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11 Nov 2018

In Botswana it is not inevitable that a vice president will have a significant say in the policy direction of government.

Unless a vice president ultimate rises to become a president, there is enough evidence in Botswana to show that every time epochal history is written of any presidency, a vice president of that epoch never goes beyond being anything other than a footnote.

That much is true of Lenyeletse Seretse and also Peter Mmusi, two vice presidents that never became presidents.

This is largely due to the fact that a vice president of Botswana is largely a ceremonial position.

We have seen in the recent weeks a groundswell of coordinated efforts to cast President Mokgweetsi Masisi as inherently untrustworthy or even outright dishonest person because he is overhauling or reversing policies that were put in place when he was vice president.

This narrative was started by Ian Khama – a grumpy former president who wants his policies to stay put and shiftless into eternity, by insisting that as vice president Masisi was part of all government decisions, and should thus not be reversing them.

Khama’s attitude towards his successor has given a portent shot-in-the-arm to Masis’s natural detractors.

“How far were you?” they are asking in unison.

This week the same narrative was adopted and taken to another level by Duma Boko, the Leader of Opposition in his response to the State of the Nation Address.

Clearly taking his cue from one Wame Rapitsenyane who had ambushed president Masisi with the same rhetorical question at a Kgotla meeting in Serowe recently, Duma Boko kept harping on the mantra “how far were you when the country lost its direction?”

All these could easily be dismissed as cheap politics. But leaving it at that would be risky because a false but lasting impression is being created that in Botswana a vice president is a powerful office that somehow has overweening influence on government policies.

In fact the opposite is true.

Officially, a vice president is the chief advisor to the president. But in practical terms we have seen the office being reduced to nothing more than an enabler – with the incumbent often being the chief bouncer and also chief protector and defender to the president. Often they do so by facing down any opposition to the president; inside government, inside the ruling party, inside parliament and even at national levels where it could be from the media or even from official opposition.

A vice president who does anything less is perceived at best as harbouring own ambitions for the top spot and at worst exhibiting outright disloyalty.

In the same way that Boko has been able to sideline his vice president at the Botswana National Front, who too has no powers, the president of Botswana can very easily sideline or quietly ignore his deputy.

It would thus be disingenuous to later on ask a BNF president how far they were when their party went astray.

Because the Constitution does not give the vice president any significant powers beyond advising and even deferring to the president, it is wrong and often impossible for a vice president to seek powers for themselves in cabinet – no matter how strong-willed a personality they might be.

During Mogae’s time, Khama was able to wield so much power not because of Khama’s personality but because Mogae’s defects that included for ten years literally abdicating all the presidential powers to an inexperienced political hand.

I remember a long and protracted debate we had with a few select few intellectuals when Ian Khama was vice president who felt that I was overly critical of Festus Mogae while treating Ian Khama, the true villain in their view, with kid gloves.

A strong view, which I still hold to this day was that as vice president, Khama was not in power, that Mogae could easily sack Khama if he wanted and that rather than an a sign of strength on Khama it was actually a sign of weakness on Mogae that Khama was so able to get away with everything, including refusing to account to both parliament and the nation even after he had been appointed coordinator of national projects.

It was for example a result of Mogae’s weakness that under his watch Khama was able to harness, hatch and midwife a defective law that ultimately begotten this nation a Frankenstein monster called DIS.

To be fair to Khama, when he was vice president he was always awake to the limitations of his position. He never overreached himself. He always consulted and deferred to the president.

Where he could easily have been brazen about his power, Khama always drew on his personality as a nagger to extract deals for himself from a president who by nature was neither fully attached nor comfortable to the excessive powers bestowed on him by his office.

The consent of the president was always sought, and tragically always given.

It was natural that Khama with time filled into the vacuum left by a weak president and effectively became a defacto Prime Minister while Mogae became a ceremonial Head of State.

In this Khama was as doctrinal as he was an absolute genius.

But when his time at the presidency came, being a control freak that he is, Khama could not allow any vice president the hefty luxuries and frills that Mogae had allowed him.

His became imperial presidency.

To all those who say Masisi was a key decision maker in government I say remember a simple fact that Khama is a person who brooks no dissent. And that at least once Khama, acting with a few cronies at both party and cabinet came close to sacking vice president Masisi.

I also say to them, remember that for Khama, outside of his small and shiftless circle of loyalist friends, many of who did not even work for government nor were Batswana, everybody else is shown his place and made to feel either intimidated or uncomfortable.

It is thus disingenuous when an impression is created that Masisi would have been a part of the big and ultimately erroneous decisions like closing the BCL mine where he was used as an errand boy bearing the bad news to the miners.

The vice president is from the beginning to the end an advisor to the president.

The fact that the position is spelled out in the constitution does not by itself make it a powerful position.

In fact it can be the most frustrating position in cabinet, with its only consolation being that its occupant is only a heartbeat from away from real power.

The ability for the vice president to be an effective check on the president ultimately depends on the personal relationship between the two and perhaps more crucially on the president’s slant and commitment to good governance and also collective leadership.

In the same way that there is no evidence for all these at the BNF today, Khama too neither embraced such values nor showed any slightest enthusiasm for them.

During his time as president, Khama for a large part relied for advice not on his vice presidents- he has had three - but rather on a motley crew of overseas consultants, ever present self-seeking but ultimately unaccountable friends from his days as an army general, semi-racist tourist industry players and last but not least his security intelligence infrastructure.

These people had so much power, influence and access so much so that some of them treated a vice president as no more than a tea boy.

Masisi in short simply had no chance against them. All he could do was play along and bid his time, hoping that one day he would have a bite at the cherry and start reversing all the folly policies of which he had been painfully made a part of the hurting and unwilling architects.

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