On April 1, 2008, incoming president, Ian Khama, mentioned alcohol abuse among “social problems in our society that we need to address as a nation.” Within certain circles, however, there is growing consensus that Khama’s solution to this particular problem produced a bigger problem that incoming president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, acknowledged minutes after being sworn in.
“As you all know, Botswana faces a myriad of challenges such as unemployment, poverty, crime, HIV and AIDS, alcohol and drug abuse, amongst others,” he said.
This is how the problem has snowballed: in 2008 it was alcohol abuse and in 2018, it is alcohol and drug abuse. While no study has been undertaken, some see a causal link between the response to the 2008 problem and the current bigger one.
For too long now, Botswana has paid too high a price in terms of blood and treasure as a result of alcohol abuse and Khama was right in recognizing that this problem that had to be tackled. He was wrong in not recognizing that even with the best of intentions, the enterprise of problem-solving is not neat because it can lead to other and bigger problems. The Liquor Act that went into effect on the very day that Khama became president reduced trading hours for establishments that sell alcohol at a time that there was no systematic intervention to reduce alcohol abuse. For young people in urban areas going through a developmental stage in which getting high is a rite of passage, hard drugs either replaced alcohol or became a substitute when bars were closed. The high demand that followed led to a hard drugs market that has made some people multi-millionaires while destroying young lives.
Tied to access to alcohol is its availability: Khama introduced alcohol tax that made alcohol prohibitively expensive. This situation compelled some to turn to hard drugs which are relatively cheap because they are stronger and their effect takes a much longer period of time to wear off.
While hard drugs have always been available on Botswana’s black market, they only came to represent a public health emergency in the post-2008 period. This is just too much of a coincidence. There was drug abuse during the presidency of Festus Mogae but there was never the problem that society is experiencing and witnessing now. This is indeed a view that is shared by law enforcement officials and health professionals who are in a unique position to appreciate this issue better because of the nature of their work. To be clear, the Botswana Police Service and the Ministry of Health and Wellness have not made an official pronouncement on this issue one way or the other but in private conversations, police officers ÔÇô some very senior ÔÇô and health professionals say in unequivocal terms that the drug abuse epidemic is largely a result of Khama’s alcohol levy.
While the view that the frustration of being unemployed (especially among university graduates) may also be a factor, unemployment is nothing new and if it necessarily leads one to drugs, that would have been the case a long time ago.
The new president inherits not just a palatial home in a prestigious address and the perks that go with the residency; he also inherits a drug abuse problem that was largely caused by bad policy-making.