When former president Festus Mogae became the President of the Republic of Botswana, a considerable number of Batswana were excited at the prospect of a much lively economy mainly because Mogae was considered a financial mastermind, a product of the famed University of Oxford who was succeeding a former school teacher-cum cattle farmer who had a rudimentary understanding of economics. Surely Mogae, like his predecessor, did not disappoint.
While this public expectation on Festus Mogae could have been impulsive, na├»ve and a sure act of desperation, it nevertheless pointed out that people would be more inclined to embrace a state president they considered to be somewhat brilliant, even a genius at managing the economy. This is so because while people appreciate the complex relationship between economic development and underlying political systems, they tend to place more premium on the performance of the economy.
Naturally, higher economic growth is generally expected to foster national prosperity and a better life for the individual. This is why voters who take themselves seriously are often demanding of how the incoming president is going to make their lives better. Fundamentally, this means that people would loathe an individual who inherit a sound economy only for him/her to drive it into the ground and leave a ruin.
However, one does not need to be a proven economic genius to become or excel as a state president even though one would be expected to have an average understanding of basic principles of macroeconomics essentially because they are mandated to legislate fiscal policy. Basically, many presidents manage the national economy by simply endorsing fiscal measures proposed by experts responsible for economic planning. What this means is that technocrats must be allowed adequate space to do their work. They must not be bullied, intimidated or arm-twisted into making decisions that are seemingly fanciful and popular with the average person but nonetheless unsustainable and harmful in the long term.
This being the case, it ought to take a uniquely incompetent, bossy, autocratic, high-handed and self-obsessed president to single-handedly cause the economy to collapse during his term of office. Specifically, such a president would first need to have an inferior understanding of basic economics as to be blockheaded or deprived of a head such that s/he could compel accomplished economists to make unreasonable and potentially harmful decisions. Additionally, s/he would also need to be despotic, self-opinionated and domineering as to brazenly interfere with the work of qualified and highly skilled experts on matters outside the reach of his/her underdeveloped brains.
This brings us to the general issue of policy making. In so far as it applies to government operations, a policy is what governments choose to do or not do. To this end, public policy making process entails the conception and subsequent implementation of policies that seeks to improve the well-being of society. In the context of this discussion, a state president who stirs the economy to a ground should necessarily have directed, through uncontested presidential directives, bureaucrats to initiate policies and programs that were harmful to the national economy.
With specific reference to Botswana, Dr Khama’s Presidential Directives and capricious announcements have tended to sidestep reasonable, nonpartisan and well-intent decisions taken by skilled technocrats. His directives effectively caused the formulation and implementation of his own development policies that gobble considerable financial resources without fostering economic growth.
President Dr Khama inherited a very strong, resilient and fledgling economy that was the envy of all, including the developed world. Unfortunately, his presidency coincided with the global recession. In this respect, President Dr Khama cannot solely be faulted for Botswana’s economic woes that have ruined lives and turned the erstwhile budding nation into a miserable lot.
Whereas it is admitted that he did not create the problems that are ravaging the global economy, The Badge of Couragecontend that many of President Khama’s policies have done irreparable harm to the national economy. In a global world, a country’s development policies are shaped by and have to abide with the values of the global markets. Any president who thinks he can use his executive authority to direct economic planners to implement populist but irrational development policies to favour special interests is at risk of expediting the collapse the economy. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that ‘if the [global] markets do not like your policies they will punish you’, and so Botswana is being punished for reckless policies.
It has been noted that President Dr Khama did not create our persisting economic problems. Instead, his populist policies have weighed heavily on the economy. His fanciful prescriptions such as those packaged for the poverty eradication program are by and large unreal and borders on extreme self-deception. Thus, President Dr Khama’s development policies have served to perpetuate the crisis of our economy much longer than it should naturally have lasted.
His macroeconomic policy choices that border on financial irresponsibility have not created secure jobs and most painfully, could not retain jobs inherited from his predecessors. His policies have promoted a cruel culture of consumerism that has created a society of slackers and contended destitute persons. Rather than initiating long term measures to calm the turbulence and weather the storm, President Dr Khama sought to prescribe measures that would delight the average person with a poor sense of life, while hoping that the economy will rebound on its own. The cumulative effects of a misfiring global economy and financial irresponsibility means that Botswana’s economy is at best in a hopeless condition.
Perhaps this is why many of President Dr Khama’s acolytes would want us believe that the performance of the economy and by extension, that of his predecessors was down to good luck in ways that imply that his predecessors were just lucky to have led the country at a time when the economy successfully managed itself. This is misleading and silly. The hard truth is that former presidents were not obsessed with themselves but instead allowed competent personnel charged with development policy formulation and implementation to do what they know best. Such show of confidence in the bureaucracy bolstered worker productivity and ultimately helped drive both economic growth and wage gains that enabled workers to live a dignified life. Consequently, people across the social divide worked hard to make Botswana a better place for all.
A concluding statement of this essay is that President Dr Khama might not be the worst president Botswana ever had but as far as the management of the economy is concerned, his performance has been alarmingly dismal and catastrophic. The Badge of Courage sincerely holds the opinion that Botswana’s economy would have now fully recovered from the global recession if a different person who understands the economy as much as an average economist had been in charge of our national affairs.
*Professor Dipholo teaches at the University of Botswana