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Ian Khama’s arrival into Botswana’s politics has proved an untidy enterprise – from the beginning to the end.
With hindsight, all the upheavals that Khama is causing today can very easily be traced to the manner with which he joined politics when a special dispensation was created for him.
Right from the beginning, he was treated like a rare species facing extinction.
Khama likes to remind us that he had not wanted to join politics, but was begged to do so to save both the ruling party and country. In a way may be he is right. By telling us he never wanted to be in politics, he is metaphorically justifying why it is that as a nation we have to foot the exorbitant bill for his upkeep.
The biggest villain of the piece in all of it has to be the then State President, Festus Mogae.
Mogae wanted Khama badly. Sensing Mogae’s desperation, Khama in return demanded to join politics in his own terms. It was a deal made in hell.
And so it was that Festus Mogae created a path for all the special dispensations that Ian Khama demanded and as it turned out, always invariably attained.
A few months after being appointed Vice President, Khama threw his first tantrum. He went on what was bizarrely called sabbatical leave.
It was a scary omen of what more was yet to come.
At party level Mogae was aloof, detached, weak and politically un-unanchored.
Khama’s sabbatical leave was the first big crisis of Mogae’s presidency. It left the president exposed and politically outflanked.
And in no time it soon became clear that Mogae did not have a slightest idea of how to deal with Khama.
Emissaries were sent to Mokolodi resorts where Khama stayed at the time, there to plead and beg him to come back to work. They all came back empty handed.
As public patience grew thin and pressure mounted on Mogae to sack his recalcitrant deputy, it soon dawned on the entire nation that Mogae had neither the power nor the will to sack Khama.
Like an animal stranded at sea, the president was helpless and hapless. Still as yet unbeknown to the nation, the president had just created a Frankenstein monster in his deputy.
The president’s handling of his deputy and after his departure the difficulties the nation had to grapple with when Khama became president - which difficulties, sadly have followed Khama into retirement have often resembled a macabre dance.
Addressing his first press conference a few days after the 1999 General Elections, Mogae made it clear that he was prepared to dissolve parliament if any attempts were made to resist Khama becoming a vice president.
Word had gotten out that parliament was bracing itself to turn down Mogae’s choice of vice president.
By then it was clear who between Mogae and Khama was in charge.
That made it easy for Khama to extract deal after deal, concession after concession from the president.
As we noted on this very space at the time, Mogae was only in office, while it was Khama who was in power. It was a pyrrhic if illogic arrangement.
Against all advice, Mogae had brought Khama into politics as a kind of a bouncer – a political insurance of some kind against the entrenched party strongmen of that era.
To pay for his own protection, Mogae agreed to ridiculously high prices that kept changing and growing along the way.
For Mogae, Khama’s arrival must at first have felt cathartic, at least in theory. With Khama standing behind him, Mogae was now able to see off the overweening influence of both Daniel Kwelagobe and Ponatshego Kedikilwe – two political scions that had been deliberately nurtured and created by Sir Ketumile Masire during his many years at the helm of both party and government.
But then as it turned out, for the weak nerved Mogae defeating Kwelagobe and Kedikilwe came at enormous personal cost.
In the end Mogae’s victory must have often felt like a hollow one.
Practically all of the president’s powers, patronage and largesse were transferred to his deputy.
Khama had all the power but no responsibilities. Mogae had all the obligations but no power. He was nothing if not a zombie president.
The power relations between Mogae and Khama have often reminded me of similar a balance of power in Rwanda – a country very close to my heart where in 1994 post the genocide Pasteur Bizimungu was chosen president while Paul Kagame became his deputy. Bizimungu was merely a figurehead, in exactly the same terms like our Festus Mogae. The real power resided with Kagame in exactly the same way here that it resided with Khama.
While the Sabbatical Leave was the first and clearest sign of what a wimp Mogae was against Khama, it was not the last.
The best Mogae could hope for was to manage Khama and to rely on the retired General’s military discipline to at least in public respect the hierarchy – however theoretical and dysfunctional that hierarchical authority had become at the time.
Earlier on, perhaps as a pre-emptive strike or at the very least a warning shot of what to expect, Khama had called his colleagues in both parliament and cabinet “vultures.”
Looking back at his greed, to think that he once called people vultures because they had demanded a nominal pay rise would lead us to wonder what then we should call him.
Murmurs of protests for President Festus Mogae to intervene fell on deaf ears. The man simply had neither the guts nor political capital of his own to reign in his immensely powerful deputy.
Only Ponatshego Kedikilwe publicly protested. He ultimately resigned from cabinet, defeated by the Mogae/Khama duopoly.
To finish off Kedikilwe Khama later on forced Mogae’s hand to endorse him in his challenge of Kedikilwe for the position of ruling party National Chairman.
A public endorsement of one candidate over the other by the president went not only against party traditions, but also the spirit of fairness and natural justice.
But then Khama had never been known to play by any rules.
Arriving to take up his position as vice president Khama had brought a whole contingent of lackeys from his days in the army. By their number and zeal they overcrowded and ultimately overran the career civil servants and also the dedicated political activists.
When the Ombudsman ruled that Khama had been illegally flying military aircraft, Mogae intervened on the side of Khama by overruling the Ombudsman. “I have allowed him to fly aircraft using my authority as commander in chief.” Mogae said.
By then the genie was out of the bottle and there was no getting it back.
From henceforth Khama started running what in letter and spirit resembled a parallel government.
Mogae was only a president in name.
Khama had arrived into politics as vice president who was also holding a substantive position as minister For Presidential Affairs. This made him accountable to parliament who asked him questions relating to his portfolio as Minister for Presidential Affairs. He did not like it.
Never comfortable with being held accountable, he was so annoyed by answering questions from Members of Parliament that he demanded Mogae to make him a vice president without any ministerial portfolio. Lamely Mogae acquiesced. So it was that for the first time Botswana had a vice president not accountable to parliament.
Later on Mogae announced that Khama will be coordinator of government projects.
To this day the nation has never known what that meant or what Khama did in that capacity.
Towards the end of Mogae’s term, Khama nagged the president to pass a law that would establish the intelligence services – DIS. Mogae resisted but finally gave in.
And by that time his goose was cooked.
That was Khama’s law. And except for Mogae, hardly anyone else’s.
The DIS was to later on become the linchpin and also the lightning rod of all Khama’s presidency – overrunning governance institutions, undermining freedoms and liberties and to this day having no oversight structures.
When its former Director General, a Khama puppet master said he was not accountable to anyone, he meant what he said. And sadly he was right.
We should blame Mogae for it. And what followed thereafter as Khama continues to demand special treatment and special dispensation for himself, even in retirement.
In short Mogae is not some national hero as others, including Mo Ibrahim Foundation would want to make him. He is for us a true and unmitigated villain.