Botswana’s political chaos ‘need not be a sign of terrible trouble’ - former US envoy

24 Jun 2019

The one person in the United States who could have used her personal knowledge of former president Ian Khama and bully pulpit to educate the world about what is happening in Botswana, chose to hold back. However, if it is any consolation, the former United States Ambassador to Botswana, Michelle Gavin, doesn’t see the blood-soaked national flag that that a gang of “Fire!” church pastors claims to have seen.

“While it is undoubtedly true that Botswana is experiencing more public political turbulence than anyone is accustomed to, moving real political debates out of exclusive meetings of the long ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and into the public sphere need not be a sign of terrible trouble,” she writes on the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) website in an article headlined “Personal Rivalries Overshadow Botswana's Democracy.”

Back home in the US, Gavin is now Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at CFR.

One supposes that as a former aide to President Barack Obama and former diplomat, Gavin would be privy to the most current Central Intelligence Agency thinking on the political chaos that is currently roiling Botswana courtesy of a certain individual. Then again it may be difficult, if not downright impossible to reach any conclusion because almost every day brings a new development that deepens uncertainty. Gavin’s prediction that nothing terrible will happen to Botswana is reaction to punditry that the country’s long-standing democracy might be under threat.

As one of CFR’s experts on Africa and given how long she was stationed in Botswana, Gavin has obviously been monitoring press reports about the political pornography that now defines what used to be Botswana politics. She writes that “coverage of the feud between current President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his predecessor and former boss, Ian Khama, sometimes reads like highlights of an overwrought soap opera.” One episode she quotes (“the latest dramatic turn”) is Khama quitting the BDP to found the Botswana Patriotic Front and at a meeting where he made such announcement, theatrically throwing away his BDP membership card.

She writes: “The storyline threatens to consume all of the political oxygen in the country. But Botswana’s overall health and stability turn on whether or not the Masisi/Khama rupture is understood as a purely personal, depressingly petty power struggle, or whether political competitors succeed in outlining real philosophical and political differences for citizens to engage and consider.”

However, in adopting a diplomatic approach, the former diplomat is denying much of the world that read publications of the highly regarded US foreign policy institution that she is part of, real insight into what exactly is happening in Botswana. Gavin presented her credentials to then President Khama in June 2011 and ended her tour of duty in February 2014. During that period, she worked very closely with Khama and would have to come understand what sort of person (never mind leader) he is. She would still vividly recall that Khama, who never attended a single United Nations or Africa Union summit, skipped the US-Africa Summit where he would have been one of the few African leaders scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama and discuss trade. Gavin knew Obama before the height of his political glory and according to www.allgov.com, was “the first Senate staffer to brief then Senator Barack Obama on African issues.” She would doubtless have leveraged this connection to get Khama on the list of Africa presidents meeting privately with Obama.

Gavin would still remember the unprecedented terror that Khama unleashed on the nation through the cloak-and-mostly-dagger Directorate of Intelligence Services. She was appointed to the ambassadorial position around the time that Botswana’s civil servants were embarking on their first legal strike in history and would have started work at the tail end of that strike. Not only would she have witnessed the vicious manner in which Khama dealt with the striking workers but would also have learnt of his systematic gutting of worker protections enshrined in the law. At the time that she went back home and having studied Khama’s track record, she would have been fully aware of the fact that he has never left any one institution in one shape and should have surmised that the country would be next.

The point of it all is that Gavin knows an awful lot about Khama’s lack of patriotism (like many she would have chuckled with bemusement on learning the name of his party) and putting him on the same plane with Masisi is not helpful. She would be well aware of the fact that historically, Khama has always been infamously antagonistic towards Botswana presidents not called Khama and that his rivalry with Masisi merely fits into that pattern. If indeed “Masisi/Khama rupture” is the right way to put it, then there was a Masire/Khama rupture during the presidency of Sir Ketumile Masire and a Mogae/Khama rupture during the presidency of Festus Mogae. In equating Masisi to Khama, Gavin is doing what has been attempted by local church leaders who offered to mediate what they described as the Masisi/Khama dispute. For some reason, no one seems to have thought of mediating the long-running Khama/National Interest, Khama/Law and Khama/Bangwato Interest disputes.

Being American, Gavin is probably saving all that information for a book that could be in the works but not using her personal knowledge of Khama to explain today’s Botswana is not helpful at all. However, she almost comes close identifying the real culprit with just one sentence: “The average Motswana cannot possibly be inspired to civic participation by the spectacle of elites complaining about their access to state aircraft.” Context: ahead of what he led the nation to believe would be his retirement, Khama lathered the Presidents (Pensions and Retirement Benefits) Act with more than adequate fat and had a captive parliament rubberstamp the amendment bill presented to it. Khama didn’t anticipate a situation where Masisi would get assertive with him and so the bill had a clause that said that a former president’s use of state aircraft has to be authorised by the sitting president. As part of burnishing his personal brand, Khama periodically travels across the country to ladle out soup and hand out flattened dumplings to poor people whom he is only too happy to keep poor because he can continue playing Good Samaritan. His preference is to use state aircraft - which flies on very expensive aviation fuel and is flown by extra-remunerated army pilots. In terms of the law that Khama didn’t scrutinise, Masisi has the final say on this matter and in some instances it has been “No” and “No” and “No.”

Given how much he fetishises America and things American, Duma Boko, the leader of the Umbrella for Democratic Change, will certainly not like Gavin’s depiction of his party.

“To date Botswana’s opposition parties have functioned largely as divided critics of government and beneficiaries of protest votes, but very rarely as sources of viable policy alternatives. A change in this state of affairs would be a sign of real democratic maturity,” writes Gavin, who was stationed in Gaborone when Boko ascended the UDC presidency.

In this election cycle, UDC has promise to increase the minimum wage from P600 to P3000 a month but some – including non-partisan experts - see this as an empty promise. Speaking at a political rally last month, the BDP parliamentary candidate for Gaborone Bonnington North, Anna Mokgethi, said that such generosity would only exert unprecedented financial pressure on ordinary citizens because someone who employed a housemaid and cattle hand would have to shell out P6000 a month.