After a long and most successful life as a public officer, including a stint as an international civil servant, he entered politics.
It appears that he was discovered in these roles by a local knight, who, having guessed right, and having a perfect gift to identity talent and nurture it, including nurturing him and his ambition, saw in him as one who could succeed him. Although his was an unconventional trajectory, then as is now, there was an undeniable authority to his overall intelligence and ability to act the part if called upon. It may be that by choosing politics, he planned to affirm his abilities to serve at the highest level of government, as well as a way of rejecting the notion that only those who were somebodies at independence could aspire and succeed in that pursuit. If politics was going to enable him to prove that a middling village lad is as good as the next fellow elsewhere in the country, to prove that he was not the typical civil servant who might only rise up to a mid-level status, to prove that he was an outlier, he must have reckoned early on that he needed considerable attention, discipline and dexterity to serve powerful men, those days, with distinction and loyally.
There are many things that distinguished him from his predecessors. For one thing, he overcame the disadvantage of insufficient privilege and means. Then an aspirant president, almost by definition, was someone who had been a chief or an accomplished teacher – not a career public officer: in effect one who had nothing else to do or nowhere else to go but to aspire to the highest office in the country. Second, as he rose in the ranks of the public service, as his ascent there had a mechanical rhythm of regularity, and he steadily gained a first mover advantage over others for the high office, even his potential rivals and detractors had to acknowledge their admiration of him, the way a previously skeptical but now an impressed audience does at an opera featuring an unknown artist, by a clamorous ovation! In fact, when he was abruptly promoted to the vice presidency, that last act itself became definitive, and confirmed the expectation that the country’s prospective presidency was his to lose.
I want to guess, right I hope, that there is a chance that he saw himself as a latter day Marcus Aurelius (121 - 180 AD) – a Roman Emperor, and a philosopher. Following Marcus, he saw himself as typifying an intellectual as a ruler, perhaps even a 21st Century Camelot, and in any event, they both had Latin first names. Brilliance intensified his bluntness in public speaking, his success appears to have confirmed his suspicion that he was an outsider, and his best education served to amplify his preference for endless debate of issues, and an insufferable contemplation over matters that could lead to delayed decision making. He was nonetheless able to be decisive over the HIV/AIDS pandemic
A philosophical bent and a mistrust of the public largesse overtook and compelled him to deny farmers, for the first time in the nation’s history, the customary cancellation for their debts owed to a development bank during a drought year. While he is reputed to have initiated an impenetrable group of unelected elites who apparently served as his smart unofficial advisors, his original sympathy for the ordinary people had, while in office, curdled into a return to and a warm embrace of neoliberal economics that others insist least served the ordinary folk.
It was during his presidency that a white woman murderer was executed; it was during his presidency that a white expatriate political scientist was banished from the country; and it was during his presidency that the country had one of the world’s highest per capita HIV/AIDS infection rates. Unsurprisingly, many citizens of the country saw some of these matters as a flash in the pan, although elsewhere they were viewed as a recognisable caricature of a promising nation that was steadily losing its way. Relief from this negative perception would come soon enough - in a moment of a lightening in a bottle. In 2005, still during his presidency, Botswana was declared an upper middle income country by the World Bank. With this and timely for him, Botswana had once again regained its coveted status as a poster child of the patron saints of globalisation, and a reiteration of its touted African exceptionalism.
A foreign monarch did not bestow upon him a knighthood as she did with his two predecessors. Nonetheless, history may be kind to him: he is the first president of the country to serve a term limited by the Constitution, sequentially, the first Chancellor of two public universities in the country, the first citizen to have a university graduate studies scholarship named for him, one of the first recipients of the Ibrahim Prize for Good Governance in Africa and the current chair of the Mo Ibrahim prize committee, while to date, he remains the citizen who, I reckon, had the best and most varied resumè at the start and end of his term in office.
In retirement from politics – which he appeared at times to have yearned for quietly – he has the almost unique distinction of taking only the title of his last regular job with him into the chronicles of the country’s presidency and seems content with that. Once an anomaly, he could now be a model for a public officer who harbors presidential ambitions.
Dear gentle reader, you guessed right: please meet Dr. Festus Gontebanye Mogae, the third President of Botswana - one of his kind, and perhaps, the last of his kind!
BONGI D D M RADIPATI*
*Radipati is a regular Mmegi contributor