Regrets, President Mokgweetsi Masisi has one. Social media watchers tuned in on June 7, 2019 to hear President Masisi detail a statement of regret on the 2017 decision by Parliament to amend the President Pensions and Retirement Act.
In one of the biggest surprises pulled off by any leader, Masisi acknowledged making ‘a big mistake’ and went further to state, barring the amendment, government would be in a position to ‘suspend former President Ian Khama’s benefits for engaging in active politics again because he has essentially retired’. The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) Caucus in Parliament used its majority to amend Section 6 (2) of the Act and a bit part in the Schedule of the Act. The deleted section provided for the suspension of pension or benefits of a former president for directly or indirectly holding any paid office of the State or private sector. Such benefits would remain suspended until such time the affected ex-president ceased to hold such form of employment. Changes in the Schedule of the Act introduced access to any ‘government owned modes of transport’ subject to approval of the sitting President.
Under the stewardship of then vice president, Masisi as Leader of the House, the BDP Caucus vehemently warded off warnings by opposition on supposedly legislating into law benefits that seemingly appeared to suit Khama. MPs Wynter Mmolotsi and Phenyo Butale made telling contributions with the BDP Caucus ultimately crushing opposition to pass the amended Act of 2017. From then onwards, it became the law.
Very few people will serve as President of the Republic of Botswana. At the time of amending the Act, two former Presidents stood to benefit immediately with Khama joining the duo a year later. President Masisi and subsequent Heads of State all stand to benefit from this amendment. Vested interest in this amendment was spread over many individuals.
The biggest self-servers equally culpable of troubles of today will have to be the BDP Caucus.
BDP MPs have now abandoned Khama and swear allegiance to President Masisi as the party is torn asunder. The same crop who backed Khama in all his deeds are now the greatest loudhailers of his condemnation. They will do this to President Masisi. The feeble nature of pleasing the leader and saying what the leader wants to hear has contributed to the impasse. In 2011, Daniel Kwelagobe, the last of strong willed politicians, abstained from the amendment that legislated teachers as essential services citing the 2009 BDP manifesto.
But time has brought us here!
Views are spread in a continuum of praise for the apology to criticism calling for President Masisi’s resignation. Those in praise deem President Masisi’s actions as those of a commendable leader taking collective responsibility and duly tendering an apology to the nation. Critics argue that acknowledgement of such an error, if indeed grave, should have been followed by a resignation as would be in another jurisdiction. In his lamentations President Masisi accuses Khama of somersaulting on ‘assurances that once he vacated office, he (Khama) will always support government’. As fate would have it, a video from the June 2018 BDP Special Congress has surfaced on social media. In this video President Masisi acknowledges some form of agreement between the now erstwhile bosom buddies with one specific condition being that Khama was to continue assisting the BDP’s campaign efforts. At the event, Khama also pledged P1 million to the BDP’s 2019 election campaign.
And therein lies the problem!
President’s Masisi’s apology and the accompanying statements set a dangerous precedent and reek of vindictiveness. The treacherous pursuit of past leaders is something foreign to Botswana. Notwithstanding, in the presence of evident wrongdoing, appropriate law enforcement should take its
Legally, Section 6 (2) of the amended Act was very clear. The disqualifier for retired presidential pensions or benefits is a ‘paid office’. But politics is voluntary and participation is enshrined in the right of association. A key part of leadership is projecting confidence, and admitting mistakes is a way to bolster people’s confidence in one’s leadership. But when political leaders admit error, there is that moment that can cause even the most pure of partisans to doubt the loyalties of that leader. From a political perspective, a public admission of wrong generates zero political upside and risks alienating one’s base.
In 2004 a young Dumelang Saleshando expressed misgivings at former President Sir Ketumile Masire launching parliamentary hopeful Dr Margaret Nasha. Former President Festus Mogae launched Council candidate Ntshadi Raditanka in the build up to the 2009 election. In both instances, these launches were after respective departures from the highest office. Former Presidents have on occasion been invited to political events. In February 2012, Masire and Mogae graced the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the BDP.
Discernable from President Masisi’s interview is an expression of views in breach of a trust in the law. Governance along those lines brings a pertinent question: at what point was Khama supposedly in violation of the amended Act? When did President Masisi and or the BDP Caucus realise that they made a mistake? And the answer lies with the newly registered Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF).
Rule of law must be a matter of principle and not based on a clash of personalities. President Khama never threatened to take away benefits from retired presidents because of their participation in politics. The law stood as it should and took cognisance of the fact that theirs was not paid employment.
President Masisi also made inferences to the effect that ‘work’ in the context of the debates in Parliament delved to participating in influential decision making. Even with such inferences no sitting president ever pondered a whimsical whisking away of benefits of retired presidents for their participation in peace keeping missions. Mogae returned from chairing the South Sudan peace attempt in October 2018. The nature of the mission was entirely dependent on influence.
The law cannot be selective. Should the current thinking prevail, it sets a bad precedent in the event BDP loses the general elections in October 2019. Should that mean Former Presidents aligned to the BDP could not participate in an effort to regain power as motivators? Presidential benefits or pension should not be predicated on the notion that they remain available for those formers heads of the party in government. Such an antagonistic standing could be a future deterrent to embracing peaceful change of government.
The BDP Caucus should lead in seeing to it that President Masisi moderates his position. But we know the BDP MPs will not act, just as they did not when Parliament debated the living wage bill tabled by Hon Shawn Ntlhaile. In 2013, the BDP Caucus also shot down the Freedom of Information Bill championed by Saleshando. This newly found and supposed righteousness on presidential benefits is a weapon of convenience.
Botswana’s credibility could be damaged should the current scenario of seemingly encouraging a sitting president to drive a wedge between predecessor and society prevail. If indeed the amendment was a mistake, then Parliament must lead in rectifying their error. That is the role of legislators.
This extensive and destructive fire need not spread anymore.