Since the live broadcasting of Parliamentary proceedings from Boipuso hall, I have been giving the Speaker of the National Assembly Rre Phandu Skelemani the full marks on how he demonstrated fairness, tolerance, impartiality completed by his rich sense of humour. But not until Monday 27 July 2020 when all these attributes seemed to desert him. He is also human like all of us. But Rre Skelemani is no ordinary human being. He brought to the Speakership and the National Assembly, glorious years of high levels of experience as a public servant grounded in law and as a politician. With respect to the National Assembly, he graced its benches long before he became a duly elected Member of Parliament. Consequently, he would have known how politicians behave and the requisite but restrained measures the Speaker resorts to. But lo and behold. Monday and Tuesday were completely different days.
Hon Dumelang Saleshando was suspended by the Speaker for refusing to withdraw his complaint that the President’s sister had acquired a fraudulent tender at the beginning of the Covid-19 period. At issue was the fact that the Speaker felt Hon Saleshando had not provided him with the evidence that linked the sister to the President in the said complaint. By any measure, failure to provide such evidence and trivial as it is in my view, wouldn’t be considered a refusal by Hon Saleshando to obey the Speaker’s instruction which consequently could result in a suspension. I am saying trivial in that at that stage, parliament was not even seized with investigating the alleged fraudulent nature of the tender to the President’s ‘disputed’ family relationship to the sister. That evidence therefore would be imperative once the investigation was truly under investigation by the competent and relevant institution. The suspension would be warranted and appropriate if during the exchanges between them, Hon Saleshando used un-parliamentary language, was demonstrably rude and disorderly to the Speaker. None of such conduct remotely or otherwise, was demonstrable on the two days of back and forth which could be attributable to the MP. Not by any means.
The suspension was pronounced by the Speaker on the Monday when Hon Saleshando’s matter was brought to the parliament floor. On that day, the Speaker did not cause the effect of the said suspension by specifically asking him to leave parliament. Instead, he said that given that the exchanges may have been at the heat of the moment, he gave Hon Saleshando the chance to reflect on the matter overnight presumably to come back the next with a changed position of withdrawing his complaint. At this stage, it appeared apparent that neither the Speaker nor Hon Saleshando would change their positions. That is, the Speaker was resolute in his suspension owing to what some say was political pressure from the majority party while Hon Saleshando was resolute as well in refusing to withdraw his complaint as requested by the Speaker. I am yet to understand why the process of naming the suspended MP as it emerged on Tuesday; the involvement of the two Chief Whips to move or oppose the actual passing of the suspension motion and others, was not implemented on the very day the suspension was pronounced by the Speaker.
Parliament rules generally speaking it is said, provide that a Member of Parliament could be suspended from its proceedings when such member ‘Persistently and wilfully obstruct the House; used objectionable words which she/he has refused to withdraw; persistently and wilfully refused to conform to a Standing Order; wishfully disobeyed an order of the House; persistently and wilfully disregarded the authority of the Speaker and, has been considered by the Speaker to have behaved in a disorderly manner.’ Do the foregoing apply with respect of Hon Saleshando even if suspension was appropriate? Not at all because he had neither misbehaved in the remotest possibility nor committed contempt of parliament let alone to the Speaker. So in so far as the generality and the specificity of suspending a Member of Parliament as indicated in the above quote is concerned, Hon Saleshando was harshly and unreasonably suspended from the House. And the action of the Speaker has set a very bad and dangrous precedent in the House.
It tells me that the Speaker is curtailing the objective participation of Members of Parliament in pursuing bothering national issues and in this case the corruption issue. While it is not good for MPs to hide behind parliamentary privilege to malign private citizens, nothing suggests for now that Hon Saleshando had any ulterior motives to name the President’s sister to have fraudulently obtained a tender. And this is because his complaint has not yet been tested to establish its veracity or lack thereof. Is there any legal or other basis upon which the Speaker should have suspended Hon Saleshando?
The answer could be located in the statement issued by the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) President Advocate Sidney Pilane. He says that the Constitution of Botswana which has created parliament which MPs are part of, does not give it power to suspend an MP, ‘certainly not an elected one…. Our parliament must not arrogate itself powers it does not have. Unlike in other jurisdictions, the Parliament of Botswana is not supreme. Like all of us, it is subject to the Constitution. Parliament is a creature of statute, the Constitution, and the limits of its powers are to be found within the four walls of that hallowed document.’ Advocate Pilane’s view is ably supported by the decision of the South African Supreme Court of Appeal judgement case No 279/98 in the matter between The Speaker of the National Assembly (Appellant), Patricia De Lille (First Responded) and Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (Second Respondent).
The crux of the matter in this case briefly is that De Lille was suspended by the Speaker who had ruled that she had used un-parliamentary language against others specifically ANC members by referring to them as spies. De Lille was asked to apologise and withdraw the remark which she did unconditionally. What was to follow was that parliament sought to punish her by suspending her for 15 days. Court held that ‘The threat that a member of the Assembly may be suspended for something said in the Assembly inhibits freedom of expression….The right of free speech in the Assembly protected by Section 58 (1) is a fundamental right crucial to representative government in a democratic society. Its tenor and spirit must conform to all other provisions of the Constitution relevant to the conduct of proceedings in Parliament. Part 3 of the Supreme Court of Appeal order was that ‘It is declared that that part of the resolution of the National Assembly adopted on the 25 November 1997 which purports to suspend Mrs Patricia De Lille is void and is set aside.’ Probably telling is part of the judgement that held that ‘No Parliament, however bona fide or eminent its membership, no President, however formidable be his reputation or scholarship and no official, however efficient or well meaning, can make any law or perform any act which is not sanctioned by the Constitution.’ Because I am adamant that Hon Saleshando was harshly and unreasonably treated by the Speaker, I am happy that he is challenging his suspension in court.
In conclusion and all things considered, the Speaker of the National Assembly was harsh and unreasonable in suspending Hon Saleshando. I hold the same view even if a majority party MP was treated in this fashion. He did not behave in any disorderly manner consistent with any reasonable sanction to be removed from parliament. It is disturbing that the Speaker seems to be entering a phase of his word or the highway. It must be accepted that while the Speaker is charged with ensuring the decorum of the House through enforcing discipline amongst others, it doesn’t mean that this equates to dictatorial tendencies as suggested by some. The issue of doubt in his mind that Hon Saleshando failed to establish the relationship of the President to the person referred to as his sister in his allegations is trivial and disappointing as I have said above. The Speaker cannot be allowed to curtail the rights of MPs as contained in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution. I am prepared to be persuaded otherwise as always. Judge for Yourself!
The Covid-19 Presidential Task Force is reporting that the pandemic is taking a turn for the worse. Health protocols are our best defence. Wash your hands with clean water and soap more frequently, keep social distancing and wear your masks. Our destiny is in our own hands.