Talking during an interview recently, the former Member of Parliament Rre Guma Moyo was asked to comment on the contemplated Citizen Economic Empowerment (CEE) Bill scheduled to be tabled before parliament in the July session. He answered rhetorically by asking the question himself and I paraphrase his answer-cum-question response: Who disempowered the very Batswana the Bill seeks to empower? I find this to be a compelling question to ask and at the same time finding the answer, hence this conversation. I believe a big chunk of Batswana (barring of course a few who have made it) have answers to this question because they have been impacted for the longest time in various ways by being spectators instead of the drivers of their own economy.Post-independence, few concrete attempts if any, have been put in place to meaningfully empower Batswana because and after all, this was part of the expectation of gaining independence. But here we are fifty four years after independence still trying to enact a law on citizen empowerment. Those who were supposed to ensure that Batswana are empowered should not bury their heads in the sand and pretend that all these years they never saw the need to drive citizen economic empowerment.
To answer Rre Moyo’s rhetorical question, the long and short of it is that the political party which he has served both as a Member of Parliament and an Assistant Minister of Finance -the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and which has ruled Botswana since independence has largely disempowered the very Batswana it is now trying to empower. I cannot be less brutal than this because this is fact and not fiction. If they had empowered them, there wouldn’t be the need for the contemplated CEE Bill. What should be happening at this point in time is for the CEE law which should have been passed decades ago, being re-developed, re-engineered and re-aligned to the changing times of economic development to further improve citizen empowerment.
It is acknowledged that government came up with interventions like the Financial Assistance Programme (FAP), the Special Credit Scheme for Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises, the Reservation Policy and others back then in an attempt to develop and empower Batswana while at the same time creating an environment for them to meaningfully become the biggest drivers of the economy. These interventions are contained in the Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis (BIDPA) paper I will refer to in the following paragraphs. But sadly, these interventions have not produced the broader intended outcomes as the economic circumstances of Batswana across the socio-economic landscape demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt. In the process, government as usual lost billions of Pula. The reason for this is that government, as always, would come up with very good interventions but fail dismally to ensure that such see the light of day. In this regard therefore and I argue, government is, and has been from time immemorial, the architect of citizen disempowerment while claiming to be the architect of the same citizen empowerment.
Like I have already said, the painful socio-economic circumstances of Batswana are the undisputable and demonstrable facts and figures on the ground hence Rre Guma Moyo’s question: who disempowered the very Batswana the contemplated CEE Bill seeks to empower? I am not suggesting by any stretch of the imagination that the contemplated Bill is not desirable but that uncomfortable questions to those who may feel some discomfort, and who had the political power to ensure that citizens are empowered as a matter of right if I dare say, should be asked.
In a 1999 BIDPA Working Paper by Senior Research Fellow Abdalla Gergis titled ‘Citizen Economic Empowerment in Botswana: Concepts & Principles’, it refers to The United Nations Development Fund Human Development Report of 1993 which says: “Development must be woven around people, not people around development-and it should empower individuals and groups, rather than disempower them.” The paper covers in detail topics like ‘What is Empowerment; The Rationale for Empowerment; Entitlement or Empowerment; Education and Empowerment.’ Given Botswana’s painful developmental trajectory thus far, the statement from the Human Development Report may very well be true for her. The fact that many Batswana live under appalling circumstances and conditions; are largely unemployed; are at the lowest tier of the developmental agenda amongst others, tell me that indeed development and by extension empowerment are not ‘woven around people.’
The citizen empowerment agenda has been given a lip service kind of approach for the longest time. History tells us that in 2007, the former Member of Parliament for Shoshong and the current Botswana Higher Commissioner to Kenya Ambassador Duke Lefhoko tabled the CEE policy in parliament whose principle was reportedly and broadly embraced by MPs from across the aisle. Government Paper No 1 of 2012 on CEE Policy defines CEE as ‘a set of inter-related interventions aimed at strengthening the ability of citizens to own, manage and control resources, and the flexibility to exercise options, which will enable Batswana to generate income and wealth through a sustainable, resilient and diversified economy.’ When one reads this policy document and compares with the disparities and realities on the ground, it emerges that it is a document good on the piece of paper it is written on than with the tangible outcomes it was created for.
Instead of translating the policy into law to give it the desired overarching legal binding as a progressive move towards empowering Batswana, parliament grew cold feet. Even it were law one could ask, would it have brought different results given the poor implementation of the current CEE policy. I don’t think so. In the intervening and subsequent period after the adoption of the CEE policy, the citizen empowerment agenda lost traction the result of which is the current socio-economic situation of Batswana. While Ambassador Lefhoko’s CEE policy was in abeyance so to speak, a group of people who were ‘politically connected’ and who are now obscenely empowered, took advantage and benefitted. And big time they did. It could be suggested that this was the beginning of the end of citizen empowerment.
Way past the century mid-point after independence, a discussion on the need to diversify the economy is still unashamedly ongoing. And I ask rhetorically like Rre Moyo: is there a valid reason why this economy has not been diversified this far and, will it ever be diversified anyway? How many global and local conferences and seminars on economic diversification have senior government officials including the political leadership attended and what tangible outcomes can one point to? There could be some but given what’s on the ground and the need for the CEE Bill, such is painfully negligible. I am mentioning economic diversification because it feeds directly into the citizen economic empowerment agenda in more ways than one. Some of these are that an accelerated Foreign Direct Investment drive to create meaningful citizen partnerships for job creation say in the tourism-advantaged Okavango Delta, agribusiness and the mining sectors. The painful truth is that in these sectors as an example, the socio-economic circumstances of Batswana are appallingly shameful and distasteful to put it mildly. Like someone said, many Batswana feed on the unattractive crumbs left by the big fish.
I have said it before that politics and business have put Botswana at the crossroads in many respects. In the citizen empowerment context, politicians are financed by business moguls who would have benefitted from the skewed empowerment dispensations whereupon the very business moguls and the politicians end up at the centre of determining whether the small Motswana as it were, grows up to their level or below. But because of the unholy alliance between politics and business, the citizen empowerment agenda with respect to the said small Botswana will remain in theory than in practice. It will be difficult to disentangle the unholy alliance because those who should do so are themselves part of the alliance. They are the aiders and abetters.
The contemplated CEE Bill will therefore in my view, be akin to starting a race with other athletes far ahead of you by a considerable distance. Chances of you catching up with them will be a big ask. The world of citizen disempowerment is, and has been aided and abetted by naked corruption, bribery, cronyism, fronting and all other ills thereto. And this disempowerment is deeply and truly entrenched. With the powers that be largely seen by the general population as having stifled while at the same time promoting citizen disempowerment, will the contemplated CEE Bill make any required significant difference. Your guess is as good as mine. However, they say it’s better late than never. Time will tell whether or not the contemplated CEE Bill will be what the doctor ordered.
At the end of it all, the BDP, on account that it has been in power for well over half a century, has in large measure disempowered the poor citizens of this country. Evidence is in abundance. Since Ambassador Duke Lefhoko’s 2007 CEE policy, many Batswana still remain spectators instead of drivers in their own economy. I am prepared to be persuaded otherwise as always. Judge for Yourself!