The goateed Speaker is slowly proving to be one of a few in the history of the House who won’t simply be an extension of executive overreach. He is brash, confident and unapologetic. While his is a job that has seen many cross paths with the executive, as never anything else, writes TSHIRELETSO MOTLOGELWA
“Do you have evidence?”
Phandu Skelemani asks the MP sharply. Silence…
“Do you have the evidence!?” he asks more loudly, increasingly exasperated.
Now Phandu is more leering than staring. The youthful MP for Gaborone South and Assistant Minister of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration Meshack Mthimkhulu is getting workshopped on through this quick but somewhat brief public excoriation, the method that Botswana’s new Speaker of the National Assembly would like to apply in the proceedings of this session. It will be a no-nonsense House for the coming five years, if the man from Mapoka stays in the job for that long. A lawyer and former diplomat, Skelemani is a man who won’t suffer and is readier than ever to show it by seeking an evidential approach to exchanges. It was never like that in this House that always attracts the attributive adjective of being an august place. If an allegation is to be made, then making it should adduce the relevant evidence. Phandu seems determined to make the place deserving of the August attribute.
Mthimkhulu looks about. He then fiddles with his files as subdued murmuring spreads through the House.
“Evidence … Banna, what type of lawyer are you?” adds Skelemani more to those next to him than to the House. But the microphone picks it and the MPs giggle. Before long, Skelemani has to put an end to the whole charade.
“You don’t have the evidence. Please don’t waste our time. Unless you have evidence, I honestly do not have the time.” The House falls silent and now Skelemani is half standing, bending just enough for his voice to reach the microphone. Which causes his voice to echo across the assemblage.
“To have our time, which is valuable, wasted by allegations which are not supported by evidence,” he bellows this time to everyone now.
The encounter lasted no more than two minutes, but viewed through the vantage angle from which Batswana imbibe their live TV feed, the television set, it takes on a certain aspect. Not many Batswana have witnessed Parliament in progress. Most importantly, not many of them have ever witnessed such a Speaker dress down a cabinet minister. But so independent is the man from the North East that within that same month he had scorched the Leader of the Opposition, Dumelang Saleshando, for exactly the same sin of bringing allegations to the House without so much as a shred of evidence. MPs, and most menacingly, the executive, is fast learning what type of man is in the top seat in the Lower House. It is a reassuring sight for a Motswana who has witnessed over decades an overwhelmingly strong executive, and in recent times, a presidential monopoly of power, wag the proverbial dog of the rest of the government, starting with Parliament.
If President Mokgweetsi Masisi, by nominating the veteran firebrand, was hoping for an amenable Speaker who would extend the power of the executive into the August House, he has indeed committed a mistake of epic proportions. On the other hand, if the President sought to develop parliamentary independence, he has found the right man. What is true is that in Skelemani, the hottest seat in political positions the country over, the Speaker, has found the man with the right level of grit and daring-do philosophy, and one who at that age and colourful CV, is a man whose legacy has already set and so is not about to sully it by kowtowing to a youthful and excitable executive.
Skelemani will know the ways of the BDP too, having himself been an instrument in its hands when the continent’s longest ruling party moved to stifle debate, circumvent democratic procedure and rubbish accountability in the past. Many a political giant has fallen after attempting to tap into the full potential power of Parliament as a Speaker. The most vocal of them was doubtless Margaret Nasha who at the end of her term had to leave the ruling party and join the opposition after a bruising battle with then President Ian Khama.
You could not mistake Phandu for anybody else. He has a somewhat greying goatee that makes him so specific in style that you could not mistake that face for anybody else’s in the entire 2.3 million population. When he was younger, the goatee gave him a certain urbane and avuncular look. He has the thick accent of an African jazz connoisseur host, grabbing words by the scruff of the neck without any respect for the intricacies of diction in the so-called Queen’s language. Nowadays he leers from the elevated pulpit of the Speaker chair with the look of a stern headmaster while his cacophonous charges mill about in bursts of rancour. Phandu has lived and indeed thrived on the factional world of parliamentary politics, which itself is a clone of party politics, outside of that giant House, from which it came. Of course, he is a member of some faction, one way or the other, but at any moment in time, this new Skelemani is on the side of parliamentary principle and Batswana are the better for it. Just this week, he had to tell off MPs, among whom were President Mokgweetsi Masisi, when he told them that principles of social-distancing still apply.
But as headstrong as he is, even a man like Skelemani, at his youth when he had much to lose from blind rebellion, had to work and function within the depraved dictates of the red party. His return, however, indicates that the executive will have to put up with a man with a mind of his own, a deep understanding of how democracy functions and an unwillingness to abandon principle for convenience least of all not under his watch.
When he sat down for an interview with Mmegi’s Ryder Gabathuse in 2008, he explained the meaning of his name, Phandu. “He says his name ‘Phandu’ means somebody who is strongly built with a strong chest. Because he was born towards the end of the World War II in 1945, his name meant a ‘warrior,’” writes the veteran journalist.
If there is anyone who could tell you about Skelemani’s strength of character, it would be former president Festus Mogae. At the height of the ethnic influenced battles for the control of the government in the noisy 1990s, as the era has been called, then Attorney General Phandu Skelemani found himself face to face with his own President. President Festus Mogae instituted a commission of inquiry into the integrity of the civil service after a number of mistakes resulting from advice he took from his most senior civil servants.
At the time Skelemani was the Mogae government’s most senior legal advisor. Mogae sought the advice of the commission of inquiry to work out what really was wrong with the most senior of his advisors in the civil service, concerned at the rate at which his government was committing serious mistakes. The result was the Khumalo Commission, which engaged South African judge Joshua Khumalo.
Mogae engaged Khumalo to explicitly “identify, by name the person or persons who are culpable or share in the culpability of the acts, errors and omissions” that led to the postponement of a referendum that had exercised the President’s mind at the time. More determined to cleanse himself of the spectre of goofs, Mogae went further to ask Justice Khumalo “to apportion culpability, should the commission find more than one person responsible for the said acts, errors and omissions”.
Another part of this encounter was that as Mogae’s predecessor Ketumile Masire stepped down, he had left his own commission of inquiry into the judiciary. Some of the recommendations touched at the very core of entrenched provisions of the constitution. After holding public hearings for a month and listening to legal representations from various parties, Justice Khumalo came to the conclusion that Attorney General Phandu Skelemani and IEC Secretary Gabriel Seeletso were equally to blame. Justice Khumalo found that Skelemani had to be held responsible for the defects in the questions of the referendum.“The Attorney General is in terms of Section 51 of the Constitution the principal legal advisor to the Government of Botswana. The preparations of the writ of the referendum and the questions to be answered by the electorate were his responsibility. In a savingram to the Attorney General dated 8 February 2001, the Secretary of the Independent Electoral Commission suggested certain amendments to be made to the Referendum Act. It is not clear why the opportunity was not seized by the Attorney General to rephrase Section 5 properly… I am of the view that he had the responsibility to see to it that the Secretary of the Independent Electoral Commission published a notice of the Writ in the Government Gazette,” Khumalo said about the feisty Attorney General.
“In my view, the two state officials Mr. Skelemani and Mr. Seeletso, are equally to blame for the postponement of the referendum which was to have been held on the 6th October 2001,” was the conclusion. Skelemani was outraged and he immediately launched a legal challenge to the findings, thus presenting the nation with the spectre of an unprecedented scene – the Attorney General suing his own superior in the President.
He survived that the high stakes having earned, albeit controversially, the respect of Mogae.
But it was as Mogae’s foreign minister that Skelemani’s outspoken streak came out. It was at the time when Southern Africa was seized with two major conflicts – the Zimbabwean saga between President Robert Mugabe and his opposition challenger Morgan Tsvangirai, and on the other hand, the never ending fight between Madagascan President Ravalomanana and his nemesis Rajoelina. In both cases, reflecting Mogae’s own non-conventional position, often Skelemani would be heard expressing dissenting positions that Botswana took in the regional economic bloc, the Southern African Development Community. Skelemani became the face of Botswana’s aggressively independent foreign position on the region’s most pressing matters. He famously dismissed Rajoelina as a man steeped in power games.
The transition between Khama and Mogae brought the most compromising position for the man from Mapoka. While Mogae had very intellectually based arguments for Botswana’s dissenting voice in the region, Khama came without any attempt to engage but rather to pontificate to the region. It was at the time that Skelemani became the face of a Botswana out of touch with regional issues but obsessed with its quite self-righteous position. The damage Khama did to Botswana’s regional standing is only being fixed now by Masisi. Khama also put Skelemani through the most compromising positions, as when the man from the North East, as Minister of Presidential Affairs, had to approve a move to steal money from the National Disaster Fund to sponsor the formation of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Service.
It is said by the time Skelemani left Khama’s government, he had fallen out with the strongman president. And as Minister of Presidential Affairs under Khama, Skelemani often had to defend what many saw as Khama’s presidential overreach. In the end, the veteran left.
The BDP has always stayed safe in the knowledge that they have themselves a compliant parliament under a – Book by Molomo on the lack of independence of Parliament, Nasha on her book and subsequently being ejected, appointment of Gladys Kokorwe and the resultant complaints from MPs that she was executive-minded.
Masisi probably made a mistake because if he was looking for pro-executive Speaker, this one is taking a tangent from the course. But if Skelemani is to learn any lesson of what the future holds for an independent Speaker, he has to look no further than the first woman Speaker, Margaret Nasha. Nasha had running battles with then President Ian Khama who preferred a parliament that was nothing but a unit of the executive. Khama’s fight with Nasha led to the latter leaving the Speaker’s hot seat and going straight to the opposition. The fights between Nasha and Khama are explored extensively in the former’s biography. In his own book, former speaker the late Ray Molomo explains extensively the executive’s interest in controlling the legislature and the pressure that a Speaker often has to put up with. In the last decade as BDP came under electoral pressure from the opposition, the party has sought to pressure its backbench to always tow the line and to ram the President’s desires down the throat of a critical Parliament. The pressure on the Speaker will not ease this time around.
Skelemani is now in control of a House consisting of an opposition ready to finish off the BDP’s narrow margins through rigorous parliamentary challenges and a BDP seeking to defend itself against any attack and its public standing. Parliament is that platform upon which these battles will be launched and fought. The result is that Skelemani will encounter all sorts of attacks on the legislative arm by the executive. Skelemani won’t fold for anyone any time. The problem is that he just might suffer serious consequences for his streak of independent thought as other speakers before him have done. That moment will arrive sooner or later when the executive comes knocking on Skelemani’s door for a few favours. It remains to be seen how he will handle it. One has the feeling it might turn messy. What is clear is that it is going to be a long five years for everyone from Masisi to the BDP to the opposition and for Skelemani himself.