Rhetoric and Public Discourse: the Burdens that Ejected Ian Khama

02 Sep 2018

The former President Lieutenant General Kgosikgolo Dr. Seretse Khama Ian Khama aka Khama IV has neither been oblivious of the public view that he was a dictator, nor the international perception about him as an authoritarian ruler. His immediate predecessor, Dr. Festus Mogae at the African Leadership Forum in Tanzania told the world that:

“The current leadership has lost direction and was leaning more and more towards dictatorship. Khama’s government has become intolerant of debate, criticism, and hostile to any dissenting voice. In my country, for example, we are regressing...What is happening is that the present regime does not respect the rule of law.”

Several thousand miles away, Mogae’s strong sentiments were expressed on the same day Gomolemo Motswaledi ’s freak, fatal automobile accident happened, a known Khama’s nemesis after he was expelled from the party for challenging his powers in the courts.

Days following Mogae’s utterances, the man who co-founded modern-day Botswana with Khama’s father; Sir Ketumile Masire was among the mourners at the funeral of Motswaledi, where he stated in his eulogy:

“...However, if we truly are a democratic system, the ruling party must bear in mind at all times that tomorrow you may be the opposition, and the opposition politics must also treat themselves as a government in waiting...”

Masire and Mogae’s public taunts drifted off the course and were biting at the chances of the ruling party ahead of the general election, causing Khama and his loyalists some consternation. But Masire and Mogae were biting the bullet on behalf of the masses fearing to make pronouncements publicly.

Abroad, pundits and pollsters on democracy patterns pointed out noticeable decline with information suggesting that Botswana was joining the rest of Africa.     

Harare24News chose a bold headline not long ago; ‘Dictator Ian Khama steps down, hands over to Masisi,’ while South African BusinessLive captured this anecdote:

“The country has slipped more than 12 places on Transparency International’s corruption perception index since April 2008. A 2015 survey by the independent research organisation, Afrobarometer says at least eight in 10 people in Botswana believe corruption has increased under Khama’s leadership. It has downgraded the country’s press freedom ranking…Certainly, Khama has shown no patience for dissenting views, even within the ruling Botswana Democratic Party…And Khama’s administration appears to be losing patience with dissenters. Last year, for example, a group of unemployed youths marched on parliament, demanding that government take a more active role in job creation. Riot police violently suppressed the protest and arrested journalists.”

While the perceptions dented his reputation, Khama refused to be distracted and kept preaching to the nation and the world about the democratic ethos and sometime overstretching his limits to pit himself against superpowers including the United States and the European Union nations, basically telling them to ‘get lost’. Rather commendable about Khama though, has been the consistent speeches so much the listener ticked every box about him as a democrat.

For example, officiating at the southern African nations’ meeting, Khama said:

“I wish to highlight and share one core value that lies in our commitment to the rule of law and democratic ideals. Elections should build a nation and not break it. Elections must promote the citizenry’s right to freely choose their leaders…without favour, fear or prejudice. To this end, elections have to be conducted in a manner that adheres to the legal framework and of necessity, be accompanied by the unquestionable integrity of those who manage and conduct them.”

For such consistency in rhetoric and public discourse, Khama was exerting pressure on himself to abide by his preaching to the rest of the world to vacate office when his constitutional term was up. When the rest of Africa chose to “cover my back, so I cover yours next time,” Khama broke ranks with rogue leaders and made pronouncements that served as music to the ears of the media practitioners and human rights activists across a continent that knows repression on these freedoms. Khama received extensive coverage, accolades from the international media as a leader who feared nothing to break ranks with despots and dictators. Africans in the diaspora who experienced tyranny in their native lands dismissed Botswana citizens as crybabies. Where we vilified Khama, fellow Africans praised him.

During Khama’s administration, Botswana’s foreign policy showed no regard whatsoever with diplomacy. We insulted the United States, the European Union, and China to name the superpowers, and we have not shown remorse because we felt we had the power, much less the moral stance to tell them off. As for African nations, we condemned with an air of ‘holier than thou’ against Nigeria, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Burundi, Madagascar, and Lesotho. These criticisms, however, have irked our fellow African people; the ousted Robert Mugabe was one to speak up and remind Khama of his toddler days when the elderly statesman visited his father at the State House. Botswana got isolated at international meetings with African nations itching for a moment to have a go at us – and they did on more than one occasion. Athaliah Molokomme, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi and Phenyo Butale’s bids for international assignments are reference points emanating from our foreign policy during Khama’s tenure and African leaders minced no words. Khama spurned efforts to promote the voice of the continental body in the African Union (AU), preferring instead, to support the International Criminal Court (ICC) on the arrest and prosecution of African dictatorial leaders who committed crimes against humanity. When the United Nations General Assembly was in session, he delegated his vice to represent the nation, while he could be flying in the same direction to attend Conservation International symposium. His prioritisation was quite interesting in that it was neither dictated nor imposed on him by the West. Notwithstanding his overtures, Botswana earned respect in the eyes of the Western powers, while increasingly growing isolated from the affairs of Africa. But such respect even; was limited as long as the superpowers did not cross Khama’s line by espousing liberal democracy on topics he held conservative convictions about such as deportation.

That said, Khama has a penchant for power and control. And it comes with a history. Born of the royal house of the Bangwato, Khama would have been socialized early on in his life that he lived to reign over a people in the GaMmangwato territory. It is a vast terrain that stretches hundreds of kilometres into the Kalanga-speaking area including Tutume and her environs, all the way to Nungu River approaching Pandamatenga in the Chobe bushes, circling all the way to Ngamiland by the Makalamabedi cordon fence, some parts of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the whole of Boteti and crossing the railway line to include Mmadinare, Selibe-Phikwe and the Bobirwa areas, stretching to the border with South Africa along the Limpopo River in the Tswapoing Hills all the way to the cordon fence of Dibete in Kgatleng.

Any person who resides in this territory has been socialised to defer to the Khama name as “beng ba mmu (owners of the soil)”. He subscribes to the belief that leaders are born, much less made. Upon completion of his Sandhurst military training, at age 24, he jumped the long line of men who pioneered in the military police before it transformed into the Botswana Defence Force in 1977 enlisting as Brigadier, deputising the army general, basically understudying then Major General Mompati Merafhe to take over the reins of power when the time was ripe. Concurrently, his father, indeed the founding president Sir Seretse Khama, who himself was royal, had he not abdicated the duty after a fallout with his paternal uncle and regent Tshekedi Khama, made sure that his young son at 26 wore the lion’s skin above his military tunic and was paraded before the commoners in the tribal capital of Serowe as their paramount chief.

While Jacqueline is the eldest sibling; he certainly is the eldest male, the twins (Anthony and Tshekedi) would have grown up under his shadow and admired him as the prince. Ian Khama, therefore, has never been wanting where power and control are mentioned. He ultimately took full charge of the army before landing in politics as the vice president and subsequently the president for an uninterrupted ten years. Cumulatively, he has been in the public affairs for twenty years, discounting the long career as the army general, where he also spent twenty years. Power and control are in him and he oozes an aura of these when he addresses the public – his often humorous jibes are intercepted with cheers and ululations to his amusement, mostly by his subjects and a mass following in and across towns and villages.

Contrast this – Masire as the president, was booed during the Segametsi ritual murder in Gaborone in 1995; Mogae in his presidential capacity was booed at the Serowe Kgotla in 2002 when he addressed them on the amendments of the Constitution (sections 77, 78 and 79) and belittled as Motalaote without masking their faces to express their disgust at being treated as equal with tribes that they have subjugated over generations. Khama might have been booed during the mother-of-all-strikes in 2011, but the majority of people simply muttered under their breaths and gritted teeth in protest. It is because of the power that people fear he commands. It is common to hear that if you criticise him, you will disappear. Journalists especially have been warned against harsh criticism of Khama for fear they would disappear without a trace. Yes, he is feared – but Khama is not respected as much as his admirers would have us believe.

Paradoxically, the preaching about democracy to errant African leaders – whenever it was demanded by the opposition voices or the media as watchdogs was treated as sedition or treason to have people targeted by security agents. Outsa Mokone, four years later, still has a case to answer after he was charged with sedition for publishing a story that the presidency argued was inaccurate about Khama ‘driving himself at night and getting involved in an automobile accident’. The reporter, Edgar Tsimane received a tip-off from an intelligence agent and skipped the country and found a haven in South Africa until last month. Sonny Serite – one of the harshest critics of Ian Khama’s administration spent several nights in jail over a confidential file that he obtained from an officer at the presidency ministry involving one of Khama’s friends whose story was of public interest. These cases play into the terrain of media freedom as an invaluable cornerstone that underpins democracy, but he did not welcome perceptions of those looking from outside the circle and criticising him.

Hence among his Cabinet, Khama split hair as to the most appropriate individual that he could entrust with the presidency once his term was up. Besides his younger brother, his trusted allies could not ascend into the presidency, mainly because the Constitution bars anyone who was never popularly elected to Parliament to inherit the presidency. Mokgweetsi Masisi was the choice because above everything else, he had publicly disparaged himself and his ancestry that he was a bootlicker, a phrase Khama evidently treated rather too seriously and with a total conviction. It narrowed down the choice to this one man, who proved trustworthy to carry out errands by the master at whim and Masisi discharged himself diligently to receive the anointing, much to the chagrins of senior party members. But Masisi declared his bootlicking only in so far as he was deputizing Khama. He would never have sworn to bootlick when he was the president, or he would have mortgaged the nation to another term of Khama, which was marked by fear. Masisi made the statement clearly to deliver the nation from such a regime, after he took over on April 01, 2018 in the popularised refrain, “Re baakanya lefatshe” (We restore the land). Note the inclusiveness in the noun as opposed to the “I” that was common in marshalling directives. However, from the turn of events since April 01, one can see clearly the deep-seated feelings of betrayal that Khama feels.

But what options did Khama really have after so many eloquent speeches about democracy and distinguishing himself from the rest of the power-mongers who had declared themselves life presidents across the miserable continent? He had only two options at his disposal. Either to cling to power and extend his term of office like fellow African leaders and become the laughing stock, while such move would achieve to plunge Botswana into a crisis of immeasurable proportions. Or better still, he had to stick to the rhetoric and public discourse on democracy and good governance that he preached to the rest of the world by stepping down gracefully as he did and pass the baton to his successor, head home to his retirement mansion and invite the inner circles for a relaxed merrymaking and forget about the troubles of running the affairs of the land. The pressure was mounted high and the stakes too dire for a man who cares about legacy. Ian Khama chose the best route. However, it is a choice that is biting him now. Do we care to know why?

*Author is a journalist, creative writer, and communication specialist