Sunday, August 9, 2020

Masisi, Khama & coronavirus

President Mokgweetsi Masisi should be careful not to make his predecessor Ian Khama a hero, or even a martyr. He does not deserve that.Yet with every day that passes, Masisi itches closer and closer to achieving just that.Last week’s letter to expel Khama from the Botswana Democratic Party was an unforced mistake that led to an own goal.In an era of short-span concentration it is difficult to see what strategic purpose the expulsion could serve.Other than making a Khama come-back into the BDP harder, but certainly not impossible, it is not clear what more the letter sought to achieve.

Khama is now at a stage where he does not need government, much less the BDP.For example, he has little or no access to state owned air travel, yet he still remains much more travelled locally, thus more in touch with rural people than Masisi.And a keen student of modern media, Khama’s visits to rural areas are ever calculated for maximum effect.The only social occasions where Masisi beats Khama has to be on attendance of bereavements, which have somehow always scared Khama off.Name recognition aside, Khama still elicits excitement among ordinary folks.The task therefore for Masisi is to find a right balance in his strategy to overshadow Khama.

Going the nuclear route is hardly the best way to achieve that, especially since attempts to obliterate Khama have not been accompanied by tangible and discernible changes on people’s life on the ground.As the ruling party readies itself for a national elective Congress, the Botswana Democratic Party is fiercely divided; perhaps as divided as it was ahead of the elections last year, if not worse.There is no agreement on the candidates. There hardly ever is, anyway.More telling however is that there is a simmering discontent on just where the country is going. Early indications are that these differences are likely to flare into the public thereby setting personalities against each other.There is a strong sentiment that government is not delivering on BDP electoral promises.  There are two sides to this.The first one has got to do with a glaring lack of urgency on the part of government.

This leads the nation to wonder just where the country might be headed.Up until now they have been shielded by absence of a crisis.Now coronavirus is all over us. Elsewhere the virus is killing people. And with anxiety increasing the level of distrust in government has become palpable. All of a sudden, the virus has become an integral factor in our politics. President Masisi now faces having to deal with Khama and also Coronavirus.The second – and this should concern all of us, is that so far the key people in government either do not understand Masisi’s vision or they simply do not share it. This includes cabinet ministers and indeed permanent secretaries.The blame game is about to start. Sometimes government decision making channels resemble managed chaos.For Masisi it is going to be a winter of discontent.

Scientists tell us that coronavirus thrives in winter.Thus, this winter, coinciding with what promises to be a rowdy congress might mark Masisi’s arrival on dry land.Just as experts are warning us that coronavirus reaches its peak in winter, we also learn that even the most high-minded intellectual does not always have all answers to the questions facing the nation.He might win elections – at both party and national levels. But winning the heart and minds and delivering on promises have remained elusive. Patronage and largesse with which to buy peace with belligerents is steadily running out.

Detractors are never far away. They are playing the long game. For them the president is not as impregnable as it seems.A rebellion is brewing inside the BDP.Former ministers are regrouping, with the sole aim of making it more difficult for him to run the country.These are the people who lost elections. They feel they have been left in the cold.They are disaffected. And petty as it might seem, they are convinced they have valid grievances.Their biggest gripe – and it is being used to disguise self- interest – is that Masisi is not running his course.

Inexperience, leading to lethargy and schoolboy gaffes in government is emboldening them.They want to capitalize on what they see as Masisi’s blusters and empty promises.These former ministers have their ranks swelled by former permanent secretaries who have been unceremoniously let go from government.In public they are keeping a distance from Khama.But there is no doubting that behind the scenes there is close coordination and comparing of notes. It is a coalition of the aggrieved.Ordinary party members are the most confused, not least by the stories they hear about their president.Many of the people who carried him on their shoulders ahead of elections are now having own doubts. In their own small corners, everybody is praying that they are wrong.If their fears come to pass the president will first experience the pain of disillusionment followed by contempt of a voter who feels disappointed.

It does not get more personal than that.Khama has never given up his dream to extract whatever revenge he might from Masisi.For Khama the ultimate trophy is to see Masisi out of power.But whatever small victories might come of it will still be consolations worth celebrating for Khama.Masisi arrived where he is today by winning a string of victories in the face odds that often seemed insurmountable. Any setback, however on his part will bring down crashing any aura of invincibility or omnipotence on his part.More crucially it would mark the end of politics as he has grown comfortably to know it.

Botswana’s political system puts absolute control on the president. There is not the slightest allowance for power sharing even with the like-minded. Any division of power is the stuff of academics – existing more in theory than in the real world.Thus, any failures of the system or any dissatisfaction with it, even if only perceived make Masisi a legitimate target, including from friendly fire.This must frighten the hell out of his campaign foot-soldiers.

As for the man, he never ducks a political confrontation. In fact he will cross streets just to pick one, which is why he has adopted the Khama annihilation as a personal project.Even for a supremely shrewd political strategist, his strategy carries with it inherent risks.Putting one’s strength to the test is always a risk. It often feels like trying to negotiate a terrain fraught with pitfalls.It might in the process expose weaknesses. It’s always safer to keep that blanket of mysticism around the self.So far Masisi is doing absolutely nothing to confront the story that his government is failing.Coronavirus is another bear-trap awaiting him. It might yet further expose the apparent lack of depth in his government.

Today’s voters are impatient and unreliable. They are also unashamedly transactional.The letter to expel Khama from the BDP has been an overkill.It once again exposes a lack of political maturity around the people surrounding Masisi.Right now the country is seized, as it should be with fighting coronavirus. All hands should be on the deck for that effort.Khama can wait.People view him as a self-imposed distraction or a diversionary tactic by government. Either way it will with time come around to haunt those in charge.To an ordinary apolitical mind, Khama has since after elections become a non-issue.People will wonder, “why the obsession?”

It would seem like everytime this government has a difficult governance task to perform it reaches for Ian Khama.This has become like an old record.And it no longer sells.

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