Transitional pains: what needs to be done?

18 Nov 2018

By Kaelo Molefhe

Yesterday was the last day to register for the 2019 general elections. As is always the case with anything that calls for collective action, Batswana were a big disappointment, coming out at the last minute in huge numbers, meaning that some were unable to register to vote because either they were late at designated registration points or they were unable to locate their national identity cards – these are just some of the many excuses that dominated on the day. I however, tendered to agree with some of their main concerns, especially failure by IEC to provide for move registration points – although one of my friends didn’t understand how fewer registration points could have affected negatively registration, which for the better part of the almost 3 months was marked largely by inactive across the country. But importantly, at the end people did come in large numbers suggesting that 2019 will be a hotly contested elections. Something interesting kept cropping up at numerous registration points that I visited and, in particular, the current standoff between the current and former presidents. In this instalment I pay attention on this development and assess its implication on our purported socio-economic and political stability.

The Khama presidency was one of the longest since the inception of the constitutional amendment that provided for term limits at the highest office in the land, at least for many Batswana. It’s understandable. Khama was appointed VP in late 1990s, so, effectively, he has been at the top or very near for almost two decades. Mogae was in office but at the end of his two terms he disappeared into oblivion from the local political space, as one would expect given the practice globally. I understand the practice of moving into obscurity is meant to provide the new president much needed space to assert him/herself. In serious democracies transition is given seriousness for those reasons.

We should also recall that Khama’s entrance into politics coincided perhaps with our golden age as a sovereign state – the country’s economic growth was on steroids, and politically we were among the few stars that provided light to an otherwise dark continent. Everything was going perfect, except for social issues that included HIV/Aids and corruption and mismanagement – that were brought to surface following various Commissions of Inquiries in the mid-1990s, leading to resignation of senior politicians and bureaucrats implicated in graft. Khama, therefore, came at a critical junction in our trajectory, with many hoping that his involvement in politics would greatly benefit us as a people. I’m not here to pass judgement on his record at the helm of our polity. My interest, as indicated above, is on transitional issues that have been captured widely in both print and electronic media.

Transitional politics in Botswana have always played out in the open, seldom in a bad way since introduction of presidential term limits. But what we are currently witnessing should rank as the lowest point of our transitional politics, both within and beyond the ruling BDP. When Mogae left office after serving the mandatory two terms nothing much came into the open suggesting power tussle at play between him and the successor. It might be that the currents were far below the surface for experienced spies to notice anything, thereby giving an impression that everything went smoothly. In fact, one expatriate colleague of ours at the time expressed shock with the seemingly peaceful transition from one president to another, something which, according to him, was unheard of elsewhere in Africa. That to him that development suggested the political nativity of my people. I flatly refused to buy into his argument and reminded him how we paid more attention to formal procedural matters. Refusal to play by the rules is something that Batswana don’t accept, at least historically. We are also known to be respectful of formal authority. So any deviation would be viewed with suspicion.

Indeed, the air within and beyond the BDP is filled with distrust given what currently obtains between the current and former presidents. The standoff has reached a point of no return and, in the process, raised doubts about the future of our country. What worries many Batswana is that this issue carries far reaching implications for our nation. I know there are those individuals suggesting that this is a purely BDP matter. I doubt and very much worried about that reckless thinking. When presidents engage in a fight, a brutal fight for that matter – one that produces winners and losers, we encounter a scenario where we the ordinary mortals faces serious consequences – political stability of the country is threatened. Tribalism – the bane of African politics raises its ugly head, and I won’t be wrong to suggest that, lately, the standoff has taken, unsurprisingly, a new dimension: north-south aspect. In fact, the rapture is so serious that there is never a week where newspaper headlines don’t talk of appointments at least at senior levels carried on the basis of regionalism and tribal affinities.

But we know the genesis of the current standoff. An array of deals were entered into between our political leaders within the ruling party – the main one being amendment of retired president’s benefits, which was passed in the wee hours of parliament by our MPs. Few dissenting voices could be heard, but even prominent opposition members were complicit by their absence on that night. In one of my earlier instalments I noted thus, ‘Yes, it’s about former presidents but the public knew exactly who the intended beneficiary was/is. Many things raised eyebrows on this one. The timing of the amendment, obviously, raised suspicion. Parliament had to go on until midnight to ensure that HE got what he wanted. Seriously, our MPs worked very late, something that under normal circumstances wouldn’t be expected from them. There was motivation on their part to work into the night. A bait was placed before them – just a mere proposed 4% salary and 40% constituency allowance increments for them. But the script did not go according to plan...When parliament met the amendment for president’s package was presented before theirs with the hope that theirs would then sail through.’ At least we know the source of this transitional pains. What we also know is the potential implications of what could happen should the situation be allowed to continue. What then needs to happen?

Many possibilities have been suggested to bring to closure this situation, but Ndaba’s response to SONA last week provided a sensible starting point for all of us. We should take sides. We need to encourage dialogue and allow fairness to prevail. After all, Botswana is for us all and posterity.

*Dr Molefhe teaches Public Administration at the University of Botswana