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22 Apr 2019

There are mounting concerns that the euphoria that has accompanied Dr Masisi’s presidency may inevitably create a dictator in him. The fears are anchored on the conjecture that when voters get to describe their leader as the best thing that ever happened to them, they are effectively creating a personality cult. Fundamentally, the fears emanate from a realization that the public excitement following Dr Masisi’s assumption of duties as the President of the Republic of Botswana mirrors similar excitement that greeted the arrival of former President Dr Khama to the highest office in the land.

The euphoria that surrounded Dr Khama’s assumption of the reigns at the State House effectively shielded him against criticism, in the process making him an untouchable ruler who made his critics disappear in a matter of seconds. The worry is that like Dr Khama, President Dr Masisi may use this huge amount of euphoria surrounding his presidency to make himself an absolute dictator.

The shielding of President Dr Masisi by his supporters and sympathizers against criticism; the president’s proclivity to sound over-confident and his many statements denouncing those who hold divergent views have led to widespread fears that like his predecessor, President Dr Masisi could as well use executive powers improperly. His responses to irritating questions posed by his subjects have tended to paint him as an impatient, ill-tempered and mean leader with inclinations toward the imperial.

Certainly, these are not idle fears mainly because following the ten years of a brutal presidency in the history of the country, any semblance of a culture of impunity is enough to make us nervous. We have been to hell and back, thanks to the immediate past president, and we cannot afford another painful trip back to hell or somewhere near hell.

Whereas these fears are not the silly works of idle minds and whereas we should guard against leaders who are overawed by the trappings of executive privilege, reckless and careless worries about another absolute dictatorship may unintentionally complicates efforts to reassure citizens that the presidency of Dr Masisi has no ambition of being authoritarian. President Dr Masisi needs to be allowed space to discharge its duties without people sniffing for tiny, inconsequential and irrelevant similarities between him and the former autocrat.

Of course striking a balance between putting the president on a tight leash and according him sufficient space to discharge his duties will prove complicated and an academic exercise. Nonetheless, seeking this crucial balance will require that citizens have a solid understanding of the different between a president and a dictator and be knowledgeable about the extensive powers and operational spheres of the presidency. This is critical because the constitution of Botswana gives the president unwieldy powers and in using them one might be taken for an incorrigible despot.

The presidency is an office of vast powers and expansive scope that provide an opportunity for incumbents to unwittingly terrorize his subjects. The danger therefore is that the presidency boasts of unfettered powers that could be used by someone for personal gain. Wicked ones may also exploit vague provisions and grey areas to make decisions with harmful consequences. Batswana have over the last decade accumulated enduring lived experiences of a leader who used executive authority to silence opposition while enriching himself and his cronies.

Yet, a president who uses such wide-ranging and evil powers sparingly for the benefit of the nation will not be accused of dictatorial behaviours. The one who promptly summons executive power to get his way or who seemingly craves more power for personal use is an absolute dictator in the making. This is exactly what characterized the immediate past administration of Dr Khama who sought to expand his powers beyond what was already considered unfettered. Dr Khama used royalty to overstep his boundaries and unapologetically direct his executive powers towards overt authoritarian actions that wormed their way through all sectors of society.

Whereas we may not be safely out of the woods, we certainly have slayed the dragon of dictatorship and must not behave like couples in a troubled and insecure relationship who regularly snoop to find dirt and apportion blame. We need to resume our normal lives while remaining cautious to give a sniff of disapproval whenever we sense abuse of executive privileges.

Circumstances have changed and it will never be easy for any individual including President Dr Masisi to morph into a dictator. This is because while the presidency remains powerful, it actually needs the active complicity of voters to become autocratic. Batswana have come of age and will never be used as cannon fodder in efforts by leaders to undermine and discredit the reputation of critics. Batswana now know the guises and make up of a dictator under construction that often start with a push for populist policies that promise to save the poor from destitution while maintaining the status quo. As such, they cannot be fooled, trapped or co-opted as was the case with the immediate past regime.

From the word go, Dr Khama’s administration was personalized and all operational issues were sealed in his name. Programs and projects were initiated and implemented in his name. In effect, his push to establish a dictatorship was guaranteed of tacit consent. Dr Khama enjoyed unprecedented popularity that served to legitimize his autocratic behaviours.

On the other hand, President Dr Masisi may enjoy considerable public goodwill but his popularity manifests itself only in the context that he took over the reigns from someone whose approval has irrevocably plunged. Dr Masisi’s only source of popularity is that he is the opposite of that dictator we all wanted gone. Beyond that, he is a lightweight who will never have the space to behave like a son-in-law from hell.

Thus, President Dr Masisi cannot establish a dictatorship even if he wished so because he does not command that rare popularity that his predecessor enjoyed from a combination of royalty, paternal lineage, racial identity and military background reinforced by ethnicity. Dr Khama used military understanding of discipline to suppress dissent leading many to self-censor.

President Dr Masisi has no military background and cannot assume a bizarre interpretation of discipline. He is constrained to fake himself and his worldview. Former President Dr Khama also relied on his charisma –that spark or gravitas of a slay queen that presented him as an intelligent gentleman. Additionally, he used his amazing rhetoric to charm his subjects and render them his obedient pets. That allowed him to make hurtful remarks about people and get away with it as victims laughed off the insults as if they were mentally captured. President Dr Masisi is not keen to turn himself into a self-styled poet for purposes of captivating his audiences with crass jokes in order to evade important issues.   

Relatedly, President Dr Masisi will not be motivated to establish a dictatorship or even its guise because he has never nurtured an entitlement mentality consequent of his privileged and greedy laced upbringing. While being the son of one of the nation’s founding fathers, unlike Dr Khama, President Dr Masisi has had to sweat his way to the top.

Even as state president, Dr Masisi has still to contend with a revolt within his party with some yet to come to terms with the reality that they have a son of an obscure peasant at the helm. This means that the existing fierce rivalry within his party and/or resistance against his presidency as if he was an illegitimate immigrant will also ensure that his actions are above board hence he cannot do as he pleases like the autocrat that is his predecessor.

Certainly, if President Dr Masisi has displayed behaviours of a man intent on clamping down on opposition or cause some people to skip the border for their safety, it would be because he needed to have a firm grip in order to ward off someone’s straitjacket of subversive activities aimed at destabilizing the country.

Thus, if Batswana wish to see President Dr Masisi’s humble and unadulterated democratic credentials, they must fight in his corner to bury the autocrat that is attempting a desperate comeback to finish of the little that survived his brutal regime.       

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