Monday, June 1, 2020

Politics of Covid-19; Botswana locked down by a crisis of faith

Even before the arrival of coronavirus, hints were already shaping up, indicating that it was never going to be easy for Mokgweetsi Masisi to run the country.

A few weeks after achieving what he thought was substantive victory at the polls, his mandate and with it legitimacy were put to the test by the opposition. They took him and the Independent Electoral Commission to court.

In the end he won the legal contest – albeit on technicalities, but never the goodwill of opposition.

Now coronavirus is putting him on an even shakier ground, and along the way bringing back to life issues he thought he had long settled.

But still nobody could have anticipated what is now playing out in full public glare.

Everybody agrees that the country is facing an existential crisis that is possibly more severe than the HIV/AIDS epidemic that hit the nation twenty years ago.

Yet no consensus exists on how best to tackle coronavirus.

Botswana is undergoing a paradigm shift.

The differences are always to be expected. 

Experience from elsewhere shows that Covid-19 can only be fought and defeated by science, data and medical evidence. Medics and experts not politicians should always be the ones leading all the effort.

Yet the whole of this week from lockdown in their homes Batswana watched in disbelief as the country’s top leadership engaged in spin and disinformation.

Parliament was holding an emergency meeting.

At every turn, speaker after speaker engaged in politics, anecdote and innuendo. To make matters worse the whole drama played out on national television – every minute of it.

It was little wonder that in the end news broke out that all of Botswana’s Members of Parliament including the President, Vice president and all of cabinet would be going for quarantine.

A nurse who had been working among them had tested positive.

If it comes to pass it would be President Masisi’s second isolation. The first one having been after his fateful trip to Namibia.

But even for a third world country, the scope and scale of events were altogether shocking. 

Masisi started by anchoring his presentation asking parliament for six months long State of Emergency.

He laid out a need for a symmetric approach to the virus. He combined science, politics and constitutional law.

If what transpired thereafter as the House debated the president’s motion on State of Emergency is anything to measure the country’s level of preparedness, then Botswana has a long way to go.

The level of solidarity among political leaders in the face of disaster remains zero. There are no attempts on either side to accommodate the other.

From their body language, the opposition is evidently getting emboldened. The main opposition decided not to attend a key meeting that was intended to brief them by president Masisi. The president had hoped to portray a united show of force.

The general feeling among the opposition is that coronavirus might be an opportunity to turn their political fortunes around.

The opposition, especially the UD C has been defeated, but using its wing in parliament they are already looking at 2024.

Leader of Opposition Dumelang Saleshando said after listening to experts for close to 12 hours, he still did not understand how President Masisi reached his six months State of Emergency request.

“It’s like all guess work,” he said.

If that was not a tell-tale, then it was a pre-emptive strike.

From the floor of parliament, he forcefully declined the request put forth by Masisi. And came up with his own version of an amended motion – his core argument being that no expert had ever suggested 6 months.

Instead of 6 months Saleshando suggested 28 days State of Emergency.

And for a while that was a rallying cry for opposition benches.

The whole drama had started two days earlier at a meeting convened by President Masisi to meet leaders of opposition. It was an attempt at statesmanship that went horribly wrong.

There is no agreement on any of version of events that led to this meeting.

It depends on who you are talking to.

By the time the meeting started it was already clear that there were issues playing behind the scenes.  Umbrella for Democratic Change leader was not going to attend or send a representative.

Instead there was RAP (Real Alternative Party) and also BMD (Botswana Movement for Democracy), both of them fringe parties with no mass appeal on the ground. 

They neither have a seat in parliament. And are considered lightweights and even none-entities.

Alliance for Progressives, which has a single Member of Parliament also attended.

UDC is by far the largest political grouping in opposition politics – made up of Botswana National front, Botswana Congress Party and the Botswana Peoples Party.  Though in opposition, in 2014 UDC share of the popular vote exceeded that of governing power.

The meeting kick-started with the president saying he had called it to engage political leaders in an atmosphere of non-contest.

After four hours in closed-door meeting they all emerged in smiles and smooches. They hailed each other and even completed each other’s sentences.

For all the spirited attempts to hail and prop each other up, UDC absence had been a spanner in the works.

WHO keeps warning that coronavirus likes to capitalize on existing political differences among the nations.

They could easily have been referring to Botswana.

The crisis in Botswana is only just beginning. At the time of the meeting there were 6 people who had tested positive, with one death of an elderly woman found to have had pre-existing underlying conditions. Two days later the figure of confirmed cases had sprung to 13.

Botswana is entering new phase of uncharted territory.

And from the look of things experience from HIV/AIDs will not provide a blueprint on how to fight coronavirus.

If the president is overwhelmed by unfolding crisis, then he’s not as yet showing it. He switches from the hyperbole to a mode of empathy with ease.

“Our country has not seen anything like this,” he said in reference to coronavirus.

Botswana has seen a good share of disasters. 

In 1999 the then president Festus Mogae shed a tear as he told the world that his country was teetering on the brink of possible annihilation.

By the time he retired almost a decade later, he was considered a global legend after he led Botswana efforts to convince the world to come to the rescue.

At the meeting with other opposition leaders, Masisi, for the first time made it known that he would be putting forward for parliament endorsement a request for 6 months State of Emergency.

For those who were hearing him for the first time, it felt like he had just dropped a bomb.

And bickering across the nation flared up. By the time parliament convened the nation was already on fire. Attempts by Masisi to allay fears that he could abuse the powers given to by the State of Emergency fell on deaf ears.

“I have no desire to abuse, trample or obviate anybody’s rights on account of State of Emergency,” he said at the time. More than once he said he will use the powers only to fight Covid-19.

That did not assuage the detractors who argued that he was playing up people’s fears in return for a State of Emergency that gave him excessive powers.

The argument is that there are existing laws that empower the president to fight Covid-19 without resorting to the state of emergency. There were still no buyers.

The severity of the disease even in more developed countries makes for a grim reading. It took China almost four months to bring the disease under control.

Faced with what was fast morphing into an embarrassing situation with potential to attract global criticisms, China literally sealed off Wuhan from the world. And moved all the nation’s medical assets – a massive infrastructure – to Wuhan where the virus first emerged. 

Masisi made a point that even with a State of Emergency, Botswana would never marshal the kind of resources that China had been able to deploy in Wuhan.

By contrast, he said Botswana has at most 150 ICU (Intensive Care Unit) beds. Models and metrics created by experts indicate that possibilities exist that Botswana could need as much 5000 ICU beds.

That would cause the whole infrastructure to collapse.

For now, given the differences, fueled by underlying mistrust nobody knows for sure where the country is going.

Clearly economic distress is one of the things top on the president’s mind. And when he met some of the opposition politicians, he made it clear that Botswana did not have the kind of economic depth required for a prolonged lockdown. He does not want it to go for much longer.

Of course, he is not saying it in so many words, but Masisi is counting on China to come to Botswana’s rescue.

Almost absent mindedly, he made a casual remark that he would be talking to president Xi Jinping of China.

Across the world China has not been a trustworthy friend. But a prize a awaits a president of Botswana who can bring something home.

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Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of May 24 - 30, 2020.