100 Days of President Masisi- “Be Relevant”

Speaking on Yarona FM breakfast show to commemorate his first 100 days in Office, President Mokgweetsi Masisi stated that a guiding principle of his presidency was to “be relevant.” BOTSWANA GAZETTE  looks over the president’s first 100 days in office and assesses his performance against the standard set for himself and its impact on the nation.

Lawrence Seretse

There is, undeniably, a significant and positive change in the nation’s attitude towards the Office of the President and the man behind the Office-Masisi. As with his counterparts in Zimbabwe, Angola and South Africa all of whom assumed power under the mantle of their respective ruling parties growing disaffection, Masisi’s drive to reform has been marked by the need to stem criticism as much as to implement meaningful change.
With just over 470 days remaining until the national elections in October 2019, Masisi has been quick to salvage whatever political fruit he can from the tempest that was his predecessor, Ian Khama. With aplomb that belies the criticisms levelled against him as a “novice” politician and lacking experience when he became Vice President in 2014, Masisi has been driven to show himself as a man born and raised in the political image of his late father, Edison Setlhomo K. Masisi while at the same time, with the authority of the country’s and his party’s highest political office behind him breaking the constraints of the bootlicking image that dogged him under Khama.
The salvaging of political fruits and seeking to benefit from such pickings have however been driven as much by necessity as by the reformist nature of the man. Imposed on Khama as a compromise candidate for the Vice Presidency in 2014 as a result of losing the “lehansa” (Secret Ballot) case, initiated by the pro-Khama faction within the ruling BDP, Masisi lacked the collective internal party support that his predecessor had enjoyed when he, Khama, assumed the office of Vice President in 1998, and yet the growing dissatisfaction of the Ian Khama brand and style of leadership has proven to be a much-needed elixir for Masisi and his BDP. The Ian Khama tempest left in its wake a politically easy path of action that Masisi has embraced and for which he has received widespread praise, including from the Opposition at the recently reconvened All Party Conference.
Unlike his predecessor, and largely because of him, Masisi has been compelled to address his party’s waning popularity at the ballot box. Under the authoritarian leadership of Khama the BDP at the 2014 general elections and for the first time in the country’s history, dropped below 50% of the popular vote securing 46.5% at the polls. The need to address the party’s falling political fortunes as well as to address internal party fissures, that could undermine his personal political aspirations required Masisi to mend the fractured image of the ruling party as “democrats” and insulate himself from potential disruption by his predecessor’s loyalists, who have become increasingly concerned at the loss of their benefactor and fear becoming exposed to criminal liability over numerous corruption scandals.
Masisi’s first 100 days in power have been a study in determination, to secure himself politically within government and the party and win over public confidence. His personal goal to re-establish his party’s credentials as democrats and rebuild the country’s reputation for good governance has taken front and centre stage. In seeking to achieve these objectives, Khama’s failings as president have been mana from heaven for Masisi. Remedial action has been easy pickings.
Undoing the wrongs of his predecessor has been the signature trend of Masisi’s first 100 days. Less obvious have been the economic drives that he has subsequently set out in his Roadmap at Press briefings on the conclusion of his 100 days. His focus has been, as evidenced by the steps he has taken, to restore government’s reputation for good governance, in the hope that, as with the administration of his key ally, former President Festus Mogae, good governance and prudent fiscal management will drive the economy forward.
Setting out his Roadmap President Masisi has chosen an economic path paved with potentially mismatching cobble stones. The BDP in adopting Scandinavian styled social democratic principles almost from its political birth espoused tenets of an active employment policy, generous welfare, centralized wage bargaining and a mixed economy. Social democracy has worked in Scandinavia due to its tight government regulation, promotion of human rights and the establishment of independent government oversight institutions.
In his various meetings with Trade Unions, Members of Parliament, political opponents and the media Masisi has stated that his administration has commenced a review of all laws and policies that impede or hamper the business sector and the promotion of citizen empowerment. Central to this policy change, according to the President, is the need to deregulate business.
The shift in the political philosophy by the BDP from social democrat to a neoliberal was initiated well before Masisi commenced his tenure in office, though it appears to have gained traction under his leadership. The move illustrates the BDP’s shift from a central left party to one right of centre. The increased focus on small government and open market economy show neoliberal policies as the driving force behind Masisi’s government’s economic change. According to political scientists the two philosophies are incompatible. Masisi in striving to achieve his objective of relevance embraces both neoliberalism and social democracy and aspires to create his own path towards economic reform. Only time will reveal the success of this strategy.
“Trash talking” one’s political opponent has long been the order of the day in politics. Masisi has called for this to embolic practise to end. Focusing on the needs of the Nation, from divergent political spectrums is beneficial to all, says the president, and on this he has certainly followed through. Resuscitating the defunct All Party Conference, engaging Trade Unions and the Media have been the most public display of a new direction by his administration.
Parting ways with Khama, Masisi has embraced the “unpatriotic, fake-news” media. In what is becoming his signature trademark Masisi has engaged traditional opponents in discussions, emphatically stating that he is “not afraid to engage with those who do not agree with his views and policies”. In his first 100 days Masisi has made it clear that he considers all views to be valuable. Stating that he is a citizen first and foremost and considerations that are best for the nation must be heard and given attention, Masisi in good nature added that of course that would entail adopting BDP policies and leading the party to political victory in 2019. Few initiatives are more welcome than this approach, in healing past political wounds. Addressing Opposition Leaders at the All Party Conference, Masisi magnanimously extended an apology on behalf of his party’s government for its past conduct.
Addressing Trade Unions, also a first after many years, the President has been quick to acknowledge both the contributions and the shortfalls of government in its interaction with the organised labour force. Noting that without the support of Trade Unions, the economy will be unable to diversify and move forward, Masisi emphasised the need to reform key legislation to empower the relations between government and Unions. A commitment founded on root principles of social democracy.
Singularly absent from his roadmap has been the need to address concerns over the lack of independence of democracy protection institutions that increasingly fall under the legal authority of the Office of the President. Umbrella for Democratic Change leader Duma Boko and leader of Alliance for Progressives Ndaba Gaolathe have recently raised concern over the all-pervasive authority of the Executive in Parliament. With the nation having so recently experienced the negative impact of authoritarianism on democratic institutions, that sought to assert greater authority over the judiciary, law enforcement agencies and the media, it would have been hoped that Masisi would have focused on amending legislation to create greater autonomy for such institutions and ensuring that the most sacrosanct of democratic institutions, Parliament, is given the constitutional clout it requires to act as a check and balance to the authority of the Executive.
The overarching regulatory and legislative framework that govern such institutions work well under a benevolent leader but fail, as we have experienced, when the leadership is not. Being relevant in legislative reform must be forward looking and can only be so if the vision guards against the worst human foibles. It is hoped that such concerns will be addressed going forward.
In South Africa former President Jacob Zuma has ceased to enjoy the protection afforded to him by the ruling ANC, as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government withdrew its support for legal arguments that would have ensured that the long pending criminal charges against Zuma would never see the light of day. Former South African President Zuma has since having left office, appeared in Court to face corruption allegations.
Masisi has undertaken to curb the corruption that has become systemic within government enclave. Addressing the Media, the president made it clear that he would not tolerate any members of his party or government being involved in procurement, “they will be answerable to me, I will not allow this.”
A mere 30 days into his presidency, Masisi removed Issac Kgosi from office as Director General of the DIS. In the letter acknowledging Kgosi’s departure from the Public Service, the spy master was thanked for his service to the nation. To date, neither government nor the ruling party has issued a statement on allegations of corruption surrounding the former spy master nor suspended any member under investigation by the DCEC.
While much has been read into the president’s dealing with former president Khama, Masisi publicly stated on Yarona FM that his relationship with Khama was “cordial”. Ever well spoken, Masisi’s choice of word to describe his relationship with his predecessor, is telling. According to a BDF Saving-gram, Khama was prohibited from flying BDF aircraft. It is significant that the BDF felt obliged to issue such an instruction to its airwing, unless it was intended to address the entitlement that Khama believed he had to fly the aircraft. According to Masisi, there is no tension arising from the BDF’s actions as they were merely enforcing the provisions of the legislation that governs retirement benefits for former presidents.
The story of aircraft however does not fade from the public memory so easily. The use of the BDF aircraft for party politics has been frowned upon in the past by the Office of the Ombudsman and the public. As with Ministers being involved in procurement, the conflict of interest and potential abuse of state resources, whether aircraft or radio or television by the party in power needs urgent redress. BTV for example remains in the hands of Ministry and funded by the Office of the President. Proposed changes by Ombudsman have not been implemented. To remain relevant and secure a progressive and positive legacy, Masisi would be well reminded to adopt the recommendations of the Ombudsman with the same urgency that is being used to pass legislation.
President Masisi’s overture to the media, is currently among the most profound reforms by his administration. From the onset Masisi has labelled the Media as “patriotic” and he has addressed them as the 4th Estate, in so doing acknowledging the media’s role in holding all organs of the state accountable for their actions and their integral role in promoting a democratic dispensation.
Masisi, more than his predecessor, needs the media. The remedy was simple, hold a press briefing with local journalists and acknowledge their worth to the country’s democratic dispensation.
Media coverage of the Office has been amplified, not only in respect of content but also in the depiction of both the president and his cabinet in positive tones, underscored by the fact that the Masisi led government, unlike that of his predecessor is no longer labelled a “regime” but an “administration”. The positive coverage reflects the accessibility the media has been given to the President, who has held 2 full press conferences since his inauguration (an event unheard of during the 10 years of the Khama regime), and more importantly for the steps he is taking to ensure Botswana’s democratic light continues to burn bright, for which he continues to receive plaudits from the public.
Cautious in his choice of words, when levelling criticism at the media over headlines and coverage of government, Masisi has been coy, never once using the term “fake news”, instead using adjectives such as “mischievous”, “incorrect”, “misinformed” and “uninformed”. While the president should be acknowledged for advancing government and media relations, a closer look at the adjectives used to describe the media requires a greater scrutiny under the banner of “being relevant”. The criticism of the media for being “uninformed” is a double-edged sword, it cuts both ways. The lack of available information, the entrenched fear government departments and officials have of sharing information is as much, if not more so, a fault of the government’s own doing, as it is the media’s. Errors can and do arise in media coverage when information is not availed. The media is not infallible and when errors are made the punishment on the media is harsh, but never extended to those that have the information and refuse to divulge it.
At his second press briefing, commemorating his first 100 days in office, Masisi’s administration informed the nation that a Freedom of Information Bill would be ready to be tabled in parliament before the State of The Nation address at the end of the calendar year. Once again this is laudable, but as the media, we ask why has the 4th estate not been consulted and asked to give their input on legislation that directly affects their constitutional function of keeping the nation informed? Have the academia been consulted? Has the public been consulted, civil society, Non-Governmental Organisations? Has the Law Society of Botswana been asked to give their input on the legislation?
The exchange of information encourages accountability through transparency, and the passing of legislation aimed at promoting such transparency is undeniably an admirable commitment by Masisi’s administration to ensure an open and transparent Government. But, if criticism is to be given, the legislation itself cannot be created behind a veil of secrecy. It requires expertise from key stakeholders to ensure it achieves its desired objectives and does not merely serve government interest of promoting obscurity behind the dreaded red tape of officialdom.
Government agencies in many jurisdictions seek to stymie information requests, and when not seeking to do so deliberately, the delay on providing records routinely exceeds periods journalists can wait or take so long that the information requested is no longer useful. Such actions allow public agencies to control scrutiny of their operations and defeat the very objective of the legislation. To avoid the sigma of the proposed legislation becoming irrelevant, key players must be consulted.
Among the most conspicuous oversights of Masisi’s first 100 days has been the failure to make a public statement on the LGBTI community and address the communities needs and rights.
Overall the Editors of the Botswana Gazette declare the Masisi administrations first 100 days relevant but caution that the words must now translate throughout the remainder of his tenure into concrete action.