Hardly two hours after the directive banning government adverts from the Sunday Standard and the Mmegi stable of newspapers was issued, word had already leaked beyond the government enclave. Because the directive is a unilateral initiative and not a product of consultations, it did not have protection from officials at the government enclave.
The directive goes against a judgement handed down by Justice Lesetedi a few years ago, that government should not use advertising to punish media houses for their editorial position.
It, however, only took the belief that the directive was initiated by the president for government departments and parastatals to put their full weight behind the directive. At the stroke of a pen, the whole government enclave was tipped towards impunity and away from justice.
The question that is troubling us is why, given the evident injustice of the directive, do so many public officers go along with it. It is not the few hangers-on and yes men that we care about, but those who occupy a far more ambiguous territory, the men and women who would be ordinarily ambitious and assertive in any society ÔÇô Cabinet Ministers, Members of Parliament, Permanent Secretaries and heads of government department and parastatals who trim their consciences like sails to the prevailing injustice and barbarity.
Most manage their roles under the current regime by acts of psychological displacement, priding themselves on the professionalism of their conduct or committing their small acts of rebellion ÔÇô like leaking the directive – to counterbalance their collaboration.
Botswana is suffering from the complex of tyrannical rule. In times of tyranny, real character must constantly be hidden and dissembled in favour of the multiple masks required to survive.
Our leaders would bash the media, defend extra-judicial executions, and withdraw advertising from newspapers according to the requirements of the official whose caprice they have to navigate. Our country cannot progress on fear and unjust decisions which are founded simply on the love of power. We need leaders of resolution and courage to lead Botswana away from eminent destruction.
The late Dr Martin Luther King Jr said: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Right now, only a handful of patriots are trying to hold back the tide of tyranny for the rest of us. Most notable is the Botswana Democratic Party strongman, Daniel Kwelagobe, who braved the president’s wrath for defending the party’s constitution.
It is very difficult and arduous to create and sustain a democracy. But history shows that closing one down is much simpler. You simply have to take a number of steps.
Tyrants from Adolf Hitler to Robert Mugabe and beyond took a number of steps, rather systematically, as if they had a shopping list. In a sense, they did. They were not figuring these things out as they went along. History shows that there is essentially a blueprint for turning an open society into a dictatorship. That blueprint has been used again and again in more and less bloody, more and less terrifying ways. But it is always effective.
As difficult as this is to contemplate, it is clear, if you are willing to look, that most of these steps have already been initiated today in Botswana by the Khama administration (Targeting key individuals like Daniel Kwelagobe, Pono Moatlhodi and Botsalo Ntuane, control the press and setting up of an internal surveillance system).
Because most Batswana were born in freedom, we have a hard time even considering that it is possible for us to become as unfree – domestically – as many other African countries. Because we no longer learn much about our rights or our system of government – the task of being aware of the constitution has been outsourced from citizens’ ownership to being the domain of professionals such as lawyers and professors – we scarcely recognize the checks and balances that the founders put in place, even as they are being systematically dismantled.
Beneath our very noses, President Ian Khama and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society. It is time for us to be willing to think the unthinkable – It can happen here. And we are further along than we realize.
We need also to look at the lessons of history to understand the potential seriousness of the events we see unfolding in Botswana. We need to look at history and face the “what ifs”. For if we keep going down this road, the “end of Botswana” could come for each of us in a different way, at a different moment; each of us might have a different moment when we feel forced to look back and think: that is how it was before – and this is the way it is now.
We are hopeful that Botswana will eventually prevail against at this trials and tribulations. History is on our side. No cruel regime lasts for ever. No tyrant has ever won. However, there will be a price to pay along the way: Careers will be destroyed, companies will be ruined and lives will probably be lost. But we will prevail in the end.