Just who is ‘living in fear’ in today’s Botswana?

13 May 2019

During a stop-over in South Africa on his way to India to meet the Dalai Lama, President Ian Khama told SABC television that his VIP protection had been withdrawn by the Botswana government to protest his controversial trip. Shortly thereafter, pictures of Khama accompanied by Botswana VIP Protection Officers in India appeared online. Back home, Khama would get very testy when The Botswana Guardian said that he had “lied.” He later put out a press statement in which he deflected attention away from the issue of whether he had VIP protection or not during the trip to the paper’s choice of words.

We will use a different set of words to show how the former president, who has accused the domestic media of being “fake news” merchants, is himself a fake-news merchant. Last week he called a public meeting at the Serowe showground and much of what he said was patently false. What has been truly astounding is that Khama is eager to attribute all the wrongdoing of his 10-year rule to his successor, President Mokgweetsi Masisi, with a straight face. Here are just four examples:

Claim: Batswana are living in fear.

Fact: Batswana are the freest they have been in a decade. Under the command of Colonel Isaac Kgosi, Khama’s former aide-de-camp in the army and Private Secretary at the Office of the President, the Directorate of Intelligence Services and Security (DISS) was dispensing physical, mental and emotional pain in unequal amounts to those who lived outside charmed circles. In some cases, victims (such as John Kalafatis) were slaughtered in a brazen manner that may have been partly designed to send a warning to everybody else. Aligned to this claim is another that as part of its terror campaign, the post-Khama DISS taps people’s phones. The claim is true but misleading for what it doesn’t reveal. All intelligence agencies the world over do that but the intent is not nefarious. Khama’s DISS was all about terrorizing people and there could not have been any national interest aligned to its mass surveillance programme. Under Khama, people did indeed live in fear and you had to be in very secure setting to even think of criticising Khama.

A related point is that Khama often uses “Batswana” to refer to his friends and allies. The economic stimulus programme that he introduced in 2015 was supposed to benefit “Batswana” and it later emerged that his cronies had benefitted more than everybody else.

Claim: The current crop of Botswana Democratic Party leadership is “power-hungry”

Fact: Generally, people who are power-hungry end up in politics but it is important to recognise the fact that while there is nothing wrong with hungering for power, there is an awful lot of wrong with using it inappropriately. Nobody in Botswana is more power-hungry than Khama himself and in the 20 years he was in the presidency, he mostly used his power in an extremely bad way. That claim is false to the extent that Khama uses it to compare himself to the current crop of BDP leadership. We would have no comment though if he was referring to Power, the beer powder, because we don’t how BDP leaders pass time.

Claim: Khama is a champion of democracy and joined the army to defend it

Fact: His record as president shows that the only he knew about democracy was its spelling and pronunciation. Under Khama, Batswana lived in fear and under oppression for a full decade. The former president has boasted about not reading but he would do well to read the following quotation from the 2017 Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance: “Over the last five years, Botswana shows signs of 'Increasing Deterioration' in Overall Governance. Botswana registers Overall Governance deterioration over the decade at an annual average trend of -0.09, with the pace of decline quickening in the last five years at an annual average trend of -0.63. Botswana’s Overall Governance decline over the decade is driven by three of the four categories: Safety & Rule of Law (annual average trend of -0.13), Participation & Human Rights (annual average trend of -0.37) and Sustainable Economic Opportunity (annual average trend of -0.31)” Excepting his father, Khama was the only Botswana leader whose presidency didn’t get favourable review from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. His predecessor, Festus Mogae, was awarded the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership in 2009.

The part about Khama joining the army to defend democracy is truly puzzling for a number of reasons. Firstly, armies are necessarily autocratic because you can’t spend hours negotiating with your juniors on how they should handle national-security emergencies. Secondly, armies don’t exist to defend democracy and as one too many examples from around the world show, can themselves be a threat to democracy. Thirdly, people frown upon armies actually defending democracy because whoever fills the power vacuum in the interim or for an indefinite period of time lacks legitimacy. Fourthly, if the Botswana Defence Force was indeed formed to defend Botswana’s democracy, it failed to discharge such responsibility during the 2008-2018 dictatorship. Fifthly, Khama doesn’t helpfully explain circumstances under which he joined the army, he doesn’t reveal who was president when he did. In a continent and during a period of time that coups were the norm, are we allowed to speculate that a Commander-in-Chief appointing his son Deputy Commander and someone from his village Commander was an insurance policy against a possible coup?

Khama first made that claim on April 1, 2008 when he became president. He was merely performing a speech that was written by someone who had microwaved the Washington-origin myth that the United States military protects the freedom and democracy of Americans.

Claim: The state is persecuting Khama

Fact: The state has launched an anti-corruption crusade that is well on the way to dismantling the business empire Khama built over decades, mostly through suspect means. What Khama wanted in Masisi was a protector and not successor. If Masisi had indeed assumed the role Khama wanted, nobody would be investigating the corruption of the past decade that Khama has been implicated in. The one government official who is ultimately answerable is Khama himself because the buck stopped with him as president. As the one effective oversight authority over DISS, Khama has to explain why the country’s economic security was so desperately compromised under his watch. The state has responsibility to investigate criminal wrongdoing and those being investigated cannot credibly claim that they are being persecuted.

It wouldn’t be a good idea to put the truth and Khama in the same room because a vicious, prison-rules fight will immediately break out.