Friday, September 25, 2020

The Botswana state is too personalized

One of the difficulties in discussing, appraising and endorsing new development initiatives or new legislation in Botswana today is that they often begin or end with the name of president Khama.

When this style of policy interrogation or public debate arises, all objectivity is contaminated (by simple reference to Khama) and any pretense to reasonableness is forgone.

The whole exercise then deteriorates into child play where the child from the wealthy family gets celebrated even when s/he is the dumbest brute in the group. Nowadays what matters to most people in Botswana is not what a good, well meaning policy or program should look like but rather who is in charge.
Apparently Botswana politics has assumed a peculiar psychology of its own where President Khama is celebrated as the embodiment of hope and prosperity under conditions of virtual destitution. Policies and programs are not appraised on the basis of the difference they can make in society or their probable impact but rather on the mere fact that they are President Khama’s babies.

Such policies and programs are often over-hyped and over-priced simply through their association with President Khama, a condition that could be called ‘satisfaction by association’. The Botswana state has become too personalized and is run on a neo-patrimonial basis which puts a lot of power and influence in the hands of president Khama. Initiatives originate from the Office of the President through a club house policy making process that presents Khama as a moral beacon. Such initiatives are often tailored to President Khama’s preferences and are expressed in the admiration of the moral man. When I commented that President Khama seeks to create a society epitomized by his personal brand ÔÇô the ‘be holy because I am holy’ type (Sunday Standard, 13 August 2008), former BDP Youth Wing Chairperson Kenaleope Motsaathebe came hard on me and accused me of writing alarmist pieces that had the potential to instill fear among people. I knew then that his seemingly short man syndrome response was not motivated by principle but rather that the former Youth Chairman considered himself a close member of President Khama’s privileged club of lackeys and therefore was doing what is expected of them.

It is patently clear that the performance of party structures and party members is not measured and evaluated on the basis of achieving some set objectives but rather they are appraised in terms of the number of times they grumble in defense of President Khama as if he is the best thing ever since sliced bread. There is hardly a policy, program or legislation that is developed and sold to people without mention of Khama’s name. Everything revolves around the commanding name of Khama and perhaps other less significant matters revolve around the influential bunch called advisors who are power starved and of course palm pressers and over-excited security agents.

For instance, in the sport arena we have the constituency league which by all intent and purposes is Khama’s league. We have Ipelegeng, a reincarnation of the famous Namola Leuba and so many others that are styled after Khama. In dishing out these self-styled schemes, President Khama often acts like a benevolent benefactor even though the schemes are financed from the national treasury.

In the past we used to talk about the government setting up an education hub for instance but today we associate the pioneering of hubs with President Khama not the government. Certainly, the President might the lead actor behind the idea but once such idea gets to the government enclave, it becomes a national project. Failure to distinguish between public and private projects takes away our being and makes the president a lone ranger. President Khama has become the leading political personality and his charisma haunts traditionally revered, competent and relatively autonomous state institutions. This style of governance premised on a personality oriented policy making and program development, is dragging the democratic process many years backward and enfeebles and subjugates state institutions.

Of course the beneficiaries of his nepotistic pranks will always deny that institutions are taking up Khama’s personality but yet in their sweetened speeches, they give away to our argument that they are virtually trapped in a personalized political culture. In their resolve to behave accordingly, they often find themselves having to give their speeches relevance and weight by making impassioned reference to President Khama.

Thus, they have a mammoth challenge to confront the demon of slipping tongues. This is symptomatic of decay where people punctuate every sentence with the Khama name and Khama himself over-use ‘I, MINE, MYSELF and MY’ to imply sole ownership of government interventions. Public servants have become personal servants of President Khama, totally devoid of any sense of public responsibility to the people they should serve. The Director of Broadcasting Services makes a good example.

The security agents, in particular, the intelligence services have become personal militia whose functions among others is to protect the President and his overzealous lackeys. Public servants find it difficult to resist or protest President Khama’s maneuvers for fear that he can make life harder for them hence they have to act as generous patrons dispensing favors in-exchange for votes and patronage for the President.

They propagate personalized programs in the belief that people are conditioned to respond positively to these manipulative techniques and that policies, programs and laws will get undivided public approval once they bear the Khama name. This culture engenders and reinforces personalized development planning and management and renders institutions of the state irrelevant. Generally, citizens have lost focus and purpose of important things in life and spend inordinate time eavesdropping on calls and conversations hoping to pick out comments that may be classified as insults to the President. In similar ways, the President is more intent on having his way even when such is bound to hurt the society. My greatest fear is that at the end of Khama’s presidency, policies, programs and laws that were drafted in his name and image will lose appeal and relevance and become outdated and undesirable. In the absence of a strong and charismatic leader, weak institutions can make the country ungovernable.

This likely scenario presents a challenge for Botswana to build capable, intelligent and effective institutions that could engineer collective action and short circuit the current process of formulating public policies on the basis of the personal preferences of President Khama. Strong and effective institutions are necessary to dilute a culture of strong personalities as the basis for the exercise of power.

In many African countries, as a result of personalization of power and neo-patrimonial nature of the state, the tendency has been toward institutional decay and the eventual collapse of the state rather than development.

Zimbabwe makes a good example of institutional decay to a point where the army general refuses to salute a popularly elected Prime Minister and Nigeria is another example where power is personalized and identifiable with ethnicity.

Renowned expert in Public Administration, John-Mary Kauzya, of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs opined that ‘by definition, a neo-patrimonial system develops when political actors do not recognize the state as an institution and the power to rule reside in a person rather than an office’. Thus, the Botswana state has developed into a network of personal relations build around a strongman who is at the centre of everything and exercises power arbitrarily and with impunity.


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