their own political survival and expediency and more importantly, to please the President.
When Hon Thapelo Matsheka was appointed to the same portfolio Minister Serame currently oversees, the same euphoria and excitement currently swelling around the latter were palpable if not breath taking. I still vividly remember when during the presentation of his maiden budget speech in February 2020 that he repeatedly used the phrases ‘it will no longer be business as usual’ and ‘the transformation agenda’. His fellow party MPs punted the phrases further with vigour you will never imagine. The import of these phrases suggested the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) brand was fundamentally changing for the better from its chequered past. Truth be told, almost two and a half years after these phrases were pronounced by Hon Matsheka, Botswana is still at ground zero to realise the promised outcomes of the phrases. This because I want to believe, Ministers do not exercise their ‘independent minds’ in their respective ministries. It was telling then that Hon Matsheka was in the driving seat with the full concurrence of the President. His appointment to the position was never in doubt because even the hard-core Opposition MPs endorsed it.
Nobody is certain as to what led to the deterioration in the relationship between Hon Matsheka and the President wherein he got demoted to a junior ministry and ultimately left out of cabinet. It is however speculated he was concerned amongst others by the manner in which the Covid-19 Relief Fund was (mis)managed and the suggestion to the effect that the President was not particularly impressed by Hon Matsheka’s promise that he will provide quarterly reports on the Fund as Opposition parties and other stakeholders put him under severe pressure to account for the Fund. The import of these speculations is that the President more likely felt the revelations on the Fund could possibly hurt his public image and that of his administration whose political consequences could be too ghastly to comprehend. If the report on the Fund is what Hon Matsheka feared, he may very well be vindicated by it as it has lifted the lid on the goings-on at the Fund. Whatever the true story to the relationship between the President and Hon Matsheka collapsing irretrievably, the undisputed fact is that the relationship has collapsed irretrievably with divorce papers duly signed. Under these circumstances, his credentials as the most qualified person to hold the position of Finance Minister counted for nothing. I am panting the foregoing to illustrate the political lion’s den Minister Serame could have walked into consciously or unconsciously in her current portfolio. Let me come to Minister Serame.
Despite the fan-fare that accompanied her pre and post budget speech, I had hoped she will depart from her predecessors’ convention and tradition with respect to the construction and content of the speech. Further, I had hoped she could carry forward the previous speech in terms of highlighting what it had promised to achieve; whether such promises were achieved and if not, what were the reasons. It has since emerged it is business as usual under her stewardship. She has like her predecessors, eulogised problems and challenges the country faces which have been in the public domain for the longest time without coming with new innovations to resolve them.
The Auditor’s Report on Covid-19 Relief Fund was delivered to her in October 2021 and rightfully so because her ministry is the one that managed and dispensed funds therefrom. I accept the Office of President took over the management of the Fund. This notwithstanding, I expected her to shed more light in her budget speech as to the far-reaching steps she had taken thus far to address the problem. This considering some of the funds misappropriated could have saved some of our departed compatriots due to Covid-19 virus. I believe there are administrative steps within her powers to deal with matter notwithstanding the fact that other agencies out of her portfolio are pursuing it. It is fair to argue she failed to do so because the report is damaging on the Office of the President on one hand and on the other on the President himself. In short, Minister Serame simply glossed over this matter because she does not want to upset the apple cart.
Minister Serame, just like her predecessors, conveniently failed address the elephant in the room that is corruption. Despite some of the good intentions in her budget speech some would argue, I argue on the other hand these will count for naught if the elephant in the room is not meaningfully and decisively tackled like a hard defender would do to a stubborn striker. She has correctly stated that corruption is like cancer that should be treated as soon as it is detected. But pitifully, she does not prescribe the concrete corruption steps she intents taking to deal with corruption apart from stating the obvious Batswana have become accustomed to. Project management has for the longest time been riddled with corruption resulting in lengthy litigations, project overruns, delay in the delivery of projects and so on.
The issue of public servants permitted to do business with government is another elephant in the room in which Minister Serame mentioned in passing in her budget speech. By implication, this a recipe for outright corruption and divided loyalties. On one hand, one such loyalty should be accorded to government with respect to adjudicating over tender processes through which projects emerge and in which public servants must dutifully implement for service delivery to members of the public. On the other, the very same public servants have a duty to be loyal to their own companies in ensuring that they benefit somehow and in some instances, through hook or crook from the very same tender processes they adjudicate upon. Without saying it, black envelopes stand to exchange hands in circumstances as these. The shenanigans that gave birth to the Auditor General’s report on Covid-19 Report is in large measure I argue, as a result of conflict of interests created by public servants doing business with government. Minister Serame has dealt serious injustice to this issue by failing to be firm on it probably more to do with political implications than anything else.
Restructuring State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) is akin to watching the same movie over and over again. It has repeatedly been mentioned in many previous budget speeches but with the needle stubbornly refusing to move. The very same needle is still refusing to move under Minister Serame seemingly because she does not, like her predecessors, have professional solutions. What she has in abundance like her predecessors, is eulogising problems with no measurable and implementable solutions. If these were available, she would be talking of demonstrable outcomes. As I write, about ten or so of these SOEs do not have substantive Chief Executive Officers-a resolvable impediment that has been there for as long as one can remember. With the process of restructuring them still underway coupled with the lack of substantive CEOs, how further badly will they be when subventions are withdrawn? Your guess is as good as mine.
When all is said and done, Minister Serame stands to achieve very little to nothing through her budget speech. I do not for a minute doubt she does not have the wherewithal to achieve. I have long conceded she does. Her immediate stumbling block she will readily know and come to terms with is that she operates within the contaminated political environment in which she cannot as expected, solely resolve problems and challenges she raises in her budget speech without a lurking hand coming in between to spoil the process. Minister Serame like her other colleagues in cabinet will have to attend to these problems and challenges the way her boss being the President so direct. Will she be so brave to demand the politically driven dispensation where government allowed public servants to do business with government abolished like yesterday? Will she be so brave to demand her government wakes from her slumber to deal meaningfully and decisively with institutionalised and naked corruption the nation witnesses at every turn? Will she be so brave to ensure the Auditor General’s report on the decimation of the Covid-19 Relief Fund is acted upon as soon as possible given its sensitivity to the departed compatriots? People misappropriated the Fund when our compatriots were gasping for the last breath on their hospital beds. Or will she be a compliant and loyal Minister who chooses to see no evil, hear no evil nor speak no evil? Only time will tell. I am prepared to be persuaded otherwise as always. Judge for Yourself!
‘No one is safe until everyone is safe’.