Saturday, June 3, 2023

The straight talk that broke many friendships

It is difficult to understand how easy President Festus Mogae makes enemies ÔÇô until he opens his mouth. By the end of his first term at the State House, the list of people who had fallen out with the new president was long, varied and diverse. It included farmers, ordinary voters, BDP strategists, squatters, civil servants and Botswana Democratic Party members of parliament.
The accidental President never really had time to get the hang of politics. A relative unknown to BDP followers, he was something of an outsider.

As fate would have it, President Mogae just happened to have been standing in the path of history, when the tide of events swept him to the State House. A career technocrat, he entered politics in a spectacular and controversial fashion. A disciplined Oxford economist, Mogae was never one to sacrifice prudent management of Botswana’s resources on the alter of political expediency. This was complicated by his penchant to take the high road on straight shooting and the low road on political correctness.
For example, when most political watchers were speculating that Mogae would take the populist route of increasing civil servant’s salaries just after taking over the presidency in 1998, he shocked everyone when he announced that “he would not buy votes, with tax payers’ money.” This did not go down well with the country’s civil servants who joined local commercial farmers in the growing anti-Mogae movement. BDP strategists, who had wanted to coach him into the art of winning elections, were not only embarrassed but also let down.

The President had fallen out with local farmers whilst still Vice President and Minister of Finance. He went against all political logic in an election year and auctioned off farmers who had defaulted on their National Development Bank (NDB) loans. Big farming interests, including inside parliament and cabinet, berated him as a text book economist who had no grasp of bread and butter politics. Mogae, however, was not fazed and went public, condemning the country’s cattle tax legislation which he said was deliberately crafted to enrich cattle barons at the expense of the country, “and I resent it.”

Among those who were benefiting from the cattle tax legislation was the then President of Botswana, Ketumile Masire, who through a constitutional fancy footwork would later install Mogae as President.

An examination of the relationship between the older man and his prot├®g├® would reveal that Mogae had only ever worked in departments where Sir Ketumile was the political head. Upon completion of his studies, Mogae was posted to the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, first as a planning officer, progressing to become Director of Economic Affairs. In 1975, he rose to permanent secretary in the same ministry, before proceeding to Washington DC the following year to serve as executive director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for Anglophone Africa. On his return four years later, Mogae was appointed Governor of the Bank of Botswana for a short stint before reuniting with Masire in 1982 as Permanent Secretary to the President.

In the 1980s, the country was undergoing rapid developments fuelled by diamond revenues. To drive the development agenda and respond to the aspirations of a nation undergoing rapid changes, Masire felt he needed to surround himself with the best talent on offer.

Those possessed of such talent tended to be in the civil service. In a move that sparked condemnation from the opposition, the president borrowed a leaf from his predecessor’s book. In 1974, Seretse Khama had plucked Archie Mogwe and Gaositwe Chiepe from the civil service and redeployed them in active politics as cabinet ministers. The modus operandi was for the party to go to elections, and on the eve of formation of a new government, for those identified to retire overnight from the civil service, and be named the following day as members of the cabinet. For them to qualify, they entered through the constitutional window of specially elected members of parliament.
Masire had little time for the complaints of those who found fault with the practice. To him, Botswana was a developing country, and its best brains could be deployed anywhere in national service for as long as the rules were followed. And if the talented few were willing to join his party, so much the better. Therefore, consistent with this ethos, 1989 saw the arrival of founding commander of the Botswana Defence Force, Lt General Mompati Merafhe, who was deployed to the Office of the President. Former Permanent Secretary to the President, Festus Mogae, was appointed the new Minister for Finance and Development Planning ÔÇô taking over from Peter Mmusi.

In 1991, in response to a litany of complaints about the performance of land boards, Mmusi had initiated an investigation into the matter. Little knowing that the outcome would ensnare him, Mmusi, in addition, convinced President Ketumile Masire to set up a commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of impropriety regarding land allocation in Mogoditshane and other peri-urban villages. The findings that came out left a trail of political destruction and ruin in their wake.
Chaired by a founding party stalwart, Englishman Kgabo, the commission found that though Mmusi and Daniel Kwelagobe had not stolen any land or illegally acquired any land in Mogoditshane, Mmusi had committed an error of moral and political judgement in upholding Kwelagobe’s appeal for a certain piece of land in Nkoyaphiri. The two were not ordinary men. Mmusi was Vice President of the country and also Minister for Local Government and Lands. Kwelagobe was party Secretary General and Minister of Agriculture. Both leaders stepped down.

When he took over the country’s presidency, Mogae was forced to deal with the fall out of the Kgabo land Commission. Hundreds of residents, especially in Mogoditshane, found themselves under roofs that were on land that had not been legally allocated. Most of the squatters resisted attempts to move them and Mogae did not spare them his sharp tongue. In one of his most infamous speeches, which most political watchers said was insensitive in the extreme, Mogae threatened to fix the squatters (go ba kabolola ditshoka)
No one is immune from the president’s straight talk, even the man himself. In one of his speeches, at the BDP congress in 2001, Mogae did not shy away from revealing how little power he had against MPs who were demanding a pay hike. “I am fully aware that the MPs, both the former ministers, the cabal of some new MPs and the rest of the House, can make and unmake me politically. It is my hope, therefore, that this matter of salaries and allowances for MPs will be resolved soon and that the present impasse whereby MPs hold the other pieces of legislation to ransom is discontinued.”

This paradoxical mix of apparent arrogance and humility goes some way to explaining Mogae’s innocence in the face of the debate about his iced pick tongue. Although he pleaded powerlessness against his MPs, this did not spare them his vitriolic tongue. In one incident that almost brought the tension in the party to a boil, Mogae went on national television and likened the MPs to castrated goats.
But then the outburst was totally in character.

The snobs that make up the media industry have also not escaped unscathed.

He bitterly complained that many of them did not go far enough at school, hence their economic illiteracy.
Throughout his ten years as President, Mogae would complain about poor grasp.
Mogae’s harshest criticism, however, was directed at the University of Botswana lecturers.

He could barely hide his disdain and contempt for them.
Throughout the years he complained that, in fact was dismayed that few of them ever published any scholastic work, arguing that even though they boasted trails of academic qualifications, few of them, if any, were actually intellectuals.

Naturally, this has not endeared him to the country’s intelligentsia.


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