From Khama to Masisi: The Presidency in times of uncertainty

Masisi and Khama in Moshupa PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES
The year is 2008. Ian Khama ascends to the Presidency, succeeding the globalist statesman Festus Mogae. On the backdrop of Ian Khama’s ascension to office is a global financial crisis, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

A decade later, as Khama steps down at the end of his 2 terms as CEO of Botswana Inc. a recurring – ‘President Khama inherited a financial crisis’ - is almost synonymous with every description of his presidential term.

Fast forward to April 2018, Khama’s Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi will ascend to the presidency courtesy of an automatic succession clause in the constitution. Masisi will lead the country and his party, the Botswana Democratic Party, into the 2019 national elections to seek a renewed mandate from the people. But just like his predecessor Ian Khama, Masisi will also inherit a recession.

But it will NOT be the same kind of recession that President Khama walked into in 2008. This will be a geo-political recession. One thing that’s interesting is that the global economy is doing so well while the geopolitics remain largely dangerous and unpredictable. These cycles rarely move together. The geopolitics weren’t so bad in 2008 when the markets were in a terrible state. The 2009 G20 summit in London, for example, was at its most coherent and consensus oriented then than it is now.

A geopolitical recession as dominantly described by political scientist Ian Bremmer, is an ‘unwinding of the global order’. The scale of the world’s political challenges at the moment is daunting. The geopolitics are easily as bad today globally as the economics were in 2008. The promoters of globalism and liberal internationalism, namely the United States and its allies across the Atlantic, have taken a backseat and with it came a global leadership vacuum. Luckily or unluckily, China loves a vacuum! If Donald Trump has had any major impact on global politics this year so far, it is the road that he has paved for China’s Xi Jinping and the opportunity for the Chinese to occupy that vacuum.

After nearly a decade of a slowly destabilising ‘G-Zero order’ - (a world order in which no single country or durable alliance of countries can meet the challenges of global leadership), the United States no longer plays global policeman, and no one else wants the job. The election of Donald Trump as US president has accelerated the descent into a ‘Hobbesian state of international politics’. The world is now closer to geopolitical depression than to a reversion to past stability.

On the other hand, the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress marked a turning point in China’s contemporary history, and the speech President Xi Jinping gave there was inarguably the most geopolitically noteworthy event since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Until last year, China had been playing cat and mouse with an assertive and more aggressive talk of global leadership. China’s political model, despite its domestic challenges, is now perceived as stronger than it has ever been and coincidentally at a moment when the US political model has weakened.

The African continent seems to be committed to its integration agenda. Talk of increased trade and free movement of people is gaining tangible ground with a continental free trade agreement under way preceded by regional free trade agreements. Just recently Botswana signed the SADC-EAC-COMESA Tripartite Free trade agreement which is said to be one of the building blocks towards the continental free trade area. In addition, African leaders have been more assertive and united in projecting a positive, independent vision on the role and place of Africa in global politics. However, there are still risks of militancy and terrorism.

Paul Kagame is at the helm of the African Union and remains a very powerful and popular political leader in Rwanda and the East African region. Uhuru Kenyatta, despite his domestic troubles, remains a daring diplomat traversing the globe and charming the pants off global political and business leaders. Closer to home in Southern Africa, Botswana’s immediate neighbours

are going through historic political changes. South Africa has just had another democratically elected President Jacob Zuma recalled, while Zimbabwe has finally gotten rid of Robert Mugabe and replaced him with one cosmopolitan ‘new age’ Emmerson Mnangagwa.

With no time to waste, both Mnangagwa and Ramaphosa swooped in and were making roadways in Davos at the World Economic Forum, greasing-up and sweet talking investors with talk of a ‘new age’ in their countries. Talk of grabbing the bull right by the horns. These are all exciting events full of opportunities, but it also means that President Masisi will be surrounded by two very daring Presidents who talk a good game and are very calculative.

As Masisi ascends to power, his regional and global agenda will need to be well thought out and executed. As Khama’s second in command, Masisi was privileged enough to have almost all the Presidency’s international diplomatic engagements delegated to him. The United Nations General Assembly, the African Union Heads of State summits were all attended by Masisi in the last few years. The fact that the AU or the UN has never seen Khama but only got accustomed to Masisi, although a stain in Botswana and Khama’s foreign policy legacy, will work to Masisi’s advantage. His familiarity with the ins and outs of international diplomacy will serve as credible and tangible experience that will come in handy. What remains will be for him to stamp his own agenda as the new head of state and help move the country towards a new strategic foreign policy agenda.

Masisi will need outside-the-box thinkers in his Foreign Affairs and Trade and Investment portfolios who are well versed in the current international order and are best fit to advise his administration on smarter ways to navigate the geopolitical uncertainty.

The ultimate objective of his foreign and trade policy should focus on aggressively expanding opportunities for citizens to overcome the country’s geographical limits. As a small country, Botswana has to be friends with almost everyone, but at times it needs to advance and protect its own interests.

This entails supporting a rules-based global community and speaking up on key issues that affect the country as it has always done. Under President Khama, Botswana's foreign policy approach has come under spotlight, sparked by a debate about how small states should behave.

Masisi will need to strike a perfect balance between Botswana’s ‘norm entrepreneurship’ as a vanguard of democracy, human rights, peace and justice on the one hand, and a result-oriented economic diplomacy on the other. The underlying shifts in the geopolitical environment have been clear. With the shock election of Donald Trump as president of the US, the triumph of “America first” as the primary driver of foreign policy marks a break with decades of US exceptionalism and a belief in the indispensability of American leadership.

With it ends a 70-year geopolitical era of Pax Americana, one in which globalisation and Americanisation were tightly linked. In the same breath, free trade is under fire and with it comes the daunting challenge of protectionism 2.0. If you combine Xi Jinping as the strongest Chinese president since Mao Zedong and Donald Trump as one of the weakest US presidents in modern history, you end up with a moment of global reordering.

At the same time African millennials are coming through and demanding a new era of accountable leadership seen by the number of leaders facing the chop. There will be no room for complacency. This will be how the world initially looks under the Presidency of Mokgweetsi Masisi.


By BAKANG NTSHINGANE: a Motswana writer and graduate student at Chonbuk National University in South Korea with a focus on international trade policy and economic diplomacy. He writes on international politics, foreign policy and trade


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