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In my teenage years there was nothing that made me angrier than a bully, be they schoolyard bully or staff bully. I still recall the day I refused to take punishment from a male teacher that students feared more than the venomous reptiles that inhabited the hills surrounding Moeng College. My mates were completely baffled and reckoned that I may have started a war that could possibly destroy my life or career. Apparently, the teacher who happened to coach the school’s soccer team confided in some of his student footballers that if ever he does get me, I would wish I was never born.
I had refused to take punishment because I was fully convinced that I did no wrong and that the teacher was merely capitalizing on my being meek, tiny and passive and of course his widely known aggressive use of positional power to intimidate students. Luckily, I had the sympathy of other staff members and this saved my life.
Generally, I was well behaved and obedient throughout my schooling journey. While I, like other students, often got whacked for the flimsiest of transgressions by somewhat frustrated teachers who derived pleasure from taking out their frustrations on defenceless students, I despised staff bullies with my all. Essentially, one of my favourite former teachers – Mr Odirile Gabasiane (my sincere apologies for using his name without his consent) – once remarked to me that bullies are generally powerless and insecure people who persecute their victims so that they are thought to be tough and unmatched.
Perhaps this is what made me stand up to the Goliath considering that I have been called worse things by better people and never lost my temper or felt the urge to take them head-on. In spite of his threat to brutalize and dehumanize an innocent and defenceless student, I duly completed my Form 5 without any further confrontation with the widely feared teacher who had a frightening nickname and an imposing frame, either because I am naturally well behaved or because I had exposed the teacher’s powerlessness or both. Anyway this is not an opening story about my experience with bullying but a reminder that we should stand up to bullies in the full knowledge that there is always special place in hell for bullies and public tyrants who want to be worshipped.
There is nothing that is unjust or callous than an ex-president who also happens to be a retired Lieutenant General; a Chief of one of the most populous tribes in the country and the son of country’s founding president to use his privileges to make an incumbent president feel small, inadequate and unimportant. What former president Dr Khama is doing to incumbent president Dr Masisi is the worst form of public bullying and this is exactly why the transition from the previous administration has never been smooth.
No matter one’s political affiliation, this transition has been a cesspool of intimidation and bullying tactics, characterized by overt sabotage and paranoia with the potential to make the country ungovernable. Yet, our failure to find a solution or rather to stand up to the perpetual bully machine is mainly due to our treatment of Dr Khama as a conventional former president and not the violent bully boy he has been acting like; a ridiculously overpriced cheese with all the ingredients of a genetically modified substance. We are supposed to stand up to bullies and to do so we must first of all admit that what we are currently experiencing is not normal.
Unlike other African societies, we may not have the requisite experience to address this unique predicament but we need to acknowledge that these are extra-ordinarily dangerous times that require all responsible citizens to rise to the occasion and condemn this appalling behaviour where a privileged and powerful individual has turned our state president – the face of or nation- into a punch bag.
While the transition cannot escape being a partisan affair to be used as political fodder, it nevertheless should unite us as a nation so that we push back against the bully. We cannot afford to nurture a bullying culture for political convenience for doing so will be slighting the Botswana society and mankind as a whole. Lack of respect for the state president evokes shame and renders us a nation of modern day dinosaurs. Our failure to individually and collectively speak out against the bullying of our state president by former president Dr Khama and his moneyed cabal could make them think they have our support.
Certainly, there are people who are enjoying the bravado, the brash and bare-knuckled confrontational posture of former president Dr Khama. However, such behaviour has resonance with a toxic political culture and incorrigible abuse of power and surname. This situation can only appeal to teenagers and irresponsible adults and this should never be tolerated. As a nation that is proud of its democratic tradition and reverence for the rule of law, we must frown on the technique of bullying because it is a symptom of social dysfunction.
While he may have handed the relay baton to his successor in simple terms of vacating the State House, every day features a minutely detailed battle for his retention of power, relevance and influence. Every day, every hour and every minute is dedicated to creating and making use of opportunities to fan rivalry; kick up dust at Kgotla meetings that pander to villagers with a poor taste of accountability; marinating his loyal subjects and lackeys to risk their lives for him and capitalizing on widespread resentment against the ruling party. This he does specifically to portray President Dr Masisi as a backstabber and an incompetent leader.
In accordance with Botswana’s democratic tradition on presidential succession, former president Dr Khama should have exited the political stage to make room for the new broom of ideas and voices. This old age tradition abhors the existence of a permanent ruling family. No individual or family has a monopoly of wisdom. For former president Dr Khama to express surprise at the discontinuation of some of the programs he initiated is primitive, disingenuous and reckless paranoia.
Thus, in spite of the symbolic change of leadership, a lot of work has still to be done to restore some sanity and permit President Dr Masisi to manage and mismanage without a grumpy and nagging former President who seems so terrified of what is potentially coming his way. Philosophically speaking, there is a mad elephant in the room and it is not an exaggeration to say that the elephant is very dangerous, determined and a serious threat to the life of this republic. This troublesome elephant must be tamed using the old age technique of punching the bully in face.
Batswana are a law abiding, respectful, obedient and polite people that politicians often take for sheep that can follow a hyena to its habitat. Former president Dr Khama is a textbook example of a bully and bullies always take advantage of those who are obedient, polite, compliant yet ambitious and capable. It has become the central tenet of Dr Khama’s playbook to publicly and repeatedly bully President Masisi knowing that as incumbent president, Dr Masisi has to remain calm and measured in his use of executive powers lest he is accused of vindictiveness and abuse of power.
By virtue of his position and its resultant obligation, President Dr Masisi may not fight fire with fire. He may not do the things that former president Dr Khama does to him or hop from one media house to next to grant unsolicited interviews and yell at those on the other side. As a result of the demand of his office to exercise restraint, to those who enjoy the bravado, Dr Khama appears like a modern day Goliath with the wherewithal to trample on anyone who stands on his way, while President Dr Masisi do pass as soft, meek, beleaguered and unpresidential little guy.
Former President the United Sates, Richard Nixon once asserted that ‘when the president does it, that means it is not illegal’. This assertion speaks of arbitrary and wicked executive powers available to the state president. President Dr Masisi could turn to this principle to get even with his rival who has the advantage of being a tribal chief, a retired General and a former president. In any case former president Dr Khama had used this kind of overbearing executive power to silent dissenters. Perhaps unlike a bully with an impeccable track record, President Dr Masisi may not do so because he is considerate in manners and still subject to shame in spite of his unlimited executive powers.
Fear mongering; pitting tribes against another and reminding both his party and national leadership and Batswana in general that he is a chief; that he never chickens out and that prospects for reconciliation are almost non-existent is an old playbook for bullies.