Monday, June 1, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic presents an opportunity for president Masisi to create his own kind of Botswana!

It is in moments of a crisis when tough and unpopular decisions have to be made and when every Tom and Harry wants their puerile thoughts to become public policy that great leaders are shaped and their names engraved in our memories and on entrances to the next life. Great personalities are shaped and emerge out of events that occur unexpectedly and shake society in many ways.

Former President Dr Khama’s presidency coincided with the 2008 financial crisis. Naturally, it was expected that public opinion on whether the president did provide capable leadership to handle the crisis by ably steering the economy through the disaster would be divided.

However, a popular view has been that Dr Khama had adopted a scattergun approach that believed in throwing money at the problems and using executive authority to force things on people and make people dance to strange melodies. Ultimately, his entire presidency has been marked as a period of wasted years.   

And so by the time he handed the leadership baton to incumbent President Masisi, people were so fed up with his presidency that they just wished never to see him anywhere near the seat of government. This was mainly because he took over the reins when Batswana were better off than most of their peers in the region and went on to promise prosperity but left the economy in a free fall.

On the whole, Dr Khama’s presidency was characterized by hopelessness and pessimism about Botswana’s economy in a way that demonstrated that his handling of the financial crisis was disastrous.

Yet, the underlying incessant hostility towards Dr Khama’s presidency allowed his successor President Masisi to garner sufficient public goodwill necessary to kick-start and legitimize his stewardship of the nation.

In spite of this massive public goodwill, President Masisi knew that he had the mammoth task of rebuilding and rebooting the economy; restoring public confidence in government and committing himself to creating an inclusive economy.

As expected, public opinion on his performance this far has been divided. Some especially in the opposition are already dismissing him as a hopeless president who does not have a clue about the job of a state president – that he is more talk, no action president (Mr Talk-Talk). Others see him as a gift from God, a special son of God with amazing qualities and an experienced hand.

While this partisan divide is not surprising even as some hoped that the virus would draw us closer to each other for greater national solidarity, many well-meaning individuals who associate themselves with the opposition will certainly join the chorus of cheers and applause were the president to save Batswana from the coronavirus pandemic.

Indeed it is times like this that great men are separated from pretenders. The coronavirus pandemic does not discriminate on party affiliation and it cannot be shot at by the rich with their expensive shotguns and revolvers, neither can it pity habitual whiners and beggars.

The virus attacks indiscriminately and its universal onslaught offers our society a singularity of purpose in assessing presidential leadership in a moment of distress. The coronavirus pandemic provides us with a seemingly objective and impartial framework for evaluating presidential leadership.

And so from now onwards, President Masisi’s leadership will be measured in terms of how his administration handled the coronavirus in Botswana. Thus, the coronavirus pandemic is a real-time test of President Masisi leadership acumen.

His administration’s response, in particular, his interventions to minimize infection rates and/or contain the spread of the virus and the quality of care that can be provided to those affected in the prevailing circumstances could make or break his political profile.

The pandemic comes across as a test of competency and leadership for President Masisi and his lieutenants. His response is likely to shape Botswana’s society for many years to come hence the need to grab the opportunity and get it right.

Already, fault-finding critics with their adrenaline running out of control have seized the opportunity to lambast and ridicule President Masisi’s response for failing to inspire confidence mainly on account of his ill-advised and botched recent visit to Namibia to attend an inauguration dance party.

Such widespread public disapproval should come as a wakeup call for President Masisi to stop gallivanting, change tact and measure to the devastating virus. Another installment of embarrassing gaffes would likely render him a disastrous president even as his presidency is still at its formative years.

One thing certain is that a natural calamity offers no grace period and offers no to time to learn from own mistakes or to cry for sympathy. For president Masisi, the coronavirus pandemic comes as a necessary evil to show some competence in handling a crisis and prove bigots and critics wrong, desperate and overcome by negative energy.

Most people are already skeptical about the country’s preparedness and President Masisi’s actions between now and the peak period that is surely inevitable, would stand out to prove his worth and rebuff critics and their criticism as infantile imaginations.

Amid deepening uncertainty, pessimism and fear over the virus and its impact on livelihoods, there is an opportunity for President Masisi to create a new republic disconnected from the world of former President Khama that he (President Masisi) inherited. The virus has presented President Masisi with an opportunity to push for a paradigm shift and shape Botswana’s new image and henceforth establish himself as an exceptional steward of national interests.

To start with, there is overwhelming anxiety and fear hence the urgent need for President Masisi to reassure citizens and residents that they are and will be taken care of.

While these widespread public fears are being compounded by toxic politics, especially by some feckless loose individuals in the opposition who are in the habit of scaring people to score political points, there is a need for President Masisi to show his mettle by spelling out a wide range of inter-linked interventions in the tone and posture of a confident general in moments of ambush.

President Masisi ought to know that the politicization of the virus is unavoidable in a democracy like ours where partisan divide is fierce and deep-seated, especially at a time when the opposition seems to have abrogated its responsibility to a few miscreants who have turned themselves into merchants of misinformation, deception and blackmail. This is so because while the official position of the opposition has been measured and mature, there are a few faces with a close connection to the opposition who have remained true to their diabolical cunning.  

Whether these actions by opposition operatives are reckless and irresponsible or whether they are a sincere endeavor to provide constructive criticism with a view to push the authorities to improve institutional efficiency in dealing with the calamity, President Masisi ought to remain focused on injecting a measure of hope with an unmistaken presidential confidence in a crisis.

The stakes have never been this high and should he gets it right, he will be home and dry and critics would be caricatured as merchants of doubt and fear and will have their credibility severely dented. Yet, should he gets it wrong, the predators would be emboldened to invest more in their attacks and mischief making.

President Masisi must push his administration in closer collaboration with key stakeholders to swiftly prepare a package of audacious interventions to contain the virus from spreading like veldfire and minimize risks of infection. President Masisi and his team must draw up an inclusive and broad-based stimulus package that will cushion businesses and individuals against economic meltdown and most importantly stimulate the economy.

President Masisi must, as a matter of fact, be courageous and decisive in order to avoid looking out of his depth in protecting Batswana’s health and their economy.

In moments of a crisis of this magnitude, indecision, dithering and misjudgment are often more fatal than the crisis itself. Thus, President Masisi and his administration must exude a sense of seriousness and radiate with the intellectual confidence of a high school performer by sharing interventions when they are ready for public consumption and for implementation so as to reduce causing undue anxiety and fear.

Fundamentally, President Masisi and his administration must formulate strategies that seek to minimize worries over the virus and protect society against fraudsters and predators intending to live on people miseries.

In conclusion, President Masisi is called upon to take a much more active role in the public messaging of government’s response to the virus.

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Sunday Standard May 24 – 30

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