Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Masisi’s repudiation of Khama was subtle, slick but very well pronounced

On the face of it, the words were innocent but if you read between the lines, they were certainly not.

“I wish to express my sincere gratitude to you on behalf of Batswana, Sir, as you have been a great source of inspiration to all of us,” the new president Mokgweetsi Masisi said, addressing himself directly to his predecessor, Lieutenant General Ian Khama. “Allow me in the same breath to wish you a happy, restful and rewarding retirement.”

During his 48-stop national farewell tour and at the last Botswana Democratic Party National Council, Khama was a little too keen to stress that despite his retirement, he is not going anywhere and will continue to play an obviously prominent role in national affairs. On the other hand, Masisi expects Khama to rest ÔÇô after all, isn’t that what retirement means?

Khama’s still being around post-retirement cannot be good news for the new president because it would mean that someone would be looking over Masisi’s shoulder and chaperoning him through governance. With Masisi in full control of both the country and the BDP, it will be interesting to see what the nature of his working relationship will be with Khama as the BDP’s Chief Campaigner ahead of next year’s general election. From the trivial (like Khawa quad races) to the most profound (like national governance), Khama has never wanted to be overshadowed but, as he himself can attest, the most powerful person in the BDP is always the president.

On becoming president in 2008, Khama unveiled a roadmap of four and later five D-word signposts that he said would guide his administration. At least in the early days of his administration, the roadmap became so ubiquitous that for some it became more important than the national principles. Even when it became evident that the roadmap was mere wishful thinking than a realistic plan, Khama himself would refer to the 5Ds more than the national principles. RIP 5Ds.

“We are committed to a modern Botswana that is not only open but able to openly compete with the rest of the world while maintaining our founding principles that have united this nation through difficult times: Democracy, Self-Reliance, Development, Unity and Botho still define us as a nation today,” Masisi said last Sunday.

To a group of people who grew up on a staple of 5Ds from both Khama himself and mostly senior government officials, the new president was reasserting the primacy of a more durable and uncontested set of values that are not identified with any one individual but with the entire nation. There is a context in which “still” reminds one that national principles are still more important than discredited personal roadmaps that were given the prominence they never deserved in the first place.

At the funeral of the second president and founding father, Sir Ketumile Masire, BDP stalwart, Daniel Kwelagobe, took potshots at General Khama by imploring the “national leadership” (Khama in other words) to “retrace its footsteps to the crossroads” and reorient its right path forward. Masisi would seem to have expanded this theme by making a loaded statement that also paid tribute to men like Khama’s own father, Masire and his own father who set the country on the right path at independence.

“Botswana is indeed fortunate to have had visionary leaders during its formative years, who were able to distinguish this nation from others, through their consistent adherence to shared values and principles, in particular, respect for human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and the spirit of consultation or therisanyo and botho,” he said.

Khama shared those values and principles at a rhetorical level only and in practical terms, brought to governance the autocracy that the army that he grew up in necessarily uses to maintain order and get things done.  No less a person than his own predecessor, Festus Mogae, publicly expressed worry that Botswana’s democratic gains were being reversed when he spoke in Tanzania in 2014. Khama didn’t believe in therisanyo and would make major policy pronouncements at kgotla and other meetings when the relevant parties had not been consulted. One very good example was the economic stimulus package (ESP) which was announced at a BDP national congress in Gaborone. Generally, there is a belief that Khama sidelined the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Kenneth Matambo, in the process of designing the ESP. That may or may not be the case but Matambo bolstered that impression when, caught off guard, he evaded media enquiries about ESP a few days after Khama announced it. This impression was reinforced when the minister could also not answer very specific questions from the Gaborone Bonnington South MP, Ndaba Gaolathe who wanted to know what “type of animal” ESP was.

“It is very clear that there is lack of understanding of what this animal is, including lack of understanding among cabinet ministers and even among civil servants,” said Gaolathe.

Another part of Gaolathe’s question asked Matambo to state whether his ministry consulted with the Bank of Botswana “around how this animal might be fed because in any economy, if the central government is going to be spending money, that money has to be spent in the context of that country’s economic capacity and the ability to absorb certain quantums of money.” The minister never gave a specific ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer that the clearly question sought. Instead, he chose to explain the nature of the working relationship between his ministry and the central bank in broad terms.

Masisi stated that his government will prioritise the implementation of a combination of “practical and realistic strategies” to stimulate accelerated economic growth. Given that practically all of Khama’s initiatives died on the vine, “practical and realistic” was evidently deployed to repudiate the old order and announce the onset of a new one.

Khama basically viewed disagreement over an issue not as evidence of a problem to be solved but as a battle he had to win at all costs. Evidence of that abounds in his dealings with political opponents, BDP dissidents, trade unions, the media and even the Chinese government. Masisi has already shown willingness to work with parties (like the media and trade unions) that presidents are traditionally at loggerheads with.

Beyond repudiating the old order, the innocent-sounding words also showed that contrary to what some feared, Masisi is no longer under Khama’s shadow.

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