An imagined or real dictatorship?

07 Dec 2018

By Kaelo Molefhe

The buzzword in our country from the weekend for those closer to civilisation, obviously, is dictatorship. For those who have been out of town lately, newspaper reports attributed to the immediate past president, Ian Khama, suggest that Batswana are now living under a different and completely new form of government. In the latest edition of Weekend Post, Khama concludes that we are living under a dictatorial rule – the dictator here definitely will be his successor, rre Masisi. When I read the newspaper, at first, I thought I was dreaming. It took me quite some time before I came to terms with what was in front of me – an ugly reality, which is the fact that I was wide awake and, as a result, in complete control of my thinking cap. Reality, however, hit me hard such that I had to go into a deep sleep for another two hours. I could not believe such a view could come from the immediate past president. Perhaps it was misrepresentation. But what kind of exaggeration is this? It would definitely be a distortion of historical proportions if its true.

In this instalment I revisit Khama’s purported comments and evaluate their appropriateness in contemporary Botswana. I want to assess how far we have veered of the track – political wise such that an immediate former president would arrive at such an astounding conclusion about the state of our polity.

That we have prided ourselves as unique among others in Africa is not a matter for debate. If there is one area where scholars and practitioners from across the globe converge is on the solid democratic culture and practise defining our system. Yes, there are plenty of explanations in terms of why democracy succeeded in our context when it failed elsewhere in developing countries, especially in Africa. The common denominator is often the Kgotla system, with many suggesting that it provided a quasi-type of democracy – obviously acknowledging it flaws such as limiting women participation on pertinent governance issues affecting their villages. Yet there are those who would not understand why the Kgotla system would be credited for making it easy for us to embed democratic culture and norms, when Lesotho – they too share similar culture with us, including having the Kgotla at the centre of their traditional political system - went on a different route. I think we just need to agree that the type of leadership explained the variance in democratic development between us and our closest relatives. In short, the type of leadership we have been blessed with since independence very much accounted for the trajectory within our polity. The effects are too obvious to see. We resisted authoritarianism and many other forms of governance that kept the population far from politics.

In light of the above, when I heard the claim that Botswana is under a new form of a political system I had to confirm the news with some of my friends. Indeed, the reports, sadly, are true. One is left wondering what he meant by dictatorship? I am not asking this question just for the sake of being funny. Surely, many of our people will not have an idea of what it means, partly because they have never had a chance to live under an authoritarian system for much of their lives, although those in the opposition would want to argue otherwise, especially during the reign of the immediate past president himself. But what exactly do we mean by a dictatorship? This is what a quick search yields, ‘Typically, in a dictatorial regime, the leader of the country is identified with the title of dictator, although their formal title may more closely resemble something similar to "leader". A common aspect that characterised dictators is taking advantage of their strong personality, usually by suppressing freedom of thought and speech of the masses, in order to maintain political and social supremacy and stability. Dictatorship and totalitarian societies generally employ political propaganda to decrease the influence of proponents of alternative governing systems’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dictatorship). Sounds familiar? To some extend a yes would be the common answer one would get when asked to reflect on developments of over the past decade under the stewardship of the immediate past president. One is then left wondering why he would want us to believe that we are now leaving within a dictatorial rule few months after he vacated the highest office in the land.

A friend of mine would come handy in helping me understand why the immediate past president would reach such a conclusion. Despite moving into the shadow of history, the results of Khama’s decade long rule are with us in the legacy of many reforms he pursued that curtailed much of the defining elements of the once celebrated democratic ideals enjoyed by many in this republic. And he primarily attributes this lag in transfer of effects of his policies to the current administration. It was always going to happen that way. Anybody who takes over from a strong man has to come face to face with his towering shadow. Under the past administration there was suppression of freedom of thought and speech. BTV was severely controlled thereby undermining its editorial independence. Everyone was living under fear of the DISS. The list is endless that talked of an authoritarian regime. Definitely, the chilling effects of such policy changes did not halt with the ascendancy of rre Masisi on April fools day. Rather, they are with us even today, meaning that Khama the civilian is for the first time, in well over a decade, experiencing what most of us had long been complaining about – dictatorship.

Finally, my friend, on a lighter note, asked me to bear with the immediate past president. To him the office of the presidency is such a powerful institution, far removed from our daily experiences. To make it even worse, the tendency of those around the president would be to offer him information that would make him happy meaning that they rarely tell him honest reality on the ground. As such Khama never got to know the truth in relation to how Batswana felt about his type of leadership. Now that he is out of the all imposing office, I hope he will have plenty of time to listen to varying interpretation of events that characterised his reign and, probably, admit that he is the chief architect of our current predicament. It would be nice if he can be counted among those interested in finding solutions towards restoration of confidence in our governance systems.

Dr Molefhe teaches Public Administration at the University of Botswana