Did presidency architects equip office for a crisis?

President Masisi
President Masisi

The Botswana presidency together with the people it governs is facing the worst crisis of the century. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed a litany of leadership challenges in the country, ranging from the private sector’s corporate governance lapses, health sector deficiencies, to public administration and governance riddled with gross misrule. As a result of this unprecedented time, the nation is arguably at its most polarised and this is the defining characteristic of our current political moment. While other periods in Botswana’s history have also featured major crises, deep disagreement and divides along political and other lines, the current moment must be an opportunity to prepare the presidency for worse to come.

It is fair to posit that the presidency has seen and handled its fair share of crises. But I think the greatest of these has been a crisis within itself as an institution with utmost power and responsibility. The litmus test of an institution endowed with so much goodwill, is how it evolves and learns to serve in the interest of the people it presides over. The country’s nation builders did not spell this out explicitly, but they trusted that the occupants of the Office would preside over the important process of its transformation to be a responsive, ethical institution that oversees the country’s economic, legal, social, and political development. They trusted that the Office would evolve with time to be agile, better, faster, more inclusive, and stronger.

The intuitive answer to the question of whether the presidency was built and capacitated for crisis is a yes! The Constitution of the Republic crafted the presidency against the backdrop of an existential development and economic crisis. Botswana was a poor state with limited resources to put bread on the table and survive the economic hardships of that time. The Constitution therefore gave life to the Office of the President. It also set out to define the role of the President as well as its powers and responsibilities. Rightly so, within a system of shared powers, the presidency does indeed have the best tools at its disposal to operate in any context, including in an emergency. It was also equipped with offices and institutions that must support the presidency to do its job. The nation builders must have envisioned the unprecedented nature of the job and the rough terrains it would have to navigate in periods of uncertainty, even if it meant exercising ‘supraconstitutional powers’ and deferring checks and balances as we have seen.

In essence, the office was given more than enough to get by during national emergencies. But I think the predicaments that the office has faced in this current emergency, prompt a rethink of what it means for the presidency to be better equipped to respond to crisis. Are the legal instruments, policies and the institutions laid out enough? A more instructive answer is more multilayered and complex.

A President is called on to provide functional leadership in crisis management amongst other substantive responsibilities of the office. Crisis management also involves both pre-crises planning and manning an entire country during and after the storm has passed. The presidency should have been better prepared for this crisis. This is not to burden the office with unfair expectations. But it is fair to observe that numerous opportunities have been missed over five decades, to buff up the presidency with the best operational, administrative and strategic minds in the country.

The public instinctively turns to the presidency when in crisis. Therefore, Presidents are expected to provide not only executive and political leadership, but also project confidence (or at least the appearance of it), and a steady hand to guide a tumultuous ship.

I view the presidency as a two-way street. You must give as much as you take. There’s national consensus that former president Ian Khama pushed the constitutional limits of the office, and we learnt a lot as a result. As much as the country could have used a decisive, straightforward ‘action man or woman’ at the helm during COVID-19, in the long term, the job requires a thought leader who must nurture and build the institution to be better suited for the coming times. Different Presidents have passed on the baton after they had done what they could. But none of them were intentional enough to equip the office for the kind of challenges we are facing now.

Of course, every President responds to the challenge of their time. Sir Ketumile Masire allowed the presidency to renew itself every 10 years with term limits. The nation builders did not intend for the office to remain boxed in and appear seemingly bigger than the people it serves. I can imagine that they must have known, in their wisdom, that the office would outlive them, and operate in a very different time. Perhaps in their innocence they gave the institution overwhelming powers hoping that the next generations would guide the Office to be able to read the weather under which it operates. Today’s Botswana needs less of an overly powerful presidency, and more of a stronger Parliament working hand in hand with a progressive Judiciary. The current challenge is to transform the presidency and give it just enough power and leeway to be decisive and accountable, yet free from being bogged down by politics.

The Covid crisis has exposed how ill-prepared the Presidency has been. It has been rendered unsure of itself, bloated with unnecessary departments and staff and is easily distracted. This, I think, demonstrates the lapse in the institution’s fluidity to transform with the time and reform to meet the challenges of today’s democracy. Transformation within the presidency must be targeted at equipping the office with tools for modern crisis management. Invest in public administration capacity through merit-based appointments and assemble a set of forward-thinking scientific advisors, pluralist economists and public policy professionals, ethics advisors, health professionals and so forth.

I believe the constitutional challenge for President Mokgweetsi Masisi is clear and straightforward, yet delicate if not done right. We do not know what the country’s formative leaders envisioned beyond the usual aspiration for the state’s freedom to self-determine. But for me, this is the President’s moment to take on a challenge so critical to his legacy, one which his immediate predecessor failed or ignored. The institution of the presidency yearns for reform to be able to drive the country and respond to the persistent challenges of our time (inequality, climate change, migration, disenfranchised youth, and callous corruption). The Botswana presidency was built for impact and to make a difference in people’s lives guided by our core Setswana values.

But to be prepared for such a time as this, it needs to be constantly diagnosed and updated to mirror the people it serves. In its current form, the office will highly likely fail to leave an imprint and will guide the country back to the business-as-usual approach as before the pandemic.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a political economist with interests in foreign policy, the presidency and economic development

Editor's Comment
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