In his inauguration speech on 1st November 2019, President Masisi pledged to do all in his power to unite the people of Botswana. President Masisi expressed that ‘therefore I want to urge all of us to continue on this path and work together in building a peaceful and harmonious country as a united people’.
The President’s inauguration speech consistently made reference to unity and/or a united people in ways that suggested that the President was genuinely worried at the escalating political and ethnic polarization that is threatening to tear the nation apart.
When we look deeply at these political and ethnic differences ravaging the Botswana society, the realization is that these are a result of our failure to appreciate that part of what had hitherto set us apart from the rest of the African continent until we lost the tag as a success story in Africa, was down to deliberate efforts at promoting national unity and making all citizens embrace a sense of belonging to the nation of Botswana.
That posture of national unity took a huge dent alongside the country’s loss of innocence as a fascinating success story of an African country that escaped the resource curse, mainly due to our lackadaisical view of the value of national unity. Thus, Botswana’s erstwhile exceptionalism was partly derived from national cohesion that is a product of deliberate efforts at ensuring a socially inclusive society in spite of obvious differences inherent in all beings.
Thus, President Masisi’s pledge to unite Batswana so that we are able to take on our challenges as a united people was a timely and decisive pronouncement that had the potential to make him a unifying statesman and a darling of the pro-unity movement.
However, since making the pronouncement in November 2019, President Masisi’s actions or the actions of his handlers, especially in terms of filling up senior positions in government, have been inconsistent with his pledge.
Whereas he had publicly preached national unity, his choice of people for senior positions in government sits almost opposite his declaration. The President has been accused of showing a preference for people who originate from the southern part of the country in ways that suggest the existence of a practice sociologists call ethnic nepotism, wherein the administration favours people from particular ethnic groups.
However, it has to be noted that a majority of the beneficiaries of this practice, if indeed it is deliberate routine, actually are qualified for the jobs they have been offered. Yet, since a majority of people who have been offered senior positions in government under his presidency are potentially his kin and friends, accusations that he is in fact a tribal supremacist are not without substance.
Even if it is coincidental that those who landed the plum jobs happened to originate from the southern part of the country, critics have found a prime case to discredit the president and enter his name in the history books as an incorrigible tribal demagogue.
President Masisi has been accused of deliberately dividing the nation in order to reap from the comfort of being in the presence of his kinsmen. These are serious accusations that cannot be dismissed as the mere imaginations of delinquents who escaped from maternity wards and landed on keyboards.
The reality is that President Masisi actions, particularly in terms of filling up senior positions in government with persons from particular tribes and his pledge to unite Batswana stand at cross purposes.
It has to be noted that it is not an exaggeration that President Masisi inherited a nation divided down the middle owing to a decade of boundless misrule and pompous nepotism. A common refrain is that a divided nation is susceptible to stress and shocks and can hardly prosper.
In fact and indeed, a divided nation is a nation in distraught and cannot defend itself from external and internal invasion whatsoever. As such, President Masisi’s pledge to pursue an agenda of national unity and contain escalating political and cultural polarization came as a relief to many responsible citizens.
The uncomfortable truth is that President Masisi had initially squandered the opportunity to unite a people willing and keen to be united for the good of their republic, soon after taking over the presidency of the republic.
That moment was a very unique opportunity occasioned by our realization that we had taken our national unity for granted and we were now paying a huge price for our indifference and complacency. Such unique opportunities do not come every day hence the need to grab them when they so avail by chance or by deed.
Whereas the opportunity has been lost mainly because many people have come to believe that the president’s pledge was insincere, dishonest and more than just a hoax, the coronavirus pandemic presents President Masisi with yet another golden opportunity to pursue an agenda of national unity – indeed a second chance to unite Batswana.
The coronavirus pandemic comes as a terrifying enemy that does not distinguish between ethnicity, political party affiliation, gender or social class. Thus, by virtue of its being a common enemy, the coronavirus provides us with a common purpose to find ourselves, regroup and face the enemy as a united front for individual and collective survival.
Certainly the coronavirus is not President Masisi’s fault neither is it Batswana’s fault. It is something all of us have to face and from a vantage point, it is really frightening as a threat to humanity and an even greater threat to Botswana given our tiny population and an underdeveloped health system.
Whereas differences are inherent in living beings, and while it is neither possible nor desirable to pursue absolute national unity, the bottom line is that Batswana are presently united by a clear and present danger in the form of the coronavirus. This danger makes our political and ethnic differences petty and a distraction at this point in time.
In this regard, President Masisi ought to humble himself and forget that he ever behaved like a hard core tribal chief who brazenly and wantonly showed non-tribesmen the middle finger. President Masisi ought to re-invent himself as a national leader whose duty is to serve the interest of Botswana and Batswana without fear or favour as he had expressed it in his inaugural speech.
While many people may have been hurt, humiliated and marginalized by President Masisi’s actions or the actions of his handlers, at this point in time our formidable common enemy is the coronavirus and our differences have become blurred except for a few individuals who appear to have skipped some crucial stages of human evolution and have no potential to appreciate human goodness in the form of national cohesion. Such people will continue to frustrate efforts to unite Batswana and best way to deal with them would be to acknowledge that deviant behaviour is a normal human condition.
A majority of Batswana are united in their generosity of spirit and action to defeat the enemy that threaten to wipe out our nation. It is up to President Masisi to seize the golden opportunity and take a much more active role in providing an environment conducive to mend our adversarial relationships and consolidate our unity.
In an instant, Batswana have discovered that we are more vulnerable than we ever thought and that part of it points to toxic polarization of our society and that unless the trend is reversed as a matter for national survival, a large number of our people would perish.
While death is inevitable, the death of a large number of citizens and residents that would be fuelled by political and ethnic differences would look like a campaign of genocide and the state president would inevitably take the ultimate blame for failing to unite the nation against a common and existential enemy.
President Masisi cannot just sit back and expect the fear of the coronavirus to draw us closer to one another. Instead the president ought to steal the thunder from the fortuitous effects of nature’s fury and lead us in the direction towards purposeful and sustainable national cohesion.