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Botswana has always been a frontrunner in democratic politics in Africa. This was until 2008 when a former Military General took over the reigns and started undermining Botswana’s status as the shining beacon in a troubled continent. When many countries in Africa subscribed to an uncivilized and satanic political system of president for life, Botswana introduced a two terms limitation on presidential power as guarantor for political development. It must be noted that since independence in 1966 Botswana has been governed uninterruptedly by the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). At one point Botswana’s President Q. K. J Masire held office for a whopping 17 years.
This long incumbency of the president led to some people complaining that they did not want another ‘Bandanyana’ (small Banda) in reference to Hastin Kamuzu Banda who ruled Malawi for 30 years, from 1964 to 1994. While Sir Ketumile was not entirely against the idea of retiring, he did however emphasize that he would do so when he was ready. His reluctant pronouncement on such matter of national importance must have worried his Cabinet which allegedly started working on a retirement package ostensibly to entice him and future president to voluntarily exit office. It was finally announced that Sir Ketumile would leave office at the end of March of 1998.
Perhaps owing to this hell of an experience wherein Sir Ketumile showed a propensity towards long incumbency [that he had wished to retire when he and only himself wanted] even though he eventually exited voluntarily, and/or due to some other political considerations, the ruling BDP proposed to introduce a ten year presidential term limit (of two 5-year terms) after a recommendation by a consultant they engaged after the 1994 general election. The proposed presidential term limit that eventually became a constitutional provision was hailed as a check on presidential authority.
Generally, presidential term limits are hailed for consolidating democratic politics as they limit incumbent’s capability to use state institutions to manipulate elections and/or destabilize and paralyze political competitors. They are also acclaimed for providing opportunities for political transitions and bringing fresh ideas and new policies and programs as a result of competition for state power.
In effect, presidential term limits are presumed to offer opportunities for strengthening democratic institutions and the democratic process. Overall, presidential term limits prevent leaders from remaining in office for long regardless of their popularity or performance. In this respect, term limits may also minimize chances for tyranny of the masses especially where an irrational and stupid majority may wish to persuade a leader to stay put for as long as His Maker keeps him breathing.
For instance, when former Botswana President Dr Khama stepped down in 2018 at the end of two mandatory terms of office (10 years) some irrational and brainwashed members of the public sought to persuade him to change his mind in order to stay in office for an extended period of time. Has it not been for a constitution that clearly prohibits a president to stay in office beyond 10 years; has it not been for opposition party activists and critics who risked their lives for the greater benefit of society and has it not been by the Grace of GOD that his former Vice President duped him into believing that he will be allowed to rule from the grave, the will of the irrational and brainwashed majority could have probably prevailed and Botswana would still be stuck with a despot.
In spite of valid counter argument against presidential term limits, specifically that they violate the will of voters who wish to have their preferred leaders stay much longer in office, the practice has substantially contributed to making the world a better place. While Batswana have every reason to celebrate the benefits of presidential term limits of two 5 year terms, we must always remember that as a frontrunner in democratic politics, young democracies look up to us for inspiration not just as a worshipped African Miracle but also as a bona fide trendsetter.
Unfortunately, under former president Dr Khama Botswana not only stagnated but regressed considerably hence the need to recalibrate, revolutionize and modernize our political system so that other countries could follow us and grow. There are many prime areas where Botswana can as usual take the lead and one such area would be the introduction of shorter presidential terms. Imagine if Botswana [the erstwhile shining example; the idol of millions who are suffering at the hands of their leaders] did things differently from the rest of Africa and newer democracies copied our systems, Africa would be progressive and more democratic with opportunities for human beings and other creatures to prosper.
Presently a majority of world countries are on a two 5 year presidential term limit. While 10 years in office is many, many times better than the barbaric practice of president for life, a decade in office is just too long, especially in today’s dangerous world where leaders want to loot and then hand over the reigns to their younger brothers to finish the damn race. This is compounded by the reality that in many countries in Africa, incumbency guarantees victory at the next polls implying that there is limited chance to interrupt a despot was in office, hence continuation of the dominant order – despotism, nepotism, and so forth.
For instance, in 2008 Botswana inaugurated its 4th president, a military general who instantly made no secret of his dislike of politics and his contempt for politicians; a divisive figure who went on to crowd his Cabinet with ex-soldiers in a move that set off panic buttons, locally and internationally. By the end of his first term the erstwhile shining example was polarized and paralyzed beyond recognition. There were weekly reports of extra-judicial killings, rampant corruption and the erosion of basic civil liberties.
However, the national constitution permitted him via a general election to stay in office and continue to do the damage for another half-decade. This tragic arrangement in particular the stark reality that the ruling party was always going to win the general election and that Dr Khama was going to be in charge of state affairs for another five years tortured many souls. This column lamented the impeding second term of a despotic presidency crying out that ‘barring a last minute miracle it is a given that Ian Khama will get his second term as the President of the Republic of Botswana, which basically means another six (6) or more years under the leadership of a no-hoper. This prospect is torturing me and literally giving me sleepless nights. It is hard to take it but there seems to be no other way except to put up with this tragic presidency’ (Sunday Standard, 26th Nov, 2012).
Batswana are a smart people. We have experimented with a two 5-year term presidential term limit since 1998. It has helped us to grow our institutions and processes for over two decades. The practice has been passed on to emerging democracies and Africa has become a far much better place for human beings to survive in it. We have got to draw lessons and indeed we have learnt a painful lesson for ourselves, the continent and the rest of the world, which is that that long incumbency is demonic and is centuries past its sell by date.
As a result of long incumbency, Botswana has stagnated, regressed and her People have suffered and would not wish for any people to experience their suffering. It is against this chilling experience that Botswana proposes to move with the times and cut the president’s terms of office from the current two 5-year terms (10 years) to just one 5 year term whose length will coincide with the National Development Plan (NDP). We have seen Ian Khama introducing brief case and ‘me nice’ programs parallel to those that have been approved and incorporated into the National Development Plan in ways that ensured that they worked at cross purposes. As often as it is in our unique DNA, Botswana must take the lead both in theory and practice. Botswana has always nurtured the story of exceptionalism and we have to affirm it by keeping up the momentum and taking the lead in modernizing our political system through constitutional reforms.
The proposed constitutional reform is logical, progressive and will certainly lead to greater rationalization of democratic politics and perhaps help in rescuing Africa from its never ending nightmare. The Badge of Courage enjoins the civil society, ruling party and opposition party activists, legislators and all rational citizens to give support to this non-partisan proposal in order that it is thrust into public debate.