Botswana's Worsening "Big Man" Syndrome Is A Threat To The Country's Democracy

Over the course of its 54 years of independence, Botswana, despite its illustrious democracy record, has always shown signs of the "Big Man" syndrome. To start with, in Setswana, a president is referred to as "tautona", which is literally translated to "the big lion" in English. This title shows the menacing and savage-like persona that is associated with the character of a president. 

Over the last two administrations, however, the big man syndrome in the country has become much more prevalent. President Khama —who is probably the closest that the country has come to having a dictator— even before assuming the highest office in the land, had always had an air of mystery and deity-ness about him. As children, we were often marveled with tales about how he can turn into any animal at will and many other stories about his unmatched greatness.

Fast forward to the current administration of President Masisi and the country is still grappling with the "Big Man" character associated with the presidency, the only difference being that unlike Khama whose clout had always been with him from as far back as his time in the army, the current one seems to be the result of a rather intensive PR campaign.

From being referred to as the "Father of the Nation" to cringeworthy deifying like in this case, it seems like President Masisi is being painted as another African "Big Man". As much as this may be a result of a PR campaign, the nation also has a hand in painting this particular picture of not just the country's current number one citizen but the presidency as a whole from the dawn of independence.

Fortunately Botswana, unlike most of her African peers, has never had a "Big Man" who went on to establish a totalitarian state. For a country that prides itself in upholding democratic principles, however, it seems ironic and rather bizarre that the presidency, regardless of administration, is held to such totalitarian-like regard.

As much as the presidency should be respected, it should not be feared. The president should not be regarded as this boogeyman-like character who should be appeased at whatever cost. Treating the president as this all-knowing "father" who is looking over his little children will only serve to erode the democratic principles which are the building blocks of the nation.

Extrajudicial killings, undermining of press freedom, and ruthless treatment of dissenters under the Khama administration gave the country a glimpse of what life under a dictatorship would be like. It showed the dangers of letting one man have all that power but it seems like, despite that little taste of what could be if the country lets the "Big Man" syndrome takeover, that lesson has not permeated sufficiently enough to the people.

Reasons for why a nation whose existence is rooted so much in democratic principles continues to perpetuate the "Big Man" image of the presidency are many and could be the subject of focus for numerous political science papers. One of these may be the country's constitution which gives the executive branch of government considerable power and muscle compared to other branches of government, rendering the presidency untouchable and unrestrained.

Another factor could be the "savior" image attached to the presidency as a result of how the country acquired its independence. Like most of her Southern Africa neighbors, Botswana is a de facto one-party state, having been ruled by the same liberation movement-turned-political party since independence. Perhaps the same deity image given to the liberators as was the case with most African heads of state whose countries were also attaining independence back in the 1960s has managed to stay stuck on the populace's psyches even decades after.

Regardless of the reason, with many African states who let the "Big Man" syndrome take hold and now find themselves under the chokehold of ruthless dictators and "presidents-for-life", Botswana should take heed and learn a lesson about the dangers of treating one of its citizens as a demigod of some sort. As many of these African peers would tell her, it will end in tears, eventually.


  1. Right on! I was pleasantly surprised when I heard in a discussion on radio with the president's PR person (I think) that the president should not be treated the way that we treat him. Calling him "bo mong wame"(s.p.) and stuff; he should be working for us and essentially under our scrutiny, not the other way around, because we voted him in! He is not a god!

    Another thing, I went through the laws after thinking of doing something similar to Last week tonight with John Oliver, and there was literally a law against insulting anyone in high office, the executive. That is just... I don't think we really have free speech in this country; have you heard the things that people say about President Trump? 🤣


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