“Coup” and “assassination” are words that have never been used to describe any calamity or possible calamity in Botswana. That changed in the beginning of this year when Sunday Standard carried a story about a coup plot to topple the government of President Mokgweetsi Masisi. Later in the year, the Maputo-bound presidential jet would make a U-turn mid-air ostensibly because trouble awaited Masisi in the Mozambican capital. There was another rumour about a coup attempt around the time that an early Motown group, The Manhattans, performed in Gaborone. Resultantly, an army detachment would be deployed at Mass Media Complex because the first stop after toppling a leader is the state broadcaster to announce to the nation that a new leader is in charge. That is what Captain Solo did in 1998 when he attempted to topple President Frederick Chiluba of Zambia.
While skeptics in the opposition say that there was any plot to either topple or assassinate Masisi, that there are even such allegations is a very good indication of where Botswana is headed as a country. Botswana is by no means at a tipping point but 2019 was certainly the inflection point. There is a context in which the world, notably the west, uses “Africa” and “African.” Africa is a metaphor for disease, corruption, dysfunction, election-rigging, violence and lots of houseflies buzzing around the open mouth of emaciated, pitch-black babies. Save for HIV/AIDS, Botswana has been largely missing from international news because it is not African like that and in that context, has not really been African.
Election-rigging (alleged) has been added to the imperfections’ list. After a hard-fought election, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) emerged victorious but some 15 candidates from the Umbrella for Democratic Change claim that the election was rigged. That case will be decided by the High Court this week and in no way does the outcome mean that the matter is over. Never before have election results been challenged on this scale and there seems to be expectation by some petitioners that the outcome should favour them. In private conversation, a UDC activist who feels he lost unfairly in the local government elections says that if they lose at the High Court, they will take to the streets. In a video that has gone viral and in similar vein, UDC president, Duma Boko, who himself lost the Gaborone Bonnington North seat to Annah Mokgethi of the BDP, asserts an obscure right to seek “extra-legal” recourse. That gives a pretty good indication of what 2019 is bequeathing to 2020.
Never one to stay far from the fray, former president Ian Khama, who dramatically quit the BDP and formed his own party, has called for an independent audit of the election. Khama’s party, the Botswana Patriotic Front, may be insignificant nationally but his own personal potential to cause trouble for the government is immense. Khama has aligned himself with the UDC campaign and is using his stature as a former leader to lend credence to claims of rigging. Never before has a former president done this but never before has what is happening in 2019 happened before.
As 2019 ends, it is easy to tell that Botswana will be getting a lot of international press coverage next year because it is becoming more and more African. In one other respect, such African-ness manifests itself in the appetite for violence that some have displayed. At this stage, the violence is not physical but violent words always lead to violent action. Much of this violence is channeled through social media (notably Facebook) and the government will certainly come to regret not having tightened the Cyber Crimes Act in 2019.
A University of Botswana lecturer with opposition affiliation recalls a trip he made abroad with BDP members, among former minister Jacob Nkate, to attend a meeting of African political parties. During meals and after meetings, the Botswana group shared a table and generally whiled away time together. The lecturer says that one delegate from another country couldn’t believe that people from different parties would socialize in that manner because that didn’t happen in his own country. Botswana is not there yet but the fissures that 2019 caused will bring it to that point.
The year 2019 also saw tertiary education institutions (TEIs) churn out another set of graduates who, as those who graduated before them, are also struggling to get jobs. When the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, the African Development Bank warned countries like Botswana that hordes of unemployed people, especially university graduates, are a national security threat. That is particularly the case if some leaders have displayed appetite to mobilise this potent force for selfish aims under the guise of pursuing national interest. Interestingly, the problem is actually bigger than just getting a job because a large number of the employed get slave wages. As in previous years, 2019 failed to bring decent jobs and beyond being unsustainable, this situation raises the national security threat level.
In one respect, joblessness is a result of a problem whose solution continued to elude the powers- that-be in 2019: poor-quality education. Some graduates are unemployed because they are unemployable and that assertion is right out of the month of a graduate that Sunday Standard interviewed in 2018. While it says all the right things, the Botswana Qualifications Authority has failed to ensure that TEIs offer education of good quality, often leading to a Catch-22 situation. There is research work that has established a threshold level of education for which the effects of FDI turn positive. In practical terms, this means that for Botswana to achieve any level of economic growth through FDI, it must have an education system that graduates people whose productive capacity can enable the country to benefit positively from FDI. Botswana has clearly not reached that threshold if graduates themselves say that their education didn’t prepare them for the world of work.
Beyond being just another year that came and went, 2019 made clear the fact that an African country that, alongside Mauritius has been Africa’s sanest, is losing its marbles. One hopes though that its citizens never throw those marbles at each other and that they will invest concerted effort in thwarting attempts by some leaders to have them do that.