Botswana under siege as former President Dr Khama plays hardball with incumbent President Masisi!

27 Aug 2018

In 2006 this patriot ran an essay in Mmegi titled ‘Botswana under Siege’, (Mmegi, 10th March 2006) which attracted a heavy-handed yet clumsy, un-presidential and laughable rebuttal from the Office of the President (OP). In their irrational refutation and spirited defence of then Vice-President Khama, the OP derided the article for inciting violence and remarked that ‘Ntwa kgolo keya molomo, mme ga o ora molelo le setsenwa, e re ga se kgotetsa molelo o eme ka dinao’. Nonetheless, their insinuation that I was a madman or the devil that probably needed to be put under surveillance did not alter my view of former president Dr Khama’s leadership style. Recent events have really turned the tables as the very office that so tirelessly and enthusiastically defended Dr Khama is now mobilizing state resources and mercenaries to battle he who they gave puppy love and had so passionately defended in the last 20 years. What a fascinating role reversal!

In bemoaning then Vice-President Khama’s leadership style of command and control, the article highlighted some cases to demonstrate that indeed Botswana was under siege and being frogmarched towards authoritarianism and irrationality. Such instances included Dr Khama’s invisible hand in the introduction of punitive liquor trading hours; that he reportedly banned the sale and reading of private newspapers inside the army barracks; that he commanded government to discontinue the original National Service (Tirelo Setshaba); that he sanctioned the termination of the then popular Radio Botswana program known as Dikgang Tsa Palamente and many others.

The essay further warned that the worst was yet to come and indeed it did come and Botswana has been under siege over two decades from the time Dr Khama became Vice President of the Republic of Botswana through to the end of his two terms as head of state. And when many were still getting excited that he was gone and the country will return to normalcy, a series of events and his accompanying inflammatory comments about his successor, His Excellency President Mokgweetsi Masisi revealed that as a country, we have a very long and bumpy way to go before being liberated from Dr Khama’s strangulation. This is illustrated by his sustained clog and dagger activities that continue to generate unprecedented divisions within the ruling government of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and the country at large. In his carefully planned crusade, the former president shows no respect to anyone least of all his successor, His Excellency President Masisi. It is no wonder that he had previously attacked BDP member as ‘unprincipled, intolerant, selfish vultures and monkeys’ (Institute of Security Studies, 2001).

From a narrow partisan perspective, his quest to retain recognition and status in government and elsewhere by running a parallel government has become political fodder for opposition activists who believe their parties are likely to capitalize on it for political mileage. Similarly, some seemingly mischievous elements in the ruling BDP who are clearly uncomfortable with the way the fight against corruption was being waged by President Masisi’s administration are fuelling the stalemate with the hope that it will derail President Masisi’s war against corruption. However, a deeper reflection on former president Dr Khama’s unconventional actions is that this is not a funny game at all for it has the potential to start off a rebellion.

It is to be noted that Dr Khama’s record as a former president is as tainted as his presidency in so far as he is holding the country to ransom. He is a clear and present national security risk. Essentially, his actions as a former president of the oldest democracy in Africa strike at the very heart of our pride as an African Miracle that used to inspire hope throughout the continent. His actions invite international ridicule with the cumulative effect of undermining the country’s status as a shining example of democracy in Africa. His actions are a bad example for the rest of Africa that used Botswana as a model case of civilized polity. In this context, former president Dr Khama cannot be used a model case of presidential succession and a role model of a former president. This means that Botswana’s long standing record has been contaminated was by a strongman who possibly think this is his world.

Whereas the damage has been done and will probably haunt this nation for many years to come, former president Dr Khama’s actions offer a window of opportunity for the nation to revisit the constitutional and institutional apparatuses for the Office of the Former President especially in terms of its role and status in society. Whereas Dr Khama is not Botswana’s first former president and therefore that the institution of the former president is nearly as old as Botswana’s democracy, it cannot be said that the country has a solid experience in dealing with a former president especially one who still craves public admiration and want to project imaginary importance.

In this respect, as a country we need to go back to the basics and clearly redefine the role of former presidents. So far the only established precedent on dealing with a former president can be drawn from the unwritten arrangement and/or expectation that a former president’s retirement package and status in society is predicated on his complete retirement from active politics. This unwritten arrangement or expectation has served the country well until Dr Khama joined the former presidents’ club and turned the whole world upside down. In this instance, we cannot just assume that Dr Khama will ultimately regain his senses and emulate the others who retired before him and allow the country to return to normalcy.

As a people, we need to be proactive and take advantage of the on-going unwanted enmity between on the one hand, determined former president Dr Khama who wants to consolidate his approval and demonstrate that he was still in charge and on the other hand, incumbent His Excellency President Masisi who is keen to establish and cement his executive authority, to determine what constitute appropriate operational spheres for former presidents. We need to unambiguously determine whether former presidents should slide into absolute political passivity upon retirement and whether their retirement package is conditional or unconditional, especially in relation to their perceived political activism and/or inappropriate behaviours. Drawing lessons from the current public quarrel between former president Dr Khama and incumbent President Masisi, Botswana need to determine grounds upon which the state could withdraw its recognition of a former president.

Botswana needs to use this ugly rift between former president Dr Khama and his successor to seriously and soberly subject the role of former presidents to critical, unbiased and judicious scrutiny so that it is clearly known whether former presidents can be allowed to use public resources (pension, vehicles, staff, offices) at their disposal to meddle in the affairs of the state and/or wage a sustained and well-resourced offensive against the very government that ensures that their welfare is guaranteed. It is important that as a country renowned for its resilient democratic tradition, we use the current senseless and naïve power game to plug any loopholes that could be exploited by former presidents with a mischievous agenda of wanting to entrench their legitimacy after they vacated presidential office and publicly undermine, humiliate and belittle a sitting head of state and Batswana in general.

While the President’s (Pension and Retirement Benefits) Act that was recently reworked to suit Dr Khama’s preferences spells out the obligations of government to a former president, it seems it does not correspondingly lays down in unambiguous language, the expectations of the state and society on those who enjoy such benefits and legal requirements for continued recognition and status as a statesman and father of the nation. This has to be addressed and Botswana can take a leaf from the Zambian government which has a similar obligation on former presidents that they revised in 1998 to specifically incorporate a provision that disqualifies a former president who engages in active politics from receiving benefits.