Saturday, July 4, 2020

Our obsession with a ‘slay queen’ presidency would turn a primitive bandit into a good man and vice versa!

This column has previously argued that whoever took over the reins of the republic from former president Dr Khama would have the mammoth task of restoring public confidence in the presidency. This was necessary after the former president has turned the office upside down, making the mere mention of its name strike fear into honorable, law-abiding, disciplined non-offenders.

Relatedly, there was a need to re-engineer the presidency after Dr Khama appeared to suggest that he should not be blamed if he did not take his job seriously because he never wanted it in the first place.     

To refresh the readers’ mind, former President Dr Khama revealed to the Financial Times in 2009 that he would have preferred to venture into tourism and run a couple of charities. He is quoted saying, ‘first of all, you should understand that it was not my choice to enter politics’ because politics was not attractive to him.

Nonetheless, Dr Khama accepted the presidency and muddled through in a role that was never attractive to him. In the process of muddling through, Dr Khama used his rhetorical talent to create a presidency that allowed him to appear in front and at the center of most activities, essentially being very busy but really doing nothing.

Dr Khama created a presidency founded on a strong connection between the people and their president wherein the president became the proprietor and citizens became his stock that he could feed and starve at will. This creation would in a very big way define the role of the president and went on to change public expectations of their president.

In line with the refurbished presidency, a president has to take charge and lead from the front like a pastor with the ability to comfort the nation during a tragedy, handing out tissues to distressed persons; or like a benevolent father of the nation who hands out cash to needy people during his regular public appearances.

In effect, the Khama presidency, in particular, his demonstration of personal presidential concern by rushing to people’s aid on the strengths of his showmanship became our criteria for grading the performance of a president.

Thus, popular expectations of an effective president in contemporary Botswana is one who spent most of his time in grief at the passing on of any mortal, and is someone with the ungodly habit of pretending to care by doing what rented mourners do best.

Essentially, we have come to be overly obsessed with a president who takes responsibility for everything and has to show emotion in the stone-age way. This obsession is cemented by our fervent believe in the adage that the buck stops with the president in ways that make a bad person and a bad president look competent.

Our obsession with this type of presidency has tended to fashion the incumbent as the most famous celebrity in the country with the wherewithal to represent and conciliate the varied and competing interests of millions of citizens.  

In effect, the incumbent came to focus more on small matters like handshaking, waving to hungry people, playing to the crowd and being overconfident in being half mad. The tragedy of it all is that weighty matters that merited the president’s undivided attention were relegated to the sidelines as the unserious president took to girlish priorities. Thus, our obsession with the presidency somewhat weaponizes the incumbent and makes him more powerful and important than he actually is.  

There are concerns that President Masisi’s leadership is not really noticeable in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic in spite that he chairs the Presidential Covid-19 Taskforce. These intense public feelings about President Masisi, especially his laid back presidency must be understood in the context of the grading rubric that is inherited from Dr Khama’s presidency.

Perhaps public expectation was that all updates on Covid-19 activities would be announced by His Excellency, in particular, matters relating to the lockdown regulations. The public cannot be faulted for entertaining such cheap expectations because we are used to a president who pretended to care about us more than himself and sponsored the illusion of having the divine power to make anything happen; the ‘your caring president is here for you’ type with abundant crocodile tears.

However, we need to appreciate that governing is about more than just being frantic as to keep pressing the elevator button hoping that doing so will make the elevator increase its speed. We need to be reminded that a president who wants to demonstrate that he is always in the thick of things becomes delusional and runs the risk of focusing on quick wins for himself at the expense of bigger victories for the nation.

Thus, our familiarity and preference for a busy-bee kind of presidency should not make us get disappointed when someone detours from the culture of a presidency that want to originate and announce every single decision even those that merit the attention of the dead.

The truth though is that Dr Khama’s busy-bee presidency meant that if his successor did not talk, stroll and trot busily in streets and villages as much as he did, he was always going to be judged clueless and/or and sleeping on the job. And if the successor were to adopt Dr Khama’s template, he still would have been damned as a shameless copycat.

In a way, whoever succeeded Dr Khama was always going to live with the paradox that he succeeded someone who wasted our 10 novel years but that he has nothing to offer because he is a product of the same guy who ruined our lives.  

While each administration must be appraised in the context of national priorities at a given point in time, our obsession with the presidency, particularly the pompous and pretentious presidency means that we run the risk of conflating governing with crowd-pleasing stunts in ways that make the president look like a big game farmer while voters behave like distressed hungry monkeys in captive.

The maxim that the buck stops with the leader does not mean that the president is responsible for and capable of everything but rather that some decisions can only be made by the president. This would imply that the presidency must cede space to professionals. Yet, when he does so, he is sure to be roasted for running away from responsibility. Our obsession with a presidency that fudgel all day while doing nothing gainful is such that the president has become a hook on which our lives are baited.

Masisi’s presidency appears to break with Dr Khama’s presidency in as many respects such as the way decisions are made. While Dr Khama’s decisions were often prompt and imperious in line with an imperial presidency, President Masisi seems to place premium on deliberation and persuasion.

This style of decision making does not really need the incumbent to show up at every event so that people take notice who is in charge. Yet, the truth is that whatever style of leadership an individual picks for his presidency, they will always endure relentless scrutiny particularly when there is a radical departure from ‘tradition’– the previous order.

While former President Dr Khama pretended that he never wanted to be president and later on wanted to rule from the grave, President Masisi brazenly and loudly proclaimed that he wanted the job of the president of the republic of Botswana.

That passion could as well mean that he was driven by reason and good character such that if he oozes same passion when making sound policies and programs as much as he did to lay claim to the job, Batswana would most likely realize positive changes but we would still be disappointed because we are desperate for something different, something we cannot even imagine.

President Masisi would do well to realize that in addition to our old-fashioned obsession with the presidency, he is being subjected to some of the harshest criticism because he publicly and passionately laid claim to the presidency and because he wanted it and got it, he must rule and not hide in quarantine.

Because Batswana are desperate for a model president who would dance to every song, travel only when we want and only to places of our choice, we will continue to appear to have been embalmed alive in so far as we believe that a good president is what we need for national prosperity.  

In conclusion, we ought to acknowledge that our flawed expectations on the presidency have contributed significantly in expanding the role of the president, especially with sissy stuff. Such acknowledgement will help us become realistic about the president, specifically that, the individual holding the office is just a fallible human being and is only able to do and achieve what is realistically possible. Otherwise we will continue to be disappointed with our presidents until we do mass suicide to escape from ourselves.

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.