Khama still finds it hard to say ‘His Excellency President Masisi’

11 Nov 2018

Some seven months after leaving office, former president Ian Khama still seems to have trouble waking up and smelling the early-morning Mosukujane tea harvested from Moshupa hills.

At the opening ceremony of the Khawa Sand Dunes Challenge and Cultural Festival in May, Khama was the only person who remained seated when President Mokgweetsi and First Lady Neo Masisi arrived for the official opening ceremony. Khama is also supposed to have done the same thing at another event at the University of Botswana in Gaborone and later gave a dubious response when quizzed about this by Weekend Post in his first media interview. After Khama’s term of office expired, the two men, who started by not seeing eye to eye, are now at each other’s throat. In the conclusion of his maiden state-of-the-nation address (SONA) last Monday, Masisi publicly acknowledged for the very first time that the bad blood between him and Khama has reached boiling point.

“Mr. Speaker, Batswana are all aware that the transition from the previous administration has not been as smooth as expected. However, it ought to be noted, I have in my attempt to smoothen the process engaged senior citizens namely, His Excellency Dr. Festus Mogae, His Honour Dr. Ponatshego Kedikilwe, Honourable Ray Molomo, Honourable Patrick Balopi and Honourable David Magang to assist and lead in smoothening the transition. I regret to announce that their efforts have not borne fruit up to this point,” he said.

Historically, the first official response to the SONA comes from the Leader of the Opposition who at this point in time is Duma Boko, the president of the Umbrella for Democratic Change. However, before Boko could assemble Southern Africa’s longest train of legal Latin, Khama’s office issued what was essentially a rebuttal to Masisi’s address. In the 363-word rebuttal, Khama contests the assertion that the transition has not been smooth. He accuses the “current administration” (coded language for Masisi) for not helping the mediation process by making false public statements as well as by not consulting him before making public pronouncements on this feud.

Appreciated against the background of a decades-long post-office presidential history, there is tragic irony attached to the mediation by the Botswana Democratic Party elders. Historically, the incumbent facilitates efforts by his predecessor to put out fires in AK47 Africa. Sir Ketumile Masire did that assignment in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Festus Mogae did the same thing in South Sudan. Khama, who was never part of Africa ideologically, is never going to get invitation from any country to put out such fire. The tragic, sign-of-the-times irony is that ruling party elders are putting out a fire within the Office of the President of Botswana itself.

The most basic textual analysis of Khama’s rebuttal reveals something even more troubling, something that proves that he purposefully didn’t rise to his feet at events that he attended with Masisi. The rebuttal is headlined “Press Statement from Former President Dr. Ian Khama” and in the introduction refers to two parties, being “Khama/Masisi.” Just who could “Masisi” be on official written correspondence written? It is likely that Khama’s rebuttal marks the very first time that a sitting president has been referred to in that manner. The rebuttal was most likely drafted by his private secretary and submitted to him for editing and signing off. It is as likely that Khama struck off “His Excellency President” preceding “Masisi.” There is also the possibility that Khama wrote the rebuttal himself and deliberately left out the honorific that comes after a president as standard and long-standing official practice. Ironically, while “Khama” has never been on official written correspondence, “Masisi’ has made such history.

An ill-conceived attempt at deception is also apparent. In addition to “Khama/Masisi”, another line reads: “The transition took place in the period leading up to the 1st April 2018 when Masisi became President and Khama a Former President.” On the face of it, if Khama can’t be blamed for failing to use the appropriate honorific with the president because he did the same thing with his own name. But that is far from being the case. Even in Setswana culture, one has discretion with regard to whether to use a title when referring to themselves. However, no such discretion exists when you are referring to somebody else, especially a state president. The cultural aspect is very important here because Khama is the supreme traditional leader (Kgosikgolo) of the Bangwato. Before its members started asking questions about untarred roads, schools with leaky roofs, GMOs and other non-cultural issues, Ntlo ya Dikgosi primarily concerned itself with indigenous culture. There was actually an understanding in 1966 that dikgosi would be custodians of indigenous culture. As the use of “Rre” (Sir) amply shows, Setswana culture places a very high premium on the use of titles because they show respect.

As a kgosikgolo, Khama is supposed to be a custodian of Setswana culture. However, the impulse to consciously address Masisi the way he does shows that Khama is not above putting personal interests above the interests of a culture whose custodianship has been entrusted to him. He may have a personal problem with Masisi but Setswana culture (and indeed Ngwato culture) doesn’t have a problem with him. That compels Khama to address Masisi with the proper title of respect. If the charge that Khama habitually puts personal before national interests ever needed proof, this is it.

Of course Khama knew how he was supposed to refer to Masisi because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have used the proper title with former Parliament Speaker, Patrick Balopi: “However it is the opinion of the Former President that these and other very recent positive developments led by Mr. Patrick Balopi representing the elders and other senior government officials has started to bring a turning point for the better in the situation.” A related point is that while he can’t do the right thing with President Masisi, Khama is able to consistently refer to himself as “the Former President” - using the upper case for the first letters of both words. This is certainly someone who has mastered the style book of Government Enclave protocol because after all, he practically grew up in the civil service. 

As interesting to reflect upon is the title used in the heading of the rebuttal – “Former President Dr. Ian Khama.” For reasons that remain unclear, Botswana has long subverted an international standard in academia that only a university that conferred an honorary PhD on someone can refer to such person as “Dr.” Following a window-shopping expedition for jet fighters, a South Korea university conferred an honorary PhD on Khama. The University of Botswana (UB) followed suit a little later. By Botswana’s anti-academia standard, Khama is now referred to as “Dr. Khama”, mostly by government departments that don’t confer honorary PhDs. Last month and over the protestations of a Khama ally in the UB Council, Masisi also got his honorary PhD from UB. In his rebuttal, Khama, who doesn’t have tertiary education and has boasted about not reading, doesn’t do so much as acknowledge that Masisi – at least by Government Enclave standards – is also a PhD. The latter has two masters’ degrees.

This latest episode of the Masisi/Khama feud also reveals something deeply troubling about the latter. As president, Khama expected to be referred to as “His Excellency President Dr. Khama” – and that is only the shorter, less torturous version. He expected everyone to rise when he made an entrance at public events. Former presidents Sir Ketumile and Mogae unfailingly rose to their feet when President Khama made an entrance at public events because protocol so demands. He can’t do the same thing.

This is also a man who never tired of lecturing other citizens about patriotism but by showing disrespect to a constitutionally-seated president - one he selected himself - Khama is actually being unpatriotic. A patriot (which comes from “patrie”, French for country) puts country first, not himself first. Putting country first means respecting state institutions and attendant protocols. In his maiden inaugural address, Masisi expressed “profound gratitude to His Excellency Former President Lt. General Dr. Seretse Khama Ian Khama, and His Excellency Former President Mr. Festus Gontebanye Mogae.” Going toe to knee with a current-affairs enthusiast from Lotsane Senior Secondary School at the Serowe kgotla recently, Masisi referred to Masire and Mogae with the “Rre” title and to Khama as “Tautona Khama, kgosi ya ga Mmangwato” – President Khama, the Bangwato kgosi. Who knows? Even if Masisi may not have liked Masire, may not like Mogae and obviously doesn’t like Khama, he is required to respect protocols used by state institutions. The Office of the President is not about an individual – otherwise it would have been called President So-and-so’s office. It is the nerve centre of official power – power delegated to the incumbent by citizens and such power embodies the values and ideals of the nation. By putting himself first, Khama may have set out to disrespect Masisi but he also succeeded in disrespecting a whole nation whose constitutional processes put Masisi where he is.

In similar vein, it is reasonable to wonder why a holier-than-thou discplinarian who crafted the 5Ds roadmap – with “discipline” as one of the signposts – thinks it is acceptable for him to be insubordinate towards someone five places above him in the National Order of Precedence. Top of the list is the President, second is the Vice President, third is the Chief Justice, fourth is the Speaker of the National Assembly and fourth are Former Presidents in order of succession. The latter means that Khama, who is sixth on that list, comes after Mogae. A kgosikgolo who is not a member of Ntlo ya Dikgosi is not on the list but if Khama ever becomes a member, he will occupy position 24, alongside other dikgosi - including those not referred to as kgosikgolo. At the Serowe kgotla, he would move only three places up to position 21.

Being half-British, the Surrey-born Khama may be a Yorkshire Tea man but right now, right this minute, what’s brewing in the pot isMosukujane tea harvested from Moshupa hills. He needs to wake up, smell and start forcing this tea down his throat. If he needs inspiration, then he needs to know that for the past decade, hundreds of thousands of (DIS-persecuted, unemployed, broke and “air-locked”) people who never liked him one bit forced Yorkshire Tea down their throats because they were constitutionally required to do so. However, seeing that the presidential beef that’s going down between these OGs has very strong East Coast-West Coast elements, perhaps American slang from the ‘hood would be more appropriate: Khama needs to straight up get with the program – for real.