Former President Dr Khama’s tribal politics poses a real and imminent threat to national cohesion

03 Dec 2018

When the fall out between His Excellency President Dr Masisi and immediate past former President Dr Khama became public, many people were made to believe that Dr Khama’s intransigent behaviour owes its origin to the government’s unlawful decision to withhold some of his benefits as spelt out in the President’s (Pensions and Retirements) Benefits Act. Precisely, we were made to believe that the fall out was largely a result of the government’s decision to deny Dr Khama use of government aircrafts. 

This perspective was so widely propagated that when it was reported that government has instructed Debswana not to allow Dr Khama to travel to Letlhakane in its aircraft, many people including Dr Khama’s unshaken critics believed that President Dr Masisi was unnecessarily harassing the former president. This report was followed by another story about another seemingly heavy-handed decision by the government to withdraw most members of Dr Khama’s support staff at his official residence. 

These two widely circulated stories appeared to garner public sympathy for former President Dr Khama while projecting President Dr Masisi as a petulant and vindictive leader who derives pleasure from petty squabbles, trivialities and from humiliating others. On the basis on this assumption, many people sympathised and sided with Dr Khama and called on President Dr Masisi’s government to honour the package and give to Cesar what belongs to Cesar.

 That was until the exact cause of the fall out was revealed which is that President Dr Masisi has reneged on a deal to appoint former President Dr Khama’s younger brother, Tshekedi Khama, as Vice President of the Republic of Botswana. Of course many people always suspected that the tension has much more to do with other big matters than just aeroplanes and cooks. 

Since the truth has been revealed, absurd and laughable as it is, one would expect level-headed, responsible, peace-loving and patriotic Batswana who have a purpose in life to revoke their sympathy for Dr Khama because it is now very clear that he is not being harassed by the new administration. In fact, former President Dr Khama has been dangerously dishonest by using aircrafts and cooks as scapegoat to fight for the ascendance of his younger brother in a manner reminiscent of the way Tshekedi Khama inherited the Serowe North West constituency when his elder brother ascended to the highest office.

 Indeed Batswana are smart and would never allow themselves to be used as political fodder by a greedy family. Batswana should not allow themselves to be manipulated by a tribal demagogue who never stops reminding people that he is a chief. Former President Dr Khama has been portraying himself as a victim of a government headed by a president who is a member of a supposedly rival tribe. This explains Dr Khama’s decision to mobilize support from his tribesmen. By portraying himself as the champion of Bamangwato hegemony, he is mischievously using his tribesmen to fight his battles in ways that are re-defining Botswana’s politics along tribal lines. 

Former President Dr Khama is deliberately stoking fears about the likelihood of a fanatically biased government dominated by rival tribal groups in ways that fundamentally challenge his tribesmen to prove their loyalty to their chief and their commitment to permanent political and economic domination. This has invariably heightened ethnic consciousness and tribal identities as exemplified by a lead story in Mmegi of 9TH November 2018 headlined ‘Masisi’s appointment a southern affair’ which accuses President Dr Masisi of picking his tribesmen for senior positions in government. 

It is an uncontested reality that politicians will always be predisposed to mobilizing support amongst their tribesmen. It is also a reality that voters will always prefer to give their votes to politicians who, by virtue of tribal belongingness, are likely to understand their concerns and their developmental needs. In fact, there is a strongly held view in politics that leaders are likely to favour their tribesmen and tribal areas in terms of resource allocation, hence many voters have come to believe that it is crucial to have a kinsman in power. This belief has tended to give currency to ethnic politics with the potential to precipitate ethnic competition and violence.  

While this is an established practice in much of Africa, it has never been a very prominent consideration in the choice of political leaders in Botswana. Unfortunately, former President Dr Khama has shown sheer determination to play the ethnic/tribal card and use tribalism or ethnicity as a resource for political manoeuvring and mobilization. 

Essentially, ethnicity or tribalism has become his preferred political instrument to garner support in pursuance of the family agenda. This explains why a majority of people who expressed that President Dr Masisi was harassing the former President has association with the Ngwato tribal society. Some of them even explicitly queried that President Dr Masisi was harassing their chief. In effect, tribal or ethnic identities are being politicised with Dr Khama in particular, mobilizing support along tribal/ethnic lines. 

Since politics involves the distribution of national resources, many Batswana tend to believe that in order to gain some influence in national politics and in the process consolidate power and domination as well as get a disproportionate bigger share of national resources, they need to group up for their immediate survival and to fortify their gains this far, by appealing to ethnicity with a view to crowding out others. 

Botswana politics are essentially taking on a political pose of ‘us’ against ‘them’, resulting in a political climate that revolves around extreme suspicion, distrust, dislike and hatred for other ethnic groups. The bigger tragedy with tribal politics is that members of these groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’ easily fall prey to group think or herd mentality wherein individual tribesmen stop using their brains and like sheep following the flock, we end up blindly following those who appear smart, knowledgeable or sophisticated such as our terrible political representatives and predatory socialites. 

Tribal politics in general, and herd mentality in particular means that many of us would not convincingly explain why we are ready to kill or die for others or why we side with mischievous leaders except that we have to follow them. Perhaps this is aptly exemplified by a recent story by The Monitor that former Minister Prince Maele had remarked that he and his constituents are the last to turn their back on Dr Khama going further to invite detractors to take a gun and shoot him for supporting his chief, amid a roar of ululations and whistling from the villagers who probably do not know and may never know why Mr Maele is ready to die for Dr Khama. Indeed it is said that ‘individuals are smart, crowds are dumb’.

A study by Professor Jens Krause of Leeds University reveals that 95% of followers just follow without realising it. With regard to tribal politics, one may expect the figure to easily exceed the 100% mark because the acidic nature of tribalism is that those who do not follow their tribal leaders will be accused of being traitors who probably qualify for summary execution. 

The reality is that ethnic politics has little room for independent thinking and decision making which is why voters repose blind faith in corrupt and evil leaders. To tribesmen, the wrongs committed by our celebrated evil leaders make no difference because as tribesmen we will never believe anything bad said about our leaders. Whenever evidence of wrong doing by our leaders is presented to us, we will rather question the wisdom of our eyes or accuse them for betraying us simply because we do not want the truth.  

In sum, ethnic politics are the precursor of tyranny through inflaming hatred for others. Ethnic politics often leads to fierce yet unhealthy competition between tribes for the control of the soul of state power often culminating in normalized political violence. During his state visit in Kenya in 2015, former US President Barack Obama remarked that ‘politics that is based …on tribe and ethnicity is politics that is doomed to tear a country apart. It is a failure, a failure of imagination’.  

Batswana must be mindful of this frightening probability and do the right thing by disassociating themselves from Dr Khama’s dangerous game. We do not have to be reminded many times that tribal politics has no regard for peace, sanctity of life and economic prosperity. And all things considered, this man has to be stopped in his tracks before he causes irreparable damage to our republic.