COVID 19 Cookie Jar: What happened to the Auditor General’s Report?

A pandemic should not inaugurate widespread lawlessness in a democratic society but should instead reflect the character of the nation and its citizens in upholding the best values and principles of the society and national life, writes OSCAR MOTSUMI

As a country, we have done a good job of taking vaccines to Batswana. Even so, we really ought to have done better, can do better, and should definitely do better in the coming months. It’s been two years now since the eruption of the coronavirus and the COVID-19 pandemic, with devastating consequences for economic growth, public health, human lives, human rights and democratic governance the world over.

While we should to better than we have done over the last two years, reports from Government Enclave are not encouraging. Let me share a personal commentary on the Botswana Auditor General COVID-19 Government Preparedness and Response with Reference to the Management of Government Financial COVID-19 Relief Fund Report. It makes for sad reading.

The Fund was ostensibly established to mitigate the negative economic impact of COVID-19 alongside a comprehensive operational framework for a preparedness plan and response strategy to the COVID-19 outbreak. Components of this framework included country-level coordination, “planning and monitoring, risk communication and community engagement, surveillance, rapid response teams and case investigations, points of entry, national laboratories, infection prevention and control, case management, operational support and logistics, as well as procurement of vital commodities”.

To operationalise the framework, the government established a special fund, the COVID-19 Relief Fund, to provide financial resources for “procurement of national relief supplies fund evacuation costs for citizens outside Botswana, finance national publicity outreach programmes, relieve selected industries and sectors, set up counselling centres and facilities, hire additional staff to support health professionals and fundraise an economic stimulus package (the) post-COVID-19 pandemic”.

And what happened?

Public finance management suffered serious strains due to “prompt decisions” and implementation of “drastic measures to protect communities at risk and minimise the attendant economic consequences.” Instead of mitigating these “strained” conditions, inefficiencies opened doors “for procurement process violations”, especially fraud and corruption, which debilitated “the adequacy of Government proactive activities”.

The “relaxation or realignment of controls and rearrangements of processes and procedures” opened the “Government coffers to abuse or theft of public resources”. “All this happened because Government, through PPADB Circular No.4 of 2020, instituted emergency procurement procedures that allowed for direct appointment of suppliers without going through the standard procurement process.” This resulted in increased levels of “waste, mismanagement and corruption at a time when Government resources (were) under pressure…”.

It is shocking that the government could respond this way to a health emergency crisis that at the outset directly threatened the lives of hundreds of thousands of Batswana, the very same Batswana who voted it into public office only a year previously. The matter was debated in the last Parliamentary sitting with no sanctions imposed on known wrongdoers. As usual, the matter will die a natural death or will be swept under the carpet like many others before. Where is the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee?

Let us recap. The legal framework and institutional arrangements for response to the COVID-19 pandemic were grossly abused, violated and frequently disregarded with impunity. Public awareness campaigns about the pandemic were not adequately carried out. Government inaction to stem the tide of abuse and corruption threatened, undermined, compromised and reduced resource mobilisation efforts to the detriment of society and the nation. Monitoring, review and reporting on progress regarding the national response to the pandemic suffered in terms of standards and quality.

Books of accounts for all these programs and actions were poor, and often non-existent. Internal control measures failed to capture and mitigate financial irregularities and gross misappropriation of public funds, including Relief Fund outlays. Lack of time and late or failed submissions by some departments and ministry officials made it impossible for the Auditor General to do an exhaustive, compelling and more revelatory report about this scandalous state of affairs.

By any stretch of the imagination, what we have in this report is damning characterisation of bad leadership and the worst excesses of political and bureaucratic corruption. It is not essentially a problem of unpreparedness; no, it is a revelatory crisis and portrait of systemic dysfunction, entrenched greed and self-entitlement in government.

This is a violation of all effective and developmental characters of good governance. Governance itself has suffered terrible injury and disrepute, and this deserves public censure. Behaviour like this is a serious threat to national security, public safety and the lives of citizens and the nation-state itself, and this is impermissible.

Behaviour like this is a serious threat to the principles, processes and structures of the entire public service infrastructure and the future of the country. No government should behave like this in the face of an existential health emergency crisis with a base, clear and fatal note for the deaths of citizens, the weakening of health systems and the possible destruction of the national economy and public treasury.

All these actions undermine, erode and threaten the rule of law. A pandemic should not inaugurate mob lawlessness in a democratic society. It should instead reflect the character of the nation and its citizens in upholding the best values and principles of the society and national life. Above everything, it should demonstrate the capacity of a mature nation to uphold the constitution in the darkest and most trying moments in national life.

These behaviours are a terrible commentary on market engagement by the government of the day. The report shed a most unflattering light on the quality and capacities of the government’s human capital and demonstrated a most shocking disregard for taxpayers whose lives are being threatened by COVID-19. In short, the civil servants who allow such behaviour to flourish and triumph are their own worst enemies.

The integrity of public financial management has been ruined and it will take years to return to decency and moral probity. These findings pose a serious question about the government’s faithfulness to the social contract and public citizen engagement.

The problems and challenges outlined above have the potential to seriously undermine our collective efforts as advocacy agents to create and promote better societies and healthier local communities, to create and promote better political behaviour and actions and deprivation-responsive public policies and legislation, to fight and eliminate the most pernicious public ills: poverty, disease-ridden communities, discrimination, stigma, corruption and economic underdevelopment.

To solve social problems, it is very important that we first close or eliminate institutional weaknesses, behaviour and attitudes threatening the proper procurement and safeguarding of public goods, and we do have many civil society organisations that worry about issues of public integrity, corruption and waste of resources useful to national development.

One thing is certain; asset management within government is in peril unless someone acts and does so immediately. Disaster resilience will evade us, should we continue condoning such brazen rent-seeking behaviour in the face of tragedy.