Sunday, May 31, 2020

The civil service is winning the fight against Khama

When President Ian Khama arrived at the State Office in April 2008, he had the whole nation behind him.

Of all the institutions, the civil service was the most receptive, not because they had bought into the new philosophy espoused by the president, but because they were cowed by his abrasive nature whereat they were at the receiving end.

Only a few months into office, a whole army of their luminaries were shown the door under the most dubious of circumstances.

While to the public President Khama was a man on a mission, to the civil service, especially at the middle levels which consist mainly of departmental directors, his actions amounted to a purge. The Permanent Secretary to the president was immediately looked at as a notorious hatchet-man who did not know what he was doing.

While there is as yet no open resistance against the President, it is very clear even to those of us looking from outside that the President is losing the fight. The civil servants are back on top. The civil service is the most powerful institution in Botswana, a position they only momentarily lost after Khama became president.

While the president is still the one shouting orders, there is no evidence to suggest that those orders are being obeyed. Not for the first time the civil service is back to its old ways of defying a sitting president.

This time around, the civil servants have adopted a totally new strategy in their relationship with their political master. They are biding their time well aware that they will ultimately outlast his impatience and, with that, his activist zeal.

The civil servants are retarding movement well aware that, like all his predecessors, President Khama will eventually exit and leave them intact, at least as an institution.

This strategy by civil servants to stifle progress has led to frustration among politicians, not least the president. And it’s beginning to show. While morale among civil servants is clearly at its lowest, they are, however, buoyed by the small consolation that the president is a frustrated man who now knows the limit of his powers.

President Khama arrived spattering a clutch of 4Ds before adding on a fifth.

He was an activist president unknown in the entire history of this nation.

Yet over four years on he would be hard pressed to say with any measure of confidence which of the Ds has made any headway. Lo and behold, he at times comes across as a man who has abandoned his roadmap of 5Ds.

Though many of his ministers are performing really badly, the president should blame the paralysis on the civil service. Projects are not being completed not because of politicians. The popular refrain that there is no money, but the truth is that civil servants are back on their bad old ways.

There is need for a cabinet reshuffle, but on its own the reshuffle will not achieve much ÔÇô not least because there is simply no talent in parliament but also because the biggest fault really lies with civil service.

To be honest, I do not have a ready answer to problems engulfing Khama’s presidency today, but I think he needs a strong team of powerful people around him to shake up things ÔÇô something akin to a policy think tank.

Already, in my mind, I have two names Khama can bring into the presidency as policy advisors to help shake things up. They are both former ministers – Boyce Sebetlela and Joy Phumaphi. This is over and above replacing the current Permanent Secretary to the President.

Apart from a farewell speech that he delivered on the parliament floor with tears falling down his cheeks, it was never made explicit just why Sebetlela decided to abruptly abandon government for a job at Debswana.

An insinuation was made that he could not foresee himself sharing political space with Ian Khama, who at the time was about to become state president.

Sebetlela was not cut out to appeal to Khama, or Khama to him.

Truth be told, Sebetlela was a victim of his bluntness and his inability to tolerate mediocrity.
Inability by many of his parliament colleagues, including at cabinet level to grasp even the most basic economic principles filled him with both shame and despair.

When he left politics, his popularity stock was lowest among his party, among the media and certainly among the BDP rank and file. But it did not appear to bother him.

While the opposition benches bore the brunt of his acidic tongue, such was not spared his many BDP colleagues who fell short of his expectations.

Sebetlela picked too many fights and made no effort to find a middle ground.
He took no prisoners and told it as he saw it.

In parliament he was a thoroughbred debater who raised the bar to altogether new levels.
His grasp of public policy was a marvel.

Personally, I never forgave him for what I thought was his crude and disdainful treatment of the private media when he was still the minister responsible for communications ÔÇô a byproduct, one suspects, of the man’s darker side; arrogance and outright insensitivity.

But after he had left and government hostility against the media reached new heights I reluctantly reached a new conclusion that for all his brashness, Sebetlela had been better afterall. More grudgingly I realize today that years after his departure from both parliament and cabinet, there has still been no replacement for his supreme skill and intellect. I think he would be of greater use in government, specifically to help cut down the overweening powers of the civil service.

Joy Phumaphi is a figure who is seldom mentioned, but whose presence was very central to the success that became Festus Mogae’s legacy in his fight against HIV/AIDS. While Mogae continues to hog all the credit for his illustrious fight against HIV/AIDS, little is ever made of the fact that his achievements were more a result of his minister of health than anybody else’s.

Phumaphi got things done. And that is what is needed by Khama’s government today. It’s important to emphasise that these two figures need not be brought back in government as ministers but rather as advisors to the president with a clear mandate to shake up the civil service.

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Sunday Standard May 24 – 30

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