Khama vs Masisi – The anatomy of a traumatic presidential transition

27 Nov 2018

It is instructive to listen to President Mokgweetsi Masisi explaining the apparent personality Volte face from Masisi the Vice President to Masisi the President.

“Knowing myself there is no personality change. Perhaps it may be a change of the platform and level”, he says. Drawing an analogy from the Sunday Standard system of governance, he pointed out that “the editor speaks from the platform of an editor and the deputy editor so does. There are certain things that would be escalated to the editor only because he is senior in rank, but you work in an environment of business, I work in an environment of government and politics. You have an agreement of shareholders. There is no such a thing with government. We are not shareholders. We are mere servants and in the course of serving in a government and the executive you serve at the pleasure of what in this case would be the editor and so you need to keep a certain level of a sense of circumspectness to enable the wheels of government to function uninterrupted.”

If President Masisi expected former President Lt Gen Masire to respond in kind after stepping down by keeping a certain level of “circumspectness to enable the wheels of government to function uninterrupted”, he was deluded.

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 Masisi and the First Lady 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.

Throughout his political career, Lt Gen Ian Khama has rejected every institutional and behavioural barrier that constrains a Vice President, President and retired president’s freedom to do exactly as he wants. As Vice President, later president and now retired president Lt Gen Ian Khama has shown that there are few conventions and protocols that he will not undermine for his benefit and has repeatedly come up against what have long been seen as acceptable limits for a Vice President, President and retired president.

His path from the army barracks to the political freedom square was smoothed by bending and breaking rules to accommodate his idée fixes.

When Khama was recruited from the army as commander of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) to join politics, he extracted a promise from the then President Festus Mogae that he would be allowed to continue flying BDF aircrafts and would be allowed to go on a 12 months sabbatical leave.

Former President Mogae pursued what leadership ethicist, Terry Price, calls "exception making" - believing that the rules that govern what is right and what is wrong did not apply to him and Khama. Former President Festus Mogae and his deputy lost their ability to distinguish between what is morally right and what is politically expedient. This moral weakness festered over time and its full extent only becomes apparent as Khama rejects constraints that traditionally pen in the office of a retired president.

In an interview with the Sunday Standard, President Masisi revealed how Khama’s decision to remain active in politics even after his retirement has resulted in Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) faithfuls and citizens who were close to his predecessor wondering where to place their allegiance “particularly when there seems to be a difference of opinion between the two leaders.”

Masisi says the problem was compounded by the fact that Khama is a chief. “When you cloak the current with the fact that Lt Gen Ian Khama is a chief of Bangwato, clearly those for whom is chief usually as you know would pay their first call of allegiance to the royalty followed by others and that causes lack of smoothness in a transition.”

Khama has been leveraging his residual power in the BDP and his position as chief of Bangwato tribe to campaign against those perceived to have taken side with the current president and against him. Among his biggest victims was Minister of Defence Justice and Security Shaw Kgathi. On the eve of the BDP primary elections Khama launched a charity foundation in Kgathi’s constituency - which forms part of his sway as Bangwato chief – and called on the tribe to punish the minister politically for insubordination to their chief, injecting an overtly political tone into a previously non-partisan ritual.

Khama’s conduct was just another manifestation of a retired presidency that is more than anything else an expression of an unchained personality that has made no attempt to reshape itself to fit the norms of a retired head of state.

Hardly a year after trading places, President Masisi and former President Khama’s differences seem intractable because the two leaders are more often starting from different first principles. A number of mediations have failed to bring President Masisi and his predecessor to a compromise because each side is promoting values that are mutually exclusive. President Masisi and former president Khama’s conflicting value judgments have snowballed into national conflict extensions which have polarized disputes over the disarming of the wildlife department, the hunting ban, retired presidents’ benefits, alcohol levy and many others.

As President, Khama could not subordinate himself to anything. A ruling by the Court of Appeal Judge President Ian Kirby confirmed the former president’s assertion of an absolute, unqualified presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances, shattering any institutional restraints on him.

He displayed disdain for the norms that had been observed by his predecessors. As a result his presidency sometimes looked like a series of chaotic lurches. The Mmegi newspaper carried an article in which former KBL and BBL managing director, Lehlohonolo John Matsela, deposed an affidavit in court “that Khama is more interested in arbitrary decisions than the consultative process.” In the affidavit, Matsela argued that Khama announced the levy without according the industry an opportunity to give its views not just the tax but the larger question of alcohol use and abuse.

The affidavit charges that Khama made the pronouncement without apprising himself of the facts surrounding the problems of alcohol. "The president's decision had been taken in the absence of material facts relevant to the decision."

This performance of authoritarian theater capped ten head-spinning years in which Khama laid bare his determination to put the state at his personal command.

The Mmegi also carried an article in which the Law Society accused Khama of breaching the Constitution by refusing to respond to letters from lawyers representing veteran attorney Omphemetse Motumise who was seeking an order that he be appointed to the bench.

The Law Society of Botswana (LSB) which was representing Motumise argued that there was no legal valid reason for Khama not to appoint their client following the order by the Court of Appeal.

LSB Executive Secretary Tebogo Moipolai stated in his founding affidavit that despite being invited to appoint Motumise, President Khama has elected not to give reasons at all for not appointing their client.

“This renders his decision arbitrary, irrational, contrary to the requirements of the principle of legality, unconstitutional, unlawful and invalid.”

This prompted a new level of stunned outrage among Khama critics, even those already jaded by his customary onslaughts against the rule of law. To most of his critics, Khama’s legacy is a profound weakening of respect for law and tradition in Botswana.

President Masisi, however, seems determined to ensure that Botswana’s rule of law and good governance outlive Khama’s presidency. Explaining to the Sunday Standard why he disarmed the Botswana Wildlife department, President Masisi stated that, “the law is very clear……. There is a way in which you ask for this (guns) that is procedural, that is in-keeping with good governance. For instance a Cab memo is raised, brought to Cabinet and an analysis being formed, will inform us that you need to amend the law in order for them to get and budget for it. And so we will draft legislation, go to parliament, debate it, pass the law and budget and they will get their guns.”

President Masisi insists that he is “very open” to wildlife officers getting their guns back, “but it must be out of a process of debate and agreement. Kana you know when you are a president, you are not a ruler, you don’t tell people what to do, you lead and guide and you take responsibility for ensuring that whatever gets done, does not temper into the area of privilege or rights of others.” By taking this action, Masisi is trying to restore legal normalcy which Khama had subverted.

This line of reasoning by President Masisi is consistent throughout the interview. For example, when explaining his fight with Khama over the former president’s requests to use government aircrafts, Masisi told Sunday Standard that in his understanding, a former president can only be granted access to an airplane on a case by case basis, and this is not an entitlement as the ultimate authority lies with the state president.

He explained that in deciding to give such access, the State President looks at different variables that include costs, budgets, availability and priorities.

He said in his understanding, every case must be made and authority sought from him directly as state president.

He said based on those factors, it presupposes that a request would have to be submitted timeously enough to allow for an assessment to be made by his office. He told the Sunday Standard that Lt Gen Ian Khama on the other hand often submitted his requests a day or two before travel, thus denying the president sufficient time to assess availability of aircraft. And often such requests are not even sent to the president himself.

“Sometimes the requests would come a day or two before travel, and they would be specific that this kind of aircraft and did not allow time for the scheduling. I have to make sufficient time to interrogate.”

Masisi said unfortunately his interpretation often clashed with that of his predecessor.

“I can only adduce based on what I got that the interpretation may have been read to mean automatic entitlement. So I think there is a variance in the interpretation of this.”

This variance became clear to Masisi after he had declined a number of Khama’s requests.

Masisi explained that in making a decision on these requests he took into account that a former president is a retiree, with no specific budgetary provisions made for such travel.

“And along it there will be another interpretation where an impression was created that where permission was granted, the aircraft would wait it out wherever the destination would be until he came back.”

“For me it was not whether the airplane is availed or not, rather it is the intention of the law and the cost and whether or not there is a budget for it and prioritization, for example if the vice president needs to travel, or the army is using the aircraft in active duty.”

Masisi said one always has to reflect this against what the intentions of the legislature were. Based on those he said he was surprised that this had become a controversial issue.

Khama has however pushed back the best way he knows how. He has managed to reframe the national debate over the presidential transition by projecting himself as a victim of harassment by President Masisi and his administration. President Masisi’s administration has also played into his hands by at times taking decisions that seem to confirm this narrative. For example, the Permanent Secretary to the President last month withdrew Khama’s official staff without consulting the former president. The PSP was later forced to climb down on the decision and the president had to tender a public apology. Khama has been able to use that in his smokes and mirrors campaign to cloud the real issues behind the difficult presidential transition.

READ PART THREE NEXT WEEK