A few questions have been knocking my mind since the moment I tried to digest and interpret the State of the Nation address as delivered by President Festus Mogae this past Monday.
The first question, and I think by far the more outstanding one, was: just how much importance and premium do the people at the Office of the President attach to the event?
The answer I gave myself was: “not much.”
The second question, related to the first but of less importance and consequence, was: just how much leeway does the president himself allow his speechwriters to use an important event as the State of the Nation Address to convey their own obsessions and agendas rather than the policies that are dear to the cabinet, in general, and to the president himself, in particular, as chairman of that cabinet? “A lot,” I said to myself.
The first question is in my opinion very important.
The two questions are a result of unmistakably discernible lack of connection between last year’s speech and this year’s. They are also a result of a clear lack of personal commitment to the pronouncement the president makes in the speeches.
As a result, this year’s speech was uninspiring, dull, and out of touch with the national pulse, hence the general disappointment with it.
While last year the President made two very important and inspiring announcements about youth unemployment, no effort was made this year to make follow-ups and brief the nation on what progress government had made with regard to those announcements.
The first announcement was on government relaxing experience requirement in the civil service so as to allow first time graduate entrants into the job market.
The second was with regard to creating a special window at CEDA for the youth aspiring to enter the agricultural sector.
Nobody knows what happened to those two lofty ideals.
No mention of them was made this year.
They are now off the government burner, probably for good.
The State of the Nation Address should be a serious and important date in the government official calendar even for lame duck presidents who are on their way out.
It should be a moment of reflection through which the president gives fresh-faced and honest reports about what he and his government would have achieved over the previous twelve months.
The date should provide an opportunity through which the man at the top shares with those people he enjoys the rare opportunity of being their leader the insights of where he wants to take them and their country in the subsequent year before another such opportunity of a speech would present itself for him to face them yet again.
I doubt this year’s State of the Nation Address achieved that.
The overarching fact which officials will never admit is that they always want to intrude as to hijack not just the nuances of the speech but policy direction as well.
Presidents are advised to guard against that.
Speechwriters have to be made to appreciate that as much as they are important and key to the success of the whole exercise, not being players themselves, there should be limits to their influence.
Government policy should never, under any circumstances, be in thrall to speechwriters.
Some level of disengagement should be insisted upon and maintained.
It can only be healthy that way.
The president himself should be the one to guard against such intrusions that in the end do not reflect his own thinking and, more importantly, expose himself to ridicule and all sorts of accusations including a lack of interest in the nation’s problems and aspirations.
Officials should always be reminded that as much as power from the president could be rubbing on them as a result of their proximity to him, they are themselves not presidents.
Presidential speechwriters should always be very careful not to use their intimacy to the president to push their own agendas and or attack their enemies (real or imagined) under the guise and weight of State President’s name and office.
Unfortunately, no due care seems to have been taken in this year’s State of the Nation address.
I reject the premise that simply because they are also advisors, speechwriters’ footprints should be allowed all over the show as to even overshadow the innate feelings of the main man himself.
For example there is nothing wrong with the president bashing conspicuous consumption.
But why does he not bash the Bank of Botswana for failing to control inflation?
There is no problem with the president demanding more patriotism from the citizens. But why does he not, in the same token, spell out the failures by his government to amicably resolve the CKGR issue, which, in fact, were it not of a few hawks in the upper echelons of the civil service and his cabinet would have long been resolved.
If State of the Nation Address is to retain the level of importance history has always accorded the event then whoever happens to be the president at any given time has to show by word that, indeed, they feel the pulse of the nation they are leading.
There is nothing wrong with Mogae throwing veiled attacks at Boyce Sebetela for spending up to five days speaking in parliament. But why does he not deal with factionalism inside his party and cabinet by way of a cabinet reshuffle?
If state of the nation addresses lose touch as they seem to be perilously doing, then, like many other state events, the address will become an irrelevance that inspires neither hype nor expectation.
And no prizes for guessing who the chief culprit will be.
Spencer Mogapi is Deputy Editor of Sunday Standard